In his weekly opinion column, Harold Evans takes issue with Michael Crichton's latest thriller, in which global warming is the work of mad eco-scientists.
Icecaps are melting
Do you ever read that line on an early page of a novel: "Any connection between the characters and events herein portrayed, and real people, is purely coincidental."
In Michael Crichton's State of Fear, I'd say the connection was purely intentional. It's about the kind of hurricanes, floods, tsunamis and tornadoes we've been experiencing. Crichton's trade is to bring pleasurable terror to millions by spinning tales of science gone amok - as in Jurassic Park and the Andromeda Strain.
In this new bestseller those hurricanes etc aren't natural disasters at all. They are the creations of global warming activists - eco-maniacs desperate to publicise the case for controlling emissions of carbon dioxide. To make sure you get his point, Crichton adds a 32-page footnote documenting his own conviction that global warming is an unscientific scare.
What about the contrary worldwide consensus of scientists that global warming is a man-made disaster in the making? Crichton's answer: "If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus." As I suppose in the old consensus that the earth is flat.
Crichton's is not actually a thesis that the displaced folks in Louisiana and Texas can concentrate on at the moment in the wake of Katrina and Rita. Yet for his polemic on global warming, Crichton has become something of a hero to the groups fighting hard to stop anything like the Kyoto treaty.
The well-endowed think tank, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, honoured Crichton with an invitation to Washington to address its members - not on the novel, but on science policy in the 21st Century. The point of that was to embrace Crichton's attack on what he calls the pseudo-science of global warming. It's not easy to embrace Crichton himself; he is an intimidating 6ft 9 inches.
Michael Crichton: 'Something of a hero'
The sceptics on global warming needed this kind of reinforcement. They have mostly been keeping quiet after the ferocity of Katrina and Rita, widely blamed in the press on the unusually hot waters of the Gulf. Al Gore, in a rousing "action now" speech that impressed business leaders at the Clinton summit in New York recently, pointed out that since the 1970s, hurricanes both in the Atlantic and Pacific have increased in intensity by about 50%.
It is quite significant that while President Bush has been active on hurricane relief, he has not reiterated his well-aired doubts about whether global warming is a real threat or a scare. Nor have we heard much from the Republican chairman of the Senate Environment Committee.
Senator James Inhofe's previous best effort was this: "With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phoney science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it."
The senator did not explain quite how 2,000 top scientists in 100 countries could have been persuaded in 2004 to produce a rare consensus that gas emissions left unchecked will produce a series of catastrophes. Nor is he likely to try and explain in the post-Katrina atmosphere.
Hurricanes are now more intense
The conspiracy Crichton outlined in his novel might seem tailor-made for Hollywood - scientists manipulating weather systems to suit their own leftie agenda. But it is very much in the paranoid political style identified by the renowned historian Richard Hofstadter. There are still people who just know that FDR conspired with Winston Churchill to have the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. There are millions who just know that JFK's assassin, the shooter on the grassy hill in Dallas, was hired by Lyndon Johnson.
As a historian, I have never been much impressed by conspiracy theories left or right. Too often, they are exalted by non-evidence - "proved" by records that have disappeared, "witnesses" whose stories have been suppressed. But if you happen to be in the market for a conspiracy theory today, there's a rather more credible one documented by the pressure group Greenpeace. Just bend an ear for a moment for the names of a few organizations very much concerned with global warming.
You wouldn't guess it but all these highfalutin bodies are dedicated to undermining the science of global warming and preventing America signing something like the Kyoto Treaty. And again, you wouldn't guess it, but they take thousands of dollars from Exxon Mobil. It's the world's largest oil company and a high profile opponent of Kyoto for imposing too many costs on the developed world.
- Advancement of Sound Science Centre Inc
- Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow
- Heartland Institute
- Competitive Enterprise Institute
- Annapolis Center for Science-based Public Policy
The five groups I mentioned are not the only ones with deceptive titles. Greenpeace has identified 40 such mouths at the Exxon nipple. So what's wrong about this? For one thing I'd guess you'd be a bit more sceptical of their pronouncements on global warming if they made it clear that they are not - shall we say - unrelated to the interests of their Exxon sponsors.
