COMMENTS ON 'STATE OF FEAR'
Press accounts suggest that Michael Crichton spent three years researching his latest novel, State of Fear, in which environmental extremists engineer natural disasters to raise concern for global warming. Although Crichton attempts to use real-world data and studies within the novel to highlight some of the realities and uncertainties in climate science, the novel contains a number of strawman arguments, misinterpretations of the scientific literature, and even a few misleading statements drawn from the so-called “skeptics.” Despite his research and the book’s many footnotes, Crichton has a less-than-commanding understanding of climate change science. The book is much more of a vehicle for his own opinions on the issue rather than an objective commentary on the state of the science and policy debate. Discussion of key questions raised by Crichton in State of Fear follow:
Sea-Level Rise – Is it Accelerating? In the dialogue, one of Crichton’s characters attacks the concept that the rate of sea-level rise has accelerated in recent years. It is unclear what point Crichton is trying to make here. Given that the ability to identify an increase in the rate of sea-level rise in the present has no bearing on whether that rate will increase decades down the road, the statement by Crichton’s character is irrelevant. Crichton may be using his character to dispel a public misconception about sea-level rise, but it’s not a misconception commonly shared by the scientific community. For example, the 2001 IPCC report explicitly stated that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the rate of sea level rise has increased. Strangely, the evidence that Crichton offers to shore up his character’s statement contradicts it instead. In two footnotes, Crichton cites a rate of sea-level rise of 3.1 mm/year over the past decade (measured by satellite), compared to 1.7-2.4 mm/year over the 20th century as a whole (measured by tide gauges), which suggests that the recent rate of sea-level rise has indeed accelerated relative to the long-term average. However, scientists are uncomfortable making direct comparisons between satellite and tide-gauge data due to the difficulty in calibrating data collected by different methods. Though the recent satellite data cannot be taken as proof of an acceleration in sea-level rise, they’re certainly not proof that such an acceleration hasn’t occurred.
Cooling Trends – Are They Inconsistent with Global Warming? Much of the data presented within State of Fear are temperature data from specific locations throughout the world. Crichton makes two points with these data. First, he uses the data to demonstrate that not all locations of the world show warming trends. This is correct, and is acknowledged by the climate science community – as one moves to smaller geographic scales, local factors (e.g., terrain, altitude, land cover, wind patterns, etc.) become increasingly important in determining climate conditions. Hence, the importance of averaging temperature data over large areas, which yields an unambiguous warming trend. Crichton’s cherry-picking of sites to show cooling is a common, yet irrelevant tactic. Crichton’s second point is that warming appears to manifest only in urban areas, suggesting the effects of urban heat islands explain warming trends. This issue has been investigated repeatedly over the past decade (including a few papers just in the past 18 months), using a variety of methods. Although heat islands are known to occur around urban areas and affect local temperatures, the consistent conclusion is that their influence on global temperature trends is negligible. Furthermore, both satellite and surface observations indicate that the most rapid warming has occurred over land in the Arctic (e.g., northern Canada and northern Asia). Obviously, these are regions that are sparsely populated with low occurrences of dense development or urbanization that could influence temperature trends. Similarly, urban heat islands cannot account for the observed warming of the world's oceans.
20th Century Temperatures – Did Scientists Forecast a Coming Ice Age during the 1970s? In the novel, Crichton’s characters discuss one of the more popular myths of climate change science – that the scientific community projected during the 1970s that another ice age was imminent. The scientific community predicted nothing of the sort. This myth emerges from three sources. First, global temperatures did cool slightly from the 1940s until approximately 1970, but the scientific literature cautioned against interpreting anything from short temperature records (e.g., a U.S. National Academy of Sciences report recommended further research). Second, during the 1970s there were a number of studies and publications investigating the mechanisms responsible for past Ice Ages. These papers suggested that such climatological events were cyclical in nature and, as a consequence, another ice age was possible on time-scales of ~20,000 years (i.e., not in the near future). More recent research indicates that there is potential for another ice age, but on a time scale on the order of 50,000 years – making it an even more distant proposition than suggested during the 1970s. Third, research was also being conducted on the potential for atmospheric aerosols to have a cooling influence on the global climate. Since then, research has confirmed that sulfate aerosols do indeed have a cooling effect and largely account for the cooling observed during the 1940s-1970. However, the magnitude of their influence has been revised downward, and thus warming from CO2 now outweighs the effects of aerosol cooling. In any case, the published literature from scientists during the 1970s does not reflect alarmist predictions of an impeding ice age, and, in fact the research conducted at the time has proven to be robust. The myth of ice age predictions stems largely from the popular press, which extrapolated legitimate scientific findings such as those listed above to arrive at more alarming, but erroneous, conclusions. [for more on this, see http://www.wmconnolley.org.uk/sci/iceage/ ]
Hurricanes  – Are They More Frequent? Crichton’s novel also mentions recent literature examining 20th century trends in hurricanes that show periods of high and low hurricane frequency, but no trend despite rising temperatures. Here, too, Crichton is correct – no long-term trend has been observed globally, although all hurricane experts agree that the frequency of hurricanes has increased in the North Atlantic, which is where hurricanes form that affect the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of the U.S. Here again, Crichton is attacking a strawman - at the time that State of Fear was published, no scientists had claimed that global warming was affecting hurricanes. However, several papers published since June 2005 now provide evidence that hurricane activity may indeed be responding to global warming (a conclusion which is supported to some extent by historical observations, but remains controversial). A more serious scientific flaw in Crichton’s story is that his character extrapolates data from hurricanes to extreme weather events in general, suggesting there is no evidence of a change in extremes of any kind. Yet data suggest that the northern hemisphere has experienced an increase in precipitation over the 20th century, with most of the increase manifesting as heavy precipitation events. Low-temperature extremes (e.g., frost days) have become less frequent in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. High temperature extremes have become more frequent in some regions, but declined in others.
