The villains are frustrated because the data do not prove that global warming is causing rising sea levels and other catastrophes. So they concoct high-tech schemes to manufacture catastrophes they can ascribe to global warming -- flash floods in the American West, the calving of an Antarctic iceberg 100 miles across and a tsunami that would roar 500 miles an hour across the Pacific and smash California's coast on the last day of a Los Angeles conference on abrupt climate change.
The theory of global warming -- Crichton says warming has amounted to just half a degree Celsius in 100 years -- is that ``greenhouse gases,'' particularly carbon dioxide, trap heat on Earth, causing ... well, no one knows what, or when. Crichton's heroic skeptics delight in noting things like the decline of global temperature from 1940 to 1970. And that since 1970 glaciers in Iceland have been advancing. And that Antarctica is getting colder and its ice is getting thicker.
Last week Fiona Harvey, the Financial Times' environmental correspondent, fresh from yet another international confabulation on climate change, wrote that although the Earth's cloud cover ``is thought'' to have increased recently, no one knows whether this is good or bad. Is the heat-trapping by the clouds' water vapor greater or less than the sun's heat reflected back off the clouds into space?
Climate-change forecasts, Harvey writes, are like financial forecasts but involve a vastly more complex array of variables. The climate forecasts, based on computer models analyzing the past, tell us that we do not know how much warming is occurring, whether it is a transitory episode, or how much warming is dangerous -- or perhaps beneficial.
One of the good guys in "State of Fear'' cites Montaigne's axiom: ``Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known.'' Which is why 30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling. The New York Times (Aug. 14, 1975) saw ``many signs'' that ``Earth may be heading for another ice age.'' Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned about ``extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.'' ``Continued rapid cooling of the Earth'' (Global Ecology, 1971) could herald ``a full-blown 10,000 year ice age'' (Science, March 1, 1975). The Christian Science Monitor reported (Aug. 27, 1974) that Nebraska's armadillos were retreating south from the cooling.
Last week The Washington Post reported that global warming has caused a decline in Alaska's porcupine caribou herd and has lured the golden orange prothonotary warbler back from southern wintering grounds to Richmond, Va., a day earlier for nearly two decades. Or since global cooling stopped. Maybe.
Gregg Easterbrook, an acerbic student of eco-pessimism, offers a "Law of Doomsaying'': Predict catastrophe no later than 10 years hence but no sooner than five years away -- soon enough to terrify, but far enough off that people will forget if you are wrong. Because Crichton remembers yesterday's discarded certitudes, millions of his readers will be wholesomely skeptical of today's.