Apocalypse Soonish

“Today’s apocalyptic prophecies perform the function that such predictions always have: to organize people around a cause, to impose order on them, to wring money out of the flock, and to grossly oversimplify enormously complex problems.”

So says Kevin D. Williamson in Apocalypse Soonish.  Long-ish excerpt follows.  I love this guy’s brain/writing/sense of humor.  “The End Times roll on.”  Heh heh.

I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to relitigate the ups and downs of the climate-change debate, which rivals the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in its tediousness and intractability. But even if we set aside the criticism of the skeptics, including the best-informed of them, and limit ourselves to the projections of the more enthusiastic true believers, there is not much to justify the apocalyptic tone generally associated with the issue. The International Panel on Climate Change, for example, predicts that the costs of adapting to global warming will amount to a couple of points of global economic product a century from now. Obviously, some places will suffer more than others, but if the IPCC model is correct, then we are talking about a burden, not an apocalypse.

Benjamin Strauss, who revels in the prolix title of “vice president for climate impacts and director of the program on sea-level rise” for Climate Central, “an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the American public,” early this summer published an article about the possible effects on American cities of rising sea levels induced by climate change. He reports that in New York City, the U.S. city “most threatened in the long run” in terms of the total number of people living in areas less than ten feet above sea level, some 700,000 people might be forced to find new homes — a century or so hence. That is about 8.3 percent of New York City’s population: not a trivial figure, but not the silence in heaven accompanying the opening of the seventh seal, either. There are a great many things that might induce 700,000 New Yorkers to choose different places of residence over the next century — say, the reelection of Bill de Blasio. Indeed, New York lost 10.1 percent of its population in a single decade not long ago, during the years from 1970 to 1980. Bad governance, failing schools, and a city wage tax caused Philadelphia to lose 28 percent of its population in half a century. People move around. Again, not an outcome that we would desire, ceteris paribus, but not the Four Horsemen, either.

We generally talk about climate change in terms of what’s expected to happen over the next century, but even that may be precipitate. According to Rob Painting, a true believer who writes for Skeptical Science, a website specifically dedicated to debunking climate-change skepticism, the response of the Greenland ice sheet to historical warming has generally happened “straight away,” meaning a lag time of essentially nothing to . . . a century. The Antarctic ice sheet, he writes, has generally had a lag time of between four and seven centuries, meaning that the time that passes between higher temperatures, should they come to pass, and the worst effects of rising sea levels could reasonably be expected to equal the amount of time that passed between the composition of the Summa Theologica and the composition of Abbey Road, or the interval between the apex of Marco Polo’s career and that of Gennifer Flowers. The sorts of mitigating policies preferred by the climate-change lobby require the balancing of complex and fast-changing economic and political considerations and calculations that are impossible to make over such periods of time. Congress cannot even bind subsequent congresses — legislating on a centuries-long timeline is absurd.

Today’s apocalyptic prophecies perform the function that such predictions always have: to organize people around a cause, to impose order on them, to wring money out of the flock, and to grossly oversimplify enormously complex problems. Some 2,000 years of Christian moral reasoning, and all of the complexity it involves, is utterly powerless in the public imagination compared with a version of the end times that is functionally indistinguishable from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” — he’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. The sins have changed — today, we are expected to feel guilty about buying the wrong car instead of worshipping the wrong god — but the underlying mystical narrative is the same as it always has been, and there’s a good reason that the apocalyptic episode in the Terminator sci-fi universe has a familiar name (“Judgment Day”) or that the aspect of the global-warming story that has captured the public imagination is organized around a fundamentally Biblical episode: a great flood. And if 700,000 New Yorkers have to relocate in the face of divine wrath, the Akkadians got it a lot worse back in Gilgamesh’s day.

The point of revisiting this is not merely to abuse today’s alarmists with their recent follies, good sport though that is. Mr. Gwynne is absolutely correct that the fact that “the science” seems to have been spectacularly wrong in 1975 does not mean that it is wrong today. What it means is that it’s a damned lucky thing we did not cover the polar ice caps in coal soot.

It may be that the next time the Hale-Bopp comet rolls around, it will be trailed by a spaceship haunted by Marshall Applewhite and his Heaven’s Gate buddies, who will get what turns out to be finally and truly the last laugh. It may be that the Almighty, Who is by all scriptural accounts awfully unpredictable in these matters, will finally decide that He has had enough of our guff on April 6 of the coming year, or the year after. Everybody reads the tea leaves in his own way: I note with deep existential dread that the new Denny’s that has just opened up in lower Manhattan is offering a $300 brunch special, basically Moons over My Hammy with a bottle of 2004 Dom Pérignon, which may not be a sign that the end is at hand but surely is a sign that it ought to be. Malthusians, UFO cultists, end-times Christians, Luddites, nanotech truthers, science-fiction writers, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others expecting the apocalypse-heralding Twelfth Imam to pop up like an angry Islamic jack-in-the-box out of some dusty Persian well, environmentalists of all stripes — coolers and warmers alike — astrologers, no-nukes crusaders, grown adults who are mortally terrified of corn and vaccines, and Al Gore all have promised us, each in his turn, an end of the world practically since its beginning. The scientists are very excited about the new reverb subsetting services for their NASA GLAS HDF5 data, whatever those are. One of these groups is more intimately engaged with reality than the other.

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