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Friday, December 10, 2004

Ronald Bailey reviews a Michael Crichton novel

On Wall Street Journal online, a review by Ronald Bailey of the new Michael Crichton novel State of Fear:
"State of Fear" is, in a sense, the novelization of a speech that Mr. Crichton delivered in September 2003 at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. He argued there that environmentalism is essentially a religion, a belief-system based on faith, not fact. To make this point, the novel weaves real scientific data and all too real political machinations into the twists and turns of its gripping story.

For example, the climate computer models relied upon by global-warming proponents like [the novel's Ralph Nader-like character] Drake -- or, in real life, by John Adams (NRDC), Carl Pope (Sierra Club), Kevin Knobloch (Union of Concerned Scientists) and John Passacantando (Greenpeace USA) -- predict that such warming will be strongest at the earth's poles, turning glaciers into floods and raising sea levels. In "State of Fear," Drake warns that Greenland's ice cap is melting and will push the sea level up by 20 feet. (As it happens, on Wednesday of this week Sir David King, Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser, testified with similar alarm before a British legislative committee, saying: "If the ice-sheets in Greenland melt, sea levels would rise 6.5 metres and London would be underwater.")

Yet as Mr. Crichton has his scientist Kenner correctly note, Greenland's ice cap is in no imminent danger of melting away. It is well established scientifically that average temperatures in Greenland and Iceland have been falling at the rather steep rate of 2.2 degrees Celsius per decade since 1987. As for temperatures in most of Antarctica, they have been falling for nearly 50 years, and ice there has been accumulating rather than melting. And those sea levels? Nils-Axel Mörner, a professor of geodynamics at Stockholm University, has been studying the low-lying atolls of the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. He has found "a total absence of any recent sea level rise" and has instead found evidence of a fall in sea level in the past 20 years -- a fact that Mr. Crichton has the good instinct to report in the course of pushing his plot forward.

And what about the trend in actual global average temperatures, a question central to the debate in "State of Fear"? According to satellite data, since 1978 the planet has been warming up at a rate, per decade, of 0.08 degrees Celsius. Simple arithmetic reveals that, if the rate continues, the planet will warm by 0.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That compares with an increase of 0.6 degrees Celsius during the 20th century. No catastrophe there. Indeed, Mr. Crichton has one of his characters note the costly uselessness of the supposedly heat-reducing Kyoto Protocols.

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