Grazing on drought-stricken land
I asked Exxon about supporting so many of these propaganda groups. They point out that pro-Kyoto foundations give out much more money than they do, and that's true. What's disturbing to me is that the groups Exxon supports are much less forthcoming about their connections; they are often treated in the media as if they were wholly independent scientific bodies.
In addition Exxon has done something positive in committing $100m to Stanford University for research into new energy technology. So where's the rub? Well, funding long-term research like this is all well and good. The trouble is - as the economist Keynes famously said in another context - in the long-term we are all dead. The damage is being done here and now every day. It is accelerating - and it is damage that could be irreversible.
All the delaying tactics, denials and obfuscations bring to mind what happened in 1974 to two American scientists, Professor Sherwood Roland and Dr Mario Molina. They coolly set out the evidence that the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration, aerosols and air conditioning were eating at the ozone layer which protects mankind and plants from dangerous ultraviolet radiation.
They were at once smeared as scaremongers. The manufacturers ran an all too successful campaign to fog the issue. A lazy media bought into it. The public got bored and bamboozled. And as they did so, millions more tons of the pollutant were added to the atmosphere.
Thirteen years later when the world finally woke up to an ozone hole bigger than anyone had predicted, there was a swift international agreement - led by the US - to find alternatives to the CFCs. In the meantime, great damage had been done.
Winston Churchill back in the 1930s had this to say about another government that didn't believe a threat was real. As the Chamberlain Cabinet dithered about Hitler, Churchill warned: "They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent."
And he concluded: "The era of procrastination, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences."
We are entering that period now with global warming. And if quoting Churchill in this context puts me in Michael Crichton's class of conspirators, I will bear it with fortitude.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
An excellent article. Whenever any newly discovered scientific fact threatens existing economic interests, those interests will always induce some scientists to challenge it, until the scientific consensus becomes so overwhelming that no scientist is willing to look like a fool by standing out against it any longer. For many years the tobacco companies were able to roll out tame scientists to deny that smoking caused lung cancer, but now even they have given up pretending. The same process is now repeating itself with the oil companies and global warming - the only question is whether it will take so long that it is too late for the earth.
Rod Parkes, Taipo, Hong Kong
Brilliant, just what an already confused issue needs. Is there anyone here who would deny the existence of a current global warming trend? If so I would have to categorise them alongside those who doubt the existence of the Apollo moon landings. Its hard science, with irrefutable evidence.
Now can we do something about it, please? Only I don't want to be remembered as one of the generation who's egotistical inaction brought about the beginning of the end of the world.
Andrew Watkins, Glasgow, Scotland
Has Harold Evans actually read Crichton's book? Does he understand the word 'Fiction'? It's amusing and yes, frustrating to read articles like this that attack a work of fiction as though it was fact. I smell a similar fear as that of the Catholic Church when condemning the 'Da Vinci Code'. Maybe there's no smoke without fire? Why would the church appoint a senior figure solely to defend itself against the ideas in a work of fiction unless there was some truth there? Equally, why is the conservation lobby now gearing up to attack 'State of Fear' unless they don't want it's ideas to gain currency?
One thing is for sure, 'State of Fear' is a cracking read, one of the better Crichtons for a while. I guess the author is thanking Evans and the like for the free publicity, same as Dan Brown is thanking the Catholic Church for prompting his book.
Philip, Bath UK
A fine opinion piece on a very interesting novel. It is interesting that Mr. Evans chose the issue of CFC's to illustrate his point as this is also addressed in Crichton's book - to show how no environmental decision we make is without consequences - in the case of CFC's the developing world lost access to a cheap method of refrigeration whilst the planet as a whole benefited. In addressing ecological questions, humanity does need a clearer idea of risk assessment and how to analyse the benefit versus the cost of a given course of action. Whilst I am most eager that action be taken to protect the environment, I welcome 'State of Fear' as contributing to a debate we all need to have if we can live sustainably on Planet Earth.
