The Y2K Scare, the Media & Climate Change

August 9, 2011 at 3:25 pm

In the late 1990s, the media was full of stories about how the Y2K computer bug was going to wreak havoc when the year 2000 arrived. In 1997 Newsweek magazine ran a headline titled The Day the World Shuts Down. In 1998 it published an article that included these lines:

Mark Andrews, a San Diego doctor, feels so strongly about the impending catastrophe that he has quit his medical practice, moved his family to a farm in a Southwestern state and begun barnstorming the country giving lectures about Y2K preparedness. “I realized I could save more lives getting people to make contingency plans,” he says.

For every Dr. Andrews from that period, it seems to me there are now 20 medical professionals who solemnly insist it’s their business to worry about climate change. According to a recent paper published in American Psychologist (full text reproduced here):

Psychologists have an ethical obligation to take immediate steps to minimize the psychological harm associated with climate change, to help to reduce global disparities in climate impacts, and to continually improve their climate-related interventions…

Oh, brother.

Well here’s an alternative point-of-view: Just because a person has medical training doesn’t mean he or she has the foggiest idea whether climate change will or will not be a serious problem in the years ahead.

And that goes double for journalists. In January 1999 Vanity Fair magazine published an article titled The Y2K Nightmare (reproduced here; backup link here). The over-the-top opening blurb read as follows:

Will the millennium arrive in darkness and chaos as billions of lines of computer code containing two-digit year dates shut down hospitals, banks, police and fire departments, airlines, utilities, the Pentagon, and the White House? These nightmare scenarios are only too possible, Robert Sam Anson discovers as he traces the birth of the Y2K “bug,” the folly, greed and denial that have muffled two decades of warnings from technology experts, and the ominous results of Y2K tests that lay bare the dimensions of a ticking global time bomb.

Notice the language. Nightmare scenarios. Folly, greed – and my personal favorite – denial. Warnings that are being ignored. Ticking global time bomb. These days all of those phrases are used by the media in its climate change coverage. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Please also note that the author of this piece, Robert Sam Anson, was no neophyte. He’d been a journalist for more than three decades by the time he wrote that Y2K story. He is, according to a Vanity Fair bio, a veteran of no less than six US presidential campaigns (backup link here).

Yet he still got it profoundly, dreadfully, horribly wrong. For example, he told readers that the one sure thing was that machines wouldn’t know what to do after the clock struck midnight. He declared that some computers would die, and with them the blind faith the world has placed in them. He suggested that Y2K-related lawsuits would total $1 trillion in the United States alone. But none of those things actually happened.

Journalists these days hype global warming by emphasizing how cruelly it will affect the developing world. In 1999 Anson advised readers that: “Y2K’s impact on the delivery of food, seed, and fertilizer could result in between 10 million and 300 million deaths” in more vulnerable nations. He quoted someone who warned of “civil unrest” in such regions.

Indeed, Anson surveyed a wide range of well-educated, influential people – scientists, economists, government officials, and IT specialists. They obliged by talking about an accidental nuclear war and “blood-in-the-streets.” They declared that “our entire way of life is at risk” and predicted: “In the year 2000, Asia will be burnt toast.”

According to US Democratic senator Chris Dodd, there were three places no one should be that New Year’s Eve: “In an elevator; in an airplane, or in a hospital.” (In 2007 Dodd spearheaded a climate change campaign targeting the Securities and Exchange Commission. By 2008 he was advocating a carbon tax as a way of averting “potentially devastating climate change.”)

But the predictions of journalist Anson’s vast array of eminent experts missed by a mile – or ten. The looming disaster, potential catastrophe, misery, economic recession, potentially disastrous consequences, and impending doom, readers were warned about never came to pass.

One of those experts was a Canadian computer consultant named Peter de Jager. According to Anson, in the run-up to the turn of the millennium de Jager was delivering 85 speeches annually and “reportedly pulling in more than $1 million a year” by sounding the Y2K alarm. Anson quoted a 2003 column penned by de Jager that included these lines:

Have you ever been in a car accident? Time seems to slow down…. It’s too late to avoid it – you’re going to crash. All you can do now is watch it happen…. We are heading toward the year 2000. We are heading toward a failure of our standard date format…. Unfortunately, unlike the car crash, time will not slow down for us. If anything, we’re accelerating toward disaster….We and our computers were supposed to make life easier. This was our promise. What we have delivered is a catastrophe. [bold added]

(Environmentalist David Suzuki is also fond of a car crash analogy, but I digress.)

In his 2009 book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies observes that de Jager admitted on his website in early January 2000 that Italy, one of several countries that had devoted little attention (and few funds) to the Y2K issue, hadn’t been reduced to a smoldering heap of ashes the way he’d imagined it would.

“My view of the problem is contradicted by a fact I cannot refute,” de Jager acknowledged with some humility. “Italy has seen no significant effects…Countries that did nothing were faced with fewer problems than we expected.”

To my knowledge, no one has ever done a proper accounting, but this means that potentially hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been spent finding a cure for cancer were flushed down the toilet by governments and corporations in a mad rush to avert an imaginary Y2K catastrophe. Journalists such as Anson helped foment the mini-panic that spurred those expenditures. (Indeed, Anson’s article treated those skeptical of the extent of the Y2K problem with the sort of derision that’s currently directed toward climate skeptics.)

So what did the media learn from the embarrassing Y2K episode?

Judging by the way it proceeded to cover climate change, zilch. Nada. Nothing at all. Take a peek at this 2006 Time magazine story (backup link here). On a single page it screeches about Earth at the tipping point, declares that the planet is ill, fragile, fighting a fever and has finally got a bellyful of us. For heaven’s sake.

Oh, and isn’t it sweet that the main image for that Time story was supplied by Greenpeace?

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h/t Tom Nelson

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Entry filed under: Greenpeace, historical perspective, media, predictions that failed. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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