Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the February 20, 2017 issue of National Review.
In early January, Slate columnist Eric Holthaus tweeted: “I’m starting my 11th year working on climate change, including the last 4 in daily journalism. Today I went to see a counselor about it.” Holthaus announced that he was in “despair” over climate-change inaction: “There are days where I literally can’t work. I’ll read a story & shut down for rest of the day. Not much helps besides exercise & time.” His job, he says, is “chronicling planetary suicide.”
Holthaus’s tweets, and the massive online group-therapy session that followed, would be amusing were they not so pitiful. Here is the emotional toll of buying into one of our most saleable beliefs at present: that the planet faces imminent destruction as a result of anthropogenic climate change, rescue from which is being held up by greedy midwestern oilmen, the political operatives in their pocket, and obnoxious Republican uncles swallowed up in ignorance.
There is an extensive literature in this new millenarianism, the latest contribution to which is Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles’s The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy. Mann, as National Review readers may know, is the creator of the much-ballyhooed “hockey stick” climate graph, which purports to show an unprecedented, precipitous warming of the climate beginning in 1920; he is also currently suing National Review for having the audacity to question his findings. Tom Toles is a cartoonist for the Washington Post, whose contribution to the book is several dozen smug, self-congratulatory drawings mocking Republicans as avaricious, oblivious, and/or simply stupid.
Readers familiar with climate-change zealotry will find recognizable sound bites here: “The warming of the planet caused by our profligate burning of fossil fuels poses perhaps the greatest challenge that human civilization has yet faced. . . . If we continue with the course we are on, our destiny may indeed be to leave behind an unlivable planet of destroyed ecosystems and continuous, unpredictable chaos.” One short chapter gives an overview of the “overwhelming” scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, another chapter elaborates the threat — “Be it national security, food, water, land, the economy, or health . . . the specter of climate change is upon us” — and then Mann gets to his real purpose: scolding anyone who thinks differently from Michael Mann.
That there are varying degrees of skepticism toward the large set of questions that constitute the climate-change debate, or that different people partake of different motives, seems not to have occurred to Mann. Skeptics are “deniers,” and “deniers” are obviously on the payroll of fossil-fuel companies or their shadowy network of supporters. (The Koch brothers, who are apparently funding the entire Republican party, should be paying Mann as well, given the space they’re occupying in his head.) Scientists, by contrast, are just humble servants of the truth, and anyone who suggests that there might be perverse incentives operating in the scientific community simply does not know how scientific scholarship works. There is “a roughly 97 to 99 percent agreement among scientists that climate change is real and caused by humans.”
That familiar statistic, trotted out regularly by the Obama White House to bolster its climate agenda, is based on a convenient sampling of the relevant literature. In fact, there is a vigorous, vocal minority of dissenters from the climate-change consensus within the scientific community, the vast majority of whom have nothing to do with ExxonMobil. And it’s not as if there are no reasons to exercise caution. Environmental forecasts have been wildly wrong going back half a century. In 1970, Life magazine reported growing evidence that “by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth by one half.” That same year, ecologist Kenneth Watt told an audience at Swarthmore College that, “if present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” NASA scientist James Hansen, an early advocate for climate-change action whom Mann cites approvingly, testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 1986 that, “in 20 years, the global warming should reach about 1 degree Celsius, which would be the warmest the Earth has been in the last 100,000 years.” (It increased by about 0.38 degrees Celsius.)
Seeing oneself as a visionary repelling a global threat does not lead to politics as much as to fanaticism.
None of these scientists was acting in bad faith. The problems they were addressing were simply complex, and the opportunity for error large. Mann, though, has no time for such concessions. Environmental science is a story of heroic prophecy followed by narrow ecological escape: Rachel Carson and DDT in the 1960s, Paul Ehrlich and the “population bomb” in the 1970s, and so on. There can be no doubt that he sees himself taking up their mantle.
Seeing oneself as a visionary repelling a global threat does not lead to politics as much as to fanaticism. “The cost of replacing Earth is infinite,” says Mann, citing our lack of an alternative habitation. “So just about any monetized estimate of the cost of damages from climate change is going to undervalue the true cost.” That sort of reasoning can justify a great deal, and surely it comes as little surprise that climate-change alarmists have taken to treating climate change as the equivalent of a war. The platform of the Democratic party “commit[s] to a national mobilization, and to leading a global effort to mobilize nations to address this threat on a scale not seen since World War II.” Indeed, Mann and others have made no effort to hide that they see climate-change skeptics as, to a greater or lesser degree, traitors, and in the book Mann expresses no qualms with the decision of a dozen-plus state attorneys general to harass think tanks and publications that have published essays skeptical of the climate-change consensus. Increasingly, the impulse to jail people who disagree with them is a hallmark of contemporary climate-change activism.
