Matt Ridley says we are apocalypse junkies

The ever-stimulating science writer Matt Ridley has just published another of his doom-laden warnings about human susceptibility to doom-laden warnings. He tells us that the history of the last fifty years shows that when policy makers are goaded into action by naïve environmentalists, they invariably make things worse.  Scientists exaggerate the potency of ecological threats and their expensive cures often achieve nothing. His closing theme is an increasingly common one: ‘why should we trust the scientists on climate change, when they have been wrong about every single environmental issue of the last half century?’

Fifteen years ago, the Economist published a very similar article to Ridley’s in an attempt to get us to stop worrying about global warming. The examples of false catastrophe were strikingly similar to those that Ridley uses this week: the population explosion, the depletion of oil and gas, acid rain, cancer causing chemicals, exhaustion of metal supplies, food production, Ebola virus and so on. In both cases, the writers are eager to tell us that things are actually getting better every day and ecologists should button their lips. Time for a quick retrospective check: how well has the Economist’s Panglossian optimism about the next decades been matched by reality? Very badly indeed, it turns out.

The price of metals

The Economist article started with the conventional attack on Malthus (also a target for Ridley, of course) for suggesting that population growth would outstrip food supply. But it rapidly switched to the 1972 Club of Rome report (Ridley goes for this as well) which projected a rapid exhaustion of available resources of important minerals, such metal ores. Prices would rise rapidly, said the Club.

What foolishness, exclaimed the Economist in 1997, as it displayed a chart showing metal prices falling by nearly 50% since the apocalyptic report. There is no shortage of ores and no reason for concern.

How have things changed since 1997? Below is a chart showing the price of probably the important metal, copper. (US $ per tonne). The cost has more than quadrupled since the Economist article. Other metals have also substantially increased in price.

The magazine went on to make the obligatory reference to the bet between Paul Erlich and Julian Simon. Erlich, a deep environmental pessimist, lost money to Simon who had correctly predicted that metal prices would fall.

Ridley also covers the wager in detail. Surprisingly, he makes no mention at all of the sharp rise in the price of most commodities since 1997. Instead, he says, ‘they grew cheaper’, a comment that will surprise anyone buying any industrial commodity in 2012t. The Economist made light hearted fun of the school textbooks that said that minerals would run out. Ridley does the same.

 

 

Food

In 1997, The Economist showed that food prices had fallen significantly since 1960. The prevailing pessimism about agricultural yields was unwarranted.

Was its rosy view of the future correct, or would food prices start to rise again? Unfortunately for the world, food prices have become much more volatile and typically much higher than they were. How does Matt Ridley deal with this inconvenient fact? He says that ‘food prices fell to record lows in the early 2000s’…but ‘a policy of turning some of the world’s grain into motor fuel has reversed some of that decline.’ Not quite correct – current world food prices in the last five years are substantially higher in real terms than at any time since 1990.

 

 

 

Cancer

In 1997, the Economist said that mortality from cancers not related to smoking ‘is falling steadily’ in the age group 35-69. Ridley repeated the claim last week saying that ‘in general, cancer incidence and death rates, when corrected for the average age of the population have been falling now for 20 years’.

Not strictly true: according to research from Cancer Research UK, 61,000 people in the 40-59 group were diagnosed in 2008 compared to 48,000 in 1978, a substantial rise even after taking into increased population numbers. Part of this increase is due to better screening and earlier diagnosis, but Ridley is choosing to ignore the many troubling signs that cancer rates may well now be rising. The Economist of 1997 and Ridley of 2012 pour ridicule on the idea that ‘chemicals’ have much to do with cancer incidence – and they are probably right – but any complacency over the number of cases is severely  misguided.

Amazonian deforestation and deserts

The Economist said that the problem was exaggerated and the area logged each year was falling. True: 1997 saw a figure of only 13m hectares (about 5% of the area of Great Britain). But by 2004, Amazonian deforestation had risen sharply again, to a level over double the earlier figure. After sustained action from the Brazilian government, the rate of loss has fallen but almost 20% of the total forest has now been lost.

Even more surprisingly, the Economist felt able to assert that in dry areas there had been ‘no net advance of the desert at all’. The UN thinks differently today, suggesting that 23 hectares are lost to the desert every minute. Unusually, Ridley doesn’t mention this theme at all, probably acknowledging the overwhelming evidence that fragile drylands are turning into deserts at uncomfortably rapid rates.

