By their headlines shall ye know them. Daily Mail: “Will there be a global famine in 2050? Crops will be overwhelmed by pests in the next 30 years, scientists warn.” Salon: “Detroit is drowning: Why our cities are in danger and global warming’s to blame.” Guardian: “Miami, the great world city, is drowning while the powers that be look away.” Slate: “Do not buy oceanfront property.” New York Times: “Game over for the climate.” And, finally, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which, among other things, keeps track of polar ice caps, the source of much of the world’s angst about the possibility of rising sea levels: “New Reverb Subsetting Services Available for NASA GLAS HDF5 Data.” It would be safe to bet that the headline written by the people with the most knowledge is the one that was least read.
I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to relitigate the ups and downs of the climate-change debate, which rivals the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in its tediousness and intractability. But even if we set aside the criticism of the skeptics, including the best-informed of them, and limit ourselves to the projections of the more enthusiastic true believers, there is not much to justify the apocalyptic tone generally associated with the issue. The International Panel on Climate Change, for example, predicts that the costs of adapting to global warming will amount to a couple of points of global economic product a century from now. Obviously, some places will suffer more than others, but if the IPCC model is correct, then we are talking about a burden, not an apocalypse.
Benjamin Strauss, who revels in the prolix title of “vice president for climate impacts and director of the program on sea-level rise” for Climate Central, “an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the American public,” early this summer published an article about the possible effects on American cities of rising sea levels induced by climate change. He reports that in New York City, the U.S. city “most threatened in the long run” in terms of the total number of people living in areas less than ten feet above sea level, some 700,000 people might be forced to find new homes — a century or so hence. That is about 8.3 percent of New York City’s population: not a trivial figure, but not the silence in heaven accompanying the opening of the seventh seal, either. There are a great many things that might induce 700,000 New Yorkers to choose different places of residence over the next century — say, the reelection of Bill de Blasio. Indeed, New York lost 10.1 percent of its population in a single decade not long ago, during the years from 1970 to 1980. Bad governance, failing schools, and a city wage tax caused Philadelphia to lose 28 percent of its population in half a century. People move around. Again, not an outcome that we would desire, ceteris paribus, but not the Four Horsemen, either.
We generally talk about climate change in terms of what’s expected to happen over the next century, but even that may be precipitate. According to Rob Painting, a true believer who writes for Skeptical Science, a website specifically dedicated to debunking climate-change skepticism, the response of the Greenland ice sheet to historical warming has generally happened “straight away,” meaning a lag time of essentially nothing to . . . a century. The Antarctic ice sheet, he writes, has generally had a lag time of between four and seven centuries, meaning that the time that passes between higher temperatures, should they come to pass, and the worst effects of rising sea levels could reasonably be expected to equal the amount of time that passed between the composition of the Summa Theologica and the composition of Abbey Road, or the interval between the apex of Marco Polo’s career and that of Gennifer Flowers. The sorts of mitigating policies preferred by the climate-change lobby require the balancing of complex and fast-changing economic and political considerations and calculations that are impossible to make over such periods of time. Congress cannot even bind subsequent congresses — legislating on a centuries-long timeline is absurd.
But there are even longer periods of time to be considered. The sea levels are indeed rising. They have been rising for 20,000 years — up almost 400 feet during that time — following a pattern of alternating glacial and interglacial periods going back at least 2.5 million years. Civilization has managed to thrive despite those rising waters.
#page#None of that bears very much on the specific question of how human action is changing the global climate. It certainly can be the case that the oceans have been rising for one set of reasons for 20,000 years but will rise more quickly for manmade reasons over the next century. (Or seven.) But that background does bear very much on the social and political question of what, if anything, we should do in response and on how we should evaluate propaganda posters showing the Statue of Liberty up to her breasts in sea water.
As is often the case with this issue, the most prominent spokesmen enjoy what might be charitably described as a wide range of scholarly expertise in the complex and difficult field of climate studies. Consider the two gentlemen I have referenced so far: Strauss has a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton, where he became intimate with the habits of gastropods and published a thesis titled “Snails at Three Scales.” Painting is a former police officer who is really, really interested in global warming.
