Intelligent Machines

Greenhouse Gas

Michael Crichton’s new novel fingers the wrong villains in global warming.

Michael Crichton has written that rarest of books, an ­intellectually dishonest novel. Crichton has made a fortune exploiting the public’s fears: Prey (fear of nanotechnology), Rising Sun (fear of Japanese technological supremacy), and Jurassic Park (fear of biotechnology). These books attack the hubris of those who use technology without wisdom. In Prey, he warns, “The total system we call the biosphere is so complicated that we cannot know in advance the consequences of anything that we do.” Given the author’s past, one might expect that a Crichton book on global warming would warn about the risk of catastrophic climate change – the unintended consequences of ­humanity’s reckless, irreversible experiment on the biosphere.

But State of Fear takes the reverse view. Crichton argues that the environmental and scientific communities have fabricated the threat. He wants readers to fear those who argue that climate change is real, caused by human technologies, and dangerous. In the novel, a mainstream environmental group plots to create extreme weather events that will cause the deaths of thousands of people in order to trick the public into accepting global warming as truth. They try to create a killer seismic tsunami timed to coincide with a conference on abrupt climate change. That’s a major mistake by Crichton: seismic tsunamis aren’t caused by global warming, as any climate scientist, even an evil one, knows.

Because the evidence for–and scientific consensus on–the human causes of climate change is now so strong, Crichton cannot make his case simply on the evidence. Instead, he must distort the facts and accuse the scientific community of bad faith in order to make his case. And he does so, repeatedly.

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Crichton portrays environmentalists as uninformed, hypocritical, or simply evil. He creates a scientist-hero, John Kenner, to save the day. (For added credibility, Kenner is an MIT professor – though he sounds more like Rush Limbaugh than any MIT faculty member I’ve met.) Speaking through Kenner, Crichton makes a faulty case against the environmentalists. Kenner says, for instance, that a real NASA climatologist, James Hansen, has been discredited for overestimating the impact of global warming “by three hundred percent” during 1988 testimony in Congress. In fact, Hansen’s prediction was very close to accurate. The smear Crichton cites was created 10 years later, when global-warming skeptic Patrick Michaels misrepresented the testimony.

Crichton also strains to discredit global-warming fears by presenting them as faddish. He has one environmentalist say (incorrectly), “in the 1970s, all the climate scientists believed an ice age was coming.” Global warming did level off between 1940 and 1975. We now know that this was largely a result of dust and aerosols sent by humans into the atmosphere that temporarily overwhelmed the warming effect from greenhouse gases. In the 1970s, it was not yet clear whether the cooling effect from aerosols would be greater than the heating produced from greenhouse gases. Now we know: the heating wins. This episode, fairly explained, would give readers greater confidence in our understanding of climate science, not less.

The dissembling even leaks into the book’s bibliography, where Crichton mischaracterizes the landmark 2002 National Research Council report Abrupt Climate Change: “The text concludes that abrupt climate change might occur sometime in the future, triggered by mechanisms not yet understood.” The report actually concludes, “Abrupt climate changes were especially common when the climate system was being forced to change most rapidly. Thus, greenhouse warming…may increase the possibility of large, abrupt, and unwelcome ­regional or global climatic events.” State of Fear is riddled with such misinformation. For a thorough debunking, go to www.realclimate.org, a site that gives the lie to Crichton’s scurrilous claim that in climate science “open and frank discussion of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed.” Sadly, Crichton smears the work of countless scientists who are trying to predict and prevent the unintended consequences of technological hubris.

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