‘The end is nigh!’ is an age-old conceit of religious zealots and prophets of doom. Preaching apocalypse may comfort believers, but it isn’t very convincing to unbelievers.
In the Olivet Discourse, also known as the Little Apocalypse, Jesus predicts great catastrophic events that would culminate with the second coming of the Messiah. Towards the end, he says: ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.’
That generation did pass away, and much of the prophecy didn’t happen. The sun didn’t darken, the moon still shines, the stars didn’t fall from the sky, the heavenly bodies are quite unshaken, and Jesus himself has not returned, even two millennia later.
The venerable defender of Christianity, C.S. Lewis, wrote: ‘The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, “This generation shall not pass till all these things be done.” And He was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.’
Thus started a veritable industry of predictions of the second coming. Wikipedia lists 53 such predictions throughout history, the dates for 48 of which have already passed.
There are even more predictions of the apocalypse, or the end of the world as we know it. Although Christians are not the only culprits, they occur largely among religious zealots and conspiracy theorists. Wikipedia lists 190 forecasts of the apocalypse, of which 10 are astrophysics-based predictions very far in the future. Of the remaining 180, 174 (and one of the ten far-future predictions) have already been overtaken by events.
There are psychological reasons why apocalyptic beliefs may appeal to some people. Traumatic experiences or a hard life may engender a feeling of fatalism, and sharing that with other like-minded people might be reassuring. Attributing a sense of doom to a larger cosmic order might also be comforting, and remove a sense of individual responsibility. Belief in imminent apocalypse can also make existential threats, like the fear of our own mortality, more predictable, quieting the anxiety of uncertainty. Preparing for the apocalypse, as many conspiracy theorists do, can also have therapeutic value.
Some people even romanticise the post-apocalyptic period and see it as a return to nobler, simpler times.
Fear and persuasion
Apocalyptic predictions have long played a role in controlling how people think and behave. They are a propaganda tool in the hands of the powerful, who use fear to elicit compliance with their wishes.
Capitalists and communists have both used fear of the other as tools of persuasion. Defence hawks use fear of foreign enemies or domestic terrorism to justify vast expenditure on things that go bang. Religious conservatives use fear of Satan to rail against everything from dancing to fantasy novels to drugs to yoga.
Public health and safety authorities bombard us with images of blackened lungs or gruesome car wrecks, should we choose to disregard their advice on smoking, drinking, or safe driving.
Advertisers frequently use fear – of germs and bugs, of missing out, of danger, of missed deadlines, of insecurities, of disappointed spouses, of embarrassment – to market their products. Just as sex sells, fear sells too.
The problem is, using fear as a persuasion tactic can backfire.
A review of sixty years’ worth of fear-appeal research found that fear arousal may result in defensive reactions such as risk denial, biased information processing, and allocating less attention to the promoted messages. This makes fear an ineffective behaviour change method. Ironically, this effect is most common among those who are most susceptible to the threat.
According to the authors, the elements of fear appeals that are most likely to motivate risk reduction behaviour are: (a) suggesting that the person can successfully perform the recommended protective actions; (b) suggesting that the recommended action will avoid the danger; (c) suggesting that the threat is personally relevant; but not, (d) messages suggesting in an emotional way that the threat is severe.
Note that last part: playing on emotions by exaggerating dangers is how not to convince people.
The same researchers later published another paper in which they concluded that the belief that fear appeals had positive effects on behaviour was ‘only true under specific, rare circumstances’.
Its targets are not just the general population, whose consumer behaviour they seek to change in a myriad ways, but also government policy makers, whom they hope to convince to hobble rival industries with taxes, restrictions and prohibitions, while boosting their own through subsidies, mandates, or direct fiscal spending.
A paper published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation neatly, and entertainingly, reviews the history of alarming climate predictions. What follows is mostly extracted from this paper.
In the 1970s, there was widespread concern, among scientists and the media alike that the cooling trend observed since the 1940s, and attributable to particulate pollution, would continue and could lead to a new ice age. By the 1980s, the temperature trend had reversed, and the new concern became ‘hothouse Earth’.
