Why is climate change such a contentious issue today? Bad predictions fifty years ago provide part of the explanation. What follows are excerpts from the second chapter of my latest book, Before and After the First Earth Day 1970.
I have divided paragraphs and added some headings (in square brackets) and pictures to make it look better on the web.
As these excerpts show, I am not a climate change denier. But I also don’t subscribe to the notion that unavoidable catastrophe is just around the corner.
Earth Day was the brainchild of Sen. Gaylord Nelson. His brilliant decision not to maintain control over the planning process made the occasion much more successful than he ever dreamed of.
But Nelson stood on the shoulders of another senator whose contributions have been largely forgotten.
- legal and social conditions that inspired Nelson and the nation
- support for and opposition to the Earth Day observances, both from across the political spectrum
- wide variety of Earth Day events
- important issue Earth Day organizers failed to address
- environmental problems that have been solved, partly solved, and not solved since the first Earth Day
- responsibility of government, business, and individuals moving forward
The biggest single issue that united environmental activists was rampant population growth. Paul Ehrlich, author of the bestseller The Population Bomb, also wrote numerous magazine articles and appeared frequently on the lecture circuit. Here [is one] of his predictions:
In our desperate attempts to maintain such a bloated population, we will inevitably do further damage to our environment. Just as inevitably, the human population will complete its outbreak-crash cycle. We’ve had most of the outbreak—what remains in mainly the crash. For when a biological population outstrips its resources, it inevitably declines rapidly to a very low level—or to extinction. This normally occurs through a dramatic increase in the death rate.
But the human population has some choice left—it can decrease its size either through a rise in the death rate, or through a drop in the birth rate, or some combination of the two. Some increase in the death rate seems unavoidable.
[Peter Gunther prediction]
One of the most egregiously bad predictions, however, came from Peter A. Gunter, who was completing his first year in the faculty of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas).
Figuring conservatively, by the year 2000 the world’s population will have more than doubled from 3.5 billion persons to 7.2 billion. By the year 2070, one hundred years from now, every square foot of the earth’s surface, deserts, rivers, mountains, even oceans, will be built over—just to secure housing space for the planet’s twenty to thirty billion people (author’s emphasis).
A little later, on the same column of the same page, he wrote:
Long before the sheer need for space outstrips the capacity of the earth to continue to support additional life, world population will outrun food supplies. Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China, the Near East, and Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions.
Why did he not stop to think about the absolute impossibility of both predictions coming true? How could the population double in 30 years while at the same time most of the entire world would have been struggling with mass death from famine? The only way to account for such drivel appearing in print is editorial irresponsibility, probably combined with excessive awe of the author’s academic credentials.[Examination of these quotations follows. At the same time these Earth Day predictions got so much press, Norman Borlaug was revolutionizing agriculture and averting famine.]
Overpopulation and famine have almost disappeared from the shrill warnings of looming catastrophe, but the leading speakers and writers of the day made another colossal blunder that directly explains why the majority of Americans today pay no attention to climate change rhetoric.
Al Gore deliberately picked one of the hottest days of summer to announce his crusade against global warming. The climate is not at all the same thing as the weather—a fact that is all too conveniently forgotten by people on both sides of the argument. Ehrlich wrote:
. . . the details of the generation of weather are complex and poorly understood. It is possible that an overall rise in temperature of a few degrees could produce a much colder climate in many localities, caused by changes in the speed or direction of circulation bringing more cold air from polar regions . . .
Man’s activities and construction also have significant local effects on weather, but it is his influence on large-scale climatic change that is of greatest concern, for there can be little doubt that such change has been accelerated on a global basis with almost complete disregard for possible consequences. Some of the changes which have been predicted would be cataclysmic—slippage of the Antarctic ice cap, causing tidal waves which would wipe out most of humanity; or the sudden onset of a new ice age (Ehrlich May 1970).
Ehrlich was not alone.
[Thoughts on the climate change debate today]
Today’s global warming alarmists are more nearly correct about longer-term climate trends, but no more careful to take note of all the complex variables. The so-called Little Ice Age began in about 1300. Various writers estimate that it ended around 1800 or 1900. In the few hundred years before the Little Ice Age, the climate was warmer than it is now. Periodic warming or cooling before the Industrial Revolution clearly owed nothing to human activity.
If the Little Ice Age ended closer to 1800, burning of fossil fuels and the resulting increase in carbon dioxide could not have caused it, but certainly can increase a warming trend that would be happening anyway. The closer to 1900 the Little Ice Age ended the more likely industrial activity played a role. Meanwhile, recent studies of Greenland’s ice sheet have determined that human activity (metallurgy, blacksmiths, and rice farming) as long ago as ancient Rome and the Han Dynasty in China contributed to increased atmospheric methane, another greenhouse gas (Stromberg 2013). There is no question that our modern industrial lifestyle has affected both the weather and the climate. The notion that only modern industrial lifestyle has affected climate is absurd.
Our society has responded to these failed predictions with two equal and opposite errors. Some extremists continue to insist that the sky is falling and that the human race has only a few years to avert catastrophe. Other extremists insist that climate change is not happening and that no environmental problems require any kind of new regulations or drastic action.
Getting people to take appropriate steps matters more than persuading people to adopt correct opinions. Being right about an argument doesn’t matter much.