John Mackay wrote "When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service" in 1852, in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In his article Apocalypse Not in Wired, Matt Ridley tortures facts to such a degree that he should be hauled in front of the International Court of Justice. He looks at the four modern horsemen of the apocalyse, chemicals (DDT, CFCs, acid rain), diseases (bird flu, swine flu, SARS, AIDS, Ebola, mad cow disease), people (population, famine), and resources (oil, metals) and concludes "no problem."
According to Ridley, getting rid of CFCs did nothing to fix the ozone hole and acid rain was never a problem, even though these two are considered among the greatest victories of the environmental movement. He quotes a 1990 National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program report, noting the line "there is no evidence of a general or unusual decline of forests in the United States or Canada due to acid rain," without noting that at the same time, "the National Surface Water Survey (NSWS) examined 1,000 lakes larger than ten acres and found that 75% of these lakes and 50% of the streams surveyed had been acidified by acid rain. Nor does he wonder what might have happened if we had kept pumping 10 million extra tons of sulphur into the atmosphere for the last 20 years."He then goes on to the ozone layer, writing:
There was an international agreement to cease using CFCs by 1996. But the predicted recovery of the ozone layer never happened: The hole stopped growing before the ban took effect, then failed to shrink afterward. The ozone hole still grows every Antarctic spring, to roughly the same extent each year. Nobody quite knows why. Some scientists think it is simply taking longer than expected for the chemicals to disintegrate; a few believe that the cause of the hole was misdiagnosed in the first place. Either way, the ozone hole cannot yet be claimed as a looming catastrophe, let alone one averted by political action.
Of course it can. the Department of commerce writes:
The environmental concern for CFCs follows from their long atmospheric lifetime (55 years for CFC-11 and 140 years for CFC-12, CCl2F2) which limits our ability to reduce their abundance in the atmosphere and associated future ozone loss.
Everyone knows perfectly well why: it takes time.
With the next horseman, Disease, Ridley discounts the impact of AIDS, SARS, Mad Cow, and flu. AIDS is on the wane and the rest were inconsequential; there are many millions who might argue the point if they weren't dead. He is equally sanguine about Population:
With improvements in seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, transport, and irrigation still spreading across Africa, the world may well feed 9 billion inhabitants in 2050 —and from fewer acres than it now uses to feed 7 billion.
Finally, the fourth horseman is resources.
Although it seems likely that cheap sources of oil may indeed start to peter out in coming decades, gigantic quantities of shale oil and oil sands will remain available, at least at a price.
Of course, everyone knows that, what matters is the price, and what does that do to the economic viability of heating your home or driving your car.
Then he gets on to climate.
In the climate debate, we hear a lot from those who think disaster is inexorable if not inevitable, and a lot from those who think it is all a hoax. We hardly ever allow the moderate “lukewarmers” a voice: those who suspect that the net positive feedbacks from water vapor in the atmosphere are low, so that we face only 1 to 2 degrees Celsius of warming this century; that the Greenland ice sheet may melt but no faster than its current rate of less than 1 percent per century; that net increases in rainfall (and carbon dioxide concentration) may improve agricultural productivity; that ecosystems have survived sudden temperature lurches before; and that adaptation to gradual change may be both cheaper and less ecologically damaging than a rapid and brutal decision to give up fossil fuels cold turkey.
Actually, there is a reason that you don't hear much from the Lukewarmers; there are so few of them. But they do have a platform; google the term and you find it all over Forbes magazine and skeptic websites. The whole idea developed after the "Climate change isn't happening" position became untenable. Lukewarm is the fallback position.
Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios.
Except we are facing our ecological threats now, and nobody is doing much of anything at all to meet them, and the biggest innovation they can come up with is fracking. The environmental movement has been accused of being over the top, and sometimes it is. However it certainly isn't as over the top as thinking that nuclear fusion or a magic new rice will save us. But hey, don't worry, be happy. Ridley calls himself a "rational optimist", but this is pie in the sky and head in the sand.