Summary: Climate science shows how America assimilates information, assesses threats, and allocate resources. We do it poorly. Doomsters are part of the problem. We can make the climate policy debate better informed and less divisive by ignoring doomsters.
“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
— From J. L. Mencken’s In Defense of Women (1918).
James Anderson (Prof of Atmospheric Chemistry at Harvard) gave a speech. It fed the daily doomster news from the Left. “There Is No Time Left” by Robert Hunziker at Counterpunch. Journalist Jeff McMahon, presented it at Forbes as yet another in the endless series of deadlines: “We Have Five Years To Save Ourselves From Climate Change.” (see lists of such deadlines going back many years: here, here, here). But, as usual, Grist went into deep clickbait.
Professor Anderson believes that we have only 55 months left to “fix climate change” or we will go extinct. Some of the predictions in his speech rely on the work of other scientists (e.g., more and stronger storms in a warmer world, as predicted by Professor Michael Mann). His doomster prediction has little support from the IPCC’s reports.
Anderson’s speech and the resulting stories are is typical of the news today. The campaign to get extreme public policy action to fight climate change has run for 30 years. This year it went full-doomster, doubling down on warnings of nightmarish consequences. There are three oddities to this. The first two are widely recognized; the third is seldom mentioned – and perhaps the most important.
First, ignoring the IPCC and major climate agencies.
The IPCC’s Working Group I reports (the physical sciences) were rightly described by activists as the “gold standard” description of climate research and the most reliable statement of scientists’ consensus. But by 2011 activists were saying they were “too conservative.” This became a widespread response by activists to the release of AR5 in 2013 (e.g., Inside Climate News and Yale’s Environment 360). Now activists explicitly attack the IPCC’s integrity, advocating it twist the science to support activists’ agenda. For example, see this March 2019 paper in Bioscience.
Now activists and their journalist supporters focus on individual papers, seldom replicated by other scientists, and increasingly wild statements by scientists. The major climate science institutions are ignored.
Second, what about those confident predictions?
Scientists making confident predictions about climate seldom mention the many false predictions. 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. False predictions about the melting of the Arctic Ocean. Despite the almost daily hype, most forms of extreme weather have not increased (esp. see Judith Curry’s new essayabout this). See more failed predictions. These have, logically, eroded the public’s confidence so that climate change is ranked low among American’s public policy priorities (e.g., surveys by Gallup and Pew Research).
Some climate scientists have warned about excessive confidence. Such as Judith Curry in her articles and presentations about the need to better appreciate uncertainty (e.g., here, here, and here). They have been ignored.
Third, will climate change go the same way as earlier doomster stories?
Our history for the past few generations has been doomster fears seizing the public’s attention only after solutions have begun.
(1) The Horse Manure Crisis – Experts worried in 1894 that horse manure would stop the growth of cities, and perhaps make them uninhabitable. But the first practical car was built in 1885. The first electrified underground urban railway opened in 1890 in London. These became more useful with the invention of the multiple-unit train control in 1897. In a few decades, cities were far cleaner.
(2) Water and air pollution – In the late 1960s and early 1970s, water and air pollution were considered existential threats to our survival. On 15 January 1971 Americans watched “L.A. 2017”, an episode of The Name of the Game by the hot and young new director Steven Spielberg. In it, the hero has a vision of Los Angeles in 2017, after pollution had destroyed the Earth’s ecology and forced the remnants of humanity underground. LA had one cow; its milk was a delicacy for the rich. See more about the plot. Philip Wylie wrote the script. His specialty was science fiction Stories about nuclear war and ecological disaster. Those were as popular then as stories about climate apocalypses are today. He novelized it as Los Angeles: A.D. 2017. See a review here.
Responsible people had acted long before Spielberg produced his first horror film. Progress began with the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 and the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. Small beginnings for decades of incremental change that has reshaped the air and water of America, still continuing.
(3) Overpopulation – Collapse from overpopulation has been a favorite prediction, from Thomas Malthusin An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) to Paul Ehrlich in The population bomb(1968). On 17 January 1969, Americans watched “The Mark of Gideon“, as Captain Kirk visited a planet with literally wall-to-wall people (see this excerpt). The goal of ZPG – zero population growth – was seen by many as unrealistic or utopian.
The first safe and effective Intrauterine devices hit the market in the 1950s; the 1960s next-generation devices were even better. Enovid, the first birth control pill, hit the market in 1960. Cheap, easy, and effective contraceptives began the long-decline in fertility that will lead to collapsing populations in some nations during next few years – and probably a falling population in the late 21st century.
But although they are usually wrong, doomstsers are flexible. Now fewer people are disastrous.
(4) The Soviet Union – It was an existential threat to America right until it collapsed. US intelligence agencies consistently overestimated the growth rates and technical progress of the USSR (examples here). Far-right extremists further exaggerated it into a bogeyman. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This marked the beginning of the end to the cold war – and a large step towards lifting the threat of global annihilation. Howard Phillips (Chairman of The Conservative Caucus) described it in the NYT as “Treaty: Another Sellout“ See more examples of right-wing hysteria.
(5) Resource exhaustion – This has been a favorite of doomsters since the late 1960s. After fifty years we still have not exhausted any resources. Most have declined in price (in real terms). Many resources, especially agricultural and minerals, are subject to boom-bust cycles. Periods of low prices result in capital underinvestment, followed by supply shortages – and doomster stories that they are “running out” (ignoring basic geology). Then prices rise, investment surges, supplies increase – followed by amnesia about the previous false predictions.
A common element to these doomster stories.
A common element in these doomster stories is that the loudest warnings came after solutions were found. In most cases, the doomsters were panicking long after cooler people had seen the threat and begun preventive actions. There are structural reasons for that.
First, doomsters often believe they are smarter and know more than everybody else. Experts, politicians, administrators – none can compare with doomsters’ opinions of themselves. Second, doomsters tend to be attention whores. They play upon the public’s fears, which appear in the late stage of a challenge. By then, experts often have been working on solutions for many years. Or prices have moved to signal the need for action, which impel research and investments. Doomsters seldom see any of this, with their eyes fixed on the one true vision of the future.
What about climate change?
Energy generation is shifting to lower-carbon sources. Cars are shifting from gasoline and diesel to electricity. Electricity generation is shifting from coal to natural gas. And next-gen energy sources are emerging from scientists’ laboratories, such as new nuclear power systems and (more speculatively) the bright light of fusion might burn away climate doomsters’ fears. But these things take time. Fracking to produce natural gas is happening now, spreading around the world. See Stratfor giving us good news about when renewables will replace fossil fuels.
Much depends on how much time climate change gives to the relentless march of technology. We need time. Variables remain uncertain. For example, transient climate response (TCR) was estimated by the Working Group I of IPCC’s AR5 with high confidence “to be likely between 1°C and 2.5°C” (in chapter 10; “likely” means above 66% probability). Theories about key dynamics remain weakly validated, such as the dynamics of clouds and the long-term carbon cycle.
This is the classic form of a doomster nightmare. They exaggerate the threat beyond that described by experts and minimize the significance of counter-measures being developed.
Does this mean we should ignore climate change as a threat? No, no more than we should focus on it to the exclusion of other serious threats, such as the dying oceans (see here, here, and here). A better lesson from this history is that we should ignore doomsters and instead pay attention to experts. This one easy step will make the political debate better informed and less divisive.