Apocalyptic thinking on the Left about climate change risks burning their credibility

Summary:  Epistemic closure has infected both Left and Right in America. Examples of this on the Right are legion. Today we look at an example on the Left, and its potentially severe consequences for this already endangered species in America.

The Last Myth



  1. Changes in American politics
  2. “Ending the World the Human Way”
  3. Epistemic closure: it’s a bipartisan illness
  4. Cautionary notes about the Left’s strategy
  5. About the author
  6. Important things to remember about global warming
  7. Climate change couture


(1)  Changes in American politics: we all fall down

I have seen many changes in American politics during my life.

  • Twenty years as an active Republican, giving money and time.
  • Then Bush’s reactionary economic policies and the mad reaction to 9-11 pushed me to the Left (crossing the hordes moving the other way), joining what they said was the “reality-based community”.
  • Recent years have proven my hope delusional (again).

People I trusted — on whose counsel I relied upon — joined the climate crusade, abandoning the consensus of climate scientists (also spurned by the Right) in favor of doomster prophecies … which bring us to an article by someone I greatly respect, 44 of whose posts are reposted on the FM website, whose website is on the blogroll and at the top of my daily reading list …

The United States Of Fear
Both sides find fear useful

(2)  About the end of the world

Excerpt from “Ending the World the Human Way
Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 2 February 2014

{Climate change} could even be considered the story of all stories.  It’s just that climate change and its component parts are unlike every other story from the Syrian slaughter and the problems of Obamacare to Bridgegate and Justin Bieber’s arrest.  The future of all other stories, of the news and storytelling itself, rests on just how climate change manifests itself over the coming decades or even century.  What happens in the 2014 midterms or the 2016 presidential elections, in our wars, politics, and culture, who is celebrated and who ignored — none of it will matter if climate change devastates the planet.

Climate change isn’t the news and it isn’t a set of news stories.  It’s the prospective end of all news.  Think of it as the anti-news.

All the rest is part of the annals of human history: the rise and fall of empires, of movements, of dictatorships and democracies, of just about anything you want to mention.  The most crucial stories, like the most faddish ones, are — every one of them — passing phenomena, which is of course what makes them the news.

Climate change isn’t.  New as that human-caused phenomenon may be — having its origins in the industrial revolution — it’s nonetheless on a different scale from everything else, which is why journalists and environmentalists often have so much trouble figuring out how to write about it in a way that leaves it continually in the news.

… If the carbon emissions from fossil fuels are allowed to continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, the science of what will happen sooner or later is relatively clear, even if its exact timetable remains in question: this world will be destabilized as will humanity (along with countless other species).  We could, at the worst, essentially burn ourselves off Planet Earth.  This would prove a passing event for the planet itself, but not for us, nor for any fragment of humanity that managed to survive in some degraded form, nor for the civilizations we’ve developed over thousands of years. …

Nuclear Dress Rehearsal

Here’s the strange thing: we went through a dress rehearsal for this in the twentieth century when dealing (or not dealing) with nuclear weapons, aka the Bomb — often capitalized in my youth as a sign of how nuclear disaster was felt to be looming over life itself. …

How does Tom know that anthropogenic climate change will pose such a severe threat, a potential apocalypse? He cites as support for this claim only two articles. Nothing from the IPCC or a major climate agency; both are from the New York Times.


For Already Vulnerable Penguins, Study Finds Climate Change Is Another Danger“, 29 January 2014 — Reports on a single study of a single penguin colony (at Punta Tombo, Argentina).  It discusses the effect of storms on the colony. The recent IPCC report (AR5) gives “low confidence” to increases in cyclones and small-scale severe weather phenomena such as hail and thunderstorms (see section 3 here).

U.N. Says Lag in Confronting Climate Woes Will Be Costly“, 16 January 2014 — NYT description of a leaked copy of Working Group 3 (WG3) report. WG1 has been released: “The Physical Sciences Basis“. This is the hard science foundation of the IPCC’s work, and it provides little support for apocalyptic forecasts. WG2 and WG3 have not been released yet. See descriptions of the WGs here.

TomDispatch articles have become trusted and well-known due, in part, to their exhaustive and meticulous supporting links. That makes this sad and disturbing. This article makes large claims, but provides no supporting evidence.

