We might as well stop panicking. After all, it isn’t good for our health, and it’s probably too late to panic anyway. The avalanche of eco-cataclysm predictions that have proven to be wrong certainly left an imprint on the public mind.
If we do not reverse global warming by the year 2000, “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the earth by rising sea levels”, warned Noel Brown, a director of the United Nations Environment Programme, in 1989.
It is common cause that sea levels have been rising ever since the start of the Holocene at the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,700 years ago. Throughout the 20th century, tide gauge data has shown this rise to be fairly steady at about 1.5mm/year, and largely unaffected by changes in temperature or atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Since 1993, satellite altimetry has determined a fairly constant sea level rise of just over 3mm/year. However, it is far from clear whether this represents an acceleration or an artefact of how sea level is measured with respect to surrounding land.
A 2016 paper by Australian scientists Albert Parker and Cliff Ollier suggests that the altimetry record suffers from errors larger than its trends, and “returns a noisy signal so that a +3.2 mm/year trend is only achieved by arbitrary ‘corrections’”.
“We conclude that if the sea levels are only oscillating about constant trends everywhere as suggested by the tide gauges, then the effects of climate change are negligible,” they write, “and the local patterns may be used for local coastal planning without any need of purely speculative global trends based on emission scenarios. Ocean and coastal management should acknowledge all these facts. As the relative rates of rises are stable worldwide, coastal protection should be introduced only where the rate of rise of sea levels as determined from historical data show a tangible short term threat. As the first signs the sea levels will rise catastrophically within a few years are nowhere to be seen, people should start really thinking about the warnings not to demolish everything for a case nobody knows will indeed happen.”
Clearly, history proved Noel Brown wrong.
In 2002, George Monbiot urged the rich to give up meat, fish and dairy, writing: “Within as little as 10 years, the world will be faced with a choice: arable farming either continues to feed the world’s animals or it continues to feed the world’s people. It cannot do both.”
In 2002, 908-million people worldwide suffered hunger. Ten years later, that number had declined to 805-million, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. Because of continued population growth, this nominal decrease represents a much larger decline in the prevalence of undernourishment, from 18.2% of the world’s population in 2002 to 14.1% in 2012. Hunger remains steadily on the decline. Famines, once so common, are rare nowadays.
Clearly, history proved George Monbiot wrong.
In 2008, the US television channel ABC promoted an apocalyptic “documentary” called Earth 2100, hosted by Bob Woodruff. The film cites a host of scientists, including such perennial alarmists as James Hansen, formerly head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Science, and John Holdren, the US science czar who in the 1970s thought population control might be necessary to ward off mass starvation (see Prophets of doom in high places).
The show depicts the world at various times in the future, leading up to a collapse of civilisation “within this century, and perhaps your lifetime”. By 2015, it said, agricultural production would be dropping because of rising temperatures and the number of malnourished people “just continually grows”. We’ve already seen that the latter prediction proved to be false. Agricultural output also remains on a strong upward trend worldwide, and most of that is because of rising productivity, and not a rise in land use, irrigation, labour or other capital inputs.
A carton of milk would cost $12.99 by 2015, the film said, and a gallon of fuel would cost over $9. In reality, milk cost $3.39 and fuel cost $2.75 in 2015. Much of New York and surroundings would be inundated by rising sea levels, they said. Below is their 2008 map, and a current satellite view of New York from Google Maps. I’m no aerial surveillance analyst, but I don’t see any evidence that half of New York is under water.