SCIENCE: May 05, AU Edition

may05scienceart.jpgSMART OF DARKNESS
You’d have to be pretty dim to buy the latest scare story being pushed by the greenies
Nobody knew it at the time, but thirty years ago the environmental movement suffered the greatest blow to its credibility since a grumpy 19th Century Scottish churchman named Malthus made his now-infamous prediction that, due to a lack of ‘moral restraint’, the world’s population would soon outstrip food supplies. For it was on 28 April 1975 that the American magazine Newsweek ran a story on the new ecological scare that was sure to doom the human race: not overpopulation, but global cooling.
That’s right, cooling.
Here’s how their package, ‘The Cooling World’, began: ‘There are ominous signs that the Earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production–with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth. The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only 10 years from now. The regions destined to feel its impact are the great wheat-producing lands of Canada and the U.S.S.R. in the North, along with a number of marginally self-sufficient tropical areas – parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indochina and Indonesia – where the growing season is dependent upon the rains brought by the monsoon.’

What a difference a few decades make. Not only is the U.S.S.R. a thing of the past, but global cooling is an all-but-forgotten article of the greenie faith, consigned to the dustbin of embarrassing eco-history – along with predictions that the world would run out of fossil fuels by the year 2000 and that mass famines would trigger global conflagrations and economic catastrophe throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Instead, doom-mongers have spent the last decade focused on global warming, using language surprisingly similar to that of Malthus (‘an angry Gaia will smite us for not having the moral restraint to resist buying 4WDs’). And in a day and age when the Bureau of Meteorology can’t reliably predict on Thursday whether Saturday’s barbeque will be a washout, the Kyoto treaty holds a gun to the heads of Western economies – all based on what are essentially some very long-range weather forecasts.
Which is why the latest nightmare scenario to make headlines around the world is particularly – one might even say darkly – amusing. According to a handful of scientists, life on Earth is actually getting dimmer. Here’s how a BBC report recently aired in Australia put it: ‘Noticed less sunshine lately? Scientists have discovered that the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface has been falling over recent decades.
‘If the climatologists are right, their discovery holds the potential for powerful disruption to life on our planet. Already it may have contributed to many thousands of deaths through drought and famine, and that even the direst predictions about the rate of global warming have been seriously underestimated.’
It gets better. According to this handful of experts (cut from the same cloth as the boffins who, thirty years ago, predicted we would all be taking ski holidays in Fiji when not clouting each other over the head for the last handful of maize), global dimming is a double-edged sword. This sudden bout of planetary mood lighting is bad, they say, but without it things would be a whole lot worse: ‘By allowing less sunlight to reach the Earth, global dimming is cushioning us from the full impact of global warming, climatologists say. They fear that as we burn coal and oil more cleanly, and dimming is reduced, the full effects of global warming will be unleashed.’ In other words, when we’re not making the world hotter, we’re making the world … cooler. We’re damned in both the doing and the don’t-ing, but either way, as the narrator of the BBC’s program on dimming put it in the conclusion, ‘we have to take urgent action to tackle the root cause of both global warming and global dimming – the burning of coal, oil and gas.’
We may have to make very difficult choices about how we live and how we generate our electricity. We have been talking about such things for 20 years. But so far very little has been done in practical terms. The discovery of global dimming makes it clear that we are rapidly running out of time.’
This is the same sort of end-is-nigh apocalyptic language that environmentalists (and their philosophical ancestors) have been preaching for centuries. Malthus told us all to practice some “moral restraint” and stop procreating, lest we all die from mass starvation. Today’s greenies frame the debate in the same moral terms even as journalists and scientists vying for headlines and grant monies out-do each other in trying to freak the public out.
Global dimming is the latest attempt to give some scientific ballast to global warming, which has never borne a lot of close scrutiny.
Indeed, many environmentalists now like to call it ‘climate change’ instead – a deft semantic shift that means just about any freak storm can now be blamed on John Howard and George W. Bush. And it is pretty clear that the science behind dimming is overhyped bunk as well; as Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies put it recently after seeing the BBC documentary, ‘The suggested “doubling” of the rate of warming in the future compared to even the most extreme scenario [is] highly exaggerated. Supposed consequences such as the drying up of the Amazon Basin, melting of Greenland, and a North African climate regime coming to the UK, are simply extrapolations built upon these exaggerations … while these extreme notions might make good television, they do a disservice to the science.’
So what is it that is so attractive about global dimming to its supporters? As with Malthus, the answer is not so much scientific as moral, and an underlying discomfort with modern life and all its trappings. Just look at some of the other rhetoric of radical greens these days: people consume too much, waste too much, products come in too much packaging, our food comes from too far away and all this divorces us from one another and the Earth. But this ignores the fact that all this economic activity is actually good for people and, ultimately, the environment: when I got married four years ago in New York City, for example, New Zealand lamb was the main course. This may horrify some as wasteful, but their outrage ignores the fact that those few dozen plates of lamb, multiplied countless times every day, help pay the wages of hundreds of farmers, abbatoir workers, drivers, pilots, fuelers, mechanics, loading dock workers, chefs, and so on – in other words, the sort of ordinary people whom we are supposed to be more in touch with.
The problem with environmentalists is that, after thirty-plus years, it gets awfully hard to take anything they say seriously. Yes, the outdoors is lovely and nature spectacular, and no one wants their kids to grow up breathing thick and smoggy air – which is why economic development is the key to cleaning up pollution, not relying on a bunch of spurious climate models and a distrust of capitalism. When people are allowed to get rich, they can not only desire a cleaner environment, but do something about it as well.
In the meantime, the environment is too important to be left to environmentalists.