Learned men, and more than a few crackpots, have been promising us the end of the world practically since the beginning. There is a powerful attraction to end-times rhetoric, even for those of us who do not believe that the global handbasket is headed in a decidedly southerly direction. (I did write a book called “The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome,” after all.) Roman sages predicted that their city would fall in 634 b.c., and, when that didn’t happen, they revised the figure to 389 b.c. The Jewish revolutionary Simon bar Giora predicted that his battle against the Romans in 66 b.c. announced the final chapter in world affairs. The Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana predicted that the world would end on April 6, 793 a.d., while Pope Sylvester II expected a millennial apocalypse on the first day of 1000. When that didn’t happen, the critics argued that His Holiness had failed to account for the lifetime of Jesus and moved the world’s sell-by date back to 1033. Pope Innocent III is said to have predicted that the end would come in 1284, or 666 years after the foundation of Islam. Fourteenth-century Christians believed the plague announced that the end was at hand. Michael Stifel, a mathematician and supporter of Martin Luther, offered a previously unmatched level of specificity in his prophecy, expecting the end on October 19, 1533, at 8 a.m., presumably Wittenberg time. Cotton Mather gave it three tries.
Calculating Doomsday was, and is, a great Christian pastime, but it is not only religious men who have a taste for it. English astrologers predicted the world’s end on February 1, 1524, and began updating their calculations on February 2, 1524, producing a new date of February 1, 1624. The insistence on the First of February is a mystery to me. A German astrological rival put the date in 1654. Mary Bateman, the so-called Yorkshire Witch, produced chicken eggs inscribed with a prediction of the world’s end in 1806; as it turns out, she’d inscribed the message on the eggs herself and then stuffed them back inside the chickens. (She was later hanged in an unrelated matter.) UFO cultist Dorothy Martin expected the end on December 21, 1954, but the only dramatic events of the entire fortnight were the Cleveland Browns’ victory over Detroit in the NFL championship and the birth of Senator Mark Warner, who is many things but probably not a herald of the apocalypse.
In 1974, two well-regarded British astrophysicists published a book called “The Jupiter Effect,” which argued that a coming alignment of the planets on March 10, 1982, would create a gravitational field with catastrophic effects, including a massive earthquake in the United States. There was a Jupiter effect, as it turned out, with the day’s high tide coming in four hundredths of a millimeter higher than usual. But not much else. Author John Gribbin later renounced his theory and proclaimed himself embarrassed by it. He writes about global warming now. The Jupiter Effect was a bestseller not because Americans had developed a sudden fluency in astrophysics, but because apocalyptic predictions are a cultural staple. Their power is unmistakable, and their allure is infectious: Televangelist Pat Robertson, perhaps excited by the incursion of astrophysicists on clerical turf, promised his 700 Club audience: “I guarantee you, by the end of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world.” Just before that, there had been an apocalyptic boomlet focused on Ronald Wilson Reagan, who had three names with six letters each — you do the math.
#page#The Heaven’s Gate cult, another group of UFO aficionados, expected the end in 1997, and its members killed themselves in anticipation. It was a grisly episode, but it did produce a great editorial cartoon, with loopy cult leader Marshall Applewhite standing before a decidedly unamused Saint Peter: “No spaceship?” “No, no spaceship.”
The common gaffe is putting a deadline, as it were, on Armageddon. Far better to be a little vague about it, and to push the date far enough into the future that one’s reputation and financial interests will suffer, if at all, only posthumously when the world fails to end. Rather than pick a date on a calendar, the thinking prophet of doom will produce a chart. If he can make a mathematical formula out of it, so much the better. Thomas Malthus was evocative if vague about his belief, which seemed self-evidently true to many at the time, that agricultural growth could never keep up with population growth, and that a growing population necessarily meant “sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague” while “gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear.” His disciples put this into a mathematical form, the famous folk belief that population grows exponentially while agricultural yields increase linearly. (Neither of those things is true.) Malthus’s 21st-century epigone, Thomas Piketty, similarly put a qualitative notion into an unprovable mathematical expression. His “r > g” (that is, the rate of capital return will be greater than the rate of economic growth, leading to catastrophic inequality) is more of a slogan than anything else, given that future economic events are not predictable. It is simply a prophecy of economic apocalypse if not of the full-on locusts/moon-turning-to-blood variety.
