Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Are We Doomed by Global Warming? Not Really

David Wallace-Wells is out with a lengthy piece in New York magazine on global warming that has gotten around quite a bit. His message: no matter how scared you are of the future, it's not enough. Cheerfully titled The Uninhabitable Earth, with references in the subtitle to famine, economic collapse and a sun that cooks us, it is state of the art climate disaster-porn.

Here are the titles of the first eight sections of his article:

  • 'Doomsday'
  • Heat Death
  • The End of Food
  • Climate Plagues
  • Unbreathable Air
  • Perpetual War
  • Permanent Economic Collapse
  • Poisonous Oceans

Wallace-Wells believes the big enemy is complacency and actually blames the scientists for a lot of this.
[N]o matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was....
So that's the idea. It's time to bypass those pesky scientists and tell people just how bad it could get!

The article has gotten a considerable amount of push-back. Climate scientist Michael Mann remarks:

I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.
The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it. 
The article paints an overly bleak picture by overstating some of the science. It exaggerates for example, the near-term threat of climate "feedbacks" involving the release of frozen methane (the science on this is much more nuanced and doesn't support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming: http://www.realclimate.org/…/2012/01/much-ado-about-methane/).

Journalist Andrew Freedman is similarly worried about Wallace-Wells' commitment to extreme gloom-and-doomism:

The [climate] science can be scary, but it shouldn't be paralyzing, and it certainly doesn't justify worrying about whether humans will even be able to survive on this planet by the end of this century.....
The magazine cover story, entitled, "The Uninhabitable Earth," takes the bleakest climate science projections and assumes the worst from there. It's one of the darkest portrayals of our climate future that's been written recently, at least from a nonfiction perspective.
In several places, the story either exaggerates the evidence or gets the science flat-out wrong. This is unfortunate, because it detracts from a well-written, attention-grabbing piece. It's still worth reading, but with a sharp critical eye. 
In recent years, scientific evidence has solidified around central findings, showing that sea level rise is likely to be far more severe during the rest of this century than initially anticipated, and that key temperature thresholds may be crossed that make life difficult for some kinds of plants and animals to survive in certain places.  
Such threshold crossings may even make it tough for humans to live and work in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and tropics.  
All of this is scary. However, climate scientists nearly universally say that there is still time to avert the worst consequences of global warming, and that this message needs to be driven home again and again in order to encourage leaders to act. Doom and gloom only leads to fear and paralysis, studies have shown.  
And he provides a quote from Texas A&M climate scientist Andrew Dessler that about sums up the Wallace-Wells approach:
"I think the picture painted by the author is probably a worst, worst, worst case scenario that combines the strongest response of the climate system to carbon dioxide, combined with zero effort by the world to reduce emissions,"
So there you have it: if we do absolutely nothing and assume the worst possible response of the planet to climate change in pretty much every area......it could be very bad indeed. None of these things seem probable--in fact, quite improbable--but, hey, they could happen. 

Fair enough I suppose. But is this sort of thing really useful? I've got my doubts as you might expect from the author of The Optimistic Leftist. Terrifying people, by itself, accomplishes little unless people believe there is actually some reasonable possibility of succeeding--which Wallace-Wells is at pains to discount. Indeed, he rains contempt on technocrats and climate scientists who actually believe climate change problems can be solved.In his view, the very fact you think you can solve the problem is a problem.

In the end, I suspect Wallace-Wells will only succeed in "mobilizing" those who already believe we're in pretty deep do-do. People with a more middling position, who have some questions about the issue and think we're making at least some progress already will remain unmoved.

That's a shame because the road forward is actually pretty clear. Kevin Drum, in a piece that is actually fairly sympathetic to Wallace-Wells, confesses that he just can't see that this kind of doom-mongering is actually going to generate support for drastic environmental regulation. Instead, the obvious thing to do is make clean energy cheaper faster and support that with infrastructure buildout.--which of course would require some serious public investment (and as Drum notes would have many ancillary economic benefits). Oh but wait a minute, for that to happen, the public would have to believe the problem can actually be solved. Maybe the climate scientists and technocrats aren't so crazy after all. 

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