EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the January 31, 2005, issue of National Review.
The waves of the tsunami had hardly receded before environmental alarmists linked the tragedy to . . . global warming! One newspaper, the Independent, quoted a British environmental activist saying that “here again are yet more events in the real world that are consistent with climate-change predictions.” On New Year’s Eve, Sir David King, Britain’s chief science adviser and top climate-change fanatic, told the BBC, “What is happening in the Indian Ocean underlines the importance of the Earth’s system to our ability to live safely. And what we are talking about in terms of climate change is something that is really driven by our own use of fossil fuels.” It was almost as if environmentalists were trying to vindicate Michael Crichton’s scenario in State of Fear, where eco-terrorists attempt to start a tsunami in the Pacific to scare people about global warming.
Although a few environmental activists have attempted to back away from these ludicrous and embarrassing statements, the predictability with which climate change was linked to a geological event shows the difficulty of taking climate change seriously. Climate change is a legitimate issue, but between the shabby way environmentalists and the Left exploit it, and the faulty record of so many past predictions of the eco-apocalypse, deep skepticism remains the sensible default position.
For climate alarmists, climate change has become what logicians call a “non-falsifiable hypothesis.” Every weather anomaly is said to be a sign of climate change. After the near-record January 1996 blizzard hit the northeastern U.S., Newsweek ran a cover story attributing the storm to climate change. A year later, when an unusually warm winter led to early snow melt and floods in the upper Midwest, Vice President Al Gore and others attributed it to climate change. And the three hurricanes that struck Florida in close succession last summer were a bonanza for the climate-change chorus, even though serious climate scientists readily admit that ascribing today’s extreme weather events to global warming is scientifically insupportable. In fact, the intensity of hurricanes and cyclones has diminished slightly over the past 30 years.
Even the catastrophic scenarios painted by enthusiasts clash. In one extreme case, the Greenland ice sheet and much of the polar ice caps could melt, raising the global sea level by as much as 30 feet, inundating billions in coastal areas. (Keep in mind, though, that such a scenario would take decades to play out, unlike a tsunami.) But hold on: A variant of catastrophe theory holds that warming might cause the Greenland and polar ice sheets to thicken and bring on a new ice age–the scenario of the movie The Day After Tomorrow. Incidentally, the sea level would fall by several feet, creating new opportunities for beachfront development.
These competing scenarios have some theoretical plausibility, but the inability of the scientific community to assign a probability estimate to either a temperature increase or the effects of such an increase–regionally as well as globally–shows how limited our climate knowledge remains. Although computer climate models are being constantly refined and improved, their compound uncertainties and blind spots make it impossible to know the probability of any future outcome. For all their sophistication, the models have not even been able to “backcast”–i.e., match up greenhouse-gas emissions with the climate record–for the last 30 years.