Glaciers – Are they retreating? Crichton’s characters also attack the prevailing wisdom that glaciers worldwide are in retreat via three arguments: a) we don’t have data for all of the world’s glaciers, b) we have long-term data for even fewer, and c) some glaciers are advancing. All of the above are true. Scientists are not able to monitor all glaciers throughout the world, and the advance of glaciers in Norway, for example, is well documented and appears to be due to increases in regional precipitation (i.e., snowfall). Nevertheless, as documented by the IPCC and the recent Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a consistent pattern of glacier retreat has been documented at low- mid- and high-latitudes in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Of the numerous glaciers that are currently being monitored about 90% are decreasing in size. [for more on this, see World Glacier Monitoring Service at http://www.geo.unizh.ch/wgms/  ] Crichton’s characters also challenge the assumption that the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro are wasting away due to global warming. The literature does suggest that the decline of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s snows started over a century ago when the climate of the Mt. Kilimanjaro region became abruptly more arid. Dryer air around the mountain resulted in less snowfall, which was necessary to maintain the mountain’s ice fields. As such, Mt. Kilimanjaro may not be the best poster child for the effects of human-induced global warming.
James Hansen’s 1988 Testimony – Did He Exaggerate the Problem? In the book, Crichton’s characters recall the 1988 Congressional testimony of James Hansen. The book reports that in his testimony, Hansen presented an alarming scenario of future warming, which, as of 2000, was 300% greater (0.35oC/decade) than what had been observed (0.11oC/decade). However, the description of Hansen’s testimony within Crichton’s book is not the real version, but a distorted version presented by the well-known skeptic Patrick Michaels ten years later [for Hansen’s account of this, see http://www.giss.nasa.gov/edu/gwdebate/  and http://columbia.edu/~jeh1/hansen_re-crichton.pdf ]. In his actual 1988 testimony, Hansen discussed three scenarios of future climate change (A, B, and C) based upon work published that same year in the Journal of Geophysical Research. In his testimony, Hansen presented maps of future global warming that were based solely on scenario B (the mid-range projection), which he described as the most likely outcome. Scenarios A and C were meant to represent upper and lower bounds of the uncertainties in future projections. In 1998 Congressional testimony, Michaels presented a figure from Hansen’s 1988 Journal of Geophysical Research paper showing projections of average global temperature change for Hansen’s three scenarios. However, Michaels doctored the figure by erasing scenarios B and C, leaving only the highest scenario (A), which Michaels then cited as evidence of Hansen’s alarmism and the fundamental failure of climate models to represent reality. Hansen’s mid-range and favored scenario (B) has thus far matched observations well. Crichton’s misrepresentation of history here suggests that either he was rather cavalier in his research or he simply preferred Michaels’ fictional version of events.
Attribution – What’s Causing Climate Change? In the appendix, Crichton proposes three explanations for recent and future global warming. The first is “a natural warming trend that began in 1850 as we emerged from a four-hundred year cold spell known as ‘Little Ice Age.’” Skeptics frequently discuss the idea of a natural warming trend or rebound, yet they never offer a mechanism to explain the rebound (e.g., what has changed in the climate system that has enabled it to recover from the Little Ice Age?); they simply state that it is natural. Climate scientists always ask the question of whether natural influences can explain climatic changes, and multiple examinations of the major natural influences on the climate (e.g., solar energy and volcanic activity) have concluded that natural factors alone cannot explain observed 20th century climate change. Therefore the current warming trend does not appear to be natural.
