By Emily Yoffe
Monday, June 25, 2007
It was a mild January evening, and people had filled the restaurant's outdoor patio. As our group walked past the tables, one of my friends said, "This terrifies me." I don't know if she was reassured later by the chilly April, but we are all supposed to be terrified of the weather now.
In "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore tells us that unless drastic global changes are made, our cities will be inundated and those of us who haven't drowned will face a world wracked by cataclysmic weather and swarming with pestilence. One of his devotees, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, is coming out with his own environmental horror movie warning of human extinction if we continue living as we are. This would have a negative effect on the box office, but extinction might be preferable to the future Gore envisions.
I, however, refuse to see the apocalypse in every balmy day. And I think it's wrong to let our children believe they'll be swept away before they get a chance to fret about college admissions. An article in The Post this spring described children anxious, sleepless and tearful about the end; one 9-year-old said she worried about global warming "because I don't want to die."
Usually we want to protect our children from awful events, adjusting the message to suit their age. Certainly we tried to do that after Sept. 11. But an essential part of the global warming awareness movement is the belief that scaring us to death is the best way to spur massive change. Gore explicitly compares warming to the Nazis of the last century and terrorists of this one.
And a recent New York Times profile of Gore tells that we are to be flooded with "An Inconvenient Truth." It is going to be shown in schools; book versions for children and young adults and a children's television show are planned. The global Live Earth concerts scheduled for July 7 are expected to raise millions, going to a three-year public relations effort, headed by Gore, to deluge us with bad news.
All this is not to say that it's not getting warmer and that curbing our profligate environmental ways is not a commendable and necessary goal. But perhaps this movement is sowing the seeds of its own destruction -- even as it believes the human species has sown its own. There must be a limit to how many calamitous films, books and television shows we, and our children, can absorb.
It doesn't seem sustainable to expect people to remain terrified by such a disinterested, often benign -- it was so nice eating out on the patio! -- and even unpredictable enemy. (I understand we're the enemy, but the executioner is the weather.) Recall that the experts told us last year would be a record-setting hurricane season, but the series of Katrinas never materialized.
Since I hate the heat, even I was alarmed by the recent headline: "NASA Warns of 110-Degrees for Atlanta, Chicago, DC in Summer." But I regained my cool when I realized the forecast was for close to the end of the century. Thanks to all the heat-mongering, it's supposed to be a sign I'm in denial because I refuse to trust a weather prediction for August 2080, when no one can offer me one for August 2008 (or 2007 for that matter).
There is so much hubris in the certainty about the models of the future that I'm oddly reassured. We've seen how hubristic predictions about complicated, unpredictable events have a way of bringing the predictors low.
It's also hard to believe assertions that the science on the future of our climate is settled when climate scientists can't agree about the present -- or the past (there is contention about the dates, causes and even the existence of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age that followed). Now, Gore and others say that Katrina was a product of global warming and that we can expect more and bigger storms. But there is actually brisk scientific debate over the role global warming plays -- if any -- in the creation of hurricanes.
A study from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last month, looking at 5,000 years of Atlantic hurricanes, found "large and dramatic fluctuations in hurricane activity, with long stretches of frequent strikes punctuated by lulls that lasted many centuries" -- with the stormier periods occurring during cooler ocean temperatures. But talking about Earth's constant, and still inexplicable, climate changes and cycles is not useful if you're trying to shock.
In his new book, "The Assault on Reason," Gore denounces what he sees as today's politics of fear. Yet his own campaign of mass persuasion -- any such campaign -- is not amenable to contradiction and uncertainty. It's about fright and absolutes. But just because something can be plotted on an X and Y axis does not make it the whole truth.
Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer to Slate.com. Her e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.