This is odd given the massive body of research in the climate sciences during the past 2 decades, carefully collated by the IPCC and other major climate agencies.  Why no quotes of their conclusions? Especially valuable would be a statement by the IPCC, NOAA, or the UK Met Office comparing the potential effect of climate change to nuclear war.

(3)  Epistemic closure: it’s a bipartisan illness

My guess is that Tom does not cite evidence because he knows. It is epistemic closure at work, an extreme form of confirmation bias, which has become the dominate form of political dysfunction today on both the Left and Right. Each side is a perceptive observer of the other’s weakness, and this was first identified on the Right by Julian Sanchez: “Frum, Cocktail Parties, and the Threat of Doubt“, 26 March 2010. Excerpt:

Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.

As dozens of posts here have documented, this description applies quite well to the Left’s understanding of climate change. At some point during the past few years they abandoned the IPCC (formerly the “gold standard”) and major climate agencies, and adopted the writings of activists (often laypeople, often financed by advocacy organizations) as their primary source of information.

As closed loops do, over time the views of people in them diverge ever more widely from reality (i.e., the work of climate scientists).  Now, a cruel irony, quoting the IPCC and major climate agencies in rebuttal to activists earns one the label of “denier” — and much of their effort goes to concealing core aspects of the consensus of climate scientists:

National Geographic
Slightly more likely than Planet of the Apes

(4)  Cautionary notes about the Left’s strategy

As the pause approaches the end of its second decade, and the IPCC continues to report little evidence of extreme climate (other than warming and perhaps changed patterns of precipitation), the Left has doubled down. Claims of future effects increase from severe to doom; they routinely blame normal weather (e.g., Hurricane Sandy) on anthropogenic climate change.

Slowly the major climate agencies have begun to push back, showing that severe weather often appears less so when seen in a historical context (e.g., this UK Met office note about recent storms). And some scientists have begun to worry about the effect on the Left and climate science if global warming continues on the low end of forecasts, with few of the extreme climate changes that dominate the news media.

How Apocalyptic Thinking Prevents Us from Taking Political Action“, Mathew Barrett Gross and Mel Gilles, The Atlantic, 23 April 2012 — “While Americans take comfort in shows predicting disaster and myths about the end of the world, the real debate over climate change has stalled. ” The authors appear confused by contradictions between their insights and their allegiance to the Left’s apocalyptic stories, but they make some powerful points.

Climate Change’s Inherent Uncertainties“, Garth Paltridge (eminent climate scientist; see his Wikipedia bio), Quadrant, 22 January 2014 — “Virtually all scientists directly involved in climate prediction are aware of the enormous uncertainties associated with their product. How is it that they can place hands over hearts and swear that human emissions of carbon dioxide are wrecking the planet?”

Will The Overselling Of Global Warming Lead To A New Scientific Dark Age?“, Patrick Michaels (CATO, author of a few peer-reviewed climate science papers), blog of Forbes, 3 February 2014

Examples of the Left’s exaggerations and misinformation about climate change:

Here’s more speculation about the consequences of blowback from the Left’s crusade:

Plus the focus on climate change has diverted resources from other vital programs, such as protecting the oceans from pollution and overfishing.  The Left has placed all its chips on climate change.

Tom Engelhardt

(5)  About the author

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished. Each spring he is a Teaching Fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tomdispatch.com is the sideline that ate his life. Before that he worked as an editor at Pacific News Service in the early 1970s, and, these last three decades, as an editor in book publishing. For 15 years, he was Senior Editor at Pantheon Books where he edited and published award-winning works ranging from Art Spiegelman’s Maus and John Dower’s War Without Mercy to Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy. He is now Consulting Editor at Metropolitan Books, as well as co-founder and co-editor of Metropolitan’s The American Empire Project.

Source: TomDispatch

(6)  A few important things to remember about global warming

While cheering for their faction of scientists, laypeople often lose sight of the big picture — the key elements for making public policy about this important issue.

(a)  The work of the IPCC and the major science institutes are the best guides for information about these issues.

(b)  The world has been warming during the past two centuries, in a succession of warming, cooling, and pauses. Since roughly 1950 anthropogenic causes have been the largest driver. Warming paused sometime in 1998-2000.

(c)  There is a debate about the attribution (causes) of past warming — which probably varied over time — between natural drivers (e.g., rebound from the Little Ice Age, solar influences) and anthropogenic drivers (e.g., CO2, aerosols, land use changes). The IPCC’s reports make few claims about attribution of climate activity, as this remains actively debated in the literature.