This attitude was portended by the use of “denialism” to describe reasonable skepticism. Commandeering the language of Holocaust denial was a great coup, given the obvious differences between the two phenomena, not the least of which is that the Holocaust happened in the past, and there is incontrovertible evidence to confirm it, while the predicted devastation of climate change — projections based on a fantastically complex series of interactions: quite literally, interactions among every part of the environment in which human beings live — is almost entirely in the future, where things are by their very nature uncertain. That this distinction needs pointing out suggests just how sub-rational much of the climate-change debate has become.
Of course, not even Mann can avoid the requisite mays and mights. But contrary to what one might think, this is not a small concession; this is the whole debate. Mann writes, at one point: “In the case of climate change, the situation couldn’t be more dire.” Except it could. Discussing the disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet — a “tipping point” that he believes we have crossed, irreversibly — Mann notes: “This process could take a millennium to unfold, but we can’t rule out the possibility that it may happen faster than that. Maybe two centuries. Maybe one.”
Put another way: The worst-case scenario here is a gradual process that takes place over 100 years. In terms of crisis preparation, that — let alone a millennium — is a lot of time. The Obama administration, not likely to undersell the potential impact of climate change, estimated that a rise in average global temperatures of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 would cost, at most, 4 percent of that year’s global GDP. As Manhattan Institute scholar Oren Cass demonstrates in a recent National Affairs essay, “How to Worry about Climate Change,” projected economic growth over the same period suggests that that cost could be fairly easily accommodated. The same is true, too, of more-concrete potentialities. If U.S. Geological Survey and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data are correct and Miami is 20 percent flooded in “100 to 300 years,” it’s still 100 to 300 years away. A lot can be done to prepare in the interim. And, again, these are debatable worst-case projections.
But climate-change alarmism requires making comparisons such as Mann’s about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which confuse time scales: While climate change may be happening in “geological time,” economic and technological advancement isn’t. The last 100 years is the difference between a world with the Model T Ford and one with the International Space Station, or between regular polio epidemics and the advent of nanotechnology. In just the last 30 years, the worldwide rate of extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as living on $1.90 a day) has been halved, and there is today more than enough food to supply the entire world (famine, where it arises, is largely a consequence of political, not agricultural, failure). One doesn’t have to go in for the large-scale geo-engineering schemes that Mann ridicules — setting up trillions of mirrors in low orbit to reflect incoming sunlight, or shooting reflective particulates into the atmosphere — to believe that humans have the capacity to innovate remedies for climate change’s alleged threats.
But no such considerations are to be found in The Madhouse Effect or elsewhere among the climate-change-panicked, nor any acknowledgment that even their proposed antidotes would have almost no measurable effect on the doomsday scenarios they outline: If every signatory met its obligations, the Paris climate agreement — described by Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency, as “our last hope” — would reduce warming by at most 0.2 degrees Celsius.That’s no reason not to act, but it suggests that some humility is in order when considering the human contribution to Mother Nature’s moods.
Far be it from me to advise Mann and company, who have capitalized nicely on their End Times industry, but conservatives might be more open to a measured approach — one that avoids labeling good-faith skeptics Nazis, for example. What kind of “conservatism” does not include an attentive stewardship of the environment? T. S. Eliot warned that “a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly” and urged that we recognize the “distinction between the use of natural resources and their exploitation.” Russell Kirk contended that “piety,” the concern arguably at the center of his thinking, “includes respect for the natural balance in the world.” Edmund Burke emphasized that “one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated” is that the “temporary possessors” of life should not “act as if they were the entire masters[,] . . . should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation.” This discipline of care is a crucial element of conservative thought.
But the apocalypse is no time for allies, apparently. From his blurb on the book’s cover, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” — a friend of Mann’s, thanked warmly in the acknowledgments — sneers at would-be readers: “If you are a climate change denier, doubter, techno-fixer, or luke-warmer, read this book. Mann and Toles have written some words and drawn some pictures for you, so maybe you’ll get it this time.” But all that one gets, in fact, is the strong sense that if anything is overheated, it’s the climate-change debate.