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The Dangers of Crying Wolf
at the Climate Conference



LONDON-- "5,500 journalists and 700 in the American delegation alone" reports a London newspaper on the Kyoto global warming jamboree. If only one tenth of those would turn up for a conference on supplying pure water and giving every girl a basic primary education then we might be getting somewhere with the most tangible pressing environmental need of our age. (And one that cannot be scientifically questioned, to boot.)

Still, give Kyoto its due. This is the way issues get placed firmly on the political map. "I have only a modest proposal" said Kierkegaard as I recall "to make the true state of affairs known." It may be the wrong issue, it may be an overblown issue but if you believe in getting attention this is the way to do it.

But it has its dangers. Crying wolf can be counterproductive. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a column for the Washington post, provocative enough to trigger an editorial alongside. Having talked to most of the world's top climatologists I pronounced that the world was cooling, dangerously so. It could trigger an ice age.

One of my sources, Stephen Schneider of the University of Stanford, pooh-poohed the evidence of the dangers of an increase in carbon dioxide. Where is he now?--a fervent advocate of the greenhouse effect and global warming and lambasting the press for equivocating. It is "journalistically irresponsible to present both sides," he is reported to have said with a straight face at Vice-President Al Gore's Global Climate Change Roundtable in Washington.

Twenty years ago the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" introduced us to the wonders of exaggerated extrapolation. Its computor models were summarized for the non-initiated by the analogy of the lily pond. Where was the lily that doubled its size every day the day before it covered the pond? Answer: only half way across the pond.

Yet none of the Club of Rome's projections have stood the test of time. Neither on raw materials (never so abundant), oil prices (just been cut again, this time by OPEC), on food supplies (ever increasing--see below), on population growth (although still a curse in many countries it has peaked in the three countries that most matter--India, China and Brazil). Even the AIDS doomsayers with some of their wilder projections overlook the lesson of the medieval Black Death--all plagues peak of their own accord in due time.

In fact, if we look through the well publicized environmental causes of the 1970s we can see how many false notes there were in the doom songs. There was the alleged destruction of the ozone layer by the newly introduced Concorde airliner. There was the pollution of ocean waters. There was DDT poisoning, the issue that made Rachel Carson and her book "The Silent Spring" famous. But as time passed it became clear that the breakdown of the ozone layer by supersonic aircraft had been grossly overstated. There is little pollution yet of the great oceans, and no evidence that it affects fish stock or marine life. Over-fishing is the real worry, but that only in certain parts. And we realize today that DDT is safer for the people that use it than the organo-phosphate insecticides that replaced it.

Let's take food in a little more detail. At the World Food Conference called by a worried Henry Kissinger in 1974 the headlines read, "the world is running out of food." Indeed, the evidence of failed harvests all over the place pointed that way. One third of humanity was said by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization to have "inadequate access to food." But at last year's W#orld Food Summit the figure was down to one in five although, in the meanwhile, the world's population has increased from a billion to nearer 6 billion.

Perhaps the most telling recent parable for our times is the story of Germany's Black Forest. A dozen years ago the famous forest was considered all but dead, the casualty of ecological calamity, supposedly attacked by pollutants and climatic changes. "An Evergreen Cemetary" was the title of one popular book.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the forest's death were premature. The forest today is verdant and growing faster than ever, for reasons that are as unclear to foresters as they should have been when the forest appeared to be on the wane.

All this is not to say we should ignore that there are serious limits on our planet's endless magnanimity. There are. Alas, in the age of super-hype one has to scream to be heard. But as Planche wrote in 1879, "Why, you've cried `Wolf!' till, like the shepherd youth, You're not believed when you do speak the truth." Or, as Florio said three centuries earlier, "The death of the wolf is the health of the sheep."


December 10, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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