Acid rain

It’s on acid rain caused by power station emissions that the Economist of 1997 and Ridley of 2012 are most at one. They even use the same quotation from a 1990 US government report. Ridley calls acid rain ‘a minor environmental nuisance’ and both authors point to 1980s opinions that acidification didn’t affect the total volume of standing wood, once thought to be a severe threat. Ridley asserts that there is little evidence of any connection between acid deposition and increasing acidity of streams and lakes. (He is in a very small minority in his scepticism on this).

Both the Economist and Ridley imply that the environmentalists who demanded restrictions on the pollution from coal-fired power plants had needlessly panicked. Woodlands ‘thrived’ in a more acidic environment said the Economist. Not so, says the US government in its latest (2011) report on the impact of acid rain. ‘Despite the environmental improvements reported here, research over the past few years indicates that recovery from the effects of acidification is not likely for many sensitive areas without additional decreases in acid deposition’. Even now, the acidification of land and rivers remains a serious problem.

****

To both these two authors, separated by fifteen years, environmentalists constantly over-estimate the impact of humankind  on the world’s ecological systems. The globe, they say, is a much more robust organism than we think and can withstand our meddling. We should look to find technological solutions to ecological problems and not needlessly impose costly  regulation.

Most sceptics have the intellectual honesty to stop at this point and admit that the degradation of stratospheric ozone is a good counter-example. If the planet’s governments hadn’t introduced a restriction on ozone-depleting chemicals such as CFCs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ozone hole would still be rapidly increasing and letting in increasing quantities of dangerous UV-B radiation. (Too much UV-B causes skin cancer in humans and some animals and affects plant growth).

Matt Ridley won’t have any of this nonsense. In a jaw-dropping series of paragraphs, he asserts that the connection between CFCs and other chemicals known to react with ozone and the decreases in ozone levels is unproven. The careful work by Paul Crutzen and others that won a Nobel Prize for showing how a single atom of chlorine can unbind many molecules of ozone is not good enough. Nor is the evidence of the impact of the ozone hole on skin cancer. Ridley says that the ‘the mortality rate from melanoma actually levelled off during the growth of the ozone hole’. It’s not unfair to describe this conclusion as utter nonsense: increasing skin cancer incidence has been linked to rising UV-B radiation for several decades.

But to Matt Ridley it seems more important not to allow the environmentalists to be right about anything. He appears to be worried that his readers might believe if scientists were right – just once in the 1970s – to link man-made chemicals to the extreme dangers of rapid ozone destruction, they might also be correct to say that global warming threatens mankind’s future. I really think we could have expected more from one of Britain’s best writers on science.

 

  1. Paul A’s avatar

    “In a jaw-dropping series of paragraphs..”

    Yep, had that affect on me. Extraordinary stuff from the irrational over-optimist.

  2. Graham’s avatar

    “After sustained action from the Brazilian government, the rate of loss has fallen but almost 20% of the total forest has now been lost.” So Ridley is right about that then- “The rate of deforestation is now slowing, and in 2011 deforestation figures were the lowest on record.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_deforestation

    On cancer, a reference and how you get your data would be useful- I couldnt find this info very quickly, but we would need to know how much the 40-59 age group increased since 1978; you say some of the increase is in detection rates, but how much? These two figures could actually cancel out the per capita increase in cancer- Im not saying you are wrong but without the data you are over-stating your case.

    On the Ozone hole Ridley writes: “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.” I am not sure you have actually addressed or debunked these points- in fact your “draw-dropping” rhetoric I feel misrepresents them.

    So, some interesting points that deserve closer scrutiny but I dont think you have challenged Ridley’s over-all point which is that doom-mongering is commonly used to gain political constituents, and some of the most prominent environmentalists like Ehrlich have basically made lengthy careers from being wrong- and continue to be so.

  3. Chris Goodall’s avatar

    Graham

    The data on middle aged cancer in the UK is

    http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/news/archive/pressrelease/2011-07-18-cancer-rates-rise-in-middle-aged

    Sorry – I should have provided this link in the original article. I’m afraid I cannot show evidence that age-adjusted incidence is rising, merely that several classes if cancer are showing disturbing rises in age-adjusted cases in the UK. (Primarily lung and breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men). We don’t know how much of this is better recording or diagnosis.

