The best-selling thriller State of Fear blithely dismisses the threat of global climate change as an elaborate hoax. Can novelist turned anti-global warming crusader Michael Crichton be brushed aside as easily?
By Daniel Glick
Michael Crichton appears a little schizophrenic these days. Most people know him as a pop culture juggernaut: author of the Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and Prey ; creator of the television show ER ; winner of an Academy Award, an Emmy, and a Peabody; and recipient of the true gold standard of American success—a spot on People magazine's “50 Most Beautiful People” list. More recently, though, Crichton has tried on a new, more controversial persona, as a megaphone-wielding critic of global warming science.
In January Crichton took a break from a book tour for his new best-selling anti-environmental novel, State of Fear, to lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative Washington think tank. Towering over the lectern (he is 6 feet 8 inches tall), Crichton looked professorial in his dark suit, reading glasses perched on his nose. He began his lecture by asserting that the research supporting the theory of human-caused global warming is “shockingly flawed.” His first PowerPoint slide depicted the famous 1998 “hockey stick” study, which graphically shows that average global temperatures have risen sharply in the past 100 years. As Crichton began to assail the graph's authors and methodology, the next slide clicked on automatically. “What, is it now just going by itself—is that what it does?” Crichton wondered, fumbling with the remote control. “I guess I have to set it down carefully,” he joked. “It's sort of like nitroglycerin.”
Crichton might as well have been describing the explosive reaction to State of Fear. Briefly, the plot traces the globetrotting derring-do of several paramilitary operatives who track a diabolical ecoterrorist group that is engineering a series of unnatural disasters intended to imitate the effects of global warming. The ecoterrorists plan to set off an explosive breakup of an Antarctic ice sheet, a flash flood, a supercharged hurricane, and a tsunami. (What tsunamis, generally caused by earthquakes, have to do with climate change is just one of many head-scratching and unfortunate twists in the plot.) In the novel, environmentalists who believe in global warming are evil, venal, and Machiavellian; the characters who recognize that climate scientists are in cahoots with hybrid vehicle manufacturers ultimately save the planet from destruction (and one of them gets the very, very sexy girl).
In a pre-Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh age, before Americans relied on fiction for much of their news, State of Fear might have been taken for what it is: a passably diverting web of improbable characters and unlikely events meant as bubblegum for the brain. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bookstore. Crichton's novel, and Crichton himself, started being taken seriously. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), chair of the environment and public works committee, commended Crichton's book on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Syndicated conservative commentator George Will praised “Crichton's fable about the ecology of public opinion.” And the American Enterprise Institute, which boasts some 20 alumni inside the Bush administration, including Vice-President Dick Cheney, gave Crichton the keynote spot in a day devoted to “Science Policy in the 21st Century.”
The fact that so many people seem to be taking Crichton's climate change views at face value reflects a sorry state of affairs, says Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences, and author of Red Sky at Morning, a critically acclaimed book about climate change. “The issue is so serious and is taken so seriously by the best minds we have,” says Speth, who says he feels a “profound sadness” that Crichton has such an impact. Speth's book sold about 20,000 copies, he says, a respectable number for a small press nonfiction release. State of Fear, which has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than three months, had a first printing of 1.5 million copies.
Speth can take some solace from the harsh treatment Crichton has received in influential quarters. The New York Times, reviewing State of Fear, roundly condemned its dishonest use of climate change science, writing that “Crichton's proof is itself laughably rigged.” A number of critics have panned Crichton's disregard for the landmark, 881-page Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2001 “Scientific Basis” report, which concluded that “there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” In perhaps the pithiest summation of the book's unintentional farcical qualities, The New Yorker zinged: “What State of Fear demonstrates is how hard it is to construct a narrative that would actually justify current American policy.”
Michael Crichton, the mass-market writer, has tried to downplay the criticism his book has engendered with statements like “I'm just a novelist” when he has been pressed about the dubious science he presents in State of Fear. (In fact, most of his TV appearances, from the Today show to C-Span, have reflected the American broadcast media's deference to celebrity. On ABC's 20-20, an obsequious John Stossl called Crichton “an extraordinarily bright man” who has been “prescient” about science issues in the past.) But Michael Crichton the policy wonk wants to be taken seriously. He packed the book with “real” footnotes from climate change science literature, and ended it with an “Author's Message,” an appendix, and a bibliography that collectively serve to say, “This may be a thriller, but it's true.”
Parsing Crichton's past, it's not entirely surprising he would take an anti–global warming tack. (Crichton declined requests to be interviewed for this article, citing fatigue after his long book tour.) Even before State of Fear was published, Crichton had given speeches suggesting that environmentalists have become fundamentalist fearmongers, led by people like Paul Ehrlich, whose warnings about the dangers of overpopulation have proven to be exaggerated. “Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists,” Crichton said in one speech. He takes great pains to assure he is not to be counted among the believers.
The seeds of Crichton's curmudgeonly approach to climate science first germinated in his previous novels. In various ways, he has championed fictional scientists who question their colleagues: the character who warns against runaway cloning in Jurassic Park ; the computer programmer who worries about the dangers of nanotechnology in Prey. In State of Fear, it's been suggested, Crichton modeled his main character, John Kenner, after Richard Lindzen, a real professor at MIT and a vocal (minority) critic of climate change science. In speeches and interviews, Crichton acknowledges that he likes to think of himself as a contrarian.
Specifically on the subject of global warming, Crichton says he's an accidental skeptic. “I believed everything I had read and heard” about the subject, he told the BBC. What happened, he said, was that while doing unrelated research, “I just happened out of curiosity to go look at the temperature record.” That record, he says, suggested that there were problems with the way temperatures were measured, and raised questions about whether such a small average temperature rise was even a problem. From there, he says, he delved into “three years of painstaking research,” during which time he visited several climate change scientists in their labs. He concluded that climate change science was much like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz.
