Of nuts, Chicken Little and global warming

Posted: Jan 31, 2007 8:36 AM
Of nuts, Chicken Little and global warming

In the fable of Chicken Little, an acorn hits the title character's head, she concludes that the sky is falling, she convinces her barnyard pals of the same, they rush pell-mell to tell the king, and on the way get eaten by a fox.

The lesson of Chicken Little is that all that's required to start a panic is just one nut. A natural phenomenon boggles Little's brain, her hysterical squawking scares her community into a rush for government action, and from an imaginary future threat they run smack into the jaws of a real present one.

The moral of the story depends on who you are. If you're a Chicken Little or you know one, it's don't jump to conclusions, don't panic, don't believe everything you're told, and don't buy into mass hysteria.

If you're a fox, the moral is toss a few nuts at the hysterical types and go put the kettle on. And this Friday, Feb. 2, it's going to be a veritable nutstorm. That's when, we're told, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its "smoking gun" report on human-caused global warming. The foxes are already licking their chops.

Contrary to popular perception, however, the IPCC won't release the actual report until May. Friday's the day the IPCC releases its Summary for Policymakers. Not only does the IPCC plan to give policy meddlers three months' lead time without fear of challenge from what's in the report (a problem previous summaries have suffered) — they're also prepared to edit the report after the fact. The IPCC procedures document says that "Changes (other than grammatical or minor editorial changes) made after acceptance by the Working Group or the Panel shall be those necessary to ensure consistency with the Summary for Policymakers or the Overview Chapter."

The foxy barrage-of-nuts approach has been the standard approach to building community consensus for federal action on global warming at least since 1989, when Stanford biological sciences professor Stephen Schneider told Discover Magazine that October, "We [scientists] need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have."

Among others, Al Gore agrees with that approach. Last year he told the environmentalist magazine Grist, "I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations" – what a euphemism! – "on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis."

And boy have we been getting some dramatic, scary, "over-represented" scenarios in the media. They are so prevalent it's probably unnecessary to provide examples, but here are some recent ones anyway:

    Time magazine's April 3, 2006 cover declared: "BE WORRIED. BE VERY WORRIED. Climate change isn't some vague future problem — it's already damaging the planet at an alarming pace. Here's how it affects you, your kids and their kids as well."

    The film "The Day After Tomorrow," in the words of its advertisement, "takes a big-budget, special-effects-filled look at what the world would look like if the greenhouse effect and global warming continued at such levels that they resulted in worldwide catastrophe and disaster, including multiple hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, floods and the beginning of the next Ice Age." Similar films included the CBS disaster epic "Category 7: The End of the World" (the title say it all) and Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," whose poster depicts a hurricane spinning out of an industrial smokestack.

    Matt Lauer, in his "Countdown to Doomsday" special report on the SciFi Channel June 14, 2006, spoke of "the threat of super volcanoes ... We're living on the edge of a mass extinction. ... Massive tornados in Los Angeles are just some of the ways that global warming wreaks death and destruction around the world in the movie 'The Day After Tomorrow.' The movie's nightmarish scenario is not as far fetched as it may seem. ... If the ocean gets warm enough, the methane will defrost and rise from the ocean into the atmosphere. Global warming will suddenly get a steroid injection. If that happens, we will be past the tipping point. Colossal hurricanes would hammer the globe. The oceans would become too hot to support much life. Droughts, forest fires, and famine would rage across the continents. Florida would be gone, completely swallowed by the rising ocean, as well as hundreds of cities all around the world."

    Film critic Roger Ebert, in his June 2, 2006 review of Gore's film: "Global warming is real. It is caused by human activity. Mankind and its governments must begin immediate action to halt and reverse it. If we do nothing, in about 10 years the planet may reach a "tipping point" and begin a slide toward destruction of our civilization and most of the other species on this planet. After that point is reached, it would be too late for any action.... Am I acting as an advocate in this review? Yes, I am. I believe that to be 'impartial' and 'balanced' on global warming means one must take a position like Gore's. There is no other view that can be defended."

    On March 22, 2006, CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley equated scientists skeptical of global warming with "Holocaust deniers," and on December 21, 2006, The Weather Channel meteorologist Heidi Cullen advocated that the American Meteorological Society not give its "Seal of Approval" to meteorologists who are skeptical of man-made climate change.

And those are but a dip of the cup in the roiling river of media climate-change hyperbole. It's already enough to drown out the Y2K paranoia of late December '99 and the bird-flu fright of '06. And brother, if you think you're heard hysteria before, you just wait till Friday. You ain't heard nothing yet.

Come Friday, about the only thing you won't have heard is the actual report.