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25 March 2017 13:25 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

History keeps proving prophets of eco-apocalypse wrong

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

We might as well stop panicking. After all, it isn’t good for our health, and it’s probably too late to panic anyway. The avalanche of eco-cataclysm predictions that have proven to be wrong certainly left an imprint on the public mind.

If we do not reverse global warming by the year 2000, “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the earth by rising sea levels”, warned Noel Brown, a director of the United Nations Environment Programme, in 1989.

It is common cause that sea levels have been rising ever since the start of the Holocene at the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,700 years ago. Throughout the 20th century, tide gauge data has shown this rise to be fairly steady at about 1.5mm/year, and largely unaffected by changes in temperature or atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Since 1993, satellite altimetry has determined a fairly constant sea level rise of just over 3mm/year. However, it is far from clear whether this represents an acceleration or an artefact of how sea level is measured with respect to surrounding land.

A 2016 paper by Australian scientists Albert Parker and Cliff Ollier suggests that the altimetry record suffers from errors larger than its trends, and “returns a noisy signal so that a +3.2 mm/year trend is only achieved by arbitrary ‘corrections’”.

“We conclude that if the sea levels are only oscillating about constant trends everywhere as suggested by the tide gauges, then the effects of climate change are negligible,” they write, “and the local patterns may be used for local coastal planning without any need of purely speculative global trends based on emission scenarios. Ocean and coastal management should acknowledge all these facts. As the relative rates of rises are stable worldwide, coastal protection should be introduced only where the rate of rise of sea levels as determined from historical data show a tangible short term threat. As the first signs the sea levels will rise catastrophically within a few years are nowhere to be seen, people should start really thinking about the warnings not to demolish everything for a case nobody knows will indeed happen.”

Clearly, history proved Noel Brown wrong.

In 2002, George Monbiot urged the rich to give up meat, fish and dairy, writing: “Within as little as 10 years, the world will be faced with a choice: arable farming either continues to feed the world’s animals or it continues to feed the world’s people. It cannot do both.”

In 2002, 908-million people worldwide suffered hunger. Ten years later, that number had declined to 805-million, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. Because of continued population growth, this nominal decrease represents a much larger decline in the prevalence of undernourishment, from 18.2% of the world’s population in 2002 to 14.1% in 2012. Hunger remains steadily on the decline. Famines, once so common, are rare nowadays.

Clearly, history proved George Monbiot wrong.

In 2008, the US television channel ABC promoted an apocalyptic “documentary” called Earth 2100, hosted by Bob Woodruff. The film cites a host of scientists, including such perennial alarmists as James Hansen, formerly head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Science, and John Holdren, the US science czar who in the 1970s thought population control might be necessary to ward off mass starvation (see Prophets of doom in high places).

The show depicts the world at various times in the future, leading up to a collapse of civilisation “within this century, and perhaps your lifetime”. By 2015, it said, agricultural production would be dropping because of rising temperatures and the number of malnourished people “just continually grows”. We’ve already seen that the latter prediction proved to be false. Agricultural output also remains on a strong upward trend worldwide, and most of that is because of rising productivity, and not a rise in land use, irrigation, labour or other capital inputs.

A carton of milk would cost $12.99 by 2015, the film said, and a gallon of fuel would cost over $9. In reality, milk cost $3.39 and fuel cost $2.75 in 2015. Much of New York and surroundings would be inundated by rising sea levels, they said. Below is their 2008 map, and a current satellite view of New York from Google Maps. I’m no aerial surveillance analyst, but I don’t see any evidence that half of New York is under water.

Clearly, history proved Bob Woodruff and his famous scientific sources wrong.

In 1970, around the time the first Earth Day was held, Life magazine published a list of pearlers. For each of these, they claim, “scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence”.

Of course, by the 1980s, we had so much sunshine that we could hardly step outside without getting cancer. The next ice age now seems a long way off. Nobody in the major cities of the developed world wears a gas mask, and in industrialised countries, air pollution has sharply declined even as populations and GDP have grown.

The closest thing we have to a global plague is the infestation of professional environmentalists that traipse to the world’s top tourist destinations to confabulate new terrors designed to intentionally transform the economic development model of the world, which has produced so much health and prosperity since the industrial revolution.

Many other zany predictions were made when the first Earth Day rolled around, including that by the year 2000 civilisation would end, we’d run out of oil, all the world except Europe, Australia and North America would be in famine, none of our land will be usable due to nitrogen build-up, organic pollutants would cause freshwater fish to die off, life expectancy in the rich world would decline to 42 years, between 75% and 80% of all the world’s species would be extinct, 90% of the rainforest would have been destroyed, we’d have run out of copper, lead, zinc, tin, gold and silver, and the world would be 11 degrees colder.

Clearly, history proved Life magazine and the Earth Day hippies wrong.

