Energy & Environment

Beware the Boogeyman Alarm

A view of Heaven’s Peak in Glacier National Park, Montana, August 24, 2011 (Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters)
Declare, 'We’ve got ten years to save the planet,' and you never have to recant.

It is a founding principle of Boogeyman alarmism that it be couched in vague terms. Only a novice at scaremongering would tell a little brother, “Give me your candy or the Boogeyman will come and sew your eyelids closed Thursday night at 6:07 p.m. Central Time.” Boogeyman leverage relies heavily on uncertainty. All predictions of Boogeyman activity must be non-falsifiable. Just say, “The Boogeyman will get you” and leave it at that.

Some understand this principle better than others. Back in the years before 2010, federal workers at Glacier National Park in Montana put up signs warning that all of the glaciers would be gone by 2020 because of climate change. Now 2020 has arrived, and about 60 percent of the glaciers remain. Someone pointed this out to park employees, so they have started taking down the signs. While doing so, they complained (in a CNN story) that there is not enough federal money authorized for them to perform the arduous sign-taking-down. (It costs $35 per car to drive into the park. Buses pay $200.)

This is why you can’t trust a federal employee to do anything. If these people were still in charge of the internet, every January 1 you’d have to send a money order and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the federal office of grain management, spotted-owl preservation and information services, in Pueblo, Colo., to pay for your Internet access license to be renewed. Glacier National Park’s sign-posters should take a hint from the mischievous barkeepers who post those signs saying, “Free beer tomorrow.”

The glaciers in Glacier National Park have been shrinking for more than 100 years (as the USGS points out, since 1900 “the mean annual temperature for GNP and the surrounding region has increased [by] 1.8 times the global mean increase”), so on current trends they’ll be gone someday “in the next few decades.” Who knows how long current trends will last, though? A 1923 Associated Press report said the glaciers would “almost disappear” in 25 years. So, gone by 1948. In 1936, the Arizona Republic reported that the glaciers would “vanish within 25 years.” So, 1961. A 1952 AP report alluded to “naturalists” who said the glaciers would be gone in 50 years. So, 2002. In 2009, National Geographic News asked, “No More Glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2020?” A New York Times report a few years ago pushed the date back to 2044.

Other predictions have proven sillier. The Boogeyman is a capricious fellow, so you never want to promise that he will do any specific harm on any specific date. What if he decides to go bowling that day? What if he complains of lumbar throbbing and calls in sick? Then you might embarrass yourself the way ABC News did in 2008, when it produced a special about a Boogeyman-ruled future, hosted by Chris Cuomo, in which we were asked to believe that on June 8, 2015, milk would be $12.99 a carton (not $12.76 or $13.09?), gas would be $9 a gallon, and large parts of Manhattan (seen in a snazzy graphic) would be underwater. The map suggested that my apartment on the West Side would currently be occupied by Aquaman, but nearly five years later I can report that I am still here and that I am able to type these words without any snorkeling gear. The term “fake news” did not yet exist in 2008, but you can see why it had to be invented. What is the purpose of the brand “ABC News” if it can’t be distinguished from sci-fi?

A similar brush with specificity appeared in a 2000 report in the Independent, based on an interview with climate scientist David Viner, that claimed that snowfall would be “very rare” “within a few years” and “children just aren’t going to know what snow is.” “A few” is vague, but not vague enough; surely 20 is more than “a few.” Today it seems likely that in a few years children will still be aware of snow but will not know what the Independent was.

As the Boogeyman is a union member and cannot be forced to perform labor not specified in the Local 666 contract, it is a mistake to assert that he will perform any arduous or even strenuous activity. This was a mistake Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made when she said, “We’re, like, the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.” This, someone told her, was way beyond Boogeyman duties, so she pulled a “Never mind” and ridiculed anyone who believed she’d meant what she’d said: “This is a technique of the GOP, to take dry humor + sarcasm literally and ‘fact check’ it,” she said later on Twitter. “Like the ‘world ending in 12 years’ thing, you’d have to have the social intelligence of a sea sponge to think it’s literal.” Is it okay if we treat everything she says as a joke?

Environmentalists should keep in mind these examples. Declare, “We’ve got ten years to save the planet” and you never have to recant. Learn from the master, Al Gore, who in 2006 famously said, “Within the next 10 years, the world will reach a point of no return.” Hey, maybe he was right. Because what is a “point of no return,” anyway? You can’t prove he was wrong. The ice is going but the Boogeyman cometh!

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