According to Bill McKibben in an op-ed in The Washington Post, the biggest news of the year is that Jim Hansen has spoken. According to Hansen, who has risen in recent years from astronomer to wizard and now to high priest of a doomsday cult, the safe level for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be no more than 350 parts per million. So since it’s now 380 or 390 ppm, we’re already doomed and can stop worrying about it.
Oh, no, sorry, we can’t stop worrying about it. True, we’re just about cooked (like Hansel and Gretel in the oven), but there’s still barely time to save life on Earth if we turn off the lights and throw away the car keys this instant. The alternative, I guess, is to party now for tomorrow we die. Hmm, I can’t decide. What if there’s just a tiny chance that Hansen could be wrong? Wouldn’t drastically reducing our energy consumption cause colossal increases in human mortality and suffering?
The course of apocalyptic movements is generally similar. In order to keep the enthusiasm of its followers at a fever pitch and to attract new followers, it is necessary to keep stoking the fires with more and more outlandish claims. The hysteria peaks as doomsday is moved closer and closer to the present, and then — poof — it collapses. It appears to me that the global warming bubble has gone about as far as it can go before it descends into ranting and writhing on the ground or random outbreaks of mob violence.
Unfortunately for Hansen and McKibben as with so many previous prophets of the end of the world, reality isn’t cooperating with their chiliastic fantasies. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased by 4 per cent since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997, but the global mean temperature has been flat since 1999. What they must have are some big disasters — and soon.