Speaking of a colder planet, in the 1960s and 1970s a common view among scientists and the media was that the world was cooling and we were headed for another ice age. At the time, temperature records showed half a degree worth of cooling in the northern hemisphere, although subsequent “corrections” and “adjustments” to the official data have all but removed this from the temperature record. In fact, modern propaganda efforts have tried to erase the “global cooling” consensus of the time from history altogether.

The most infamous artefact of the global cooling scare is a 1975 Newsweek article, but it is not alone. It is supported by other documents, including a CIA report released pursuant to a 2013 Freedom of Information Act request, entitled Potential Implications of Trends in World Population, Food Production and Climate. Dated August 1974, it anticipated a return to the colder conditions prevalent during the Little Ice Age, which ended in the 19th-century. It considered this “far more disturbing” than cyclical changes on a decadal scale.

The 1974 CIA report specifically cites the work of the late University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus Reid A. Bryson, a “towering figure” and “pioneer in modern climatology”. Bryson contended that the world was at the end of a golden era of benign climate and food surpluses, as a result of cooling caused by industrial pollution, which he argued would have been even worse if it had not been for rising carbon dioxide levels.

Blogger Kenneth Richard, writing at NoTricksZone, calls the campaign to pretend that the global cooling scare never happened a “massive cover-up”, and documents 285 scientific papers that do not support the carbon dioxide-led warming view of climate change, of which 163 papers explicitly predict global cooling. The scare certainly was not limited to the back pages of a popular news magazine.

But either way, history proved Newsweek, Bryson, and the CIA wrong.

In her 1962 book Silent Spring, a work of holy scripture for the green religion, marine biologist Rachel Carson warns that insecticides – and particularly DDT – would cause children “to be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours”. Farm animals, birds and insects would sicken and die, leaving the bucolic spring countryside of her fevered imagination silent.

The silent spring she feared never dawned, and not because she cautioned against the indiscriminate use of pesticides. It never dawned because she greatly exaggerated the threat to both humans and the environment. In a scathing critique, entomologist Dr J Gordon Edwards lays out, page by page, how Carson played fast and loose with the facts to launch a campaign that ultimately proved to be deadly to humans. In part thanks to the movement to ban or discontinue the use of DDT, up to 700-million people a year contract mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, encephalitic viruses, bot flies or the worms that cause the grossly disfiguring elephantiasis. Over a million people die because of mosquitos every year, making it the deadliest creature on Earth.

Meanwhile, agricultural technology companies continue to make more effective, better targeted and less harmful products, and genetic engineering is helping to reduce the need for toxic pesticides in farming. It is spring as I write this, and birds are twittering cheerfully outside my window.

Clearly, history proved Rachel Carson wrong.

Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009 said that we had “50 days to save the world” from climate catastrophe. Five years later, in 2014, the French foreign minister declared that we have “500 days to avoid climate chaos”. When Barack Obama became president, James Hansen, who now is a self-described climate activist, said that he had “four years to save the Earth”. A few years later, Tim Wirth, the head of the UN Foundation, said that Obama’s second term was “the last window of opportunity” to avert a climate catastrophe.

Sixteen years ago, a major British newspaper ran an infamous story declaring that snowfalls are now just a thing of the past. Snow will become “a very rare and exciting event”, the article said, quoting Dr David Viner of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University. “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is.” Of course, the UK has seen several winters of record snowfalls since 2000.

“We are now at the threshold of making reliable statements about the future,” wrote  Daniela Jacob of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in 2001. No we aren’t.

Prince Charles, speaking in July 2009, said we had 96 months left to “save the world” from consumerism and capitalism. Of course, a royal, first in line to the throne of England, does not have to concern himself with the grubby business of producing goods and making money. Taxpayers and vast swathes of land ensure he’s safely swaddled from cradle to grave. It’s easy for the rich and leisured classes to swan about, advised by top environmentalists, claiming that we have only a few years left to prevent “irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse, and all that goes with it,” as batty Prince Charlie puts it.

His prediction has nine months left to run. Like all the other worthies, history is about to prove Prince Charles wrong.

A few months ago, I wrote a paean to the power of scientific predictions. Its purpose was two-fold: to celebrate the successes of the scientific method, and to contrast the predictions of science with the prophesies of doom that have dominated so much of the discourse about human progress and the state of the planet.

The ability to make accurate predictions is a hallmark of good science. Conversely, making false predictions implies either that a statement is not based on science, or that it is based on bad science.

So why is it that we continue to believe environmental doom-mongers, even though history has proven them wrong time and time again?

Oh, wait. It turns out we don’t believe them. Almost 10-million voters in a huge United Nations poll have ranked climate action dead last out of 16 concerns – below even the phone and internet access that all respondents would have enjoyed anyway if they were able to complete the online poll.

Those are the fruits of constant, shrill, exaggerated alarmism. Get proven wrong by history often enough, and four out of five ordinary people will stop believing you. And good for them, too. Perhaps environmentalists should mind the environment instead of trying to rule the world. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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