Focusing on worst case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work.

Summary: After 30 years of failure to gain support of the US public for massive public policy measures to fight climate change, climate activists now double down on the tactics that have failed them for so long. This post explains why it will not work. Nor should it. Instead they should trust the IPCC and science, showing both the good and bad news.

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
— The basic text of Narcotics Anonymous. Details here.

Climate Change Choices

For over two decades the IPCC’s work was describes as the “gold standard” reports showing the consensus of climate scientists. After the publication in 2013 of the IPCC’s AR5 report, many US climate activists and some climate scientists abandoned the IPCC as “too conservative” (e.g., see Inside Climate NewsThe Daily Climate, and Yale’s Environment 360). That might have been the decisive moment in the US climate policy wars.  Since then activists have gone full doomster, all the time (with enthusiastic support of journalists) — and it’s been downhill for them.

We have seen false predictions of “the end of winter.” False predictions that the California drought (now over) would be permanent (or very long). False predictions of more and stronger hurricanes since Katrina in 2005. Despite about the almost daily hype, most forms of extreme weather have not increased. We have been told about an almost endless series of false “tipping points” (details here, here, here). Etc, etc.

We’re now in the 30th year of the longest and most intense publicity campaigns in America’s history. Despite that Republicans dominate all levels of government, with their hard opposition to policy action. As for the public, activists have misrepresented the science to induce blind panic in a small fraction of the public (examples here). The majority of the public ranks climate change low on the list of public policy concerns.

Now activists double-down on doomsterism. This is insanity, repeating failed tactics. It will not work, nor should it.

775 degree warming

A new round of articles about our certain doom

“I think looking at grief is quite appropriate, as I believe we are facing human extinction”
— One of thousands of similar comments on the internet, by a reader on the FM website.

Alarmism Is the Argument We Need to Fight Climate Change” by Susan Matthews in Slate — “New York magazine’s global-warming horror story isn’t too scary. It’s not scary enough.”

It’s okay to talk about how scary climate change is. Really.” by David Roberts at Vox — “In defense of worst-case scenarios in climate journalism.”

The Uninhabitable Earth” By David Wallace-Wells in New York magazine — “Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.” Even Michael Mann gently condemns its exaggerations. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it. The article paints an overly bleak picture by overstating some of the science.” But in an interview Mann supports the argument and the doomster outlook: “Scientist Michael Mann on ‘Low-Probability But Catastrophic’ Climate Scenarios” by David Wallace-Wells in New York magazine.

A Leftist likes Wallace-Wells’ doomsterism, but condemns his article for insufficient leftism:  “New York Mag’s Climate Disaster Porn Gets It Painfully Wrong” by Daniel Aldana Cohen at Jacobin — “The real climate danger is that a vicious right-wing minority will impose an order that privileges the affluent few over everyone else.”

Vox energy and climate change writer David Roberts gave a Twitter rant, starting with “This generation of humanity is engaged in a moral crime, the scale & consequences of which dwarf anything in our species’ history.”

The Doomed Earth Catalog

What’s wrong with these stories?

These article muster all the bad news. They also imply that scientists are “Playing Dumb on Climate Change“, which is false (details here). They say we should focus on the worst-case scenario used in the IPCC’s AR5 (RCP8.5), despite the low odds of it happening. What is wrong with these warnings?

(1) They ignore the good news.

The RCP 8.5 scenario assumes that we burn fossil fuels throughout the 21st century, with coal becoming the dominant fuel in the late 21st century. We are already on a different path. Natural gas is displacing coal, and the cost of solar is already at or below grid parity in many parts of the word. See these for more about the transition from coal to natural gas and renewables…

Looking ahead, a host of new energy sources are under development. Improvements are coming in power generation from solar and wind — plus potentially larger innovations in nuclear and fusion. For example, Tri Alpha Energy has raised over $150 million in private capital — from people looking for a profit in the near future (not in 2100) — to fund its 150 employees and the many patents they have filed. Here’s a presentation from 2012 describing their device, and an August 2014 article from Science about the project. They achieved a major milestone this month.

