Review of Michael Crichton's State of Fear

By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.
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The newest Michael Crichton thriller, State of Fear, is a real page turner--in more ways than one, unfortunately. The book starts off in classic Michael Crichton tradition, with the bad guys gathering a baffling set of very specialized and expensive high-tech equipment--hypersonic cavitation generators, wire-guided projectiles, shaped explosives, a deep-diving submersible. They also quietly seek out a mysterious and worrisome collection of information, including data on hurricanes, tsunamis, use of explosives in seismic recordings, and more. As the bodies of those who get in their way begin piling up, it is clear we are dealing with a ruthless, well-organized foe with plans for major high-tech mayhem. The story is exciting and the pages turn quickly as we read on to find out just what kind of mayhem lies ahead.

We meet the main character, Peter Evans, a Los Angeles lawyer with an interesting romantic life and a very interesting primary client--millionaire environmental philanthropist George Morton. Morton bankrolls the National Environmental Resource Fund (NERF), an environmental group suing the U.S. on behalf of the island nation of Vanutu for damages caused by Global Warming-induced sea level rises. We watch Peter Evans as he meets the legal and scientific team assembled by NERF to prosecute the sea level rise lawsuit, and here the story really slows down as the NERF team tries to educate Evans about the uncertainties of the Global Warming theory. As you might suspect from the NERF group's name, Crichton is not a fan of environmentalists--nor of the Global Warming theory. As the book progresses, Crichton repeatedly attacks environmentalists and the science behind Global Warming though a series of mock trials that Evans sits though.

As the plot and action moves ahead in fits and starts between Global Warming science lectures, we find that the bads guys are a group of eco-terrorists, with possible ties to George Morton's NERF organization. We meet the main hero of the story, Dr. John Kenner, professor of Geoenvironmental Engineering at MIT, and secret agent for an unnamed national security organization. Kenner, along with Evans and two of his romantic interests, relentlessly pursue the baddies to Antarctica, Arizona, and a remote Pacific island infested with cannibals. Kenner also happens to be a brilliant and well-informed critic of Global Warming, and proceeds to "educate" Evans (and the reader) about the truth about Global Warming through a series of conversations throughout the rest of the book. The conversations come complete with page after page of graphs and charts and footnotes. Mixed in with the lectures on Global Warming are formulations of Crichton's more general environmental philosophy--that a new politico-legal-media complex has taken over control from the military industrial complex, and is dedicated to controlling the population by promoting a state of fear about false environmental scares like catastrophic Global Warming.

The story finally ends, mercifully, after 567 pages, of which at least 100 are devoted to anti-environmental sermons and Global Warming "education". A full 20 pages of scientific references follow, along with a few pages of the author's comments on his environmental philosophy and what he feels should be done to fix the State of Fear created by the politico-legal-media complex.

I give Crichton credit for attempting to weave what is obviously to him a very important bit of personal philosophy into an action-thriller novel. I also give him credit for taking the initiative to educate himself on the Global Warming issue, something that I believe all citizens should do (if you've got 10 minutes, a good place to start is the latest scientific summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of over 2000 scientists from 100 countries working under a mandate from the United Nations in the largest peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history). However, "State of Fear" is a disappointment both as an action-thriller novel, and as a credible source of science on the Global Warming issue. The action is fun when it happens, but is way too bogged down by the excessive sermonizing and "educating" that Crichton interjects at every opportunity in the story. I found myself skipping page after page of his characters' interminable griping to get to the action parts. And Crichton's obvious gloom about the harm excessive environmentalism is doing to the world is reflected in the book, making the mood of the story very dark, and not much fun to read.

On a scientific level, Crichton has obviously done a lot of research. The high-tech schemes of the baddies to create fake climate mayhem are all delightfully improbable, but based in fact just enough to leave you wondering if such things are really possible (not!). Unfortunately, Crichton presents a error-filled and distorted version of the Global Warming science, favoring views of the handful of contrarians that attack the consensus science of the IPCC. I list a few of the errors and distortions below:

Crichton informs us, "A large high-pressure mass was beginning to rotate, forming the ragged beginnings of a hurricane." This is false, a hurricane forms from a large mass of LOW pressure.

