In 1783, William Pitt warned the British Parliament about the dangers of those who would reflexively employ “necessity” as an argument in favor of their preferences. “Necessity,” Pitt exclaimed, “is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves!” These are wise words indeed. But in a purely Machiavellian sense, the tactic is also a risky one. Those who shout “or else!” tend to be left in the role of the boy who cried wolf if their apocalypse fails to turn up on time.
The environmental Left has long neglected Pitt’s admonition and is starting to pay the price. Having careered wantonly from “global cooling” to “global warming” to “climate change,” the greenies eventually settled on the rather dramatic “global climate chaos,” a neatly eschatological term that has the delicious benefit of being so vague as to be unfalsifiable. For years now we have been told that this week, or month, or year — or conference, or junket — is our last chance to save the world.
Such an approach is rapidly losing its efficacy. What the global downturn has done for prioritization, science is doing for perspective. Enter Andreas Schmittner, a professor at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. Schmittner headed up a major study recently published in Science and funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, which baldly concludes that the sort of doomsday scenario readily thrown around by the scaremongers is simply not rooted in reality. Following publication, Schmittner put his findings succinctly in an interview with The Australian: “very large changes” — of the sort we have grown to love hearing about from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — “can be ruled out [and] we have some room to breathe and time to figure out solutions to the problem.” (According to the study, that “problem” doesn’t seem to be too heinous, either. The international target is to keep temperature rises within 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century, by which point CO2 concentrations are expected to approximately double; Schmittner predicts that the probable outcome of doubling CO2 concentrations would be between 1.7 degrees Celsius and 2.6 degrees Celsius, not the 3–4 degree change predicted by the IPCC.)
Science has an established history of running new studies only when they significantly add to or contradict previously published work. While Schmittner is very clearly not arguing that global warming isn’t happening, nor that mankind does not play a role in changing the earth’s climate, there is simply no way to read the report without concluding that the apocalyptic narrative is dead in the water.
This determination is, in part, based upon the study’s less cynically selected frame of reference. “Many previous climate sensitivity studies have looked at the past only from 1850 through today, and not fully integrated paleoclimate data, especially on a global scale,” the research concludes, echoing a key and ever-present criticism leveled at alarmism. Put in layman’s terms, the conclusion is that if the climate were really so sensitive to change that doubled CO2 could yield cataclysmic warming, then, conversely, the low levels of carbon in the atmosphere 21,000 years ago should have precipitated a planet sufficiently icebound to extinguish all life. It didn’t.
“When you reconstruct sea and land surface temperatures from the peak of the last Ice Age 21,000 years ago — which is referred to as the Last Glacial Maximum — and compare it with climate model simulations of that period, you get a much different picture . . . If these paleoclimatic constraints apply to the future, as predicted by our model, the results imply less probability of extreme climatic change than previously thought.” In other words, we’re not all going to die.
By painting Armageddon as the price of inaction, the green lobby has sought to achieve two goals. First, focusing in on an extreme scenario allowed advocates more effectively to play the we-should-do-something-just-in-case card. Second, with all nuance removed from the discussion, even the slightest evidence in favor of an anthropogenic contribution to climate fluctuations could be tied to eschatological imagery, and “climate moderates” could be portrayed as being just as complicit in bringing about the end of the world as the evil deniers. “Necessity” would thus become the mother of intervention.
“The whole aim of practical politics,” wrote H. L. Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” It is still a matter of debate whether there are any hobgoblins at all (the very existence of a “consensus” is rendered comical, given the existence of new papers such as Schmittner’s), but if they do exist, the tallest among them are disappearing at a rate of knots.
As they go, we must insist that so too do the invitations to be led to safety, for without necessity we have no reason to be slaves.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate of National Review.