(2)  They ignore the science when it ruins the doomster narrative.

People reading their stories do not hear the full story. They seldom hear what the IPCC says, and these articles usually paint a misleading picture of current research. For example, rising sea levels have become the focus of doomsters as most other predictions of imminent climate doom have failed to materialize. Much of the alarmism misrepresents this science.

Sea levels have been rising for a long time. Warming will accelerate that rise, but there is little evidence of that happening yet. Journalists love the excitement about large Antarctic icebergs floating out to sea. But even the leftists at The Guardian believes this has been exaggerated: “Melting and cracking – is Antarctica falling apart?” by Helen Amanda Fricker — “Although fracturing and surface melting on the Larsen C ice shelf might sound like indicators of climate change, these processes are natural.” Also see this explanation of last year’s melting: “Unprecedented springtime retreat of Antarctic sea ice in 2016” by John Turner in Geophysical Research Letters, in press. They show it had largely natural causes.

One of the best US-based datasets of sea levels is the Sea Level Research Group at the U of CO. Their graph shows no acceleration. See their analysis in “Is the detection of accelerated sea level rise imminent?” by J. T. Fasullo in Scientific Reports. “{c}urrent altimeter products show the rate of sea level rise to have decreased from the first to second decades of the altimeter era.”

(3)  They focus on climate change, ignoring other threats to humanity.

Doomsters say we should spend whatever it takes to eliminate the possibility of horrific climate change, no matter how small the odds (see this by Nassim Nicholas Taleb). That would be disastrous. The world has limited funds and many needs — such as providing clean water, preserving insect populations, and fighting to save the dying oceans (here and here).

We must allocate our funds rationally as best we can to get through the difficult times ahead in the 21st century. That means understanding the full range of threats, assessing the risks and costs, and making wise decisions. We should not allocate funds by which danger has the best public relations program or the most photogenic profile. Here are suggestions how we can do this better…

The Bølling-Allerød global warming
The TraCE-21000 project examines Bølling-Allerød, the previous period of global warming ~14,500 years ago. By Jamison Daniel.

A few scientists speak out against the doomsters

Qui tacet consentire videtur.” (Silence means assent.)
— Ancient wisdom. See details here.

Many climate scientists disagree with the doomsters and journalists ignoring the IPCC and the way they exaggerate and misrepresent the science. Yet few have protested or even spoken up. That might be changing as the doomsters’ rhetoric becomes more extreme. Such as this: “Climate scientists push back against catastrophic scenarios” by John Timmer in Ars Technica — “In both the popular and academic press, scientists argue against worst cases.”

But the New York magazine article appears to have gone too far. Or perhaps the tide of public opinion has at last turned against the doomsters. Either way, an unusually large number of scientists have spoken out on the record.

Conclusions

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher (member of Berkeley Earthbio here), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

The most pitiful aspect of the climate crusade is that these methods — gross exaggeration of the threat plus exaggeration and misrepresentation of the science — have become counterproductive through overuse, after two generations of similar publicity campaigns (see some examples). People do learn, eventually. The climate campaign has produced a deadlock in US public policy so that we no longer even prepare for the inevitable repetition of past climate. The price of our folly might be high, no matter what the course of future climate.

Update: fear still sells!

Thanks for flagging that. Stand by for many many more over the top predictions of climate doom! NYMag published a follow-up article. It opens with what is most important to them — and their fellow journalists.

“We published ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘ on Sunday night, and the response since has been extraordinary — both in volume (it is already the most-read article in New York Magazine’s history) and in kind.”

Science be damned. What counts in the real world are clicks, and the advertising dollars that flow from them. Keyboards are humming across America right now to tell us about the very certain death to everybody coming very soon.

For More Information

One of the best places to see the skeptical side of climate science is Judith Curry’s Climate Etc. But not all are this brave. Especially see her analysis of this issue: “Alarm about alarmism.”

