This is a presentation given by Benoît Rittaud at the recent climate conference in London. I’ve made a couple of corrections and condensed it slightly, with his permission.
I would like to tell you an incredible and very enlightening story. It is almost unknown, and also it is, of course, perfectly authentic. It is the story of a global illusion.
Towards the end of the century, several researchers observed a very puzzling phenomenon, so they tried to understand what was going on. They made careful observations, with the latest techniques, to provide strong foundations for their emerging theory.
And results followed. The initial observations were confirmed at a high level of confidence. Strongly supported by scientists from all parts of the world, the phenomenon and its consequences quickly seemed to be proven beyond any doubt.
This was an event of major impact: silently, a tragedy had begun, at a global scale, caused by dramatic climate change. Excessive warmth was generating droughts, lack of resources, and so on. No area on the planet would be safe.
The slow agony was probably irreversible. Among other things, the evolution of polar ice was regarded as the conclusive proof of the phenomenon, the canary in the coal mine.
So, was this world condemned to extinction, despite its prodigious technology? Obviously, nothing less than worldwide solidarity, together with huge efforts, would be necessary to save it. But maybe it was already too late…
All of this was a powerful argument to work for a better world, free of selfishness and injustice. As scientific research went on, newspapers all around the world reported its results. In the beginning of the new century, more and more people were aware of the work of scientists in the field. Dozens of books were written. Inspired scenario writers used the new theory to imagine scary end-of-the-world stories. A new culture was rising. New questions were asked. No one could remain indifferent.
Then, objections started to be raised. From the very beginning, some researchers were skeptical. But, quickly, any skepticism was regarded as a sin, since it might impede the momentum behind the progress of mankind. Few people even heard the names of such skeptical researchers. Since, as usual, the newspapers were more willing to report exciting announcements than skeptical arguments (apart from questioning the competence of those skeptics), the consensus appeared to be real for the vast majority of the people.
The consensus was strongly supported by an American, a former diplomat, who spent most of his life in successful conferences on the issue. He became a living symbol. Several scientists were with him. One of them is still known today for his use of dendrochronology to study past temperatures of the Earth.
Already heard that before? My apologies for wasting your time. Let me finish as briefly as possible.
Even if newspapers did not report it, skeptics had three major reasons to challenge the theory. First, it was a priori strange that so many and such precise results could be extracted from a object so difficult to investigate. Second, complementary atmospheric analysis were impossible to reconcile with the theory. Third, several analyses that seemed initially the best supports to the theory were nothing more than artifacts.
As time went on, more and more faults in the theory were discovered. All its arguments, from the simplest to the most subtle, appeared for what they were in reality: empty shells.
So… several years after the first announcements, the glorious story faded away. Some people never acknowledged that the skeptics were right, and the story finally ended fully a century after its beginning. The coup de grâce was given in July the 20th, 1976. At that date, the American spacecraft Viking I landed on Mars, definitely proving that no life ever arose on that planet.
So the story I am telling you is not the one you expected? Let me explain.
At the end of the nineteenth century, propitious astronomical configurations made especially easy the observation of Mars, allowing astronomers to map its cartography. A strange phenomenon was then reported: several straight lines seemed to appear all over the surface of the planet. These lines were too straight to be natural, so the idea arose that these “canals” were an indubitable sign of the existence of a living civilization on Mars. The amazing size of the canals was the proof that the Martian civilization was extremely advanced. The Suez and Panama canals, contemporary with the “canals of Mars”, were tiny in comparison.
The canals of Mars were not born from the imagination of some joker. Their discoverer was Giovanni Schiaparelli, a respected scientist, director of the Milan observatory. Thus, it was not surprising that many scientists decided to take these observations seriously.
But… why did the Martians built such enormous canals? The answer was given by Percival Lowell, who resigned his position as a diplomat to become an amateur astronomer. He built a top modern observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, to study in detail the canals of Mars.
His conclusions were dramatic: Martians had built their canals to preserve their planet from a massive drought, caused by global climate change. The combined efforts of all Martian civilizations were necessary to build those canals, which facilitated the transportation of water from the poles to irrigate the whole planet.
How fantastic this united Martian civilization must have been, providing us with a wonderful example of solidarity! Those who have seen Al Gore’s climate alarmist movie An Inconvenient Truth will easily recognize the very same sentiment, the only difference being the planet involved.
Lowell can hardly be regarded as a philanthropist with a passion for astronomy. His authoritarian behaviour is well-established. For example, he forced some of his employees to support his affirmation that canals were also present on the surface of Venus. One of his employees was Andrew Douglass, eventually fired because of his doubts. An amusing fact: Douglass was also the main founder of dendrochronology, which recently gave rise to the infamous “hockey stick chart”, long considered as a conclusive proof of man-made global warming on Earth.
Now, let’s be clear: the fact that there are no canals on Mars does not disprove the theory of anthropogenic global warming. This talk is nothing more than an analogy. It is not intended to prove anything. It is only meaning is to stimulate thinking.
Yes, scientists sometimes make mistakes. Yes, their personal beliefs can sometimes alter their views. And when science and morality are mixed up, when confusion appears between science and politics or philosophy of life, then science loses itself.
The world at the time of the discovery of the canals of Mars was fascinated by technology, engineering and, more generally, modernity, that is: the idea that, as Descartes said, we would some day become «masters and possessors of nature».
Now, we live in a world of postmodernity: we consider that we possess the world, but that we are unworthy of our power over it. It is this general philosophy of life, shared by so many intellectuals, that explains why the doubtful theory of anthropogenic global warming could gain so much credence. The idea that our planet is a living body, some kind of a goddess who demands repentence and sobriety, makes some climate alarmists (not all of them of course) examples of postmodern pseudoscientists.
As I see it, the climate affair is the newest avatar of what I call the exponential fear — the fear that humanity is growing exponentially fast — in the mathematic sense of the word — and that the world is fundamentally finite, so we will soon crash into our ultimate limits.
Let me quote James Hansen to illustrate my point. In 2007, he wrote in a peer-reviewed article that sea rise due to melting ice “was small until the past few years, but it is has (sic) at least doubled in the past decade and is now close to 1 mm/year (…). As a quantitative example, let us say that the ice sheet contribution is 1 cm for the decade 2005-15 and that it doubles each decade until the West Antarctic ice sheet is largely depleted. That time constant yields a sea level rise of the order of 5 m this century.”
So, in a sense, the climate fear is the newest avatar of the irrational exponential fear. It is not the first one. And it is probably not the last. Hence, we should be concerned by the fact that, sooner or later, it will be replaced by another one. Possibly the « Anthropocene ».
May we be able to prevent its emergence.
Thank you all.
Benoît Rittaud is the author of:
La Peur exponentielle (Presses Universitaires de France, 2015);
Le Mythe climatique (Seuil, 2010);
Ils s’imaginaient sauver le monde – chroniques sceptiques de la COP21 (Books Editions 2016)