(d)  There is an even larger debate about climate forecasts, both the extent of future CO2 emissions and the net effects of the various natural and anthropogenic drivers.

(e)  For the past five years my recommendations have been the same:

  1. More funding for climate sciences. Many key aspects (eg, global temperature data collection and analysis) are grossly underfunded.
  2. Wider involvement of relevant experts in this debate. For example, geologists, statisticians and software engineers have been largely excluded — although their fields of knowledge are deeply involved.
  3. Start today a well-funded conversion to non-carbon-based energy sources by the second half of the 21st century; for both environmental and economic reasons (see these posts for details).

(f)  Posts about preparing for climate change:

(7)  Climate change couture

The Apocalypse Project is a speculative design research inquiry that explores our possible lifestyles as climate change continues to affect the planet. It comprises projects that asks specific questions on how we might live when the earth is not very livable. This project is authored by artist Catherine Sarah Young, as part of the 2013 Art Science Residency Programme in partnership with the ArtScience Museum™ at Marina Bay Sands, Tembusu College National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore-ETH Centre’s Future Cities Laboratory. (source)

From Catherine Young’s website:

Climate Change Couture
By Catherine Young

(8)  Send your comment

Use the contact form, or email to Editor at FabiusMaximus.com (note the spam-protected format).  Those of general interest will be posted (anonymously on requested).

From Isaac:

It all clicked for me with your italicized ‘knows’ regarding Tom’s position on Global Warming. For many of the “Leftist/Liberal” people I’ve dealt with over the years, reports from the IPCC – or anyone else for that matter – never come into play. They’ve already made logical leaps to arrive at an equation – which, in reality, is a conflation. Stay with me:

Irresponsible resource depletion (clear cutting, over fishing, low-mpg SUVs, etc.), habitat encroachment and species endangerment and extinction, smog and sprawl, food scarcity even when coupled with the rise of productivity through the shift to corporate agribusiness, etc., etc., etc.

All of above are seen as ‘bad things’ by these people. And, generally, rightly so. They’re all ‘bad’ for the planet. And they’re all able to be experienced, personally, in a way both felt and understood. The leap they’ve made, though, is to think that all of the above are symptoms of some larger ‘bad’ trend – of which Global Warming is also a symptom.

I don’t think it’s a question of confusing correlation with causation, either – though many do make this leap also. They just have a gut sense that, since the above examples (and others) are bona fide facts to them, global warming just is, too. It’s a transitive assertion in spite of many weak, or even lacking associations! This, of course, is as intellectually dishonest as their counterparts dismissing global warming – as something to even be considered and studied – out of hand.

As ever, great post.

From Steve

Political: since the 1960’s, the major change in the environment movement has been the subversion of political action by corporate interests. Rather than fighting the environmental organizations, the money-players bought them, to use in competition with each other. Cory Morningstar specifically changed my thinking and behavior on this issue; I urge you to read the article at: Keystone XL: The Art of NGO Discourse | Part I, The Art of Annihilation.

Scientific: doing good science is as hard as distinguishing noise from necessity on the battlefield. Finding something of value that can be measured is difficult. Specifically, we have a water planet, and water is one of the best substances in the universe at stabilizing heat change. This is expressed in terms of heat capacity and latent heat.

As the glaciers and polar ice caps melt, they stabilize the environment. But any previous melts eliminated their own evidence, so our models by necessity must extrapolate. Models are pretty good at interpolating, but extrapolation is where our assumptions are challenged. In other words, they’re best guesses.

In addition to heat characteristics, ice is highly reflective. As there is less surface area of ice, the albedo of the planet decreases and more light is absorbed from the sun.

At the end of the day, though, is the difficulty of ‘accepting the things we cannot change.’ China is going to burn its coal regardless of what anyone else thinks. Russia will benefit from arctic melting and is acting in its self-interest. So the emotional fervor is partially due to the lack of agency to be able to do anything meaningful about the problem. Rather than trying to force the environment back to where it was, it may be more useful to focus on our own ‘key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an ever-changing environment.’

As for collective action, Robert Paterson had a worthy post worth re-reading: “Does big change ever happen from the bottom up? Why you will fail if you try there first“, 7 June 2013.



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