Young children are scared. Millennials are in hysterics and mobilized. Adults are frightened and uncertain. Politicians are feeding off the angst, enacting multi-billion dollar public policies, and thinking about implementing multi-trillion dollar plans, in an effort to appease the electorate under the guise of saving the planet and humanity.
Is there really cause for the level of angst, eco-anxiety, and dread that many people are feeling?
I don’t know because I’m not a climate scientist nor a psychologist, but neither are most of the people shouting the loudest. We can, however, all do a post-mortem on some of the predictions made over the years and make up our own minds because I think there’s reason for hope. For reference, there’s a website called ExtinctionClock.org that tracks the more cataclysmic climate-related predictions.
Let’s start by looking at some of the predictions made in 2007 in the India Today article as mentioned in Part I of this series that were supposed to occur by 2020.
It seems that poor public policy is often the cause of India’s troubles. Poor water management and imbalanced distribution of subsidies for farmers is likely to be the cause of food insecurity. Additionally, in 2020, it appears that any temporary food shortages were the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts that by 2100 sea level will rise 0.3 meters, or 11.8 feet, which is quite a bit less than what the article predicts by stating that “Global average rise in sea levels could be as much as 0.8 metres by 2100.” Plus, there’s time to adapt to changes in sea level.
There is also evidence to support that glaciers in Asia are growing, a perspective that we don’t often hear.
Historical records show that death rates in India are decreasing. So the 2007 prediction of “Death and disease rise, resulting in a pervasive smell of rotting flesh.” appears to be hyperbole. This is good news.
Overall, life expectancy in general throughout the world has increased due to a number of factors, including industrialization and energy use. Again, this is cause for celebration.
The article claims “25% of wildlife will perish”. This is an unclear statement – do they mean that wildlife will simply die due to old age and other natural causes? If so, it may be an accurate prediction, but if they intend to evoke the fear of wildlife extinction, then it’s likely an exaggeration. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation) Red List started tracking the status of plants and animals in 1964, and their data presents a much less dire reality.
We also have the opportunity to look back on some of the predictions made in relation to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, when crowds of 20 million Americans gathered on what was (maybe) coincidentally Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin’s birthday.
1. “Civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.” — Harvard biologist George Wald
2. “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” — Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich
3. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born… [By 1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.” — Paul Ehrlich
4. “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” — Denis Hayes, Chief organizer for Earth Day
5. “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions…. By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.” — North Texas State University professor Peter Gunter
6. “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” — Life magazine
7. “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate… that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, ‘Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, ‘I am very sorry, there isn’t any.'” — Ecologist Kenneth Watt
8. “[One] theory assumes that the earth’s cloud cover will continue to thicken as more dust, fumes, and water vapor are belched into the atmosphere by industrial smokestacks and jet planes. Screened from the sun’s heat, the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born.” — Newsweek magazine
9. “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” — Kenneth Watt
As we can see, not every omen came true in 1970, so it’s quite possible that not every prediction related to climate change made today will be accurate. And not every outcome of climate change will be negative, a concept that gets little acknowledgement.
Even though some of the predictions precipitated for Earth Day 1970 were wildly overblown, I support the concept of Earth Day because bringing awareness to environmental issues is what forced governments and the public around the world to confront the reality of poor or no environmental protections. There is a place for environmental activism, if done well (building, not destroying; truthful education, not deceitful propaganda). It’s because of Earth Day, and what it represents, that we have legislation that has allowed us to prevent and mitigate environmental disasters, like tainted water sources, and adapt to changes in climate and extreme weather. We’ve also been scared into innovating to find energy efficiencies, a benefit to everyone.
From Earth Day Org’s own website, they take credit for: “By the end of 1970, the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other first of their kind environmental laws, including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Two years later Congress passed the Clean Water Act. A year after that, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and soon after the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.”
These are all positive results from the activism. However, the fear mongering and over-the-top predictions of the last fifty years are ruining the credibility of the true environmental and conservation movements, resulting in personal despair and hopelessness rather than empowering action. Let’s stop wasting time spreading fear and hatred and instead focus on personal accountability, on finding innovative, technological solutions, and on enacting legislation that will have an impact.
Living based on falsehoods is counterproductive. When we focus on the right issues we enact strong, meaningful public policy. Small incremental changes, wrapped in with purposeful legislation, can lead to an improved environment without destroying prosperity-providing industry and advancing development. And that, my friends, benefits everyone.