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see the posts about the RCPs, about the keys to understanding climate change and these posts about the politics of climate change…

  1. Importantclimate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  2. We can end the climate policy wars: demand a test of the models.
  3. About RCP8.5: Is our certain fate a coal-burning climate apocalypse? No!
  4. Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions.
  5. Ignoring science to convince the public that we’re doomed by climate change.
The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

To learn more about the state of climate change…

… see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder). From the publisher…

“In recent years the media, politicians, and activists have popularized the notion that climate change has made disasters worse. But what does the science actually say? Roger Pielke, Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the data to give you the latest science on disasters and climate change. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”

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24 thoughts on “Focusing on worst case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work.

  1. A small point: the Colorado sea level data set hasn’t been updated in a year. I’ve noticed there’s a tendency for this type of information to be released in incomprehensible formats, or it’s not updated on a regular basis. I wonder if you know of an updated site? I have a hunch the planet just went through a period of net negative forcing at the top of the atmosphere, which implies sea level should have dropped a bit below the trend line.

    Like

  2. See The Cli-Fi Report from Taiwan.

    “The Cli-Fi Report (CFR) is a research tool for academics and media professionals to use in gathering information and reporting on the rise of the emerging cli-fi term worldwide. This website was made possible due to the generosity and friendship of several friends from Taiwan, and they know who they are.”

    Like

    1. Danny,

      Thanks for linking to that website about climate fiction. It collects together an underreported aspect of the Left’s propaganda campaign to terrify the public into supporting their public policy ideas. It will probably work as poorly as their equally lurid articles about humanity’s destruction due to famine and pollution (the 1970s-1980s equivalent of today’s cli-fi). Like those, future historians probably will look at today’s cli-fi and laugh.

      "Los Angelese: AD 2017" by Philip Wylie
      Available from Amazon.

      That’s a lesson from watching the TV show “L.A. 2017”. Directed by the 24-year old Steven Spielberg, it aired on 15 January 1971 as an episode of The Name of the Game.

      It described a horrific world 46 years in the future (2017), after pollution had destroyed the Earth’s ecology and forced the remnants of humanity to live underground. In this version of 2017, Los Angeles has one cow; its milk is a delicacy for the rich. For more about the plot see this.

      It was written by Philip Wylie, a science fiction writer with a successful specialty in doomster stories about nuclear war and ecological doom. He novelized it as Los Angeles: A.D. 2017. See a review here.

       

      “Priorities must be established, or this might be the end for Earth as we know it.”
      — Memo to the President by media magnate Glenn Howard (played by Gene Barry) in “LA 2017”.

      Like

  3. thanks for the report, I shall be send it to my friends and colleagues that read those insane reports and believe them (because they have no sources that tell them otherwise).

    I’m honestly tired of all the doomster porn. I’m young – 30 – but old enough to remember many predictions that haven’t become true. Even in my own country, Chile, 15 years ago they said that rains would almost stop from La Serena to Santiago, which not only didn’t happened, but the North has received way more rain in the past years that it had in the past! Those rains bring with them natural wonders, like flower fields in the middle of the Atacama Desert. And this year winter has been exceptionally cold here in Santiago.

    I hope the day comes when alarmist finally give up with this kinds of tactics.

    Like

    1. Francisca,

      The most pitiful aspect of the climate crusade is that these methods — gross exaggeration of the threat plus exaggeration and misrepresenation of the science — have become counterproductive through overuse. That’s why I put the climate crusade in a context of two generations of similar publicity campaigns. People do learn, eventually.

      The climate campaign has produced a deadlock in US public policy so that we no longer even prepare for the inevitable repetition of past climate.

      Like

  4. Great article. Not that I agree with all points eg. Your point2. Re: Sea level rise….assuming air temperatures are always warmer than sea, how can increasing air temperatures cause sea level rise?? The heat capacity of any gas is so low compared to any liquid, let alone CO2 versus water And when their temperature differences is so small, maybe 10C, it would take forever to reach equilibrium.

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    1. Macha,

      “The heat capacity of any gas is so low compared to any liquid, let alone CO2 versus water And when their temperature differences is so small, maybe 10C, it would take forever to reach equilibrium.”

