For almost as long as I can remember, experts have been warning us to brace ourselves for catastrophe.
For decades it was the Cold War and the threat of nuclear obliteration that threatened us. In the 1970s we shuddered at the prospect of a nuclear winter, in which soot and smoke from nuclear warfare would condemn the planet to decades of frigid semi-darkness. And who can forget the alarm generated by predictions that acid rain would denude vast areas of forest, kill marine life and even cause buildings to collapse?
Other recurring doomsday predictions revolved around over-population and famine. As it turns out, the world now has more obese people than malnourished – a fact that has given the experts something new to harangue us about.
There have been other scares, too, including Aids and the Millennium Bug. It was seriously predicted that the latter would create universal chaos the moment the clocks ticked past December 31, 1999.
We’re still waiting for the grotesque mutations foreseen by opponents of genetic modification. And then there was peak oil, though the dismalists seem to have gone quiet on that too.
There are always experts loudly predicting the worst. But none of the above prophecies came to pass, either because they were scientifically unsound or greatly exaggerated to start with, or because human ingenuity and good sense intervened.
Even when terrible things have happened – such as Chernobyl and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – the eventual outcome has almost invariably been less apocalyptic than the prophets of doom foresaw.
In the circumstances, is it any surprise that people tune out when they hear the shrill cries of the global warming alarmists? The words “boy” and “wolf” come to mind.
The most worrying thing about global warming proponents is that many want to silence the other side – always a danger sign. They argue that because scientists who believe in climate change outnumber those who don’t, newspapers shouldn’t give space to sceptics.
The science is settled, the warmists cry. But back comes a quietly insistent reply: science is never settled.
Scientists have got it wrong before. There was a time when the overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion was that the sun revolved around the earth. You challenged that consensus at your peril, as Galileo learned.
For decades, physicists believed the expansion of the universe was slowing down. Now they have concluded that it’s actually accelerating.
So we need to leave open the possibility that experts can get things wrong, and we need sceptics to challenge established wisdom. The more we are panicked into believing we are at imminent risk from some existential threat, the more willing we are to allow “experts” and zealots to save us. And that’s the scariest scenario of all.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. This article was first published in The Dominion Post.