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The Backlash

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.