The Paradoxical Origin of Climate Alarmism
Three feet of snow on the streets of New York and Washington is mocking global warming alarmists. The natural sciences tell us that the alarmists got everything wrong: anthropogenic carbon release is not dangerous or even harmful, but extremely beneficial. 15% of the world’s agricultural production is due to the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the air. What’s more, the global mean temperature has not been increasing for 19 years, and the slight warming expected from the emission of the infra-red absorbing gases is expected to be beneficial in itself. And contrary to the alarmists’ claims, ocean water is alkaline, not acidic. See this short summary of science for more. Listing all the scientific errors made by the alarmists would take many pages, not to mention their logical fallacies, economic delusions, civic blunders, etc. So how did it happen that such a worthless agenda became so powerful? In large degree, it’s because it was worthless!
The weakness (or absence) of scientific support behind climate alarmism became its political strength.
Normally, political issues are real, in the sense that they represent real problems or real conflicts in society. Real issues -- drug addiction, poverty, illness, or abortion -- allow people to express different views or to take different sides. But the issue that gave birth to climate alarmism is different: the alleged problem (possible harm or danger from carbon dioxide emissions) simply does not exist. Most people are not interested in imaginary problems, and quite a few scientists, statesmen, and journalists came to the correct conclusion that the carbon dioxide/global warming/climate change problem did not exist. Naturally, they did not participate in research or discussion on this topic, which allowed those who believed in the alleged problem to monopolize the topic. And the more strongly somebody believed, the stronger his or her voice was in the discussion. This happened even before they gain enough power and money to chase away sceptics or buy supporters.
Let me clarify a few points before I get into the history. Climate change is real. The climate change problem is not. Scientists have opposed climate alarmism from the beginning to protect the integrity of science. Some of them recognized the alarmism as a problem in itself. Good, competent people passed on addressing the alleged climate problem because they were not convinced of its significance, especially compared with other changes happening in the world. That said, even if all the reasonable scientific uncertainties were resolved in favor of alarmism, and even if we accepted many of the alarmist fallacies, that still wouldn’t justify the alarm.
It all started in the 1970s, when the possibility of global warming from anthropogenic release of carbon dioxide was seriously addressed as a potential concern. At that time there were significant scientific uncertainties regarding the issue, so some scientists concluded that some concern was justified, while others concluded that it was not. The government tried to convene a group of top scientists to consider this potential concern. But top scientists can choose what to work on, so there was considerable self-selection: the concerned scientists were overrepresented in the discussion, while the skeptical views were underrepresented. One result of this self-selection: in 1979 both the Charney and MacDonald (JASON) committees, apparently working independently of each other, arrived at the same climate sensitivity value, almost double the number that Guy Callendar calculated in 1938. And Callendar's result was more accurate!
But so far, so good -- no real harm done, just an interesting social dynamic that can be recognized only in hindsight. Scientists who expressed concerns did so because they developed or accepted theories exaggerating the possible negative consequences of CO2. This led to a one-sided selection of the science as well: more alarming climate theories, models, and scenarios received broader consideration than non-alarming ones. Despite this adverse selection and exaggerated estimate of the climate sensitivity, neither committee sounded alarm or recommended that the government take any action but to continue research.
Then, for no good reason, Congress authorized the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee (CDAC), and tasked it with a comprehensive evaluation of the possible dangers from CO2 release. Naturally, CDAC had to consider (or even develop) the most alarming theories and scenarios. In 1983 CDAC delivered what became known as Nierenberg Report, advising “concern, not panic” and rejecting climate alarmism once again.
Unfortunately, UN agencies and environmental NGOs (mostly of foreign origin) picked up the issue and started running with it. There was no shadow of good faith in the way in which they handpicked “experts” from the environmentalist movement and from the bottom of the scientific establishment, fishing for yes-men worldwide. These bottom-dwellers went on cherry picking not only the data, but even the physical effects. This was not hard, because the real scientists and those who cared to consult them were staying out of the topic, rather than opposing the alarmist agenda. As Richard Lindzen wrote in 1992: "As most scientists concerned with climate, I was eager to stay out of what seemed like a public circus." Cherry picking was made easier by the huge amounts of money lavished on climate science starting in the 1980s.
It might sound surprising today, but the alarmists announced "scientific consensus" as early as 1988, following the infamous Toronto Conference. After that, the intimidation and persecution of openly dissenting scientists started. From the same article by Lindzen:
"But in the summer of 1988 Lester Lave, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote to me about being dismissed from a Senate hearing for suggesting that the issue of global warming was scientifically controversial. I assured him that the issue was not only controversial but also unlikely. In the winter of 1989 Reginald Newell, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lost National Science Foundation funding for data analyses that were failing to show net warming over the past century. Reviewers suggested that his results were dangerous to humanity."
Thus, fear of retaliation buttressed the normal reluctance of competent scientists to engage with a non-existing problem. When Al Gore became Vice President in 1993, all hell broke loose, but that’s a story for another article.
It looks like the climate alarmists understood how lucrative the pursuit of imaginary problems could be for them. Many environmentalist scares started as similarly non-existent issues, which only became real (in the sense defined above) when lawmakers tried to address them. The proposed laws naturally affected the public, thus creating an opposition. In many cases the enviros won anyway, but at least there was a fight.
It seems like the climate alarmists learned from that experience, so they started proposing solutions so unrealistic that they were beyond sane discussion. One example is their crowning demand to keep future Earth temperature change below 2°C forever. Do they really think that humans control Earth’s temperature? At COP21, they went even further and tightened this "goal" to 1.5°C. Another example is the call to lower CO2 in the air to 350 ppm, down from the current 400 ppm. 350.org, one of the most visible alarmist organizations, took its name from this number. When the Senate rejected the Kyoto protocol before it was even signed (with a 95-0 vote), it removed this alleged problem from the table for some time, but let it keep its cloak of effective obscurity.
In the absence of any organized opposition, the alarmists were able to appoint an enemy at will. They selected fossil fuel corporations as the strawman target. Energy and oil companies have no more interest in opposing climate alarmism than anybody else, are forbidden from opposing it by laws and court decisions, suffer from negative public image, and present an attractive target for trial lawyers. The fate of British Petroleum (BP) following the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion is an illustration of how vulnerable our society is to political attacks on its energy suppliers.
Unlike climate change, climate alarmism is a problem, a large and underestimated social problem, not something confined to the energy sector. Its fingerprints are everywhere, from corruption of American universities and scientific institutions to the extreme political polarization. Trying to minimize economic damages is not enough - we should address the problem itself.
Richard Lindzen. Global Warming: The Origin and Nature of the Alleged Scientific Consensus, 1992.
This short article contains firsthand witness testimony on how climate science was subverted by Climatism. Lindzen’s succinct analysis is still relevant today. If you want to read only one article on the origins of the climate hysteria, this is the one.
Rupert Darwall. The Age of Global Warming: A History, 2014.
A book about the history of climate politics, written from a neutral perspective.
Ari Halperin researches and writes about climate alarmism as a complex and dangerous phenomenon.