I’m updating this post from April since so many in the media and elsewhere still seem to be pushing the myth that climate scientists have been overhyping the threat posed by climate, when the reverse is true.
The professional global warming disinformers and their enablers and some in the media want you to believe that scientists are exaggerating the threat — which is why conservatives and conservative-leaning independents believe just that (see “Gallup poll shows failure of media, conservatives still easily duped by deniers, scientists & progressives still lousy at messaging“).
But that is patently absurd. I don’t meet 1 person in 50 who has any idea whatsoever of the incalculable misery — Hell and High Water — that we are in the process of inflicting on the next 50 generations on our current emissions path. Fewer still understand the true plausible worst-case scenario, again since the climate science community and the IPCC hardly ever talk about it (see UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years, but “we do have time to stop it if we cut greenhouse gas emissions soon”).
While the U.S. media largely downplays or ignores the threat (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists and Study: “The U.S. media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress” and here) — the European media is often much blunter, which is to say, more accurate.
James Randerson — the Guardian’s environment website editor and a top UK science journalist — issued a powerful wake-up call back in April based on the results of a poll of climate experts:
Climate scientists are hyping the global warming crisis in order to keep themselves in jobs, conferences and research grants to exotic locations. Their snouts are wedged deep in a lucrative trough.
So the results of the Guardian’s poll of climate experts showing that most believe we don’t have a hope in hell of keeping planetary warming to below 2C – the threshold the EU defines as “dangerous” – are all the more remarkable.
It blows the lid on a very different sort of conspiracy: that climate scientists have actually been toning down their message lest the worst-case scenario becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As one respondent put it, “Great things can only be achieved by everyone believing it can be done. How do you think the second world war was won? Churchill didn’t stand around saying most people think we will lose the war. He said we will fight it on the beaches.”
Far from over-playing their hand to swell their research coffers, scientists have been toning down their message in an attempt to avoid public despair and inaction.
Anyone who has ever talked to leading climate experts — and I interviewed and listened to dozens in researching my book and writing this blog — knows that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are prone to understate what the science says, especially when speaking in public. Many confided to me in private a much more realistic assessment of what we face, which is how I was able to put together back in 2006 an accurate picture of what the scientific literature is now saying.
Just 7% of the 261 experts surveyed (200 of whom were researchers in climate science or related fields) said they thought governments would succeed in restricting global warming to 2C. Nearly two-fifths thought this target was impossible and 46% thought a 3 to 4C rise by the end of the century was most likely.
A 3 or 4C rise might not sound much but the climatic shifts accompanying it would be massive. At 3C one to four billion extra people would face water shortages and 150 to 550 million more people would be at risk of hunger. With an extra degree of warming on top of that, seven million to 300 million would be put at risk of coastal flooding due to sea level rise.
In the face of such apocalyptic scenarios it is natural for people to feel like giving up. Small personal actions such as turning the TV off standby, turning down your thermostat and lagging the loft have always seemed pitiful in the face of a global catastrophe.
But if the scientists are saying the bad stuff is going to happen anyway then it is tempting to think we might as well stop punishing ourselves, jump on that no-frills flight and be done with it.
Unfortunately, the climate doesn’t give us a milestone beyond which we can stop bothering. W
arming the planet to 3C beyond pre-industrial levels is a lot worse than a 2C rise, but it is a walk in the park with mum buying you an ice-cream compared with a rise of 4C.
Likewise, stopping us getting near 5C is very much worth the effort. Sea-level rise at that global temperature increase will take out cities including London, New York and Tokyo. The poles will be transformed by warming.
Scientists must stop sanitising their message. World leaders and their people need to hear the warnings loud and clear and follow through with radical action that matches the scale of the crisis. Only if they do will future generations look back on what is looking decreasingly likely to be our “finest hour”.
Finally, a few scientist have started becoming blunt, which is why I started my category “Uncharacteristically Blunt Scientists.” See also the presentations delivered at the recent “Four degrees and beyond” conference.
But the media still loves to focus on the pseudoscientific contrarians who counsel ination and delay — see What else is Newsweek wrong about? Pushing Freeman Dyson’s pseudoscience and NYT magazine profiles climate crackpot, Freeman Dyson, and lets him slander James Hansen, and, of course, Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’ and Dubner is baffled that Caldeira ‘doesn’t believe geoengineering can work without cutting emissions’. And they still quote the professional disinformers every chance they get.
No one who reads this blog regularly or follows U.S. politics could possibly believe there is better than 1 in 3 chance that we will stabilize anywhere near 450 ppm, anywhere near 2°C warming.
But anyone who reads this blog also understands that it is not too late — not only could we stabilize at 450 ppm at a low total cost, one tenth of a penny on the dollar, we could stabilize at 350 ppm for probably no more than double the cost of stabilizing at 450 ppm [see “How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution“)].
And so I will continue to side with the climate expert cited above, but I’m going to change one word in his impassioned plea:
Great things can only be achieved by everyone believing knowing it can be done. How do you think the second world war was won? Churchill didn’t stand around saying most people think we will lose the war. He said we will fight it on the beaches.
This isn’t about belief. This is about knowledge.
Churchill knew the war could be won, and he was right.