It may be that individual members of the media have free will, but sometimes the sudden feeding frenzy over a topic has all the inevitability of a chemical reaction. Such has been happening recently with the topic of global warming. Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth provided the catalyst for a veritable firestorm of global warming hysteria. Not bad for what amounts to a filmed slide show.
Fawning reviewers like Roger Ebert are treating Inconvenient Truth like the newest revelation from on high. Indeed, the reception the 'religious right' gave to The Passion of the Christ is looking downright cool compared to the accolades being piled on Gore's work. Time Magazine, always a repository of deep thought about shallow subjects, intoned "Be worried. Be very worried" and provided a host of articles on impending sea level rises and storms. Even the usually skeptical ScienceBlogs.com seemed to provide only positive views and defenses of Inconvenient Truth.
Now, here's the thing: It's not that there's nothing to global warming. CO2 does indeed trap heat in our atmosphere. If you have any doubts that the greenhouse effect can make things unpleasant, read a little about today's weather on Venus. A toasty 900F degrees, anyone? And it makes sense that as the use of fossil fuels increases throughout the world, civilization will put more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. The 2+ billion people in China and India are still only starting to get close to an industrial par with the developed world -- and even with modern technology they will need to burn more fossil fuels before they move far enough forward to burn less. Global average temperatures have increased about one degree Celsius over the last century, and chances are good that human activity is at least one factor causing that.
However, the question that not enough people are asking is: How much of a problem is that in the grand scheme of things?
Supposedly science-educated people somehow seem to forget when they get started on the topic of global warming that the history of our planet goes back a whole lot more than a hundred years. There have been many times in our planet's history when, because there were no land masses near the poles, there were virtually no ice caps at all. Sea levels were higher. Roaches grew bigger. It was better weather for walking your sauropod. But the world didn't end. (Well, okay, so there was that thing about sudden global climate change after a giant rock fell out of the sky and blasted out a crater a hundred miles across -- but we'd be pretty hosed by a major asteroid strike now too.)
But you don't have to go back millions of years to see how much the climate can change without the planet going to pieces. A read of the Norse sagas clearly reveals that Iceland and Greenland had much milder climates around 900 to 1100 AD than they do now. So did Newfoundland, where the Norse briefly established a colony around 1000.
Indeed, people often forget that according to mainstream ice age theory, we are currently 10,000 years into an interglacial period in what is overall an ice age. Opinion varies widely as to how long interglacial periods typically last, and what exactly causes them to start and stop -- though the human production of greenhouse gasses might well artifically extend this one.
How bad all this is depends on your definition of what is an acceptable change in the status quo. It also depends a lot on more much linear change in the climate the release of greenhouse gasses will actually change. For instance, warming in the waters around Antarctica produces more precipitation over the ice sheet, which in turn means increased ice pack, not less. There are incredibly complex systems controling climate change on our planet, and it would be silly to imagine that we actually have them all figured out.
Many of the things that scare environmental advocates are also man-made problems. For instance, we're often warned that the sea level might rise 5, 10 or even 20 feet because of ice melt. So far, the verified sea level rise to due to ice melting is more in the range of a centimeter per decade, but leaving that aside: sea levels have changed radically over the history of the earth. Sea levels were much lower during the last glacial period. As sea levels rose again, whole areas (notably the Black Sea, which according to a fair amount of research only filled about 5000-7000 years ago) were flooded. Now, to the planet qua planet, that's not a problem at all. Sea levels change. It's supposed to be that way. But for our intrepid band of over-intellectual primates who have gone and built major cities in coastal regions subject to hurricanes on land at or below sea level -- it presents a problem.
Oddly enough, the environmentalist case against global warming is a case for the artificial lifestyle that we as a civilization have developed. The planet, and most of the species on it, are not going to be harmed by changes in the climate, even if those changes are partly caused by our industrial society. And so long as most of the effects are like those that have occured so far, or can be reasonably hypothesized, civilization as a whole is not going to be heavily impacted. We survived the black death and income tax, we can move to higher ground or cut our CO2 output, though the former might be more realistic than the latter -- and we won't need to move much higher unless changes of more than a few centimeters occur.
It seems ironic to me that while Ann Coulter's latest book claims that evolution is the religious myth of the liberal establishment, the liberal establishment is working itself into a lather over a set of climate changes which is neither big nor unprecedented when set against the wider scope of our planet's history. Perhaps young earth creationists should be freaking out about global warming, but people who allegedly understand that we live on a complex planet which has been changing in ways big and small for over four billion years don't need to be nearly as worried.
One of the few sane articles I've read lately on the topic asks the right set of questions: How do the costs of ending CO2 production compare with the costs of dealing with the effects of not doing so? Cost benefit analysis. What are they teaching them in schools these days?