Last autumn, I argued in National Review (“Apocalypse Soonish”) that the real intellectual achievement of the climate-change alarmists has been to improve on the marketing model of the traditional fundamentalist-wacko/UFO-cult/Mayan-calendar-lunatic operation by eliminating its greatest weakness: the expiration date. When your UFO cult predicts that the world will unquestionably come to an end on December 21, 1954, then you start to look sort of silly by Christmas.
The broader environmental movement has had its share of similar problems, as the usual neo-Malthusians make the usual neo-Malthusian predictions — the most famous of which was the Simon-Ehrlich wager, in which environmentalist and Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich made a fool of himself by making dire predictions about the scarcity of basic commodities over the decade leading up to 1990. (He also said that he’d be unsurprised if the United Kingdom had ceased to exist by 2000. It’s still there.) Our first secretary of energy, James Schlesinger, predicted in the 1970s that we were on the verge of running out of oil and gas, with only a few decades’ worth remaining. He was wrong. In 2004, purported energy expert Paul Roberts wrote “Say Bye-Bye to Cheap Oil” in the Los Angeles Times, in which he stated as though it were uncontested fact that “the world’s surplus capacity is disappearing.” Oil prices currently are tanking. Newt Gingrich was mocked in 2012 for arguing that, with the right energy policies, gasoline prices might be driven down to $2.50. “Never gonna happen,” all the smart people said. Gas is currently under $2 in many places. The “peak oil” cultists have been predicting that demand for fossil fuels is about to exceed (or already has exceeded) production capacity for decades now. Ask the people sweating about prices of light sweet crude in Houston right now if that’s the case.
If you press the more sophisticated climate alarmists, they’ll generally stay away from even decade-or-two predictions. They have been burned before — those of us who grew up in the 1970s remember the panic about the “new ice age,” and the daft, lunatic plans for covering the Earth’s polar areas in coal soot in order to bring global temperatures up.
The Church of the Climate Apocalypse has therefore wisely decided to forgo its earlier habit of imitating UFO cults and moved up the ladder of respectability a step or two toward naïve biblical literalism, the Baptist youth-camp version of theology. You know what I’m talking about: If you point out to one of these DIY Bible scholars that, e.g., there are two different Gospel accounts of the death of Judas — one reporting that he hanged himself, the other reporting that he basically exploded like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — the answer you will get is: “The rope broke.”
For a certain sort of literalistic true believer, there can be no inconsistencies, or even the appearance of inconsistency, in the Bible. (I’ve never understood that point of view: The conventional Christian belief is that man is an imperfect and fallen creature, but apparently he has perfect recall when it comes to facts and events. You’d think that the existence of Vox would put that superstition to bed.) The genius of the global-warming alarmists — and it is a kind of genius — is that there are no events that are inconsistent with their theology.
If the winters are warmer and there are fewer storms, then that is as predicted. But if the winters are colder and there are more severe blizzards, then that also “is consistent with” their model of what is happening in the world. Thus the silly spectacle of Bill Nye the Politics Guy, noted scientific authority Andrew Cuomo, the hallelujah choir at MSNBC, et al. blaming the recent blizzard that walloped the northeast on global warming. When there is an unusually cold day and climate skeptics make their usual wisecracks (“Har-har, global warming, harrumph harrumph, etc.”), these same people roll their eyes and declare that you cannot conflate weather and climate, that no individual weather event should be taken to give us any indication of what’s happening globally. But if there is a single event that happens to coincide with their story — and basically all weather events do — then they trumpet that it is “consistent with” their theory. If both warmer, milder winters and colder, bitterer winters are consistent with the model, then the model isn’t a very useful one.
Complex adaptive systems — weather systems, markets, biological evolution — exhibit behavior that is not predictable, even in principle.
Incidentally, that blizzard was supposed to unleash all sorts of “Hey Mr. Snow Miser” hell on New York City, but didn’t. My own theory here is that Sandinista Bill de Blasio et al., remembering how they hammered Mike Bloomberg over his less-than-energetic response to a snowstorm a few years back, intentionally exaggerated the threat to New York, so as to explain away beforehand any shortcomings in its response. (As for the quality of that response, I cannot offer a firsthand report; I am honoring my personal tradition of observing New York weather disasters, actual and predicted, at a great distance, surrounded by palm trees.) The mayor’s response was pretty heavy-handed, though, closing the city’s schools, parks, and streets indefinitely — banning even bicycle traffic, an absolute affront to the city’s storied bicycle delivery men, who go about their business with kamikaze disregard for life and limb and a certain devil-may-care panache that is a credit to their profession.
In that sense, New York’s response was in miniature what the global-warming alarmists would have us do on a planetary scale: adopt invasive, burdensome, and expensive measures against expectations of catastrophe that are rooted in a good deal less certainty than they’d have you believe. Like Andrew Stuttaford, I am something of a global-warming lukewarmer; even if we take at face value the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change et al., most of the evidence points toward adaptation and mitigation as the wiser course of action — one that is more likely to be effective than extreme economic changes among the handful of advanced countries that are actually likely to carry through on any emissions promises, and one that hedges the possibility that making radical, expensive, quality-of-life-lowering changes today might in the century hence prove either ineffective or unnecessary. This course of action also relieves the world of the unpleasantness of being put under the fat and greasy thumb of self-interested politicians who are interested in accumulating vast amounts of power to impose top-down economic policy under the cover of a global emergency.
If you happen to be a power-hungry politician, a state of emergency is a very useful thing. Which is, of course, why the climate-change panic is so attractive to teapot totalitarians like Bill de Blasio, and why there is neither a warm day nor a cold day — and not a sparrow that falls — that is inconsistent with their theology.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.