Hot air and global warming: Gregg Easterbrook questions the environmentalist rhetoric that would have us believe our planet is on its last legs

The distinction between a cycling accident and the end of civilisation has seldom been so blurred as at the Earth Summit, recently concluded in Rio de Janeiro. There, discussion of palpable threats to nature mixed in equal proportion with improbable claims of instant doom. Environmentalists, who would seem to have an interest in separating the types of alarms, instead encouraged the confusion on doctrinal grounds, taking the view that all environmental news should be negative. This may be appropriate for fund-raising and faculty sherry hours, but it can backfire in the realm of public policy.

Consider the interplay between global warming hype and the Earth Summit. Most US pollution controls exceed those of other nations, including Japan and Western Europe. Carbon emissions are the one important environmental category where America is the worst offender. So in the conferences that preceded Rio, environmentalists and diplomats from developing countries relentlessly hammered Washington about the greenhouse effect, because this is where the United States can be made to seem the wolf, all others gentle ewes.

Such overstatement managed to convince everyone, including the White House, that global warming was the main issue to be addressed at Rio - although artificial warming is strictly a speculative threat, secondary or even tertiary compared with confirmed problems such as species extinction or, in the Third World, unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation. When it came time for industrialised governments to offer the less developed nations new funds for addressing the low-profile issues that really matter, the former (even the Scandinavians) said: 'Sorry, we've made this huge commitment to greenhouse controls, no money left over.' It may be years before the moment is ripe for the Third World to ask again.

There is something bordering on the indecent about the world's heads of state gathering to bestow many tens of billions of dollars upon a hypothetical ecological concern while not lifting a finger to assist the 3.2 million Third World children who die each year of diarrhoeal diseases communicated through impure water. Yet this ordering of priorities is in line with current environmental rhetoric.

Consider also last winter's ozone scare. Nasa made an announcement that sounded as if the agency were saying that a stratospheric ozone hole had been detected over the populous regions of North America. (The ozone breaches so far have occurred above Antarctica, where there is little life to harm.) Breathless network reports and magazine covers followed, adorned with the photos of blondes in bikinis that are necessary for coverage of this issue. Senator Al Gore, of Tennessee, now the Democrats' choice for vice-president, declared the findings 'an immediate, acute emergency threat, the single most important issue facing this country and this Earth'.

It's just that, ummm, there never was any ozone hole over North America. What Nasa monitors found were precursor chemicals that are sometimes, but not always, associated with ozone depletion. No actual breach had been detected, and none developed. The precursor compounds can derive from CFCs; they can also stem from volcanism, and last year there was an eruption of unusual power at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. These annoying details were dismissed in the name of a good panic.

This is especially frustrating because the straightforward case for CFC abolition (that there's nothing to fear now, but why gamble with radiation?) is sufficient. Increasingly, environmental advocates seem to think reforms can be sold only with benevolent Big Lies. If stratospheric ozone trends are shown to be primarily natural - a possibility - the doomsday proclamations about depletion will be used to ridicule the premises of environmentalism.

It's worrisome that Mr Gore, the bright light of political environmentalism, seems increasingly to believe that the only correct stance is to press the panic button on every issue. In his book, Earth in the Balance, Mr Gore describes in affectionate detail his association with the late ecologist Rogers Revelle, the modern father of greenhouse science, who in the Fifties pioneered the study of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As a Harvard undergraduate Mr Gore met the great researcher; later he often called on Revelle to testify before congressional hearings. Mr Gore cites Revelle as leading him toward his view that an emergency programme of gas reductions is required because the greenhouse effect is 'extremely grave . . . the most serious crisis we have ever faced'.

Earth in the Balance does not mention that before his death last year, Revelle published a paper that concludes: 'The scientific base for greenhouse warming is too uncertain to justify drastic action at this time. There is little risk in delaying policy responses.' A lifetime of study persuaded Revelle that carbon emissions should be restricted, but are far less hazardous than initially feared. That position isn't bleak enough for current enviro cant, so Revelle is being eased out as a hero. So, too, is the English scientist James Lovelock, co-author of the Gaia hypothesis and once an environmental demi-god. Lovelock has become persona non grata by saying that the ecosphere is so resilient no amount of human malfeasance, including nuclear war, could end life.

