The Backlash

by Russ Roberts on October 17, 2007

in Environment

Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize has caused some folks to speak out against the religious component of global warming. The most thoughtful I’ve seen so far comes from Daniel Botkin in today’s WSJ. (His book Discordant Harmonies is a fascinating look at how our often false and imperfect perception of nature and man’s relationship to the natural world handicaps our ability to solve environmental problems.) Here are a few highlights from the WSJ article:

This year’s United Nations report on climate change and other documents
say that 20%-30% of plant and animal species will be threatened with
extinction in this century due to global warming — a truly terrifying
thought. Yet, during the past 2.5 million years, a period that
scientists now know experienced climatic changes as rapid and as warm
as modern climatological models suggest will happen to us, almost none
of the millions of species on Earth went extinct. The exceptions were
about 20 species of large mammals (the famous megafauna of the last ice
age — saber-tooth tigers, hairy mammoths and the like), which went
extinct about 10,000 to 5,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age,
and many dominant trees and shrubs of northwestern Europe. But
elsewhere, including North America, few plant species went extinct, and
few mammals.


I’m not a naysayer. I’m a scientist who believes in
the scientific method and in what facts tell us. I have worked for 40
years to try to improve our environment and improve human life as well.
I believe we can do this only from a basis in reality, and that is not
what I see happening now. Instead, like fashions that took hold in the
past and are eloquently analyzed in the classic 19th century book
"Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds," the
popular imagination today appears to have been captured by beliefs that
have little scientific basis.

Some colleagues who share some of my doubts argue that
the only way to get our society to change is to frighten people with
the possibility of a catastrophe, and that therefore it is all right
and even necessary for scientists to exaggerate. They tell me that my
belief in open and honest assessment is naïve. "Wolves deceive their
prey, don’t they?" one said to me recently. Therefore, biologically, he
said, we are justified in exaggerating to get society to change.

And one more:

Many of my colleagues ask, "What’s the problem? Hasn’t
it been a good thing to raise public concern?" The problem is that in
this panic we are going to spend our money unwisely, we will take
actions that are counterproductive, and we will fail to do many of
those things that will benefit the environment and ourselves.

For example, right now the clearest threat to many
species is habitat destruction. Take the orangutans, for instance, one
of those charismatic species that people are often fascinated by and
concerned about. They are endangered because of deforestation. In our
fear of global warming, it would be sad if we fail to find funds to
purchase those forests before they are destroyed, and thus let this
species go extinct.

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Methinks October 17, 2007 at 9:11 am

Clearly, this guy is worse than a Holocaust denier.

*dripping sarcasm*

Anyone not completely submitting themselves wholly to the religion of Climate Change Hysteria will be burned alive as a heretic by the high priest, the Al Goracle.

Bruce Hall October 17, 2007 at 9:32 am

Mr. Gore's academic record is not all that unusual among politicians… Mr. Bush kept right up with him.

Like most politicians, Mr. Gore found an opportunity to exploit and did so in a political manner. Adroitly combining elements of science and psychology, Mr. Gore positioned himself on the forefront of the latest "green" effort to reduce man's overall "footprint" on earth.

Your concern with logic and economic issues related to Mr. Gore's effort miss the point that he has been completely successful in his effort to become the "leader" of the movement to save the earth.

Facts are irrelevant now that sufficient number of people have become convinced that Mr. Gore is correct. This is the essence of belief. Belief is much more difficult to address than logic and science. The believer's rebuttal always begins with, "You just don't understand…."

shawn October 17, 2007 at 9:47 am

…to piggyback on the last paragraph, let's look at a specific instance where global warming hysteria-led policy pushes (or other anti-economic thinking) might cause problems for the orangutan:

ethanol. in the congressional push to create more ethanol, and subsequent falsely inflated prices, south american farmers have an increased incentive to cut down more rain forest to grow corn to make ethanol that they can sell at above-market rates to american ethanol-producing companies. All that information is a quote from the quite fun and accessible Rolling Stone article, originally found by me on

shawn October 17, 2007 at 9:49 am

sorry, that's "originally found by me on KPC."

The Dirty Mac October 17, 2007 at 10:26 am

To add to shawn's point, The UN Commission on Indigenous Peoples has warned of the adverse impact of clear cutting rain forest for biofuels.

And since I can't resist…has there been any linkage made between Global Warming and this year's lack of hurricane activity?

