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The scary stories get scarier

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 24 July 2017


President Trump's decision to pull the USA out of the Paris climate Accord seems to have had an outcome in the intensification of alarm both at his doing so and at what he is thought to have overlooked. I saw a number of examples of this reaction, and will deal with another one next week. But the one I'm focussing on now is a story that appeared in the 17 July New York Times Magazine entitled 'The Uninhabitable Earth'. I wouldn't normally have gone to read it, and did so because none other than Dr Michael Mann had panned it, about which more in a moment. You can read it here.

It purports to have been based on interviews with leading scientists, and no doubt it was, depending of course on who you think are 'leading', and whom they are leading. But I doubt that the author went to a single sceptic. The tone is apocalyptic from the beginning, and the following quotes and titles follow one another, though not instantly. Even when a plausible possibility is raised it is exaggerated beyond repair.

It is, I promise , worse than you think.

parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century

No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.

…if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed and 50 percent less grain to give them.

A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today. Overall, social conflict could more than double this century.

Permanent economic collapse

Ocean acidification will fry fish populations directly, too,…

In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth's ecosystem will boil …

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That's probably enough. The article is based on all sorts of assumptions, and looks for the worst-case scenario every time. How it came to be published I have no idea. It is dreadful stuff. And it caused an enormous reaction, to the point where the New York Times felt the need to make corrections, and prepare a footnoted and annotated version. That version, to me at least, is still ratbag commentary of the worst kind. Michael Mann and one other wrote a short piece in The Washington Post decrying the NYT article, because although it suggested climate change was both dreadful and unstoppable, it all seemed to say there was nothing anyone could do about it.

It is in this environment of defeat and despair that we've witnessed a dramatic rise in the prominence of climate doomism - commentary that portrays climate change not just as a threat that requires an urgent response but also as an essentially lost cause, a hopeless fight.

I wrote about climate doomster stuff ('doomer porn') a couple of years ago, and it was interesting to see the term coming back in the way it has.

Judith Curry devoted a whole post to what she called 'Alarm about Alarmism', and offers readers useful links to other participants in the controversy. As always on her website the comments are worth wading through. I was taken by this comment of hers about the NYT article:

I saw many such 'alarmed' articles (perhaps not as comprehensive) in the Age of Obama, spouting alarmist predictions and concerns. Further, the White House seemed to encourage this, as evidenced by the whitehouse.gov web site and the statements of Science Advisor John Holdren. I never saw any push-back on this from the consensus-enforcing scientific establishment.

In the Age of Trump, alarmism clearly doesn't influence the policy makers; the best that consensus-enforcing scientific establishment can hope for is to enforce the not very scary IPCC consensus. And why does this matter to them? Surely this consensus enforcement is antithetical to the scientific process and progress. It seems to be all about 'action' - presumably as defined by the Paris Agreement. According to Mann et al., too much alarm makes people give up on attempting 'action.' Never mind that the proposed actions will have a small impact on the climate (even if you believe the climate models) during the 21st century.

She goes on to suggest that we know almost nothing about how the climate of the rest of this century will eventuate, and offers four possibilities, or options:

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  • It is possible that human-caused climate change will be swamped by much larger natural climate variability.
  • It is possible/plausible that the sensitivity of the climate is on the low end of the IPCC envelope (1.0-1.5C), with a slow creep of warming superimposed on much larger natural variability.
  • It is possible/plausible that the IPCC projections are actually correct (right for the wrong reasons; too much wrong with the climate models for much credibility, IMO).
  • It is possible that AGW and natural variability could conspire to cause catastrophic outcomes.

Dr Curry says that there is too much uncertainty in all of this to apply probabilities to the various options. Option #2 defines the lukewarmers, and option#4 so far is the province of the doomsters. Of course, option #3 is the official version for most of those who are in power in most countries, saving what JC has put in brackets. But the other options are all worth proper exploration.

I would add, and one of the other participants does too, what about a benign outcome? Let us suppose that CO2 keeps increasing, and the world keeps getting greener. What's not to like? There is good optical evidence from satellites to suggest that the world is indeed getting greener, and one of those who has shown this, Graham Farquhar, has just received the Kyoto Prize (a Nobel equivalent) for his work here and elsewhere. Another participant wants us to remember that natural climate change could involve a cooler 21st century, too. Is that being looked at? Not at the official level, as far as we know.

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This article was first publishe on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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