Mr Gore, and environmentalists generally, find it especially painful to acknowledge that there has been significant ecological progress on most fronts in the United States in recent decades. Air, water, toxic landfill and sewage pollution are steadily declining, even as population increases (Los Angeles today has significantly less smog than it did 20 years ago); the number of trees is greater than at the turn of the century; CFCs are being abolished; drift net fishing, Alaskan and offshore oil exploration are down or out; energy use per dollar of GNP is falling; the list goes on. There's a weird sense that this good news should be hushed up. Shouldn't it instead be offered to the public as happy proof that environmental efforts pay off in surprisingly little time?

Lately, Mr Gore and the distinguished biologist Paul Ehrlich have ventured into dangerous territory by suggesting that journalists quietly self-censor environmental evidence that is not alarming, because such reports, in Mr Gore's words, 'undermine the effort to build a solid base of public support for the difficult actions we must soon take'. Sceptical debate is supposed to be one of the strengths of liberalism; it's eerie to hear liberal environmentalists asserting that views they disagree with ought not to be heard. More important, the desire to be exempt from confronting the arguments against one's position traditionally is seen when a movement fears it is about to be discredited. Why not defuse environmental rhetoric before an implosion?

In exemplary doublespeak, some enviros put forth that dissenting views should be suppressed in the name of balance. Mr Gore, for example, says reporters should attach little weight to scientists who question greenhouse emergency claims, because perhaps 2 per cent of credentialed researchers feel that way. This simply isn't true. Greenpeace recently surveyed climatologists, doubtless hoping for evidence of global warming panic; instead, it found that the largest group of respondents, 47 per cent, believe a runaway greenhouse effect is almost impossible.

One factor in environmental overstatement is the belief that only end-of-the-world locution can hold public attention. This assumption is wrong. Voters care about many issues that pose no threat to life, and they would continue to support environmentalism even if the rhetoric were more veracious, because the plain-spoken case for the environment is strong enough. At any rate, end-of-the-world environmental issues have been in short supply recently. Toxic wastes once seemed a threat to general well-being, but experience has shown their impact locally confined and nowhere near as severe as assumed. Ozone depletion someday may imperil life, but with CFCs being banned, there's little left to advocate, unless you know of a means to plug volcanos. Global warming holds out the appeal of a sweeping calamity, a bad science fiction movie come true. Enviros now seem almost to be rooting for temperature increases.

Well, enviro fund-raisers are, at least. As the movement has advanced from a low-budget operation to a branch office of the status quo, the need to acquire ever larger sums has driven many green groups to rely on direct mail. The direct mail business is based on scare tactics, conspiracy theories, bogeymen and preposterous levels of exaggeration. Thinking in terms of what may sell to the bulk-rate donor list engages the risk that, like politicians believing their own press releases, environmentalists will believe their own direct mail. This, in turn, raises the worst aspect in which ecological hype may backfire - the New Right parallel.

At one time the New Right consisted of underfunded voices crying in the wilderness. Then Ronald Reagan came to power and made some of the changes his backers favoured. Rather than celebrating, many on the New Right became yet more strident, if only to differentiate themselves from a mainstream that had shifted somewhat in their direction. A dynamic took hold in which numerous conservative factions were more concerned about crazy claims for fund-raising purposes than about the actual condition of the real world. The public ceased believing conservative alarms: unstoppable as the New Right seemed in the early Eighties, it now borders on insignificance.

Enviros today risk the same progression of events. Once they were disenfranchised outsiders, invariably right where industry was invariably wrong. Now the movement is a monied faction of the establishment, with many satisfying right/wrong distinctions blurred by the very reforms environmentalists set in motion. Like the New Right, enviros are evolving an internal dynamic of self-satisfaction based on mutual displays of stridency, with the state of the real world a subsidiary concern. That certainly seemed to be the name of the game at Rio. If environmentalists keep proclaiming that nature is ending when daily the sun continues to rise, they may find the public's 'oh, shut up' point can be reached on environmentalism, too.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the 'New Republic'. The author is a US journalist specialising in environmental issues.

(Photograph omitted)