In 1989, Noel Brown, director of the UN Environment Programme, made a range of apocalyptic predictions, including that entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend was not reversed by the year 2000, that sea levels would rise by three feet, and that temperatures would rise by between 1°C and 7°C within 30 years. None of his predictions came true. Global mean sea level had risen by less than a tenth of his prediction, and the global mean temperature had risen only 0,4°C by 2019.
The Pentagon released an alarming report in 2004, in which it predicted that by 2007, violent storms would breach coastal defences, rendering large parts of the Netherlands uninhabitable and forcing the abandonment of coastal cities such as The Hague. It is now seventeen years later, and The Hague is just fine.
It also predicted that Europe would, paradoxically, suffer massive temperature declines between 2010 and 2020, and that Britain would come to resemble Siberia. Didn’t happen.
It said climate-change-driven riots and internal conflict would tear apart India, South Africa and Indonesia. Didn’t happen.
The Department of Defence moved to suppress its own report, prompting accusations that US president George W. Bush was trying to sweep climate change under the carpet.
In the year 2000, the respected climate scientist David Viner claimed that within a few years, snowfall would be ‘a very rare and exciting event’, and ‘children just aren’t going to know what snow is’. This made headlines in major newspapers.
Contrary to Viner’s prediction, snowfall has become more common in Britain, peaking in 2010 with widespread disruption due to the coldest December in a century, and again in 2018, with the ‘Beast from the East’ which shut schools, cut off entire villages, and delayed planes and trains. The entire northern hemisphere, in fact, has seen a steady increase in snow extent.
Viner was not done. In 2006 he predicted that within 20 years the Mediterranean would become too hot for holidaymakers, who would instead flock to Blackpool to enjoy Britain’s new Mediterranean climate.
Others predicted, instead of dryer weather, wetter weather. That’s the beauty of climate alarmism: you can predict just about any weather, and expect to be proven right eventually. Conversely, any unusual weather can be held up as proof that ‘climate change is already here’.
Julia Slingo, the chief scientist at the UK Met Office, in 2013 predicted colder, drier winters in Britain. When they instead got a warmer, wetter winter, she attributed that to climate change too.
In 2007, Professor Wieslaw Maslowski predicted ice-free Arctic summers within five or six years. Jay Zwally of NASA gave it until 2012. In 2008, Professor David Barber said the ice would be gone that very summer. Peter Wadhams, a serial predictor of the Arctic’s disappearance, said in 2012 it would be ice-free in summer by 2015/6, in 2014 by 2020, and in 2016 that very same year.
In fact, the record lowest sea ice extent happened in 2012, and it has not dipped below 4 million km2 since.
In 1988, James Hansen, NASA’s alarmist-in-chief, said that New York’s West Side Highway would be underwater in 40 years. At the 33-year mark, the sea level around New York has risen only about one 20th of what would be required to submerge it.
The Maldives became the poster country for low-lying islands that would be submerged by rising sea levels. In 2009, its cabinet held a symbolic meeting underwater in scuba gear. In fact, the size of the Maldives has actually increased slightly, and its government has been building many new airports and resorts to support its expectations of growth in tourism.
In 2005, the UN warned us of 50 million ‘climate refugees’ by the end of that decade. In 2008, that number was boosted to ‘between 50 million and 200 million’ by 2010. In 2011, without blushing, a UCLA professor predicted 50 million climate refugees by 2020 (not 2010). The UN, embarrassed, has deleted its map of where those non-existent climate refugees would come from, since none of those regions has spawned any climate refugees.
In 2014 the IPCC reported that ‘climate change has already cut into the global food supply’. Yet the latest data from 2020 shows that global consumption of cereals, meats, vegetable oils and dairy products has consistently increased faster than population growth in the last two decades, continuing a long-term trend.
Polar bears have become the global icon for climate change, because of repeated predictions that their population numbers were declining and their habitat was melting. In reality, polar bear population estimates have risen by up to 30% since those predictions were made. They’re thriving, not dying.
All of this confirms what I wrote five years ago, that history keeps proving prophets of eco-apocalypse wrong.
All these failed predictions have finally started to concern some in the scientific community.