      I suggest you consult a textbook to learn about the mechanics. The facts are clear. See the data at NOAA’s Global Ocean Heat Content page:

      Ocean Heat Content - 20170714

      For more about this see How accurate are climate scientists’ findings? Look at ocean warming.

      Like

    2. Macha,

      I forgot to address your first question.

      “assuming air temperatures are always warmer than sea, how can increasing air temperatures cause sea level rise??”

      This graph shows the various factors contribution to the rise in sea level from 2003 to 2014. It’s from “Revisiting the contemporary sea-level budget on global and regional scales” by Roelof Rietbroeka et al in PNAS, 9 February 2016. “Steric” means expansion as the oceans warm.

      20160209-PNAS-GMSL

      Like

  5. The impact of human on climate change may be controversial, but the problems go hand in hand with pending ecological disasters in The Amazon Rainforest, massive dead zones in our oceans, our threatened Florida Everglades and massive pools of methane under the Siberian ice cap among other problems. I would like to suggest that there is a whole lot of room for improvement in our stewardship of planet Earth.

    Do scientists deny that disposal of toxic water from fracking poisons our water aquifers? How about Nestle’s bottling of northern California’s limited water supply? Detroit and Flint Michigan come to mind.

    Stratfor may not be alarmed by climate change, but the Pentagon is preparing for hordes of starving people fleeing famine in South America, among other places.

    Is planet Earth’s temperature stable or increasing 4 degrees farenheit in the next 50 or 60 years? Does it really matter if the causes are man made or natural? Are we doing all that we can to slow down or stop the increase?

    Without being alarmist, it is very easy to question whether planet Earth is on a sustainable environmental and ecological path. I only had time to browse a few of your articles. Do any of your sources express confidence in the path President Trump appears to be heading down on environmental issues?

    Maybe we don’t have to be alarmist about climate change, but everything President Trump tweets is alarming.

    FWIW, I was a Bush 43 delegate to my state Republican convention and back in the day would have described myself as a Russel Kirk Conservative and I’m just as alarmed by the dysfunctional Democrats as I am about Trump.

    Like

    1. Boat,

      (a) “I would like to suggest that there is a whole lot of room for improvement in our stewardship of planet Earth.”

      Did you notice that is discussed in section (3)?

      (b) “massive dead zones in our oceans”

      Let’s play the tape to jog your memory:

      “The world has limited funds and many needs — such as providing clean water, preserving insect populations, and fighting to save the dying oceans (here and here).”

      (c) “the Pentagon is preparing for hordes of starving people fleeing famine in South America, among other places.”

      The Pentagon needs money. It jumps on every fad, real or delusional. This tells us nothing. I suggest you listen to the IPCC, not DoD.

      (d) “Is planet Earth’s temperature stable or increasing 4 degrees farenheit in the next 50 or 60 years? ”

      That’s possible if we follow the RCP 8.5 scenario. The one all those scientists in the articles cited here said was a low probability worst case scenario. See the posts in section (1) showing how rapidly we’re moving away from coal (increasing use of coal is a core assumption in RCP 8.5).

      (e) “Are we doing all that we can to slow down or stop the increase?”

      Read section (3) for the answer.

      (f) “Do any of your sources express confidence in the path President Trump appears to be heading down on environmental issues?”

      Trump has not made any significant changes yet (no analysis showed that the Paris agreement would have a significant effect). Being a clown president, I doubt anyone (including Trump) can predict what he’ll do next.

      (g) “Without being alarmist, it is very easy to question whether planet Earth is on a sustainable environmental and ecological path.”

      You really should read section (3).

      (h) “everything President Trump tweets is alarming.”

      That’s false. My mom taught me to avoid statements containing “everything”, “always”, “never”, etc. It is good advice.

      (i) “back in the day would have described myself as a Russel Kirk Conservative”

      I’ve been a registered Republican for 30 years, and was active for 20 years — until they went bonkers.

      (j) “I’m just as alarmed by the dysfunctional Democrats as I am about Trump.”

      Then read the posts on the Reforming America page, where you will see what you can do to fix America’s politics.

