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Issues: Global Warming
Michael Crichton's State of Fear:
They Don't Call It Science Fiction for Nothing
UPDATE, 9/28/05: In the "truth-is-stranger-than-fiction" department, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a leader of the charge to weaken environmental rules in the wake of this season's hurricanes, is convening a hearing today on the subject of "the role of science in environmental policy making." But atop the senator's witness list is a man who's neither scientist nor regulatory expert, but sci-fi author -- that's right, none other than Mr. Crichton. Read on for details on his recent novel State of Fear, or see what NASA's James Hansen -- an actual research scientist -- has to say about Crichton's claims in the novel.
State of Fear, the new offering from novelist and master of disaster Michael Crichton, is more silly than scary. What is scary is when some media and policymakers take a work of science fiction and confuse it with science. That's what's happening with State of Fear, in which Crichton builds a fantasy world where global warming is not a real threat, but global warming scientists are.
Readers should see Crichton's book for what it is -- fiction. On the other hand, we do thank Mr. Crichton for the opportunity to set the record straight about the very real dangers of global warming and to spotlight the real debate: how will we act to solve this problem?
State of Fiction
Unlike most novels, State of Fear includes footnotes and a bibliography, giving the impression that Crichton unearthed facts buried as part of a dastardly plan by scientists or non-profit groups to suppress disagreement on global warming.
Yet all the data he cites have been widely and publicly scrutinized as part of the peer-reviewed scientific assessment process involving independent academic and government experts from across the U.S. and around the world.
Reaching Scientific Consensus -- Not Quite a Thriller
Thrillers have to have good guys and bad guys, but real science is a lot less action-packed. In the real world, researchers test theories in part by examining challenges to them and looking at puzzles from new angles. What they don't do is set out a theory and then fall into two camps -- defenders and challengers -- as Crichton's book would have it.
Hundreds of scientists -- including from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- have spent years considering the very challenges raised in Crichton's book in the process of coming to a consensus that global warming is underway and caused by humans.
In fact, expert concerns about global warming are growing steadily, as more and more evidence pours in supporting the conclusion that heat-trapping pollution -- from fossil fuels and other sources -- is warming the planet at an unprecedented rate. Theories put forward over a decade ago are playing out in changes to the Earth's climate as predicted, and climate models designed by NASA and others are more and more conclusive in their findings and accuracy.
State of the Art
It was none other than the first President Bush who signed the original global warming treaty back in 1992, setting the framework for a solution to the problem.
Since then scientists have added considerably to the large body of evidence that shows human activity is changing the global climate, raising temperatures and affecting ecosystems around the world.
This past August, three members of the current President Bush's cabinet sent a report, Our Changing Planet, to Congress which contained a section concluding that observed global warming over the past 50 years can only be explained by human-caused emissions, not just natural factors.
And in November, an international team of 300 scientists released results of a four-year study showing that the Arctic is warming rapidly, with the loss of polar ice projected to accelerate global warming as well as contribute to sea level rise and flooding. The report concluded -- and the scientists testified to Congress -- that the warming was due to human activity, namely the burning of fossil fuels.
A summary of these and other findings from the past few years, including information on arctic melting, hurricane intensity, air pollution, and other consequences can be found here.
And a new climate blog has participation from leading scientists themselves, providing a valuable perspective on Crichton's arguments.
State of the Media
What's truly scary is the willingness of some major U.S. media to accept a sweeping dismissal -- from a novelist -- of scientists' conclusions from decades of research. From Matt Lauer, on NBC's Today show, asking Crichton whether environmentalists really could control the weather to improve their fundraising, to ABC's "20/20" refusing to allow scientists to appear on the show when asking Crichton to describe his theory, the state of fiction and science seem to be merging -- and that's not good for our nation.
State of Solutions: They're Not Scary, and Lots of Americans Want Them
The solutions to global warming, including using better technology in our cars, trucks, SUVs and power plants, aren't scary -- and might even address other national concerns, such as a stagnant manufacturing sector and dependence on oil. (Surely cool new technology isn't something Mr. Crichton would argue against.)
Desire for national action to encourage those solutions continues to grow, and not just from the non-profit sector.
In December, the National Commission on Energy Policy, a multi-sector effort to examine energy policy involving business, labor and government leaders, issued a report calling for a new direction in energy policy, particularly focusing on the need to address global warming with a national cap on the pollution that's causing it.
Also in December, Board members of California's two public pension funds requested a meeting with auto executives, asking them to make vehicles that emit less global warming pollution rather than sue the state for its global warming vehicle emissions reduction bill.
Over the past four months, mainstream business magazines Fortune, Business Week, and the Economist have called for a sounder energy policy to address global warming and oil dependence and encourage American competitive development of technology.
State of Denial
There have been efforts to suppress the facts -- from the Bush administration, which ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to strike language about global warming from a report last year. The administration seems to have changed its tack, but not its course. Recently it has allowed government scientists to publish reports without much interference, but it continues to reject meaningful steps to reduce emissions of heat-trapping pollution, calling instead for more research and corporate volunteerism.
Evidence of global warming has been accumulating, has been examined and questioned by scientists the world over, and it's time for a real national debate on what to do about it. If we do it right, everyone -- from businesses to the atmosphere -- could benefit.
last revised 12.16.04
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