The problem is, Crichton is more like the wizard—full of bluster and sleight of hand—than the people he condemns. The nut of Crichton's novel revolves around a lawsuit brought by “Vanutu,” a low-lying Pacific island country, against the United States for causing global warming. Vanutu, it seems, will be swamped if glaciers melt and sea levels rise. Crichton argues that if a case like this ever made it to court, proponents of global warming would not only lose, they would also be ordered to pay the attorneys' fees.
In the real world, the outcome of such a suit would likely depend on whether the suit was tried in criminal or civil court. No scientist worth his or her Ph.D. would be willing to submit climate change science to the criminal standard of “proof beyond all reasonable doubt.” There exists, as Crichton correctly points out, too much uncertainty about the complexity of our planet and its systems to make ironclad predictions for the year 2100.
On the other hand, if the case were tried according to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard applied in civil court, Crichton would in all likelihood go down in flames. That's because the strength and power of current scientific consensus regarding climate change comes not from any single discipline but from what Ron Brunner, a public policy professor at the University of Colorado who has studied human perceptions of climate change, calls “multiple streams of independent evidence.”
In the dustup that followed the release of State of Fear, some scientists have been reluctant to take on Crichton, seeing it as a little like fighting a cartoon. Roger Pielke Jr., head of the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, says that arguing with a fiction writer about science “chips away at the legitimacy of science.” It is, in effect, a lose-lose situation. “The scientists who criticize him will be seen as having a political agenda,” says Pielke, which is exactly what Crichton accuses them of in the first place. “What troubles me is the idea that science should be responsible to knock him down.”
That hasn't stopped some top climatologists from trying to correct the record. Perhaps the most thorough critique of Crichton's misinterpretation of climate change science can be found at www.realclimate.org, a website maintained by a group of widely published climate change scientists, some of whom have felt personally betrayed by Crichton because he visited them in their labs and misrepresented the information they gave him.
A sample: In one scene, a character explains in a mock-trial argument that carbon dioxide is only a small part of the earth's atmosphere—“one inch in a hundred-yard football field”—and that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased “less than the thickness of a pencil” in the past 50 years. The implication is that such an insignificant change in a vast field of atmospheric gases couldn't possibly drive climate change.
Thomas Conway, a chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's
Climate Monitoring and Diagnostics Laboratory, notes that Crichton's analogy
fails on many levels. For starters, he says, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs,
released into the atmosphere that were conclusively linked to ozone depletion
“were parts per trillion”—a percentage of the atmosphere that makes the
thickness of a pencil seem like a mile. More important, says Conway, “the
football-field analogy is ridiculous, and anybody who's using that is
intentionally trying to mislead people.” That's because most of the atmosphere—
“That's basic physics,” says Conway. What's more, the increases in carbon dioxide and methane are demonstrably human-caused. “I don't know what Crichton is trying to do,” Conway says. “It seems pretty sleazy to me.”
State of Fear also dismisses the idea that global sea level rise is of any consequence. “Depending on the database, either [sea levels are] flat or they've increased by forty millimeters,” says one of his characters. “Half an inch in thirty years. Almost nothing.” Actually, this analysis runs counter to the tide of scientific evidence. “There is little doubt that sea level is rising about 10 times faster now than the average over the last few millennia,” says Bruce Douglas, a climate scientist at the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University and editor of Sea Level Rise: History and Consequences. “A variety of evidence suggests that this increase began in the latter half of the 19th century, more or less when global temperature began to rise at the modern rate.”
At times, it's difficult to tell whether Crichton is simply misinformed or willfully ignorant. For example, he states that much of the science of climate change is based on unreliable computer models. Crichton ignores that temperature rise or carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have a strong correlation to computer-generated global climate models created years ago. “What's amazing is how close the numbers have stayed for the past 15 years,” says Bill McKibben, author of the 1989 book on global warming, The End of Nature. If anything, he says, the reality “is somewhat more dire than predicted.”
It's hard to disregard the possibility that Crichton, a man with an unerring instinct for ripe techno-thriller topics (his books have sold more than 100 million copies), is laughing all the way to the Ferrari showroom. Toward the end of his Author's Message, he writes with an almost visible grin: “I am certain there is too much certainty in the world.” His last words reinforce the smirk: “Everyone has an agenda,” he writes. “Except me.”
But even if Crichton is deadly serious—and equally misinformed—about his views on the global warming debate, perhaps he still did the world a favor. “He's got the science wrong, but he may have something important to say about the rest of it,” says the University of Colorado's Brunner. That something important may have more to do with the way climate science is discussed in the public and political realm than with the legitimacy of the science itself. In an essay entitled “Death of Environmentalism,” media analysts Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argue that environmentalists have been spectacularly ineffective at conceptualizing and communicating the gravity of the global climate change problem. Environmentalists, says Nordhaus, “have utterly failed to engage the imagination of the American public.” With his book, Crichton may have unwittingly laid down a challenge to the environmental and scientific community to think more creatively about how to communicate the complexities of climate change. Rather than the “doom and gloom” environmentalism Crichton satirizes in his novel, Nordhaus and others have suggested ways to create an “aspirational culture” that looks to innovation and economic opportunity to energize—and educate—an otherwise fearful public.
As a famous American writer once observed, “Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance. Because in the end, science offers us the only way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then we are lost.”
The speaker? Michael Crichton.
Perhaps even he would agree that if we allow fiction to guide our science policy, getting lost would just be the start of our biggest problems.Daniel Glick is the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth (PublicAffairs, 2003) and a contributor to National Geographic.
© 2005 National Audubon Society
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