    I’m afraid I differ from you on ozone depletion. The decline in stratospheric ozone levels, particularly over the Antarctic region, was severe and strongly linked to ozone-depleting chemicals. After the US and other governments banned CFCs, the rate of change in ozone levels fell. Although the ozone layer has not recovered, and a significant ‘hole’ remains over high Southern latitudes, the evidence is that ozone levels will recover by 2050 or so. Without international action on ozone depleting chemicals, the problem would have very substantially worsened. If Matt Ridley thinks otherwise, he has a difficult case to make.

    The destruction of the ozone layer was a potentially disastrous event. The restoration of pre-CFC ozone levels is taking time because of the long life of these chemicals in the atmosphere. I challenge anyone to argue otherwise. Matt Ridley’s apparent – his language is deliberately unclear – suggestion that CFCs weren’t the most important cause of high level ozone destruction is, frankly, claptrap.

    Chris

  4. HarryW’s avatar

    Does this man have *any* scientific credibility, i.e., CV that relates, to any ofnthe areas on which he bloviates?

    I am again and again astonished at the denialistas’ cheek, such as Ridley has shown time and time again, to constantly outright LIE about this stuff, when so much lies in the balance.

  5. bobgnote’s avatar

    When media and climatologists and politicians finally get over to Veron 2008 and read about coral studies, we can all know, how any time atmospheric CO2 concentration rose PARTLY as fast, as it is rising, today, the Earth suffered one of five mass extinction events, bollide events or not.

    When everybody wants to put CO2-neutral biomass media in order, we will know we are serious, about reducing the carbon footprint, of corruption, gangs, cartels, and nonsense, since hemp will be legal, to be encouraged, at development, with algae and switchgrass, with all the solar and wind gimmicks.

    I would appreciate if my fellow humans would notice, how when the northern cap ice melts, every summer, the Earth will absorb more energy, every northern summer, which with more atmospheric GHGs will precede an acceleration, in oceanic acidification, warming, and sea level rise.

    We are approaching two main tipping points, here. When enough CO2, let alone SO2 and NO2 get leeched, by rain, waters will acidify. The oceans only need to relatively acidify, to end the food web. Die-offs of oysters and animals are happening.

    Corals, eggs, little fish, and plankton are also threatened. A couple of bad fishing years with relative acidity, and the ocean can lose most desirable species, whereupon jellyfish populations will explode, and jellies will finish the job, humans started.

    Want to have a costly drug war, with an unaccountable carbon footprint? I hope not. We either resource, rather than market fascism’s conflict, with propped-up contraband, or we will see humans become endangered, sooner.

  6. John Nicholson’s avatar

    The issue of mineral costs illustrates the central problem of credibility in the environmental camp – yes, mineral prices have risen over the last 15 years, with the exponential industrial growth of China and the east. The cost pressure is demand side – there are a billion more industrial consumers in the world than there were when the Economists article was written.

    My father was a senior industrial metalurgist, until retiring in 2001. In the early 90′s he predicted that the rise of China etc… would push up commodity prices, but even so he was staggered by the increase when it came. Crucially, the cost issue is not related to scarcity, but demand.

    That fact should not excite any particular emotion – but somehow environmentalism generates an hysteria which obscures the most pressing issues and the still unresolved climate crisis issue.

    Anyone, for example, who regards Malthus as anything but a stopped clock has said goodbye to their rational function; that is not the focus or theme of this reply to Ridley – but it is enough for me not to bother reading the rest of the piece. Cheers though.

  7. Matt Ridley’s avatar

    Mr Goodall’s piece has so many errors in it, it is embarrassing. Let’s start with the repeated misspelling of “Ehrlich”. Not that it matters much, but it is indicative of sloppiness with respect to facts.

    Then notice Mr Goodall’s attempt to combat my assertion that melanoma is not increasing with the following “jaw-dropping” remark: “increasing skin cancer incidence has been linked to rising UV-B radiation for several decades.” He gives no source for this. (My article has over 75 source links at my website: http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/apocalypse-not.aspx.) Is Mr Goodall unaware that most skin cancer is not melanoma? That the increase in other skin cancers is caused, most medical scientists think, by an increase in holidays in low latitudes, not a reduction in ozone in high latitudes?

