I don’t know much about global warming. But I do know something about the dangers of precipitous action, especially when its advocates appear to be caught up in something akin to religious fervor. My instincts run towards stop, take a deep breath, and be absolutely sure that you’re not about to put the world’s economy in a stranglehold just to please the people who despise modernity.
That’s why I was both heartened and disheartened when I read, some time ago, Dana Milbank’s Washington Sketch column in the Washington Post, “With All Due Respect, We’re Doomed.” He gave an account of Al Gore’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where apparently he was treated like a prophet. Quoth the tongue-in-cheek Milbank:
The lawmakers gazed in awe at the figure before them. The Goracle had seen the future, and he had come to tell them about it.
What the Goracle saw in the future was not good: temperature changes that would “bring a screeching halt to human civilization and threaten the fabric of life everywhere on the Earth–and that is within this century, if we don’t change.”
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D. Mass.) appealed to hear more of the Goracle’s premonitions. “Share with us, if you would, sort of the immediate vision that you see in this transformative process as we move into this new economy,” he beseeched.
The article is well worth reading in full, but you get the idea. The bad news is that even Republicans on the Committee, like Sen. Bob Corker, treated Gore with a reverence ordinarily reserved for the likes of Isaiah and Ezekiel. That doesn’t bode well for those hoping to defeat cap-and-trade climate legislation in the Senate.
But there’s good news too: Milbank himself, a card-carrying member of the MSM, gets it. He knows we need to take that deep breath before we plunge ahead at the behest of “the Goracle.” I suspect that more and more liberals are going to go skeptical on this issue.
Alarmingly, the prophet that Gore most resembles may turn out to be Nongqawuse, who led her people to ruin in the mid-19th century. Nongqawuse was a teenager and a member of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. One day in April or May of 1856, she went down to the river to fetch water. When she returned, she said that she had encountered the spirits of three of her ancestors who told her that her people must destroy their crops and kill their cattle. In return, the sun would rise red on February 18, 1857, and the Xhosa ancestors would sweep the British settlers from the land and bring them fresh, healthier cattle. (Some of the Xhosa cattle had been suffering from a lung ailment, which may or may not have been brought by the British settlers’ cattle.)
Astonishingly, the Xhosa chieftain, Sarhili, agreed to do exactly as this young girl urged. Over the next year, a frenzy occurred in which it is estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 cattle were killed and crops destroyed. Historians sometimes call it the “Great Cattle Killing.”
But on February 18, 1857, the sun rose as usual. It was not red. And the Xhosa ancestors did not show. But the Xhosa people had destroyed their livelihood. In the resulting famine, the population of the area dropped from 105,000 to less than 27,000. Cannibalism was reported. Following Nongqawuse’s advice was a calamity of staggering proportions for the Xhosa people.
Like Nongqawuse, Gore tells us that the sun will soon rise red over the land. Well, maybe. But already the models that he relies on have been proven wrong. The intense period of warming that these models predicted over the past ten years never came to pass. Yet we are repeatedly told that it’s still coming and that it’s just a little late. Apparently, we should pay no attention to the fact that the polar ice is expanding again. Instead, we must put the brakes on our use of energy–the very thing that makes the modern world possible–to avoid antagonizing the spirits of our ancestors, I mean to avoid climate disaster.
Again, I am persuadable. But it will take more evidence than I have seen so far (and yes, I’ve spent more time than the average lawyer trying to piece together the evidence, though that’s not saying much).
There are two more parallels to the Great Cattle Killing that are worth pointing out. First, Nongqawuse’s urgings did not come out of nowhere. Some of the cattle were indeed sick. The problem is that her proposed course of action was utterly disproportionate to the problem, just as Gore’s proposals are disproportionate given the state of our knowledge. Second, some historians believe that the Great Cattle Killing was in part motivated by class animosity. The Xhosa people had been losing ground to white settlers for years, and some members of the tribe blamed their more prosperous members. Cattle were a status symbols, and initially at least, the burden of their destruction seemed to be something that would fall disproportionately upon these tribal leaders. The cattle were, in effect, the SUVs of their time.
Here’s hoping that Sen. Corker and his colleagues adopt a little healthy skepticism before they adopt the solutions proposed by Gore, much less energy/climate legislation akin to HR 2454. We don’t need a Senate of Sarhilis. For the record, I should point out that he perished in the famine.
Gail Heriot is Professor of Law at University of San Diego and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Her website is here.