Endaf Kerfoot, London, UK
All very well but to me the message of the book was this: Both sides are quite capable of propaganda. Information may still be misleading even if backed by and promoting a 'good' cause. Thus question the aims of those putting forward information when interpreting it. Of course the book will also make good film material and choice of topic guarantees publicity - we are discussing it now!
Well, I guess I will never buy another Crichton book again. If it is a consensus, it isn't science? What bulljive! How about the consensus that C-14 decays at a given rate, which can be used to date organic remains? How about the consensus that falling objects accelerate at... well you get my point. The scientific method is all about GENERATING consensus by testing ideas. It's sad to see someone as entertaining as Crichton stoop to such cheap publicity hounding.
Jim Senter, New Orleans, LA, USA
Hear, hear. Please keep writing and publishing these kind of comments. People do not want to see or hear reality, especially if it means changing their life styles, but our lifestyles are going to change anyway, so please keep hammering away. I am with you and wish I had your knowledge and profile to join you. Best wishes
Jackie Townsend, Bydgoszcz, Poland (at the moment)
Climate change is a great scare story, but it hides the real problem. We are running out of oil and when we do so, if we haven't developed an alternative, society will collapse and most of us will not survive. We need to develop an alternative to oil now, while we have abundant energy to make it happen. If we wait until oil runs out (we have already burnt more than half of the world's known oil reserves), it will be too late. A side benefit of producing an alternative to oil is that we will also eliminate the pollution that gets blamed for climate change.
Mike , Bodmin, Cornwall
Amazing how people are still fighting against global warming. Even if it is not happening right now, it will in the future. Greenhouse effects are a scientific fact. So at the very least, people should look for ways to build a more balanced earth.
Dirk Vandenheuvel, Leuven, Belgium
The current crop of natural disasters are exactly that, natural. The earth's climate has always gone in cycles and it is arrogance to assume man's input can make any difference either way. I agree with Crichton, the global warming activists are scare-mongers.
LJS, Stockport, UK
How much was he paid and by who? I'm sure his books will sell well in ant- Darwin pro-creationism parts of the world. As for the other 99% of the known universe we will just struggle on with the reality of the situation.
David K, Windsor UK
What the hell does "If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus" mean? Crichton is talking out of his ass. The world does not need idiots like him talking rubbish that influential people can then use as propaganda.
Nicola, Reading, England
Crichton's book is very thought provoking. What you have just said is exactly what he is talking about. People saying 'but scientists say it so it must be true. There is no proof and a lot of reason for doubt yet people ignore that and go with the sensationalist view that the world is ending etc.
Excellent piece by Harold Evans. Very encouraging to find that he really "gets it" on global warming. Can I suggest you alert the BBC Radio 4 Today programme team (all of them) to this piece. Reading it or listening to it might dissuade them from having Dr S Fred Singer on (again) to propagate his malign nonsense on the issue.
Douglas Coker, Enfield UK
Brilliant. Harold Evans is fascinating. Hang on to him!
Penny Cushing, Alton, Hampshire
Fine prose, sane comment delivered with humour and therefore a tonic in this "actually" infested, half gibberish world of communications. Well done Howard. Couldn't have expressed it any better myself.
John Vetterlein, Orkney UK
Those of us with children and grandchildren must fervently hope that eventually those in power in the USA will come to accept that the situation is becoming desperately serious and that unless action is taken NOW those children will have, courtesy especially of the USA, very little to look forward to.
Peter, Cambridge, UK
Well done, Harold Evans!
Tim Weller, Halesowen
The Churchill quote is extraordinarily. Global warming is clearly the greatest moral and political challenge of our time, easily comparable with the threat of Nazism in the 1930s. Those who would deny that it is taking place as a result of greenhouse gas emissions are playing much the same role as the appeasers of those days - with the difference that the wishful thinking of the latter was not, on the whole, promoted with the help of funds donated by the Third Reich.
Tom Scott, Falmouth, UK
The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.