Darren October 17, 2007 at 10:34 am

"Your concern with logic and economic issues related to Mr. Gore's effort miss the point that he has been completely successful in his effort to become the "leader" of the movement to save the earth."

I had been thinking that myself. Gore's actually quite smart–in a Bond movie villain, evil genius sort of way.

Adam October 17, 2007 at 11:33 am

I wish Gore would debate skeptics, such as Cato's Pat Michaels, so that we may all gain a better understanding of the current climate debate.

John Dewey October 17, 2007 at 11:35 am

"has there been any linkage made between Global Warming and this year's lack of hurricane activity?"

Yes. Scientists have now determined that global warming increases wind shear and reduces hurricanes in the Atlantic.

Global Warming Increases Wind Shear

Hurricanes – no hurricanes – rain – drought – increased Arctic plant growth – deforestation (presumably from massive increase in climate research documentation). Global warming's impact is just too unpredictable!

skh.pcola October 17, 2007 at 12:24 pm

shawn, there are no rain forests in the USA that "american farmers" can cut down. Is that really a quote from the Rolling Stone *spit*?

Sam Grove October 17, 2007 at 12:36 pm

That's what happens when believers enter the sciences. Every discovery is interpreted as proof of existing belief.

shawn October 17, 2007 at 1:13 pm

skh…1) the spit…very nice. 2) that's *south american* farmers cutting down the rain forest. 3) well, american farmers *could* cut down the temperate rain forest in the northwest, but that's not what we're talking about.

jp October 17, 2007 at 1:38 pm

I just wish that Botkin had written his paragraph on extinctions a little more carefully. First he says that "almost none of the millions of species on Earth went extinct." Then he says, "The exceptions were about 20 species of large mammals . . . and many dominant trees and shrubs of northwestern Europe." And then he throws in a few other exceptions: "elsewhere, including North America, few plant species went extinct, and few mammals." So, just how many species did go extinct? How many would we expect to go extinct under normal climatic conditions (whatever they are)?

It sounds a little like what the Goreans do — offering vague data with no interpretive context other than the suggestion that the significance of the data is self-evident.

Frankie Panto October 17, 2007 at 2:05 pm

The Gore-gon deserves no Peace prize. He is a polarizing figure, a fire-and-brimstone shaman demagogue with a tyrannical agenda.

He is at most responsible for the recent discord between right and left in America. He has framed a Manichaean debate on a mythologically divined premise: Stifle industry and car use or destroy the world.

Big Industry/Cars = Evil
Low energy service business/bicycles = Good.

And godless people of narcissistic faiths (moral relativists, atruistic hypocrites) are eating up his smarmy sentiments and evangelical hyperventilations.

Arafat deserved the prize more than the Gore-gon.

I'll be reading/commenting on pieces of the related linked articles below in one hour : at 12pm PST / 3pm EST on the TinkerTV conference line 712 432 3900 code 9732125. The audio will be posted on tomorrow. Only Cafe Hayek bloggers/commenters (the smartest commenters in the Galaxy) are invited to today's reading. Read the linked articles, and if you want to give a one minute or less comment, RSVP me at by 11:30.

Article 1: Gore gets a cold shoulder



Darren October 17, 2007 at 2:09 pm

Actually, jp, he does put it in a bit of context. He says, "…almost none of the millions of species on Earth went extinct." A few dozen (or even a few hundred) out of millions should qualify as "almost none" in anyone's book. Although it would be nice to see more historical data and future projections (guesses).

Darren October 17, 2007 at 2:17 pm

Hey Frankie, no need to associate us "godless people" with Gore and the environuts :)

And I do believe a great many prominent Christian churches and organizations have recently gotten on board with Gore to 'fight' climate change :)

shawn October 17, 2007 at 3:33 pm

unfortunately Darren, you're right. many Christians have taken the mandate to be stewards of the earth and mistakenly assumed that stewardship=greensanity (that's gr-EEN-sanity, coined by yours truly).

Dr. Troy Camplin October 17, 2007 at 5:54 pm

I didn't know they gave Nobel Peace Prizes to proselytizers of new religions.

Methinks October 17, 2007 at 6:37 pm

Oh, only the "Peace" prize, Dr. Troy. They hand those things out like candy to any Tom Dick or Harry would-be dictator.

Chris October 18, 2007 at 1:16 am

Shawn –

What's even worse is that corn is really a poor source of ethanol. Sugar is a much better source, but (1) there are sugar tariffs and (2) no federal tax credit for turning sugar into ethanol. Ethanol was just a boondoggle to US corn farmers.

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