30 years ago Waldsterben (forest dieback) was probably Germany’s first post-war environmental hysteria to grip the country. Today we see that all the prophecies of doom were completely wrong.
The excellent Michael Miersch brings our attention to this oustanding arte Franco-German documentary called “The Forests are Dying Again“ (in German, and here in French), which takes a look back at one of the greatest environmental hysterias ever to grip a population: Waldsterben (forest dieback), a.k.a. acid rain.
The documentary also exposes the dirty tricks the media used to keep the hysteria alive (see 24-min. mark). There are so many parallels to today’s modern climate hysteria.
Again, back then there was “consensus”, all the scientists agreed, there was no denying the catastrophe, and politicians called it a grave threat that required immediate action. Fear gripped Germany. Environmentalists, union leaders, church leaders, citizens, politicians, etc. marched on the streets and demanded the government take action. The culprit was clear: emissions from industry and man were producing acid-rain that was chemically searing forests. At the 1:29 mark of the documentary:
The early 1980s, thousands of people took to the streets, an entire country is in panic, the German forest is dying. That’s for sure. But we alone are at fault due to our unbridled efforts to attain prosperity and progress. We treated nature like crap, and now there is nothing left to do but take it to the grave.”
Der Spiegel triggers the hysteria
The scare was first set into motion by Der Spiegel’s November, 1981 front page story called: “The Forests are Dying. Acid Rain Over Germany“. Soon all other media outlets fell over themselves to see who could produce the most sensational stories.
Der Spiegel wrote that the forest had only 5 years left. Stern, not to be outdone,followed with: “Acid Death” and claimed that the forest had only 3 years left. Waldsterben remained the hottest story for years in the German press. The scare even served as one of the major springboards that launched Germany’s Green Party.
At the 3:08 mark, the documentary cuts back to present-day 2011 Allgäu, 30 years later, where we see the forests look completely healthy. “How can that be?” the documentary asks.
Rudy Holzbergercollected 150 media clippings about the tree-dieback hysteria, and has gone back and analyzed them. While some media outlets like Stern claimed the forest would die in as little as 3 years, all agreed on one thing, Holzberger says:
All of them said the forest would be dead at the latest by the year 2000.”
Holzberger then goes on to explain that the science behind the scare was flaky and thin. Sound familiar? Most of the forest dieback junk-science is traced back to University of Göttingen professor Bernhard Ulrich, who says at the 6:36 mark:
“There’s no doubt for those who are involved in the science the cause is air pollution, acid rain, and everything that comes with it.
We have to expect that after a warm and dry year it will lead to widespread forest damage and death.”
According to Professor Ulrich, German forests would soon appear as dead as those shown at the 7.50 mark of the documentary.
Later in the documentary, tree rings reveal that an even more widespread tree die-off occurred in 1947, and that the tree die-off in the early 1980s was nothing unusual and part of the natural cycle. The 1980s episode, however, showed how the media for the first time could drive an entire nation into mass panic.
Happening faster than anyone expected
The panic eventually spread into France (but to a lesser degree) thanks to assertions made by Professor Josef Reichelt, who claimed that French trees were dying off as well. But the French press ignored the story as a whole. Yet, there were still some kooks like Richard Kletty who claimed:
“It’s happening unbelievably fast. We know the resistance that trees have, and so it really surprised us how fast the damage is taking place and the trees are dying.”
Today we hear the same about sea ice melt. Yet, the scare never took off in France as it did in Germany, where the topic was emotionalized rather than being based on science and reason. At the 14:20 mark the documentary tells us how the German Greens made the jump into the German Parliament, with a young Joschka Fischer (looks like him, anyway) marching in carrying a dead tree.
The all-knowing, bearded Greens protested the inauguration of Helmut Kohl, claiming he was dealing with the problem irresponsibly. The political payoff for the greens was handsome. As the forests appeared to be dying, Germany embarked on the path of turning “green”.
The forests then recovered, but the media ignored it
At the 23-minute mark, the documentary tells us that eventually by 1993 the trees, which go through natural cycles of losing needles and greening again, depending on rainfall, were back in a state of ruddy health and that there was no longer any danger of the once feared massive forest die-off. How did the media react to this news? At the 23:55 mark, Helmut Schulz says:
We made an analysis of the press to see how they reported on this. Of 54 daily newspapers, only 4 reported on the positive news. All the others, 50 newspapers, reported negatively.”
The media had no interest in an improving forest health – they wanted to remain stuck on Armageddon. Instead they rolled out more apocalyptic headlines. At the 23:42 mark, Holzberger shows some of the headlines: Stern in 1994: The Death Struggle of the Trees which included words like: “If Trees Could Scream, which described the death of trees in human terms.“It was complete nonsense”, says Holzberger.
Tree-dieback deniers got smeared
It was also a difficult period for scientists who did not share the apocalyptic views of mass forest die-off. In 1996 Professor Heinrich Spieker published a scientific assessment of European forests commissioned by a Finnish forestry institute. The report was called: Growth Trends of European Forests, which reached the conclusion: “The forest in Europe is growing faster and they are healthier”. This is not what the media wanted to hear. It contradicted prevailing dogma. The reaction from the media was harsh.
Here were some of the claims made by the media (see 26.46 mark), the Süddeutsche Zeintung:
EFI study is superficial and fundamentally flawed.”
and called the deniers:
Witch doctors and charlatans”
and one German activist group wrote:
Half of the financing came from the Finnish government, and that Spieker was married to a Finnish woman.”
Today, it’s clear that Heinrich Spieker was right, and that it is the slimy media who have egg on their faces. Indeed German forests are expanding 170 sq km annually. And again today in climate science, the very same newspapers and groups are at it again.
Ironically, today’s forest die-off is due to the green biofuels craze
At the 27-minute mark, the documentary focuses on today’s claims that climate change is threatening yet another forest die off. But as the documentary shows, forests are adapting as they always have, and that the Sahara is getting greener. The science shows that the warming temps over the last 30 years (likely due to ocean cycles) is making the planet greener, and not browner.
In the last segment of the documentary we see the real threat to forests – especially tropical forests. It is deforestation to make way for green bio-crop plantations – to grow crops that allegedly will save forests from climate change.