    As for his assertion that my language was “deliberately unclear” but I “seemed to be saying” that that CFCs were not the main cause of ozone loss, no, my language could not have been clearer: “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.”

    here’s a graph showing the persistence of the zone hole — http://ozonewatch.gsfc.nasa.gov/meteorology/annual_data.html

    There’s plenty more in the way of egregious mistakes in the piece that would never have got past the fact-checkers at Wired. His price graphs take no account of inflation! Minerals and cancers are cherry picked. etc etc. For anybody who open-mindedly wants to check my sources, they are linked at my website here:

    http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/apocalypse-not.aspx

    where I have also added in some more examples of failed apocalyptic predictions that were left on the cutting room floor by Wired.

    And the similarity of some parts of the Wired article to some parts of the Economist article is because I wrote them both.

  8. Chris Goodall’s avatar

    Dear Matt Ridley,

    Thank you very much for your comments.

    I apologise for misspelling Paul Ehrlich’s name twice.

    I didn’t say so in the post, but the similarities between the (unsigned) 1997 article and the Wired 2012 piece had caused me to suspect you had written them both. What surprised me most was that you didn’t acknowledge that a large part of what you said in 1997 (on matters such as food and minerals prices) has turned out to be so wrong. And you did not update the commentary to reflect new findings over the last fifteen years. Nor did you note recent evidence on matters such as rising incidence of age-adjusted cancers.

    As you might expect, I don’t accept your conclusions on CFCs and ozone. Ozone depletion was an existential threat to mankind and only relatively prompt action saved us. Yes, as predicted, the ozone hole is taking a long time to repair, but the trends are clearly and obviously favourable.

    One quick question – do you or do you not accept that CFCs cause ozone depletion?

    Best wishes

    Chris Goodall

  9. Matt Ridley’s avatar

    As it happens, I do think that CFCs very probably cause ozone loss. Always have. However, I am sometimes wrong about things, so I might be wrong about that and I correctly reported that there are some who doubt it.

    I was not wrong about commodities, though. see this chart:

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_otfwl2zc6Qc/S4AmqnxCqXI/AAAAAAAAM1A/eYRQcCkYlcc/s1600-h/commodities.jpg

    and Mark Perry’s conclusion about it:

    “If Simon’s position was that natural resources and commodities become generally more abundant over long periods time, reflected in falling real prices, I think he was more right than lucky, as the graph above demonstrates.

    Stated differently, if Simon was really betting that inflation-adjusted prices of a basket of commodity prices have a significantly negative slope over long periods of time, and Ehrlich was betting that the slope of that line was significantly positive, I think Simon wins the bet.”

    and I was not wrong about food prices either:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/08/peak-oil-climate-change-and-the-threat-to-food-security/#more-48870

    How anybody from the climate-alarm camp can argue that the recent spike in food prices might be evidence of running out of food, when we turned 40% (!!) of US grain into motor fuel last year to satisfy green campaigners, baffles me.

  10. Craigt’s avatar

    Matt

    it never baffles me, a true believer must keep their religion alive so they purposely don’t use their brain, never look deeply into the facts and will never use logic, reason or common sense. The ideology de jour, the catechism, must be defended at all cost. These paleolithic simian brains are like fundamentalist creationists, no matter what evidence you proffer, they have a reason, or will falsify data, to keep their neolithic linear brained faith alive.

    As a Techo-progressive I see in: yours, Simon’s, Lomborg’s, Kelley’s, Kurzweils, Diamandis’ evidence an upholding of Marx’s evolutionary ideas of the need for the evolution of the productive material forces. It is the modern left that are revisionist anti-Marxists. Fuller coined the term Ephemeralization, Kelly: the Law of Increasing returns, Kurzweil: the Law of Exponential returns, complexity theory/economics supports you guys 100%. The future is on your guys side, only by creating a self fulfilling prophesy of a legally enforced draconian precautionary principle can the Green neo-communists bring about their resource scarcity dystopia.

    Loved your book, keep up the great work!

  11. Victor’s avatar

    This is a somewhat misleading representation of the development of food and metalprices, you should look at it in 1 graph and see that trends are still in place.
    Please visit Goklany’s revisit of the famous Simon-Ehrlich bet with nice graphs long timescales.
    http://www.masterresource.org/2010/04/population-consumption-carbon-emissions-and-human-well-being-in-the-age-of-industrialization-part-i-revisiting-the-julian-simon-paul-ehrlich-bet/#more-9145

    Overall not a convincing article.

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