04 November 2007

Scared to Death

Remember two years ago when a senior official of the World Health Association told us that soon "150 million people" might be dead from bird 'flu?

Remember Edwina Currie and the great panic over eggs?

From "mad cow disease" to the Millennium Bug, from DDT to passive smoking, from leaded petrol to asbestos, one of the most conspicuous and damaging features of our modern world has become the "scare".

This week a new book is to be published, Scared To Death, co-authored by Sunday Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker and Dr Richard North, telling for the first time the inside story of all the major scares of recent decades, showing how they have followed a remarkably consistent pattern.

Even though a scare often begins with some genuine problem, such as BSE, the book analyses the crucial role played in each case by supposed scientific experts who eventually turn out to have misread or manipulated the evidence; then by those sections of the media who eagerly promote the scare without regard to the facts.

The "tipping point" of any scare, the authors show, comes when it is taken up by the politicians who, with their officials, come up with an absurdly disproportionate response. This leaves us all to pay a colossal price, often running into billions or even hundreds of billions of pounds.

The book shows, for instance, how Mrs Currie set the great salmonella scare on its way in 1988 by falling for what turned out to be a wholly mistaken theory that the rise in food poisoning was due to salmonella getting into eggs.

In 1996, panicked by the media, the Government's chief scientific adviser on BSE claimed that by 2005 half a million people might have died of CJD. Only a year later, he had revised his forecast of deaths down to just 200 – leaving Britain with the consequences of a scare that cost £7 billion.

In the late 1990s top industrialists and governments, led by Tony Blair, predicted that to "fix the Millennium Bug" would cost $300 billion. Yet minutes after midnight on January 1, 2000, it became clear that the threat had been grotesquely exaggerated.

By removing our most effective protection against malaria, the ban on DDT, thanks to the scare that it not only harmed wildlife but caused cancer, may have cost up to 50 million lives across the Third World.

Perhaps the most chilling scare of all was the hysteria which swept through many social services departments in the late 80s and 90s based on the belief that huge numbers of children were being subjected to "Satanic" or ritual abuse by groups of adults. The terrifying scar this left on hundreds of families persists to this day.

The book shows how scares wildly exaggerating the dangers of lead, passive smoking and asbestos were promoted through wholesale manipulation of the scientific evidence.

A deliberately fostered confusion between different types of asbestos created in the US one of the greatest swindles in legal history, what was termed "the $200 Billion Miscarriage of Justice", bringing Lloyd's of London to its knees. This was followed by a further multi-billion pound scandal on both sides of the Atlantic when new laws allowed specialist contractors to charge almost any sums they liked to businesses and homeowners panicked by the scare.

But Booker and North's narrative culminates in a long, meticulously sourced account of the story behind what they suggest has become the greatest scare of them all: the belief that the world faces catastrophe through man-made global warming. It is on this that our preview of the book focuses.


No one can deny that in recent years the need to "save the planet" from global warming has become one of the most all-pervasive political issues of our time. As Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, claimed in 2004, it poses "a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism", warning that by the end of this century the only habitable continent left in the world will be Antarctica.

Inevitably many people have been left bemused by this somewhat one-sided debate, imagining that if so many experts are agreed then there must be something in it. But if we set the story of how this fear was promoted in the context of the pattern followed by other scares before it, the parallels which emerge might leave any honest believer in global warming feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

The story of how the panic over climate change was pushed to the top of the international political agenda falls into five main stages.

Stage one, as an overture, came in the 1970s, when many scientists, followed by the media, expressed alarm over what they saw as a disastrous change in the earth's climate. Their fear was not of warming but global cooling, heralding the approach of "a new Ice Age".

The reason for this was that for three decades, after a sharp rise in the interwar years up to 1940, global temperatures had been falling. The one thing certain about climate is that it is always changing. Since we began to emerge from the last Ice Age glaciation 20,000 years ago, temperatures have several times been through significant swings.

The hottest period since man appeared on the earth, around 8,000 years ago, was followed by a long cooling. Then came what is known as the "Roman Warming", coinciding with the Roman Empire. Three more centuries of cooling in the Dark Ages were followed by the "Mediaeval Warming", when Greenland was inhabited and all the evidence agrees the world was hotter than it is today.

Around 1300 began "the Little Age", when glaciers advanced, the Thames froze over, Greenland had to be abandoned, and this did not end until, 200 years ago, we entered on what is known as the "Modern Warming". But even this has been chequered by colder periods, such those years between 1940 and 1975 known as the "Little Cooling", when scientific and media sages predicted that return to the Ice Age.

Then, in the late 1970s, evidence showed that the world was warming up again. As we see from many other examples, a scare is often set off when two things are observed together and scientists suggest that one must have been caused by the other.

In this case, thanks to readings commissioned by Dr Roger Revelle, a distinguished American oceanographer, it was observed that since the late 1950s levels of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere had been sharply rising. Perhaps it was this increase in greenhouse gases which was causing the new warming in the 1980s?

Stage two of the story began in 1988, when with remarkable speed global warming story was elevated into the ruling orthodoxy of the time, partly due to publicity given to hearings in Washington chaired by a comparatively new young Senator, Al Gore, who had studied under Dr Revelle in the 60s.

This helped make fighting climate change the fashionable cause of the moment, taken up by leading environmentalist groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and by an array of Hollywood celebrities, from Robert Redford to Barbra Streisand,

But more importantly global warming hit centre stage because the UN in 1988 set up its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, which from now on was to play the leading role in the whole debate.