      Like

  6. Ok. I’m busted. Thanks for focusing my attention on Section 3. I didn’t take the time to browse all of your links. Give me another day or two.

    I certainly agree with the priority of our oceans and insects over other doomsday scenarios, and your links about the difficulty of predicting outcomes of very complex systems requiring thorough cost benefit analysis is on point.

    Like you, my problem with the Republican party goes back a ways. Pre Bush 43 I snailmailed a friend of mine that “I didn’t leave the Republican party, they left me. Now both parties seem to be at peak dysfunction and stuck on stupid.

    I guess it’s possible that Trump once tweeted something that wasn’t alarming, and only the wacky ones make the news. I would have been on better ground saying that it’s alarming that an American president is tweeting at all. Tweeting against the advice of his lawyers strongly suggest the man lacks the capacity to govern responsibly. I’ve had complaints about every president, but this character makes me long for the good old days of Clinton and Bush 43. Very depressing.

    I actually told my neighbors prior to his inauguration that even Trump doesn’t know what President Trump is going to do. I still don’t think President Trump knows what President Trump is going to do.

    Pardon the rant, but these are dark times for a Kirk Conservative. My concern is that we have lots of problems, climate and ecology included, and I do not see any hope of rational governance from either party.

    I have read your Reforming America page and am considering where to focus my efforts. For personal reasons I’m leaning towards prison abolition and criminal justice reform. I’m working my way through your section about the failure of the entire system. It’s clear to me that the American carceral state is a total failure at both punishment and reform.

    Just curious. Your extensive categories and resource links make this site resemble a policy institute. How many editors does this site have?

    Like

    1. Boatwright,

      “I guess it’s possible that Trump once tweeted something that wasn’t alarming”

      Trump says many sensible things. Often things that violate the narratives that rule Washington, crossing the all-important chalk lines on the sidewalk. That probably helped distinguish him from the penguins on the stage. This is, of course, typical behavior for a court jester.

      1. Trump wins because he says some sensible things which journalists can’t conceal.
      2. Trump says interesting things about foreign policy that scare our elites.

      In February Trump said:

      “We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

      The usual suspect replied with the usual indignant responses — denials and “fact-checking”. But a steady flow of news since then has showed that Trump was right. For example see this and especially this: “I’ve Worked with Refugees for Decades. Europe’s Afghan Crime Wave Is Mind-Boggling.

      “How many editors does this site have?”

      Just me. After 14 years of writing and ten years running the FM website project, I’d say the results are meager. But I’ll probably continue until I get a better idea.

      Like

  7. Maximus: I told everyone I knew that if I was compelled to choose either Trump or Hillary, my vote would go to Trump, largely based on his foreign policy statements. I asserted that simply getting along with Putin, instead of demonizing him, would solve a lot of problems in Europe and the Middle East.

    Unfortunately, President Trump does not appear to have the required political skills to follow through on his pronouncements, and family patronage is a HUGE weakness. His son and wife are both political trainwrecks. His inner circle is a circus and a PR nightmare.

    On the “I’m busted” admission. I think I get that from good parenting, Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles and AA’s 12 Steps. “When we were wrong, promptly admitted it” and this: http://www.kirkcenter.org/detail/ten-conservative-principles/

    It also seems to me that being able to admit you were wrong about something is a very fundamental part of being a full grown, mature adult. For example, Martin Van Crevald said “I still do not know” what explains the decline of civilization in the Arab world.
    Pretty smart fella.

    Like

    1. Boatwright,

      I think you are too generous to Trump.

      “President Trump does not appear to have the required political skills to follow through on his pronouncements”

      True. But I doubt he had any intent to do so. What he says and what he does are, to him, unrelated things.

      “family patronage is a HUGE weakness”

      Just one aspect of being a clown president.

      Like

  8. All the animals (fishs/insects/birds…) who the humanity has killed , has harm the klimate and spends the korallriefs fresh air only through the windwrapings who they create with all moveings … without the forests and all this butterflyeffects ,the air stocks and must build storms to change the mass of energy …

    Sry 4 my english

    Like

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