Why are they all scaring children out of their wits?

John Kane-Berman says predictions of climate catastrophe are a threat to the mental well-being of the young

Last month a report published by The Lancet declared that "wealthier countries threaten the future of all children through carbon pollution, on course to cause runaway climate change and environmental disaster". Entitled A future for the world's children?, the report was published on behalf of the Lancet Commission as well as WHO (the World Health Organisation) and UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund).

One of the co-chairs of the panel producing the report was Helen Clark, one time prime minister of New Zealand. The other was a Senegalese minister, Awa Coll-Seck.

Climate disruption, they said, "is creating extreme risks from rising sea levels, extreme weather events, water and food security, heat stress, emerging infectious diseases, and large-scale population migration". The threats to "global health from disturbances in planetary health are profound and imminent". Children stood "on the precipice of a climate crisis". Moreover, "youth climate activist Greta Thunberg" had warned that "our house is on fire".

None of this is new. It echoes warnings contained in "summary" documents aimed at "policymakers" and produced by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was set up in 1988. Similar warnings have repeatedly been issued by a former American vice president, Al Gore. In a version of his book An Inconvenient Truth adapted for "a new generation" of "young readers", he warned more than ten years ago that if Iceland's ice dome or the West Antarctic ice shelf melted, it would raise water levels worldwide between 18 and 20 feet. "Miami would be underwater" and "Amsterdam would vanish".

Warnings of this kind date back at least as early as the "earth summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. They continue to receive extensive press endorsement, with minimal coverage of alternative viewpoints.  

No wonder teenagers such as Ms Thunberg are frightened. Naomi Klein, a Canadian journalist and climate activist, described that child's anguish in a book published last year. Since the age of eight, Ms Thunberg had been learning about climate change. She had watched documentaries about species collapse and melting glaciers and had become "obsessed". She learned that burning fossil fuels and eating a meat-based diet were major contributors to "planetary destabilisation".

By the age of 11 she had fallen into a "deep depression". She had stopped speaking and eating. She became "very ill". She was eventually diagnosed with selective mutism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a form of autism that used to be called Asperger's syndrome. When she trained her "laser-like attention" on climate breakdown, she was "completely overwhelmed with no way to protect herself from the fear and grief".

None of this stops Ms Klein Ms from enlisting Ms Thunberg as an ally in her own crusade against everything from carbon dioxide to the capitalist system. Last year the American magazine Time put Ms Thunberg on its cover as "person of the year", endorsing her views about the planet's "existential" crisis, that the world is headed for a "mass extinction", that the future of children is being stolen, and that the planet is reaching a "point of no return".

Nowhere in 23 pages of text and photography was there any recognition that the hypothesis about man-made "climate change" on which some of these predictions are based is contradicted by other theories and also by a great deal of historical and statistical evidence.

This was the same Time magazine as was warning in 1974 of the possibilities of "another ice age". The following year Newsweek was pointing to "ominous signs" of "a cooling world" and warning of "catastrophic" consequences such as famine, drought, tornadoes, and floods. More than 30 years later Newsweek issued a correction. But throughout the 1970s, newspapers around the world predicted the onset of a new ice age caused by air pollution.

But a rather inconvenient truth is that the new ice age did not happen. No problem. Some of those most assiduously promoting the perils of global cooling were soon warning of the perils of global warming. And, of course, the media followed suit, as this column demonstrated on 13th October last year.

The Lancet/WHO/UNICEF report warned that children around the world were "enormously exposed to advertisements". Unregulated commercial marketing posed many "documented threats" to them. More research was needed to protect them from the negative effects that social media could have on their "mental health". Youth could be targets for "radicalisation" by militant groups. Children were "more easily intimidated" than adults.

Ms Helen Clark and her colleagues on the Lancet commission seem utterly oblivious of the irony of their standpoint. On the one hand they express concern for the mental well-being of children. On the other they themselves are busy "intimidating" those same children with threats that they supposedly face – among them a question-mark over their very future – thanks to the never-ending cascade of warnings of imminent apocalypse based on a dubious hypothesis and predictions derived from flawed climate "modelling".

"Childhood", the report warned, "is a special time of vulnerability". So why is Ms Clark, along with various UN bodies, intent on scaring them out of their wits?

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.