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Exaggeration and alarmism have been a chronic weakness of environmentalism since it became an organized movement in the 1960s. Every ecological problem was instantly transformed into a potential world-ending crisis, from the population bomb to the imminent resource depletion of the “limits to growth” fad of the 1970s to acid rain to ozone depletion, always with an overlay of moral condemnation of anyone who dissented from environmental correctness. With global warming, the environmental movement thought it had hit the jackpot — a crisis sufficiently long-range that it could not be falsified and broad enough to justify massive political controls on resource use at a global level.

Former Colorado senator Tim Wirth was unusually candid when he remarked in the early days of the climate campaign that “we’ve got to ride the global-warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing — in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.” (Not surprisingly, after Wirth left the Senate and the Clinton administration he ended up at the United Nations.)

The global-warming thrill ride looks to be coming to an end, undone by the same politically motivated serial exaggeration and moral preening that discredited previous apocalypses. On the heels of the East Anglia University “Climategate” scandal have come a series of embarrassing retractions from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regarding some of the most loudly trumpeted signs and wonders of global warming, such as the ludicrous claim that Himalayan glaciers would disappear within 30 years, that nearly half of the Amazon jungle was at imminent risk of destruction from a warming planet, and that there was a clear linkage between climate change and weather-related economic losses. The sources for these claims turned out to be environmental advocacy groups — not rigorous, peer-reviewed science.

To be sure, these revelations do not in and of themselves mean that the idea of anthropogenic global warming is false. But this is probably the beginning of a wholesale revision of the conventional wisdom on climate change. One of the central issues of Climategate — the veracity and integrity of the surface-temperature records used for our estimates of warming over the last few decades — is far from resolved. The next frontier is likely to be a fresh debate about basic climate sensitivity itself. There have been several recent peer-reviewed papers suggesting much lower climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases than the IPCC “consensus” computer models predict. And alternative explanations for observed climate change in the Arctic and elsewhere, such as shifts in ocean currents and wind patterns, should receive a second look.

Dissenters who pointed out these and other flaws in the IPCC consensus were demonized as deniers and ignored by the media, but they are now vindicated. (The American media are still averting their gaze, though the British press — even the left-wing Guardian and the Independent — is turning on the climate campaigners with deserved vengeance.) The IPCC is mumbling about non-specific reforms and changes in the process shaping its next massive climate report, due out in three or four years. The IPCC should emulate a typical feature of American government commissions and include a minority report from dissenters or scientists with a different emphasis. But the next IPCC report may not matter much: With the collapse of the Kyoto-Copenhagen process and the likely rejection of cap-and-trade in Congress, climate mania may have run its course.

National Review Online, 10 February 2010