Climate change tops the agenda at the United Nations General Assembly this week. Not the danger of Iran getting a nuclear weapon or the plight of millions of refugees from Syria or the crises in Venezuela or Hong Kong.
For the international community has decided that the single greatest existential threat is climate change. And if you ask why the U.N., whose historical mandate has been primarily that of keeping peace, is so preoccupied with this, they’re ready with the answer: Climate change is “the greatest threat to global security,” because it will lead to conflicts over land and resources.
What concerns us is the gathering storm of hysteria.
The UNGA summit is just part of the story. Last Friday, millions of young people around the world skipped school for a day of protest demanding governments to fight climate change. In New York, 1.1 million kids were allowed to miss a day of school to take part.
Adults too — at least judging by their age — contribute to what has become something of a mass movement, in town halls on climate change and in Congress itself. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has, as usual, been on the ramparts. When challenged on the wild impracticalities of her Green New Deal, she responded:
“What is not realistic is not responding to the crisis — not responding with a solution on the scale of the crisis,” she said. “Because what’s not realistic is Miami not existing in a few years. That’s not realistic.”
Why Miami? Well, if rising sea levels inundating Micronesia doesn’t move you, maybe the thought of a world without Miami will. (Then again, maybe not.)
However, an essential part of being realistic is having perspective, historical and otherwise. Indeed, we’ve been here before, or at least in places very much like this.
In 1970, for example, scientists were prognosticating “a new ice age” by the 21st century; that was subsequently made obsolete when they switched gears and unfurled the banner of “global warming.”
Around the same time, biologist Paul Ehrlich competed for scare headlines with his “population bomb.” In 1968, he wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
There isn’t enough room here to catalog more than a small fraction of all the doomsday pronouncements of recent years that never came to pass:
Comet Hale-Bopp caused cosmic anxiety attacks in 1997 when rumors surfaced that an alien spacecraft was following it, on a mission to usher in the end — covered up by NASA. The supposed prediction of Nostradamus 400 years ago of doomsday in August 1999 was another close call. Y2K, Jan. 1, 2000, was much feared because computers would not be able to tell the difference between 2000 and 1900 dates, precipitating the end of technological civilization as we know it. This, too, turned out to be a big “Never mind.”
What causes these choruses of doomsaying?
Primarily it is the mainstream news media. Disaster sells. Reporters and editors see the latest scientific data foretelling dire consequences and their eyes instantly grow wide with the prospect of scary headlines for months to come.
Disaster is photogenic as well. Nothing beats photo-ops of apocalypse: extreme weather bending the palm trees horizontal and melting glaciers the size of New Jersey.
Why is there such an eager audience for it? One reason is that people simply enjoy being scared. Witness the popularity of roller coasters, horror stories and the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren.
And when prediction comes garbed in the authority of science, the normal skepticism of people melts into adoring acceptance of every word. If all these clever climatologists from MIT and Stanford say this, it must be true. Credulity rules. Al Gore gets it!
There’s also a hidden political agenda. It’s much easier for politicians and world leaders to speechify about saving the Earth than standing up to Iran or China.
And if you can convince people that this existential threat is breathing down their necks, and time is running out (two minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock), they will be willing to write a blank check for new regulatory agencies and expanded executive powers to meet those U.N. deadlines.
It always goes in the same direction: centralized power. Yes, it means bigger government, but that’s okay, since it’s bigger government working for you. What’s the alternative? Destroying the Earth? It’s the only Earth we have.
This is not to say that the disturbing facts of environmental phenomena should be blithely ignored. A rational response is called for. But that the rhetoric of “drastic action today,” which suggests not only common-sense regulations but immediate makeovers of whole economies and governments, needs to be toned down and a lot more calm, sober thought brought to bear.
And no more days off from school.