Leon Louw is the Executive Director of the Free Market Foundation.
When Time elevates an issue to the status of cover story, it - that's Time as opposed to the story - must be taken seriously. Usually when Time joins uncritical mass media sensationalising contrived "climate change" mythology, it must be taken very seriously, not because climate change is inherently serious - it isn't - but because alarmism about it is. Accepting the notion that the number of natural disasters is increasing, the Time issue suggests that humans are blameworthy.
Climate change hype has grave real world consequences. It gets rich countries to adopt silly policies and to impose devastating eco-imperialism on poor countries. The world's rich millions can afford environmental extremism; its poor billions can't. Climate change pseudo-science about human causality has been exposed repeatedly. What's less appreciated is that there aren't more natural disasters in need of an explanation.
Good news about the environment is unpopular. The press loves catastrophism because it sells. Tell people rhinos and elephants aren't endangered, there's no AIDS pandemic, crime rates are down, there's less hunger, people are living longer, there's no risk of "resource depletion", indeed that almost everything gets better, almost everywhere, almost always, and they get mad. Give them proof, and they get madder, denouncing you as a "denialist" or "dissident." Curiously, the media-hungry public is more traumatised by good than by that bad news.
Some of my best friends are catastrophists. Two presented me with Time's cover story as triumphant vindication of their appetite for gloom and doom. Is climate really changing? Does it matter? Are humans causing it?
Soon after the Time issue, National Geographic TV had a programme on the Pinatubo eruption in 1991. Pinatubo volcano was one of the biggest explosions in modern times - more powerful than all the world's bombs - shooting billions of tons of toxic gas and ash into the stratosphere - more than all human produced CFCs - within a few hours. It coincided with one of the worst monsoons ever. People and the environment were devastated in one of the most extreme disasters in history.
Catastrophism isn't new. Throughout recorded history scaremongers convinced people that "things are worse than ever", when, in truth, things have never been better. Throughout recorded history, people had the omnipresent impression that recent developments were more extreme than what preceded them.
Transient impressions and feelings aside, it is true that there are more reports
of natural disasters. They are easily explained. Firstly, there is better, faster
and more accessible news. Secondly, Klaus Jacob, as senior research scientist
at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explains: "As you put more and
more people in harms way, you make a disaster out of something that before was
just a natural event". The World Bank reports that, although over 160 of
the world's 200 countries now have a quarter or more of their people living
in high-risk areas, "the number of deaths from natural disasters has decreased
substantially in recent decades thanks to better disaster preparedness and prevention"
They point out that people congregate where its dangerous to benefit from fertile
water and volcanic deposits, waterways and mountain passes, dangerous ski slopes
and exposed coastal resorts. They often live at or below sea level, and in flood
plains (New Orleans, Holland, Mozambique, Bangladesh et al), which means
an increase in human disasters accompanied by increased reporting, without increased
Before turning to whether long-term changes justify the fretting of pessimists, remember that climate change might be desirable. It promotes evolution and biodiversity. Anyway, why are greens against a green-house? Warming could increase evaporation from the oceans (ameliorating rising ocean levels due to melting of Antarctic ice caps) followed by more rain where its dry, meaning a greener lusher earth. Even if low areas are flooded, there could be vastly more fertile habitable land.
Returning to whether there are more natural disasters, it depends on what time span and what kind of disaster one has in mind. Over "geological" time, the earth has never been quieter. During more recent history, there are increases and decreases. The past twenty years are a media favourite during which global temperature happens to have increased following a decrease. Some of us remember the global cooling scare of the 1960s and 1970s. The preceding thirty years showed no trend to speak of, and twenty years before that saw increases along present lines. Before that? Well, no change since the earliest records.
Turning to the big picture, dust pollution (based on Vostok ice cores) declined
over the past 400 million years, and there was a fairly regular temperature
cycle, with no long-term trend. In other words, the climate is much as it was
hundreds of millions of years ago.
