Moving to less controversial topics, George Will had a thoughtful column Sunday before last on new efforts to gin up the panic about global warming. He notes that Time magazine has this big issue declaring, "Be worried. Be very worried." Will is amused by the piquant presumption that the nation will panic on command from Time.
Mr. Will notes that neither the science nor the economics surrounding the global warming debate is very convincing. "That is one reason why the Clinton administration never submitted the Kyoto accord on global warming for Senate ratification. In 1997 the Senate voted 95 to 0 that the accord would disproportionately burden America while being too permissive toward major polluters that are America's trade competitors."
It was not very long ago that we were told about the impending catastrophe of global cooling. Citing various alleged authorities, Mr. Will writes:
While worrying about Montana's receding glaciers, Prof. Schweitzer, who is 50, should also worry about the fact that when he was 20 he was told to be worried, very worried, about global cooling. Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned of "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation." Science Digest (February 1973) reported that "the world's climatologists are agreed" that we must "prepare for the next ice age." The Christian Science Monitor ("Warning: Earth's Climate is Changing Faster Than Even Experts Expect," Aug. 27, 1974) reported that glaciers "have begun to advance," "growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter" and "the North Atlantic is cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool." Newsweek agreed ("The Cooling World," April 28, 1975) that meteorologists "are almost unanimous" that catastrophic famines might result from the global cooling that the New York Times (Sept. 14, 1975) said "may mark the return to another ice age." The Times (May 21, 1975) also said "a major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable" now that it is "well established" that the Northern Hemisphere's climate "has been getting cooler since about 1950."
Following the money, which is usually a wise thing to do, Mr. Will opines that today's global warming panic is driven in large part by the interests of coal and oil interests that want massive federal funding for new technologies that will putatively reduce the emissions that are putatively guilty of hotting up the world. Others say it is driven also by a strategy to prepare the public for a major reinvestment in nuclear power. I don't know, but it sounds plausible.
Geologist Bob Carter, writing on Monday in the UK's Telegraph, has further reflections on the basis of his work as an expert on paleoclimate:
The essence of the issue is this. Climate changes naturally all the time, partly in predictable cycles, and partly in unpredictable shorter rhythms and rapid episodic shifts, some of the causes of which remain unknown. We are fortunate that our modern societies have developed during the last 10,000 years of benignly warm, interglacial climate. But for more than 90 per cent of the last two million years, the climate has been colder, and generally much colder, than today. The reality of the climate record is that a sudden natural cooling is far more to be feared, and will do infinitely more social and economic damage, than the late 20th century phase of gentle warming.
Professor Carter notes that more recent studies suggest that the gentle warming phase has already ended, and that since 1998 temperatures have leveled off, if they have not dropped just slightly.
As I say, I am no expert on the science of these matters. But I have over the years paid more than a little attention to the ways in which science, religion, and everything else is exploited for dubious purposes by presumed experts. So whom do you trust? Among those I trust is Thomas Derr of Smith College. He is a Christian ethicist who has for decades assiduously followed the arguments and counterarguments and how they are used to various political and ideological ends. His article "Strange Science" was published in the November 2004 issue of FIRST THINGS. Herewith his conclusion:
It is clear, then, given the deep roots of the scare, that it is likely to be pretty durable. It has the added advantage of not being readily falsifiable in our lifetimes; only future humans, who will have the perspective of centuries, will know for certain whether the current warming trend is abnormal. In the meantime, the sanest course for us would be to gain what limited perspective we can (remembering the global cooling alarm of a generation ago) and to proceed cautiously. We are going through a scare with many causes, and we need to step back from it, take a long second look at the scientific evidence, and not do anything rash. Though the alarmists claim otherwise, the science concerning global warming is certainly not settled. It is probable that the case for anthropogenic warming will not hold up, and that the earth is behaving as it has for millennia, with natural climate swings that have little to do with human activity.
George Will, Bob Carter, and Thomas Derr are serious people. Of course, they may turn out to be wrong. But I remember a conversation a year or so ago with a noted climatologist from a major university. He confessed that some years back he had been part of promoting the global cooling scare. "I learned my lesson," he said. "Whenever you see a faction of the scientific establishment join hands with the mainstream media in promoting alarm about what is happening to the planet, be skeptical. The truth is we don't know." So, at least for the time being, I think I will decline the directive of Time to be worried, to be very worried. Especially since there is so much else that I know we should be worried about.
That's it for topical chatter during Holy Week. Tomorrow begins the Triduum and postings devoted to the love that, as Dante says, "moves the sun and other stars."
In addition to which:
"I always start at the back with 'The Public Square.'" We hear that times beyond numbering, and it will likely be the case also with the April issue of FIRST THINGS. This time Father Neuhaus takes on, inter alia: The New York Times skewed reporting on the Intelligent Design debates; how the Air Force Academy came to terms with religion; Pope Benedict's appreciation of American evangelicals; Stanley Fish's curious views on religion and tolerance; the remarkable rehabilitation of Pius XII by his intrepid defenders; Danish cartoons of Muhammed and the caving of the West; Todd Gitlin and "keeping faith" with a superannuated Left; the end of The Vagina Monologues on Catholic campuses; Commonweal and liberal pretensions to magisterial authority; the Vatican's tougher line on Islam; why the Wall Street Journal trashes the Legionaries of Christ; how the late Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation changed the world; and the beauty of the life and person of Jacques Maritain. Whether you begin at the back or the front, isn't it time for you to become a subscriber to FIRST THINGS?
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth:
"When it comes to 'Catholic matters,' Father Richard Neuhaus' thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."