One of the novelists I’m determined to completely read before I’m gone, is Michael Crichton, best known for Jurassic Park, or, if you were born at least 50 yrs ago, 1969’s Andromeda Strain.

Here we’re going to look at his infamous 2004 anti-global-warming novel, State of Fear.

Crichton, who died in 2008, was an interesting guy. Because he’d wanted to write fiction from the time he was a boy, he took a BA in English Literature in university. But then he entered medical school, hated it, but went all the way, got his MD, then, because he had succeeded in publishing something in the meantime, walked away and wrote fiction for the rest of his life.

Like most SF authors, Crichton was an iconoclast, always swimming against the stream. Unlike most of us who do that, he made a lot of money doing it.

In State of Fear, he went after the global warming community with a vengeance. In the story, a big environmental charity secretly supports eco-terrorists who work at directing hurricanes and tsunamis towards population centres, hoping for high casualties, murdering anyone who gets in their way.

This was offensive to a lot of people, including me when I finally read it this week. Almost 20 years since the book was published we haven’t seen anything like that. Based on its book rating, it’s still selling well – unfortunately probably encouraging right wing voters around the world.

But Crichton does open the Pandora box of climate science, showing us how unpredictable and fascinating  climate change is, and always has been.

He points out that in the 1970s climatologists were worrying more about whether we were experiencing the onset of a new ice age than about global warming. The severe winters of 1976 and ’77 are still famous in weather literature. I remember that well, for I was trying to sell a possible ‘new ice age’ to newspapers and magazines, so I’d done a lot of research myself.

While ice ages generally last a hundred thousand years or more, the intervals between them, like the one we’re in now, are usually 10,000 – 12,000 years. The planet seems to be more stable in an ice age than it is in a warm one. Since the last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago, we could be on the cusp of a new one. Some of the things I learned:

  • The melting of the last ice age glaciers was done by stronger sunlight than we have today. If that ice was still in place today, it probably wouldn’t melt away at all.
  • The onset of each ice age is not gradual. The switch seems to happen quickly. The theory in the ’70s was (and I think it still is) that all you probably need is one summer when the snow cover in the far north doesn’t melt completely. The year long snow cover reflects more sunlight, cooling the arctic and antarctic. Add the arrival of new snow with the next winter and you’ve started a new ice age

That’s simplistic of course. In reality the events would be variable, advances of ice alternating with withdrawals, just as they are now. The 18th century, only a few generations ago, was famous for its ‘Little Ice Age’, when most glaciers were growing and Londoners were skating on the Thames.

Crichton discusses all that, and he also presents the possibility that our current global warming is caused more by the heat-island effect of large cities [he gives you charts showing that as a city grows in population, its temperature grows exponentially]. Since the world’s population has quadrupled in my lifetime, this must be a factor. I’m sympathetic with that, for this carbon, carbon, carbon focus looks like a mistake to me. It directs attention away from other serious problems, forest and other habitat destruction in particular.

What really caught my attention though was Crichton’s statement that in 2004 the Antarctica ice cover was not shrinking, but getting thicker.

I fact checked that, and he was right. In fact, if you check the results for the Antarctic today (Crichton used NASA results and so did I this week) the ice that covers 98% of the continent (14 million square kms), averaging 2 kms thick, holding 61% of the world’s fresh water, is, at least on the “eastern” side of the continent, still growing thicker in 2023. Yes, large pieces of the ice sheets over the sea are breaking off, but that may partially because of pressure from the ice of the interior.

Think about that. Suppose that at the same time as we are warming the planet, there are other factors cooling it. A contest yet undecided.

There is an ongoing debate whether the increased cloud cover from global warming will have a cooling effect as it reflects more sunlight. Clouds are complex phenomena that haven’t been studied much, but there are 2 new satellites directed at just that.

But there seems to be no question now that at least the arctic is warming (you can see the year-by-year shrinking of the ocean ice cover on the NASA website – see below). And these 40 C + temperatures in northern Europe, etc, are very persuasive. I’m wondering whether the north and south hemispheres might go in opposing directions. One heating up, the other moving into an new ice age.

Anyway, are you wondering whether you want to read the book?

Well, think of this. Crichton is famous for his “know-it-all”characters, like the mathematician in Jurrasic Park, played so well by Jeff Goldblum in the movie, who walks in telling everyone that Jurassic Park will be a disaster, because he knows chaos theory. In State of Fear, this position is taken by John Kenner, an international law enforcement agent of some kind, with a scientific bent.

From the time he enters the story, Kenner starts an argument with everyone he meets who looks like they might disagree with him. Crichton doesn’t allow anyone with real science knowledge to get near Kenner. It’s like Plato’s dialogues, where everyone is set up so Socrates can knock them down conveniently at the right time. Kenner leads argument after argument argument in circles, just like Socrates, and it’s just as artificial.

For example, out of the blue Kenner starts on about the ban on DDT, arguing this was one of the worst things that ever happened to the world (because, he claims, the pesticides that followed DDT have been worse). I lived in the age of DDT, spraying some of it myself, watching how it killed everything, including the spiders that kept insects under control.

The other characters let him go on this way, no one mentioning that for 99% of human history civilization got on well without artificial pesticides. And no one says a word about organic farming, which has been growing for decades,  partly because farmers have got tired of have society’s highest cancer rates.

There is one delightful interlude in the book though, where an elderly professor, Norman Hoffman, tries to crash a environmental conference, yelling about how Americans, safer than most people on the planet, have been taught to live in a “state of fear”  (hence the title of the book). Fear is being used to control society. Though he’s obviously another Michael Crichton in disguise, Hoffman is led away as if he’s just an old crank. Maybe it’s because I’m 76 years old, but he’s the only character in the book I really liked

To top the story off, because of this need of Kenner’s to have people around him who he can intellectually browbeat, the group goes globe-trotting – from antartica where they almost freeze to death, to a forest in California where Kenner and his assistant engage in machine-gun battles with the terrorists, while his unarmed guests look on hoping to not be killed – action scene after action scene – finally ending up on the Solomon islands where one of them, Hollywood actor Ted, who Kenner despises, is killed and eaten by rebels. Then as Kenner tries to break up an engineered tsunami directed at California, they’re all captured by the heavily-armed rebels. Logically they should all have been killed, including super-smart Kenner, but tricks and coincidences provided by the author allow them to win in the end.

No, I wouldn’t read the book it if I were you.

But if you want to know more about this alternate view of climate change, Crichton adds about 20 interesting pages – Appendix 1 and Appendix II – to close the book. You might read that and forget the rest of the book altogether.

PS – my attempt to link NASA above didn’t work, so here it is: polar ice shrinking

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