Michael Crichton’s State of Confusion

Something strange is going on in the mind of Michael Crichton. His new bestseller State of Fear, a bewildering piece of work unlike any of his previous novels, makes the case that climate change is nothing to worry about. The villains of this story are not the mad scientists and reckless corporations that usually populate the Crichton universe (see Jurassic Park, Timeline and Prey). This time the bad guys are a bunch of scare-mongering environmentalists.

In State of Fear, the leaders of the National Environmental Resource Fund (sounds like a merger of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the old Environmental Defense Fund) become so distressed with the lackluster results of their global-warming fundraising campaign that they decide to jolt the public out of its complacency. They bankroll a group of violent radicals from the Environmental Liberation Front, who try to use heavy-duty machinery and explosives to stage a series of natural disasters: the collapse of an Antarctic ice shelf, flash floods in Arizona and a killer tsunami in the South Pacific (painfully prescient on Crichton’s part). The plan is to shock people into coughing up donations when they realize that global warming is already producing climate chaos. Of course, Crichton’s typical cast of brainy heroes and gorgeous heroines race against time to thwart the evil plotters.

As a work of science fiction, State of Fear is as silly, from the opposite perspective, as the movie Day After Tomorrow, which shows climate change overwhelming civilization in a matter of days. And like the film, State of Fear tries to be more than entertainment. The book is full of charts and graphs—provided by one of the brainy heroes—purporting to show that while the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is rising, there is little evidence that these gases will warm the globe to any significant extent. If the story doesn’t convince you to stop worrying and love the greenhouse effect, Crichton tacks on a five-page “author’s message,” six pages of appendices and a 21-page bibliography to drive home the same point. His cheery conclusion: “I suspect the people of 2100 will be much richer than we are, consume more energy, have a smaller global population and enjoy more wilderness than we have today. I don’t think we have to worry about them.”

Crichton’s presentation of scientific data is biased to the point of distortion. Noting the warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that current trends could warm the planet as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, Crichton dismisses this collaboration of hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists as just a political body pursuing an environmentalist agenda. This is an outrageous attack on the integrity of IPCC scientists, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept several of the author’s key points: We don’t fully understand the climate system, studies on global warming are often confusing and contradictory, and no one knows for sure what will happen to the climate. It is even conceivable, as Crichton suggests, that we are due for one of Earth’s periodic ice ages and thus man-made warming will be helpful.

Remember, though, that uncertainty cuts both ways. While it’s possible, as Crichton believes, that things will turn out better than the scientists’ computer climate models predict, it’s equally possible that the future could be worse than predicted.

The issue is how to respond to uncertainty. Crichton thinks that our fears have become paranoia. We fret not only about the climate but also about the alleged disease-causing effects of power lines, cell phones, pesticides, breast implants and potato chips. We are kept in a “state of fear,” says one of Crichton’s characters, by a “politico-legal-media complex.” Lawyers and journalists in particular use paranoia to gain money and power.

But wait a minute. Isn’t Crichton himself one of the people most responsible for our “state of fear?” Hasn’t he warned us that cloning could bring back dinosaur stampedes and that nanotechnology could unleash swarms of man-eating micromachines? How strange that he of all people now changes his tune and tells us technology is no big threat.

We might be better off listening to the old Crichton, who wrote Prey, the one about the ravenous micromachines. In an introduction to that novel, Crichton concluded, “The fact that the biosphere responds unpredictably to our actions is not an argument for inaction. It is, however, a powerful argument for caution, and for adopting a tentative attitude toward all we believe, and all we do. Unfortunately, our species has demonstrated a striking lack of caution in the past.”

In the face of scientific concern about the future of our climate, it is not cautious to keep burning more and more fossil fuel, which will double or even triple the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere this century unless we change our ways. The cautious approach would be to conserve fuel, expand alternative energy projects such as wind and solar, and alter the atmosphere as little as possible. But in the climate of inertia encouraged by the Bush administration, carbon emissions keep on rising, making us all guinea pigs in a giant, dangerous experiment with our environment. As the hero of Prey says, “That’s human nature. Nobody does anything until it’s too late.” If we believe what we read in State of Fear, we may be too late in responding to the threat of climate change.

CHARLES ALEXANDER is the former environment editor of Time magazine.