Climate Change

Apocalypse Abuse and 'Climate Doomism'

Climate scientists denounce a scaremongering story in New York magazine.

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"There is a seduction in apocalyptic thinking. If one lives in the Last Days, one's actions, one's very life, take on historical meaning and no small measure of poignance," Eric Zencey wrote in 1988. "Apocalypticism fulfills a desire to escape the flow of real and ordinary time, to fix the flow of history into a single moment of overwhelming importance." Lawrence Buell has called apocalypse "the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal."

The seduction of apocalyptic thinking is on full and lurid display in David Wallace-Wells' article "The Uninhabitable Earth," published in New York magazine earlier this week. The subtitle says it all: "Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak—sooner than you think."

Wallace-Wells is engaging in "apocalypse abuse," a term I believe I first encountered in Edith Efron's magnificent and prescient book The Apocalyptics. As I wrote in my 1993 book Eco-Scam, "'apocalypse abusers' typically extrapolate only the most horrendous trends, while systematically ignoring any ameliorating or optimistic ones, offering worst-case scenarios in the guise of balanced presentations."

"It is, I promise, worse than you think," Wallace-Wells begins. "Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century." Instead of relying on more mainstream projections, Wallace-Wells cherry-picks the worst-case scenarios for melting glaciers, rising sea levels, temperature increases, crop failures, species extinctions, and more.

Reacting in a Facebook post, the Penn State climatologist Michael Mann—not a man who's known to underplay the dangers of man-made climate change—declared: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it."

Mann followed up today with a Washington Post op-ed. Wallace-Wells, he writes, "paints an overly bleak picture, arguing that climate change could render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century." He cites several examples of how the New York piece misleads readers, including its misrepresentations about the dangers posed by methane trapped arctic permafrost and recent adjustments to satellite temperature records.

Mann is not alone in his criticisms. Another Washington Post article today, this one by Chris Mooney, cites a tweet from the University of Washington glaciologist Eric Steig: "What's written's actually beyond worst possible case. THIS is the 'alarmism' we get accused of. It's important to speak out against it."

Many climate scientists object to the article because they fear that such doomism will induce a sense of fatalism in the public and among policy makers. If the end is nigh, why not just sit back and enjoy our time before the apocalypse?

In 1989, the Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider notoriously argued, "We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both." Some climatologists evidently think that Wallace-Wells has gotten the balance badly wrong.

In Eco-Scam, I wrote that apocalypse abusers offer "lurid scenarios of a devastated earth, overrun by starving hordes of humanity, raped of its precious nonrenewable resources, poisoned by pesticides, pollution, and genetically engineered plagues, and baked by greenhouse warming. The new millenarians no longer expect a wrathful God to end the world in a rain of fire or overwhelming deluge. Instead humanity will die by its own hand." Wallace-Wells is just the latest in a long line.

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  1. Article in the Chron this morning with maps and all sorts of gee-gaws has X amount of land ‘flooded’ by 2045. Well, sort of flooded; there might be standing water there. After a heavy rain. Kind of like now.

    1. Local news here had a similar piece: “You know how your yard stays wet for a while after it rains? Well, in less than 70 years THAT’S GOING TO HAVE KEPT HAPPENING.”

      1. