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Alarmism: it really frightens people and it sucks

By Barry York - posted Thursday, 11 June 2015

Green alarmism generates newspaper sales, TV ratings and hits on social media but it is a big problem standing in the way of reasoned and effective political responses to environmental problems. The latest alarmism comes from California where the Internet is abuzz with talk of California’s water supply running out in a year’s time. It is amazing how many publications, including mainstream ones, have run this line.

The Guardian’s headline said it all: “Drought-stricken California only has one year of water left, Nasa scientist warns”.

Good heavens! Who can argue with a NASA SCIENTIST?! The Guardian names the Nasa scientist – an expert on the global water cycle, Jay Famiglietti. He has an impressive curriculum vitae.


The original source for all this is the Los Angeles Times, which ran an opinion piece by Dr Famiglietti.

On social media, there is a photo doing the rounds showing the 1930s dustbowl period in the US with a caption: “R.I.P. California (1850-2016): what we’ll lose and learn from the world’s first major water collapse”. The opener claims that NASA has announced that California is on its death-bed and only has 12 months of water left.

Alarmism is a scourge but it can easily be repudiated with some good critical thinking:

1. Always read the article, not just the sensationalist heading and opening paragraph. In The Guardian above, the actual article offers no evidence whatsoever for the claim in the headline and Dr Famiglietti’s words do not make that claim. No other Nasa scientist is quoted. The Nasa scientist has been misrepresented. Neither does Nasa claim that California is on its death-bed.

2. Check the original source, do not rely on the journalist’s take on it. Who knows, they may be influenced by green doomsdayism! Or out to sell their paper. Or, more likely, both. In this case, on checking the LA Times article by Dr Famiglietti, there is again no claim by him that California’s water supply is about to run out within 12 months. The LA Times later ran a retraction, of sorts, pointing out that the original headline suggested that California only had a year’s supply of water left and that what they meant was that there was only a year’s supply in storage. So, the editor changed the headline. And also apologized to Dr Famiglietti for calling him James instead of Jay. This aspect to the apology ran first, followed by the bit about storage. True.

3. Google the scientist to see what they actually believe. Normally I would do this but it hasn’t been necessary as a week later, on March 20th this year, the LA Times itself published a second report which allowed correction by Dr Famiglietti of the original article’s misrepresentation of his views. The key bit is: “he never claimed that California has only a year of total water supply left”. Say what? Now that’s quite a difference, a huge difference, and a point of view that does not serve an alarmist agenda. But it won’t stop the scores of thousands of sharers of the original false report spreading their alarmism via social media and other media, all with the imprimatur of a (non-existent) Nasa scientific source.


The LA Times article continues:

“He (Dr Famiglietti, the Nasa scientist) explained that the state’s reservoirs have only about a one-year supply of water remaining. Reservoirs provide only a portion of the water used in California and are designed to store only a few years’ supply. But the online headline generated great interest. Famiglietti said it gave some the false impression that California is at risk of exhausting its water supplies. The satellite data he cited, which measure a wide variety of water resources, show “we are way worse off this year than last year,” he said. “But we’re not going to run out of water in 2016,” because decades worth of groundwater remain”.

Decades worth of groundwater. Okay?

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This article was first published on C21stLeft.

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About the Author

Barry York is an historian and writer who blogs at C21st Left. He rejects the current pseudo-left and regards himself as a leftist influenced by Marxism.

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