Malthus and his apocalyptic vision have had a powerful hold on the environmentalist imagination since the very beginning. Famine following a plunge in agricultural production resulting from global cooling was a staple of environmentalist eschatology in the middle part of the 20th century, and global-warming skeptics have had a great deal of fun revisiting those dire predictions. The panic about a new ice age entered the popular conversation with the publication of an article in the September 1958 issue of Harper’s, in which Betty Friedan — yes, that Betty Friedan — dutifully reported that “serious, careful scientists” were projecting “the growth of a vast glacier which may eventually cover much of Europe and North America” and “perennial unmelting snows which the world has not seen since the last Ice Age thousands of years ago.” The geniuses at the CIA began studying the “megadeaths and social upheaval” sure to result from this, hysterical letters were dispatched to Richard Nixon, NOAA and the National Science Foundation turned their attention to the matter, and the Washington Post jauntily advised its readers: “Get a good grip on your long johns. . . . That’s the long–long range weather forecast being given out by ‘climatologists,’ the people who study very long-term weather trends.”
Newsweek published a now-infamous 1975 article deploying the very familiar theme that scientists were warning us but politicians were too short-sighted to act: “The scientists see few signs that government leaders anywhere are even prepared to take the simple measures of stockpiling food or of introducing the variables of climatic uncertainty into economic projections of future food supplies. The longer the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with climate change once the results become grim reality.” The article’s most famous tidbit is its mention of extreme solutions then under consideration, including the diversion of Arctic rivers or, most notably, covering the polar ice caps with coal soot in order to warm them up. Peter Gwynne, the author of that Newsweek article, is of course fully committed to the new apocalypse, dismissing those who point to his earlier report as a cautionary tale as “individuals that dispute, disparage and deny the science.” What about the old science? “That was then,” he writes.
#page#Today’s apocalyptic prophecies perform the function that such predictions always have: to organize people around a cause, to impose order on them, to wring money out of the flock, and to grossly oversimplify enormously complex problems. Some 2,000 years of Christian moral reasoning, and all of the complexity it involves, is utterly powerless in the public imagination compared with a version of the end times that is functionally indistinguishable from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” — he’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. The sins have changed — today, we are expected to feel guilty about buying the wrong car instead of worshipping the wrong god — but the underlying mystical narrative is the same as it always has been, and there’s a good reason that the apocalyptic episode in the Terminator sci-fi universe has a familiar name (“Judgment Day”) or that the aspect of the global-warming story that has captured the public imagination is organized around a fundamentally Biblical episode: a great flood. And if 700,000 New Yorkers have to relocate in the face of divine wrath, the Akkadians got it a lot worse back in Gilgamesh’s day.
The point of revisiting this is not merely to abuse today’s alarmists with their recent follies, good sport though that is. Mr. Gwynne is absolutely correct that the fact that “the science” seems to have been spectacularly wrong in 1975 does not mean that it is wrong today. What it means is that it’s a damned lucky thing we did not cover the polar ice caps in coal soot.
It may be that the next time the Hale-Bopp comet rolls around, it will be trailed by a spaceship haunted by Marshall Applewhite and his Heaven’s Gate buddies, who will get what turns out to be finally and truly the last laugh. It may be that the Almighty, Who is by all scriptural accounts awfully unpredictable in these matters, will finally decide that He has had enough of our guff on April 6 of the coming year, or the year after. Everybody reads the tea leaves in his own way: I note with deep existential dread that the new Denny’s that has just opened up in lower Manhattan is offering a $300 brunch special, basically Moons over My Hammy with a bottle of 2004 Dom Pérignon, which may not be a sign that the end is at hand but surely is a sign that it ought to be. Malthusians, UFO cultists, end-times Christians, Luddites, nanotech truthers, science-fiction writers, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others expecting the apocalypse-heralding Twelfth Imam to pop up like an angry Islamic jack-in-the-box out of some dusty Persian well, environmentalists of all stripes — coolers and warmers alike — astrologers, no-nukes crusaders, grown adults who are mortally terrified of corn and vaccines, and Al Gore all have promised us, each in his turn, an end of the world practically since its beginning. The scientists are very excited about the new reverb subsetting services for their NASA GLAS HDF5 data, whatever those are. One of these groups is more intimately engaged with reality than the other.