Michael Crichton’s Misstated State of Fear

Part action thriller, part tirade against the scientific consensus that the planet is warming, Crichton's new book ignores research that doesn't fit his thesis

04-01-2005 // Ross Gelbspan

IF LAST SUMMER'S over-the-top Hollywood blockbuster about global warming was titled The Day After Tomorrow, Michael Crichton's new book on the same subject should be called The Day Before Yesterday. Much of the information on which he based his tale is woefully out of date.

In State of Fear, the science-fiction writer tells the story of a band of high-tech eco-terrorists who conspire to blow up part of Antarctica, generate flash floods in the southwestern United States and loose a tsunami on the California coast. The thriller is interspersed with a series of diatribes about what Crichton sees as the world's utterly unfounded fear of escalating climate change.

In debunking concern about global warming, however, Crichton ignores the findings of the more than 1,500 scientists from 100 countries who report to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. These scientists all agree that the threats posed by global warming are real.

That view has become the basis for profound policy changes by many of the world's governments. Holland recently completed a plan to cut emissions by 80 percent in the next 40 years. The United Kingdom and Germany have pledged cuts of 60 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in the next 50 years. Clearly these governments have no real doubts about the science.

Crichton, on the other hand, apparently thinks he knows better. In the book, he dismisses climate computer models for what he sees as their subjectivity. If he were writing in the late 1980s, he would have a basis for such criticism. Back then, most models did project far too much warming and failed to match the known climatic record. Since then, researchers have refined the models, which have now essentially fallen into line with the observed historical record.

In focusing almost exclusively on the models, Crichton also ignores a vast reservoir of other scientific data. For example, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher David Easterling found several years ago that, as the planet warms, nighttime low temperatures are rising twice as quickly as daytime high temperatures. That pattern constitutes a specific signature of human-induced warming. Were the warming natural, the high and low temperatures would rise and fall in parallel.

Another example: Tom Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, was initially skeptical about human-induced climate change. But when his team analyzed all U.S. weather data recorded by reliable instruments, they found a significant increase in intense rainfalls, protracted droughts and severe storms since the mid-1970s—changes that experts say could be attributed only to a rise in human-generated greenhouse gases.

Moreover, changes in the migration and breeding patterns of numerous species testify to changes in the timing of the seasons, further evidence of global warming. (See "Out of Sync.")

This scientific evidence is underscored by nondebatable physical measurements of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Surface temperatures on the planet have correlated almost perfectly with atmospheric carbon concentrations throughout prehistory. In fact, a stable amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide—about 280 parts per million—kept the climate largely as we now know it for about the last 10,000 years. But since the industrial revolution began in the mid-19th century, that figure has jumped to about 370 parts per million. With temperatures moving in lockstep, the planet is now heating faster than at any time in the last ten millennia.

James McCarthy, a cochair of the 2001 IPCC, summed up the findings not only of that panel but also of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society, when he said, "There is no debate among any statured scientists working on this issue about the larger trends of what is happening to the climate."

The sole exception is a figment of Michael Crichton's fertile imagination.

Pulitzer Prize winner Ross Gelbspan's most recent book is Boiling Point (Basic Books, 2004).

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