Predicting Environmental Catastrophe Embiggens the Smallest Activist

February 16, 2014

Imagine a friend telling you his goal in life was to end all jaywalking. You might wonder if there wasn’t something more important he could do with his life.

Now imagine someone telling you he is working to save the planet from imminent destruction – for people, for wildlife, for future generations. Suddenly, they seem more righteous, more important. Environmentalists seem to believe, like Jebediah Springfield, that tackling a potential catastrophe "embiggens the smallest man."

For some time I wondered why environmentalists repeatedly fall for the same non-science claims about the approaching end of the world. For decades, greens have repeatedly claimed we have passed the tipping point of overpopulation and resource depletion, causing massive famine and collapse. Even when these predictions fail to materialize, the environmental left simply ignores the results, continuing to promise that world desolation is just around the corner.

Such exaggeration is not a reflection of science. It is a personal desire by green activists to be associated with a great historical movement. The bigger the problem, the bigger the person tackling the problem. The inspiration for these wild claims is not facts or science, but a psychological desire to be a part of history.

For example, the taxpayer-funded Eco Consumer, Tom Watson, (who last year informed us that kimchi is the most environmentally friendly food, although he didn't explain why) at King County recently tweeted this cartoon about rapacious humans destroying the planet. There are the corporations (evil) who destroyed the planet and people like him (saintly) who are working to protect it.

Recently, Watson tweeted an interview about the latest book by left-wing environmentalist Elizabeth Kolbert.

In an interview with The New York Times, Kolbert was asked why she chose the topic of "The Sixth Extinction," the destruction of the planet she claims is already occurring. Her response is telling:

Climate change is a huge story — there can’t be a bigger one. As I looked for a new book, what I kept bumping into was the reality that climate change was actually part of an even bigger phenomenon: the many ways humans are changing the planet.

Having already written about the biggest story there is, she wanted to associate herself with something even more important. She is doing her part to end a massive wave of extinctions.

Of course, she argues her claim is based in science. "It’s not what I say," she proclaims. "It’s what many respected scientists are writing." The "scientific" claims she makes in her interview, however, are significantly exaggerated.

For example, she claims:

We go to the Andes, which are warming up very quickly. I go with scientists tracking plants as they seed themselves and grow at higher elevations. We see species that were not at this elevation a decade ago, moving upslope to keep up with change.

The problem with this claim is that the Andes Mountains have seen very stable temperatures during the last decade. Here is the NASA map of the decade of temperatures using three years at either end to smooth out anomalies. Only the southern Andes see any temperature increase at all

Even there, the temperature increase is about one degree F (less than one degree C). Using the standard lapse rate, even in the areas with the most temperature increase, plants would have to move up only about 100 meters in elevation – the length of a football field – to stay at the same temperature. For most of the Andes, plants and wildlife have seen literally no temperature change at all. If you go back 30 years, the temperature increases are actually smaller in the Southern Andes and only slightly greater in the Northern Andes.

Put simply, Kolbert's claim that the Andes are "warming up very quickly" is simply nonsense.

How can Kolbert make such claims when the evidence to disprove them is so readily available from NASA? Because many people want to believe the world is in danger of dying; it makes their campaign to "save" the planet that much more important.

It is why many people who claim to support the "consensus science" on climate change repeatedly make false claims about that very science, always exaggerating the threat.

It is why many environmental reporters consistently hype the threats, claiming that while global catastrophe didn't materialize previously, it will now. For example, a local reporter claimed that simply because Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of worldwide famine had been consistently wrong since the 1960s, a new study using Ehrlich’s model and making the exact same claim was credible. The understated title of the article he tweeted? “The World as We Know It Is About to End, Say Some Really Frightened Scientists.”

The problem is that if you ring the fire alarm every day, you are not preventing a catastrophic fire. You are wasting resources that could be put toward actually making the world a better place. Ultimately, it was the green revolution in boosting crop yields that saved hundreds of millions of lives, not those who consistently cried "the end is near."

There will continue to be an eager market and, apparently, taxpayer dollars for those who ignore the science to “embiggen” themselves. Let's hope, however, policymakers judge them based on their failed track record, not on the outsized volume of their claims.