Leon Louw is the Executive Director of the Free Market Foundation.
Most big natural disasters during recent years have been earthquakes and volcanoes.
The world's biggest explosions by far (volcanoes) - some much bigger than all
human bombs combined - have been happening since the time that the earth formed
A "super-eruption" equals 1,000 Hiroshima bombs every second. Tokyo, the world's biggest city, would fit into Yellowstone's volcanic crater. Three super-eruptions at Yellowstone appear to have occurred on a 600,000-700,000 year cycle starting 2.1 million years ago, and most recently 640,000 years ago, which means Yellowstone is overdue for another!
The biggest natural cataclysms seldom cause many or any deaths, so they are scarcely mentioned in western media. One of the poorest most densely populated countries, Bangladesh, gets pounded by vicious cyclones regularly. They sweep up the Bay of Bengal, leaving death and destruction in their wake which is hard to imagine, including 500,000 to 800,000 deaths in 1970. That is twice as many in a single episode in a single country compared to the total 2004 tsunami fatalities in various countries.
That is the tip of the natural disaster iceberg:
Finally, the greatest disaster of all time was the Permian extinction which eliminated nearly all life on earth (98%+) and over 90% of all life forms. Needless to say, self-flagellating catastrophists would like to blame us for everything that has ever gone wrong, except that we never existed until very recently. Indeed, our existence, and that of most life, is thanks to recurrent and extreme pre-human climate fluctuations, each of which eliminated countless less "fit" species, thus allowing new species to evolve into the evolutionary "space" created by extinctions.
Bearing in mind that earth history is synonymous with cataclysm and climate change, we are left with more than such questions as whether climate change is "natural" and inevitable. It is both - regardless of our paltry contribution.
This raises more profound questions:
Should we resist climate change? Why are climate conservatives obsessed with the status quo? What's special about it? Nothing obvious. Why are they determined, regardless of the suffering that resistance to climate change inflicts on the world's poor billions and the wealth it denies its rich millions, to freeze the world into an arbitrary unprecedented steady-state?
Since climate change is natural and inevitable, are those opposing it friends
or enemies of nature? Instead of wanting to "save the planet", are
they trying to halt its progress? Why, indeed, do we call anything a "disaster"
if humans aren't harmed? Why not "progress" or "evolution"?
Since more life forms are extinct than exist, and extinction is a precondition for evolution, why anguish about endangered species, including obscure things of which we know little or nothing? Why not let them go to allow for new life forms and increased bio-diversity?
Why do we lament life forms that humans supposedly drive into extinction, rather
than rejoice in ones, like dogs, which we create? What is unnatural about humans?
There is no reason to believe that anything we do or that nature does will get the earth out of the broad bands of change within which climate has fluctuated for millennia. We know from rich countries that "wealthy is healthy". Rapid development and resource consumption will enable poor counties to achieve the same improving environment in every quantifiable sense. "Nature" doesn't care what happens to it, and if it does, it thrives on climate change, so, why not prosper by enjoying what's on the planet to the fullest extent our hearts desire, and leave the next billion years to change as merrily as the preceding billion.
Awareness of the realities of repeated cataclysmic climate changes and natural "disasters" over the half billion years or so of which we have some knowledge, tells us that "the planet" and "nature" either couldn't care a hoot about what happens, or revel in it.
There is no intelligible sense in which the planet or nature are at risk, so we must conclude that climate change catastrophists are really simply selfish human chauvinists, worried that climate change of the kind which produced our evolutionary ancestors (very recently in geological time) might endanger us during the next episode.
Maybe climate conservatives are scared deep down that the climate into which we were born is the only climate in which we can survive. The good news, for those anguishing needlessly, is that humans are better equipped than any other species to adapt to whatever happens. Most species, with small adaptations, but without our intelligence, survived all of nature's damndest.
Anyway, climate change fluctuations have been getting less extreme - the climate
is headed, so to speak, for the calm after the storm, with or without our delusional