Michael Crichton's technopolitical thriller State of Fear (HarperCollins) turns on a controversial notion: that all the talk we've been hearing about global warming--polar ice caps melting, weather systems sent into calamitous confusion, beach weather lingering into January--might be at best misguided, at worst dead wrong. It's The Da Vinci Code with real facts, violent storms, and a different kind of faith altogether.
The book opens with the murder of an American graduate student studying ocean-wave dynamics. (State of Fear is the sort of novel that makes even nerd occupations seem daring.) A boatyard owner renting deep-sea submarines in Vancouver is also murdered, as is a man purchasing illicit rocket guide wires in London.
We soon learn that such skullduggery is being coordinated, or so it seems, by Nick Drake, a Ralph Nader clone--intense, single-minded, and (apologies to Nader's many fans) unhinged. He is the president of the National Environmental Resource Fund, or NERF, a radical environmental organization founded by lawyers, not scientists. The fund is clearly modeled on the real-life Natural Resources Defense Council, whose annual budget is about the same: $44 million. Drake plans to create a series of vast mediagenic natural disasters to further his ideological environmentalist agenda.
But his plan has run into some snags. NERF's biggest supporter, millionaire playboy George Morton, has become disillusioned with Drake; and an omnicompetent MIT scientist named John Kenner is close to unraveling Drake's plots. The ensuing action ranges from crumbling ice shelves in Antarctica and flash floods in the Arizona desert to a tsunami in the South Pacific.
State of Fear is, in a sense, the novelization of a speech Crichton delivered in September 2003 at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. He argued there that environmentalism is essentially a religion, a belief system based on faith, not fact. To make this point, the novel weaves real scientific data and all-too-real political machinations into the twists and turns of its story.
Kenner uses the data to rebut Drake's exaggerated assertions that humanity is headed toward environmental calamity. For example: Contrary to claims that rising global temperatures will melt the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica, thus elevating sea levels catastrophically, average temperatures over Greenland have been falling since 1987 at a rather steep rate of 2.2 degrees Celsius per decade. Over Antarctica, they've been falling for 50 years. Crichton also correctly reports that Nils-Axel Mörner, a professor of geodynamics at Stockholm University, has found "a total absence of any recent sea level rise" and has instead found evidence of a fall in sea levels in the last 20 years.
What about the trend in global average temperatures, a question central to the debate in State of Fear? According to satellite data, since 1978 the planet has been warming up at a rate of 0.08 degree Celsius per decade. Simple arithmetic reveals that, if that rate continues, the planet will warm by 0.8 degree Celsius by the end of the century. That compares with an increase of 0.6 degree Celsius during the 20th century. No catastrophe there. Indeed, Crichton has one of his characters note the costly uselessness of the supposedly heat-reducing Kyoto Protocols.
State of Fear also addresses other environmental scares. For example, Crichton notes how millions of lives have been lost to malaria because of the misconceived ban on the pesticide DDT. He debunks the notion that power lines are causing a cancer epidemic and that 40,000 species go extinct each year. Such facts help counter the conventional wisdom we hear every day in real life and, in State of Fear, act as a plot-driving counterforce to the less-than-admirable activist characters.
Crichton gets the scaremongers exactly right throughout State of Fear. But the author is not 100 percent accurate. The MIT professor Kenner claims at one point that "environmental groups in the U.S. generate half a billion dollars a year." The actual amount for just the 12 largest environmental lobby groups in the U.S. in 2002 was almost $2 billion. That buys a lot of influence in Washington. One way to mitigate its effect is to read State of Fear--a book every bit as informative as it is entertaining. And it is very entertaining.