Myth: Environmentalist doomsday scenarios have always been proven wrong.

Fact: Scientists have been right on life-threatening issues like global warming and the ozone layer.


Some environmentalist doomsday scenarios have already saved our lives -- for example, the alarm sounded about the ozone layer. Environmental science is like any other branch of science; it is a human activity that finds consensus on powerfully-supported theories, and disagreement on weakly-supported ones. That some conservatives would take only the disagreements that later proved wrong, compile them into a list and provide this as "proof" that environmentalists are conducting "junk science" is highly disingenuous.


It's hardly true that environmentalist doomsday scenarios have always been proven wrong. A major one they got right was the destruction of the ozone layer -- without which the sun's deadly ultraviolet rays would have killed most if not all life on the planet. Thanks to quick and top-level scientific research, the alarm was sounded and all the nations of the world agreed to ban the chemicals responsible. F. Sherwood Rowland, Paul Crutzen and Mario Molina deserve far more than their Nobel prizes.

However, science is a human activity, and mistakes are often made. This is why scientific consensus is so important. When the arguments of any given theory are so strong and compelling that they sway a majority of scientists, the chances for human error are greatly diminished. Not eliminated, mind you -- just greatly diminished.

The following is a list of well-supported theories that enjoy broad scientific consensus: Still, it's possible to find scientists who hold beliefs outside the consensus, including cranks on the margins who espouse bizarre and crazy theories. They might be right -- but if so, then the evidence that they find so compelling should be compelling to other scientists as well, and eventually this initially odd theory will itself become mainstream science. More often than not, however, these strange theories languish on the margins, for want of compelling evidence.

Environmentalism is no different from any other branch of science -- scientists have competing theories; on the more fundamental questions they have arrived at a consensus, and on the more cutting edge ones they are still researching and arguing. Now, if a conservative were bent on a little mischief, he could visit the history of such arguments, find the ones that eventually proved wrong, collect them together in a single list, and present this list as incontrovertible proof that environmentalists are conducting junk science. Conservatives should realize that if a similar exercise were conducted against them -- for example, all the conspiracy theories that later proved wrong, or the millenarian claims that Christ was coming in a certain year -- well, a very rich list of embarrassments could be produced indeed.

The following are frequently mentioned examples in the anti-environmentalist's list of failed doomsday scenarios: A common theme links all of these examples. In each case, the scientist was commenting on a field of science that was very young. Malthus was the pioneer of population studies. Environmentalism was a new branch of science on the first Earth Day. The nuclear winter theory is also not only a relatively new one, but an untested one. Those familiar with scientific history know that when a new branch of science emerges, no one knows much about its fundamentals because, after all, it's a new branch of science. After much argument and trial and error, a consensus on the fundamentals begins to emerge. There is still debate and trial and error, of course, but most of it occurs at the cutting edge, while the consensus on fundamentals continues to grow. What some conservatives are doing is concentrating on the mistakes that occurred on the cutting edge in the past, and ignoring the fundamental consensus today.

For some to characterize all environmentalism as "junk science" based on these early mistakes is like calling airplane engineering "junk science" based on its many early prototype failures.

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1. Robert Jackson, "Ozone Hole: NASA Puts It Squarely on Us; Satellite Data Cites Synthetic Chlorine," San Jose Mercury News, December 20, 1994, p. 9A. See also Don Bane, "Lockheed Scientist Sees 'Clear Link' Between CFCs And Ozone Destruction," September 23, 1993, Press Release, Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratories.

2. Charles Petit, "New Hints of Global Warming," San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, April 17, 1995, pp. A1, A6. See also Gallop poll of scientists, cited in Steven Rendall, Jim Naureckas and Jeff Cohen, The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (New York: The New Press, 1995), p. 17.

3. Lester Brown et al. (eds.), Vital Signs 1994 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).

4. Chemical industry: Stuart Auerbach, "N.J.'s Chemical Belt Takes Its Toll: $4 Billion Industry Tied to Nation's Highest Cancer Death Rate," Washington Post, February 3, 1976, pp. A1, A5. Toxic waste sites: Jack Griffith, R.C. Duncan, W.B. Riggan, A.C. Pellom, "Cancer Mortality in U.S. Counties with Hazardous Waste Sites and Ground Water Pollution," Archives of Environmental Health, Vol. 44, No. 2, 69-74, Mar-Apr 1989. Nuclear mortality rates: Drs. Ernest Sternglass, Jay Gould and Joseph Mangano, using data from a 1990 National Cancer Institute study of cancer mortality rates near nuclear facilities.

5. Jon Erickson, The Living Earth, (Blue Ridge Summit: TAB Books, Inc., 1989), p. 169. See also Vital Signs 1994, p. 16.

6. Vital Signs 1994, pp. 124-5.

7. Ibid., pp. 122-3.

8. Ibid., pp. 11, 92-3.

9. U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, Yearbook of Fishery Statistics: Catches and Landings (Rome: various years), as cited by Vital Signs 1994, pp. 32-3.

10. Mark Clayton, "Hunt for Jobs Intensifies as Fishing Industry Implodes," Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1993.