Dr. Kenner attacks the notion that extreme weather has increased in the past 15 years, or that Global Warming will cause in increase in extreme weather, noting, "If anything, global warming theory predicts less extreme weather." This is false, global warming theory does not predict less extreme weather. The latest IPCC Assessment Report concludes that we don't know enough to determine if events like hurricanes, tornados, and hailstorms will increase or decrease in frequency due to Global Warming. However, the report does say it is very likely that there will be more intense precipitation events over many areas, and that peak winds and rainfall rates from hurricanes are also likely to be higher. This is a logical result of the fact that a warmer Earth will have increased evaporation from the oceans, and thus more moisture will be available for precipitation.

Dr. Kenner asserts that Mt. Kilamanjaro's glaciers are not melting because of global warming, stating: "So why is it melting? Because of deforestation." However, the lead author of the study Crichton cites in the footnote for this assertion stated in a New York Times interview (PDF File) that he objected to his study being used by greenhouse skeptics to portray the melting of Kilimanjaro's glaciers as a "black-and-white picture that says it is either global warming or not global warming". Another author of the study noted that, "Using these preliminary findings to refute or even question global warming borders on the absurd".

In a debate about whether the U.S. should sign the Kyoto Protocol to combat Global Warming, Dr. Kenner asks why we should sign a treaty that "won't, in effect, do anything at all?", stating: "The effect of Kyoto would be to reduce warming by .04 degrees Celsius in the year 2100". Again, this assertion has serious problems. The Kyoto Protocol calls for the industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2% below 1990 emission levels for the period 2005 - 2012. Developing countries do not have to cut emissions. Since the Kyoto treaty expires in 2012, it is absurd to talk about the worth of the Kyoto Protocol by extending it to 2100, assuming no emission control demands will be put on developing countries at some point in the future. A true measure of the Kyoto Protocol's worth must be measured by combining its effect with the effect of new treaties that must be negotiated to succeed Kyoto in 2012. All of the IPCC Assessment Reports have noted the need for greenhouse gas emission cuts of 50% or more by all nations by the mid- to late- 21st century, and little or no emissions by the century's end, to meet the goal of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations below a doubling of pre-industrial values. Kyoto is a small first step in achieving this goal.

Many more flawed or misleading presentations of Global Warming science exist in the book, including those on Arctic sea ice thinning, correction of land-based temperature measurements for the urban heat island effect, satellite vs. ground-based measurements of Earth's warming, and controversies over sea level rise estimates. I will spare the reader additional details. On the positive side, Crichton does emphasize the little-appreciated fact that while most of the world has been warming the past few decades, most of Antarctica has seen a cooling trend. The Antarctic ice sheet is actually expected in increase in mass over the next 100 years, according to the IPCC. Additionally, Crichton correctly points out that there has been no rise in hurricane activity in the Atlantic over the past few decades (a point unchanged by the record four hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004).

In a conversation about trying to educate an ignorant environmentalist about the realities of Global Warming, Kenner sums up for me the essence of Crichton's presentation of science in State of Fear:

"Her intentions are good," she said.

"And her information is bad," Kenner said. "A prescription for disaster."

The excessive interruptions of an otherwise good story by Crichton's bad science make State of Fear a bad buy.

For further reading...

For one of the more balanced and up-to-date views of the controversies surrounding the Global Warming issue, see Dr. Stephen Schneider's web site. Dr. Schneider, one of the world's foremost climate experts, has testified frequently before Congress on environmental issues and is one of the lead authors of the IPCC scientific reports. He has criticized both industry-funded skeptics and environmental groups on their biased treatment of the Global Warming issue.

Skeptics have routinely called global warming "a hoax", and attacked the credibility of scientists promoting the idea. Are the skeptics right? To shed light on the issue, it is helpful to review how the same skeptics treated the ozone hole issue. Read the Weather Underground special feature, The Skeptics vs. The Ozone.

The latest IPCC summary has an excellent summary of what the best scientists in the field figure we know and don't know about Global Warming.