The Intellectual Collapse of Environmentalism

The online magazine Slate reports on a “growing reassessment under way in the environmental community.” Reassessment is one way of referring to it. “Intellectual collapse” is more like it.

In 2005, two renegade greens tried to kill off environmentalism in broad daylight. The environmental movement, they said in a provocative essay, had grown stale and ineffectual. It was beholden to a wooly-headed, tree-hugging worldview that was as dated as lava lamps, bellbottoms and Billy Jack. This save-the-Earth brand of environmentalism, which has long idealized wilderness (as true nature) while simultaneously designating humanity as the scourge of the planet, “must die so that something new can live,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote in “The Death of Environmentalism.”

The article describes the rise of “modernist greens” or “eco-pragmatists.” The debate focuses around the idea that the advent of modern humans marks a new geological era, the “Anthropocene,” in which man reshapes the Earth. The debate is over whether this is a disaster—in which we case we should seek to go “back to the Pleistocene,” i.e., the Earth as it was before homo sapiens—or whether it is a good thing, or at least something we should learn to accept.

The Anthropocene looms large in this debate over the future of conservation and, more broadly, environmentalism. Both modernists and traditionalists agree that human activities since the Industrial Revolution have given the planet a global facelift. But the two camps differ on what the Anthropocene means and how it should be interpreted.

Green traditionalists are well-represented among environmental scientists, and they publish high-profile papers warning “that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth” to an irreversible tipping point. They issue reports from prestigious science societies warning about a finite planet being run into the ground. Some hold glitzy, international symposiums that put humanity on a mock trial for the global imprint of its civilization.

The common thread: The Anthropocene is an unmitigated disaster. Humans are planet wreckers. Time is running out for us.

The modernist greens, by contrast, don’t catastrophize. They are even optimistic about the future. Some, like geographer Erle Ellis, point out that “the history of human civilization might be characterized as a history of transgressing natural limits and thriving.” He thus suggests that “we must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human-directed opportunity.”

The Slate article portrays this positively, as a way that “environmentalism will be reborn and continue to play a vital role.” I think it’s positive, too, but that’s because it looks to me like an unadmitted capitulation. If pristine nature isn’t sacrosanct, if industrial civilization isn’t leading us to catastrophe, and if thriving human civilization is a good thing—then what is left of the environmentalist philosophy?

Maybe not much, especially since they are giving up some unexpected ground in the realm of science, too.

Global warming is the scientific projection of the idea that the Industrial Revolution is a catastrophe. It projects that the central power source of industrial civilization, fossil fuels, is causing a literal global meltdown, with floods, droughts, mass starvation, infectious disease—the list of catastrophic predictions goes on and on.

But the global warming theory is undergoing its own crack-up.

Anthony Watts has published a leaked early draft of the next report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The draft contains two blockbusters.

The first is a graph comparing the main predictions of global warming against the actual observed temperature measurements. I’ve covered before some of the reasons for doubting the “observed” measurements, which may have been extensively compromised by arbitrary “adjustments,” poor measurement practices, and the urban heat island effect (i.e., what happens when you lay down a couple of acres of new tarmac around an airport weather station). But even so, notice that the observed measurements—the black dots and bars in the graphs—fall within the very bottom range of temperature predictions from the global warming models. And for several years, they fall well below the predictions.

Basically, the models predict steadily rising temperatures, but the measurements for the past 15 years shows flat to slightly declining temperatures.

This isn’t news to those of us who have been closely following the arguments of the global warming skeptics. What is news is that the IPCC, the center of the global warming establishment, is admitting it.

But there’s another, potentially much bigger admission in the IPCC’s draft report. James Delingpole quotes an eyebrow-raising passage from the report.

Many empirical relationships have been reported between GCR [galactic cosmic radiation] or cosmogenic isotope archives and some aspects of the climate system (e.g., Bond et al., 2001; Dengel et al., 2009; Ram and Stolz, 1999). The forcing from changes in total solar irradiance alone does not seem to account for these observations, implying the existence of an amplifying mechanism such as the hypothesized GCR-cloud link. We focus here on observed relationships between GCR and aerosol and cloud properties.

Astute observers will notice the phrase “GCR-cloud link.” This connection between cosmic rays and cloud-formation, which serves as an “amplifying mechanism” for “changes in total solar irradiance” is the theory of climate put forward by Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark. So this paragraph is a recognition by the IPCC that there is something to Svensmark’s theory, after all. And as I’ve noted, if Svensmark turns out to be right, his theory simply wipes out the hypothesis that global temperatures are determined by human emissions of carbon dioxide.

Consider the implications of these two stories: the philosophical schism in environmentalism and the IPCC admissions. Environmentalists are toying with the abandonment of the view that industrial civilization is a global catastrophe, both as a matter of philosophical theory and also as a scientific theory.

I’m not saying that this is the end of environmentalism. The re-election of President Obama is a timely reminder of the long and destructive twilight of discredited theories. But this does indicate that the momentum is turning and that environmentalism is ideologically weaker than it has been in a long time.—RWT


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One Response to The Intellectual Collapse of Environmentalism

  1. Marvin J. Greenberg December 16, 2012 at 3:59 PM #

    Excellent piece.

    I forwarded the bottom part about IPCC admissions to all my scientist friends.