‘Truly apocalyptic forecasts can only ever be observed in their failure – that is the world did not end as predicted,’ says David Rode of Carnegie Mellon University, ‘and observing a string of repeated apocalyptic forecast failures can undermine the public’s trust in the underlying science.’
They collected 79 predictions of climate-caused apocalypse dating back to the first Earth Day in 1970, and found that 48 of them (61%) had already expired as of the end of 2020.
‘[F]rom a forecasting perspective, the “problem” is not only that all of the expired forecasts were wrong,’ says Rode’s co-author, Paul Fischbeck, ‘but also that so many of them never admitted to any uncertainty about the date. About 43% of the forecasts in our dataset made no mention of uncertainty.’
They single out the ur-prophet of doom, Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and batty Prince Charlie, who, while waiting for his mum to shuffle off this mortal coil, spends his royal leisure time dabbling in elitist pastimes such as organic gardening and environmental activism.
‘Ehrlich has made predictions of environmental collapse going back to 1970 that he has described as having “near certainty”,’ says Rode. ‘Prince Charles has similarly warned repeatedly of “irretrievable ecosystem collapse” if actions were not taken, and when expired, repeated the prediction with a new definitive end date. Their predictions have repeatedly been apocalyptic and highly certain…and so far, they’ve also been wrong.’
The researchers noted that across half a century of forecasts, on average the apocalypse is always about 20 years out.
This is a problem for climate science, the authors believe. Too often, predictions of climate events (like rising sea levels) are turned into predictions of the catastrophic consequence of those events (widespread coastal flooding).
In fact, the catastrophic predictions are – at best – worst-case consequences of worst-case scenarios. The likely consequences are far less severe. Human efforts at adaptation and mitigation, as well as ‘the complexity of socio-physical systems’, means that sea-level rise will probably not lead to apocalyptic flooding.
‘By linking the climate event and the potential consequence for dramatic effect,’ noted Rode, ‘a failure to observe the consequence may unfairly call into question the legitimacy of the science behind the climate event.’
The authors note that scientists are usually, but not always, a lot more cautious in how they express forecasts, and 81% of such forecasts include references to uncertainty. However, fewer than half of non-scientists mention uncertainty, and extreme forecasts that omit references to uncertainty do far better in terms of media headlines and search results.
Scientists, they say, should focus on making less grandiose predictions, over shorter terms. ‘If you want people to believe big predictions, you first need to convince them that you can make little predictions,’ says Rode.
A similar argument could be made about the ambitious policy goals set out by climate change alarmists. Cynical observers (like me) watch the regular shindigs at luxurious resorts, attended by celebrities and the global elite who arrive in private jets, and laugh at the emissions targets they set.
Trying to get popular buy-in for goals that are ridiculously over-ambitious is a pointless exercise. People are far more likely to go along with modest, measured improvements that do not threaten to rip up the fabric of society.
In fact, if you cannot envision a way to respond to a changing climate without calling for the wholesale destruction of capitalism (as mainstream commentators do here, here, here and here, to cite just a few examples), start working on one. Neither the rich nor the poor will accept totalitarian plans concocted by global elites that would leave them worse off in the short term.
‘If you want to save the planet,’ wrote Australian sociologist Andrew Glover in 2018, ‘drop the campaign against capitalism.’
‘Economic freedom will save the planet,’ wrote your humble columnist in 2019.
By making apocalyptic predictions that don’t come true, and demanding a Marxist revolution to avoid them, climate change alarmists do not gain support. On the contrary. They create hard-boiled climate denialists, who will flatly reject any scientific arguments about climate, and any policies aimed at protecting the environment.
Climate catastrophism fosters extremism and polarisation. Otto von Bismarck once said, ‘Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.’
But then, climate extremists do not want compromise. They do not want dialogue with those who are sceptical of the nature or scale of climate change, sceptical of the urgency of doing something about it, or sceptical of the statist, interventionist solutions that are usually peddled at elitist international confabs.
No, the alarmists are quite open about their zeal to destroy the existing political, social and economic order, which they see as evil, so that they can build a glorious socialist utopia upon the ashes of civilisation.
Perhaps they’re not so different from the religious prophets of doom of old, after all. If they were to succeed, however, we’d have a genuine apocalypse of poverty, hunger and death on our hands.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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