Policy Documents

Bast: Unwinding the Great Global Warming Delusion

Joseph Bast –
February 1, 2010

The Great Global Warming Delusion began to unwind in 2009.

Politicians still advocate legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, newspaper headlines still report prophecies of ecological disasters, and academic scientists will finish their careers without ever admitting they were wrong. But the wind is out of the sails of this panic, and its days are plainly numbered.

For those of us who have been “skeptics” of man-made global warming for many years, it was a year of vindication and relief.

The Great Unwinding

Earlier this year, the onset of global cooling in 2000 was recognized by all leading scientists and could no longer be kept hidden by the mainstream media. Some scientists forecast two more decades of cooling before any warming returns.

In June, The Heartland Institute published Climate Change Reconsidered, the first comprehensive rebuttal of the claims made in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The massive 800-page report, with contributions by 40 scientists, was released at the Third International Conference on Climate Change. The skeptics finally found their mojo.

In November, emails and other documents were leaked by a hacker or whistleblower at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, England. The emails, written by Phil Jones, Michael Mann, and other leading scientists who edit and control the content of the reports of the IPCC, appear to show a deliberate effort to falsify data and suppress academic debate in order to exaggerate the possible threat of man-made global warming.

On December 20, negotiations collapsed in Copenhagen without agreement on a treaty to replace the Kyoto agreement, which expires in 2012. A “tentative accord” between the U.S. and China with no binding targets or timetables was announced. China and India continue to refuse to control their own emissions, making it pointless for developed countries to reduce theirs. Copenhagen made it clear that there isn’t enough money in the world to pay what socialists and Third World dictators call “climate reparations.”

The Wall Street Journal, in a December page 1 story titled “Climate Pact Falls Short,” ended with this news: “White House officials ... agree [with Sen. James Inhofe that] a cap and trade bill will not pass the Senate next year.”

The Collapse in Copenhagen capped a series of major victories against global warming alarmism. The window of opportunity for an international global warming treaty and domestic cap-and-trade legislation has been slammed shut.

Was it All a Hoax?

The scientific debate, however, is not over. Most of the scientists responsible for creating the global warming delusion still believe global warming is man-made and will be a crisis. How can this be?

Like the rest of us, scientists rely on the expertise of others to provide guidance on issues they don’t have time to study. Climate change is a complex topic that requires the insights of geologists, physicists, climatologists, and statisticians (to name only four disciplines) to get a fairly complete understanding of the issue.

Regrettably, the institutions that could bring together these specialists to produce reliable overviews of the science of climate change--the IPCC, National Academy of Sciences, and other organizations--have been politicized and corrupted by private agendas. Scientists who spoke the truth about climate change--that its causes, extent, and consequences are too poorly understood to provide the basis for public policy decisions--were denied funding and access to the most prestigious academic journals. They were invisible.

Many distinguished scientists have been saying this for years. Thanks to “Climategate,” we now know this to be a fact.

Calling global warming a “hoax” might fit the likes of Jones and Mann, but the label is unfair to the many scientists whose trust in the IPCC was simply misplaced. A better label would be “popular delusion.”

Global Warming Alarmism as Popular Delusion

The term “extraordinary popular delusions” comes to us from a book written by Charles Mackay, first published in 1852 and reprinted many times, titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. (My copy is dated 1995.)

Extraordinary popular delusions, he wrote, occur when “whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

Examples of popular delusions provided by Mackay include belief in witches, haunted houses, alchemists, prophecies, and “tulipomania,” when prices of tulip bulbs in Europe during the seventeenth century were bid up to incredible heights.

The vast majority of people caught up in popular delusions act out of uncritical acceptance of the opinions of others whom they mistakenly trust. In Mackay’s day, opinion leaders tended to be political and religious leaders; today they tend to be “experts” credentialed by the academic community. During the global warming delusion, they were the writers and editors of the IPCC’s reports.

Mackay’s examples show how innocent and smart people--doctors, scientists, politicians, philanthropists, and investors--get swept up in the madness. In fact, the smartest ones are sometimes the first to get infected with the delusion since they are “early adopters” and eager to embrace new and controversial ideas. Because they are likely to make their living by manipulating language and ideas, they also are likely to personally profit by championing a new idea.

A Top-Down Delusion

Modern-day examples of popular delusions include Y2K, eugenics, phrenology, Lysenkoism, chemophobia (fear of man-made chemicals), global cooling (1970 to 1979), and global warming (1988 to present).

The global warming delusion is primarily a top-down delusion. Several histories of the theory of man-made global warming note that it circulated in scientific circles without much credibility for many decades and even centuries. It became a popular delusion starting in the 1980s, when some environmental groups latched onto it as the “mother of all environmental scares” to increase their power, raise money, and implement the liberal agendas of their leaders.

Ideologues including Bert Bolin, Robert Watson, and John Houghton tapped the almost-unlimited financial resources and credibility of the United Nations to fan the global warming delusion to hysterical heights. James Hansen did the same at NASA. Journalists shamelessly peddled to their editors stories spoon-fed to them by these ideologues, an artless act performed currently by the likes of Andrew Revkin at The New York Times and Seth Borenstein at Associated Press.

It is testimony to the common sense of the American people that the global warming delusion began to unwind first among the general public, despite ever-more hysterical promotion by elites in media, politics, and business. Recent polls show only a third of Americans believe global warming is the result of human activity, and even fewer think it is a major environmental problem.

The Beginning of the End

A popular delusion unwinds when predictions based on the theory are repeatedly and publicly contradicted by real-world events. For example, iron doesn’t really turn into gold, prophecies fail to come true, crops don’t improve after burning witches, and temperatures stabilize and hurricanes become less frequent even though carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere keep rising.

The people who profit from promoting a popular delusion are sometimes exposed and punished. For example, Mackay describes the case of John Law, whose issuing of worthless stock in the Mississippi Company in 1720 almost caused the financial collapse of France. Law was forced to flee the country and never return. Once fabulously wealthy, he died a poor man.

One immediately thinks of Al Gore, whose vast fortune was acquired largely by raising capital for firms that sell phony carbon credits. Gore will probably retire comfortably, though he might yet be sued for defrauding his investors. Disgraced reporters will probably be writing about the next popular delusion in a few years, and their roles in the previous delusion will be forgotten or forgiven.

Most Americans already look upon global warming as a false alarm and a “hoax.” It may take a decade or longer for elite opinion to catch up, and some people will go their graves still believing in “global warming.”

If we are lucky, the elites won’t immediately jump to the next popular delusion, subjecting us all to another 30 years of pointless panic and enormous waste of resources.


Joseph Bast (jbast@heartland.org) is president of The Heartland Institute.