Steve Chapman
The 1980s and 1990s were prime time for environmental scares, many of which proved bogus. On one side were liberals, greens and professional alarmists who always assumed the worst. On the other side, many non-liberals chose to heed scientists who had studied the evidence. Time and again, the skeptics were right.

Remember the Alar scare of 1989, when Meryl Streep went before Congress to warn of a pesticide used on apples? There was much concern at the time, but it didn't pan out. An official with the National Cancer Institute eventually concluded the cancer risk from eating apples treated with Alar was "nonexistent."

How about silicone breast implants? The Food and Drug Administration took them off the market in 1992, but for no good reason: In 1999, the Institute of Medicine said they didn't cause breast cancer or other serious diseases.

There was acid rain, which allegedly was a catastrophe for lakes and forests in the East. The director of an exhaustive federally funded assessment, however, announced in 1990 that "the amount of damage is less than we once thought, and it's much less than some of the characterizations we sometimes hear."

Over and over, we saw a pattern. Environmental and public health groups with a leftward bent said the sky was falling; conservatives and libertarians (me included) asked for scientific evidence; and the science sooner or later debunked the fears.

Back then, those skeptical about environmental warnings deferred to learned people who knew the subject best. Alarmists stoutly ignored them while scrounging up a few experts who would take their side.

But that was another century. Today, it's scientists who agree on the validity of a major environmental peril -- climate change caused by human activity. It's liberals and environmentalists who can point to a broad scholarly consensus for their claims. And it's the skeptics who now revile the scientists as stooges and liars.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right in step with many conservative advocacy groups and commentators when he derides global warming as "all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight." The conservative magazine National Review regularly heaps scorn on climate-change worries.

So does the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which depicts it as an urban legend singlehandedly fabricated by Al Gore. Fox News ... well, I'll let you guess.

This naysaying has had its intended effect. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 53 percent of Republicans don't believe the earth is getting warmer, and 58 percent think scientists actually agree with them.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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