Crichton’s second explanation is land-use change, via urban heat islands and forest clearing. Here, Crichton appears to misinterpret or simply ignore the scientific literature. As mentioned earlier, Crichton exaggerates the influence of urban heat islands on global temperature trends, despite the existence of a number of scientific studies demonstrating negligible effects of urbanization. In fact, the best available research on this issue indicates that urbanization does have a net warming influence, but at most accounts for perhaps 0.1 °F of the 1.4 °F warming that has occurred in the past 150 years. A character in the novel states that converting forest to agriculture/grasslands causes warming, which is true. Deforestation has had a net warming effect due almost entirely to the large amount of CO2 that forest clearing has released into the atmosphere, which equals less than half of the of CO2 that has been emitted from the burning of fossil fuels. Other effects of deforestation, such as changes in the reflectivity of the earth’s surface and emission of fine particles to the atmosphere, have actually had a small cooling effect, thus reducing the overall warming effect of deforestation.
As a third explanation, Crichton acknowledges a role for greenhouse gases, although he argues this will be a “minor component” of future climate change, rather than a driver of the changes already observed to date. In so doing, he ignores the large body of scientific literature that has already linked global (and increasingly even regional) climate change to human emissions of greenhouse gases, and the fact that there is very little debate regarding the existence of an anthropogenic influence – even among skeptics [e.g., see Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog entry of 12/27/04 at http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/ ].
Climate Models – How Large is the Disagreement? Crichton points out in his appendix that the projections of warming from different climate models vary by 400%, suggesting models do not, and cannot, agree on future climate change. What Crichton is really saying is that the high estimate from IPCC’s projected range for 2100 (5.8oC) is 400% greater than its lowest estimate (1.4oC). This isn’t a valid expression of model variation or uncertainty. The variation around the average warming projected by the IPCC of 3.6oC is about 60%. Perhaps more importantly, the reason for the wide range (1.4-5.8oC) is not due to the models themselves, but the use of a range of emissions scenarios. The rate of future warming is not solely a function of the response of the climate system to greenhouse gases, but also the future atmospheric concentrations of those gases, which is a function of population growth, economic development, and technological change. Crichton also inserts a number of disparaging comments about climate modeling throughout the book. He refers specifically to the absence of real world data, the lack of model testing and validation, and the lack of independent assessments of model performance. Here Crichton seems unaware that the discussion of climate model validation is a common feature of publications utilizing these models and model errors and biases are often explicitly quantified and described. Similarly, Crichton appears unaware of the various model comparison, evaluation, and validation projects that currently exist. For example, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been conducting model comparison and validation tests since 1989 (including the climate models used by the IPCC), and published a publicly available report of its research in the summer of 2004. [see http://www-pcmdi.llnl.gov/  ]
Crichton’s Personal Views – Where Does the Author Stand? In his appendix, Crichton offers his personal views on climate change. He acknowledges that the world is warming and that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are increasing, but argues that no one knows how much of the observed warming is due to natural versus human forces. Further, because it is impossible to know exactly how much warming the world will experience a century from now, he argues that his guess is just as credible as the projections from any scientist. By this argument, if my doctor is not 100% certain of his diagnosis of my medical condition, then I’m just as well served by self-diagnosis via random guess.
Crichton also states that fossil fuels will reach their demise regardless of the efforts of politicians or environmentalists, future populations will be better off, and environmental principles represent unfair attempts to prevent the developing world from achieving the standard of living obtained by the developed world. Here, Crichton is encapsulating the arguments of the late Julian Simon, which have recently been resurrected by Bjorn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist). Crichton goes on to warn about the dangers of politicizing science, arguing (citing Eugenics as a case in point) that the insertion of subjective values into science corrupts the scientific process leading to bad policy decisions. Instead, all values should be eliminated from scientific endeavors, scientists should be dispassionate, objective analysts and suppress the temptation to use science to advocate for or against certain policies or actions.
Crichton concludes by stating that the policy measures currently being implemented or debated to address climate change, “have little basis in fact or science.” Actions to address climate change are being advocated by groups with hidden agendas, and those actions will have adverse consequences for others. Apparently, the scientific community is complicit in this behavior, as “open and frank discussion of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed” by scientists and scientific journals. Crichton does not go as far as to suggest that climate change is a hoax (although he certainly believes the consequences are exaggerated), but rather that climate change is a vehicle that many have seized upon, for various reasons, as a means to an end.
Crichton’s frank discussion of his subjective views regarding the issue of climate change provide important context for the novel itself. It’s clear that his personal opinions have shaped his portrayal of the environmental community as well as the science of climate change. That he opts out of leveling any of his criticism toward those who politicize science for the sake of dismissing climate change as a non-issue is disappointing. The one-sidedness of his novel and personal comments have actually contributed to further politicization of climate change science, enhancing a phenomenon that Crichton himself argues is ultimately dangerous. As a novelist, this is his prerogative, but the end result is a work of fiction that does little to educate while it seeks to entertain.
Updated August 17, 2006.