Through a series of reports, the IPCC was to advance its cause in a rather unusual fashion. First it would commission as many as 1,500 experts from all over the world to produce a huge scientific report, which might include all sorts of doubts and reservations. But this was then prefaced by a Summary for Policymakers, drafted in consultation with governments and officials, which was essentially a political document, in which most of the caveats contained in the experts' report disappeared.

This contradiction was already obvious in the first report in 1991, which led to the Rio conference on climate change in 1992. The second report in 1996 gave particular prominence to a study by an obscure US government scientist claiming the evidence for a connection between global warming and rising CO2 levels was now firmly established.

This study came under heavy fire from various leading climate experts for the way it manipulated the evidence by what became known as "the fingerprinting fraud". But this was not allowed to stand in the way of the claim that there was now complete scientific consensus behind the CO2 thesis, and the Summary for Policymakers, heavily influenced from behind the scenes by Al Gore, now US vice-president, paved the way in 1997 for the famous Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto initiated stage three of the story, by formally committing the governments of the developed world to making drastic reductions in their CO2 emissions. But the treaty still had to be ratified and this seemed a good way off, not least thanks to its unanimous rejection in 1997 by the US Senate, despite the best efforts of Vice-President Gore.

One of the less familiar aspects of Gore's career is how he had already by now become somewhat notorious among America's leading climate scientists for the ruthless way in which he used his influence to try to suppress any evidence they came up with to contradict the approved global warming thesis.

Not least of his efforts to rewrite the historical record was his bid to suppress an article co-authored just before his death by Dr Revelle. Gore didn't want to be known that his guru had expressed serious doubts about the supposed consensus, urging that the global warming thesis should be viewed with much more caution.

click to enlargeOne of the greatest problems Gore and his allies faced at this time was the mass of evidence showing that in past times, such as the Mediaeval Warming, global temperature had been even higher than they were in the late 20th century, long before CO2 levels had started to rise. Even the first two IPCC reports had included a graph conceding this point, But In 1998 came the answer they were looking for – a completely new temperature chart, devised by another obscure young American physicist, Michael Mann. This became known as the "hockey stick" (pictured) because it showed historic temperatures running in an almost flat line over the past 1,000 years, only suddenly flicking up at the end to temperatures never recorded before.

Mann's hockey stick was just what the IPCC wanted. When its 2001 report came out it was given pride of place at the top of page 1, and prominently repeated four more times. The Mediaeval Warming, the Little Ice Age, the 20th century Little Cooling when CO2 had already been rising, all had simply been wiped from the record.

click to enlargeBut then a growing number of academics began to raise very fundamental doubts about how Mann had arrived at his graph. This culminated in 2003 with a devastating study by two Canadian computer analysts, showing how Mann had not only ignored most of the evidence before him but had used an algorithm which would produce a hockey stick shaped graph whatever evidence was fed into the computer. When this was removed, the graph re-emerged (pictured) just as it had looked before. The Mediaeval Warming was back in place, again showing the early Middle Ages as even hotter than today.

It is hard to recall any scientific thesis ever being so comprehensively discredited as the "hockey stick". Yet the great global warming juggernaut rolled on regardless, now led politically by the European Union.

In 2004, thanks to a highly dubious deal between the EU and President Putin's Russia, stage four of the story began when the Kyoto treaty was finally ratified. Climate change had at last hit the top of the Western world's political agenda and the ratifying governments now had to act.

In the past three years, we have seen the EU in particular announcing every kind of measure geared to fighting climate change, from building ever more highly-subsidised wind turbines to produce derisory amounts of absurdly expensive electricity to a commitment that by 2050 it will have reduced its carbon emissions by 60 percent.

This is a pledge which could only be met by such a massive reduction in Europe's standard of living that it is impossible to see the peoples of Europe accepting it.
All this frenzy of political activity and propaganda has rested on the assumption that global temperatures will continue to rise in tandem with levels of CO2 and that, unless mankind takes the most drastic action, our planet is faced with the kind of apocalypse so vividly portrayed by Al Gore in his Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth.

Yet in the past year or two, stage five of the story has seen all sorts of huge new question marks beginning to be raised over Gore's alleged consensus. It was not just that every single assertion in his film was dismissed by experts who knew their subject very much better than he did. For instance, Gore claimed that by the end of this century world sea levels will have risen by 20 feet when even the IPCC itself, in its latest report, only predicts a rise of between 4 and 17 inches.

There is also of course the harsh reality that, wholly unaffected by Kyoto, the economies of China and India are now expanding at nearly 10 percent a year, with China alone building a new coal-fired power station every four days, and likely within two years to be emitting more CO2 than the United States.

More serious than either of these points, however, has been all the evidence recently accumulating to show that, despite the continuing rise in CO2 levels, global temperatures in the years since 1998 have no longer been rising and may soon even be falling.

It was a telling moment when, in August, Gore's closest scientific ally James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies was forced to revise his long-influential record of US surface temperatures, showing that the past decade has seen the hottest years on record. His graph now concedes that the hottest year of the 20th century was not 1998 but 1934, and that four of the ten warmest years in the past 100 were not in the present decade but in the 1930s.

Furthermore scientists and academics have recently been queuing up to point out that fluctuations in global temperatures correlate much more consistently with the patterns of radiation from the sun than with any rise in CO2 levels, and that after a century of abnormally high solar activity the sun's effect is now weakening again, presaging a likely drop in temperatures.

If global warming does turn out to have been a scare like all the others, it will certainly represent as great a collective flight from reality by our politicians as history has ever recorded. The evidence of the next ten years will be very interesting.

Scared To Death: From BSE to Global Warming, How Scares Are Costing Us The Earth by Christopher Booker and Richard North is to be published by Continuum on November 8.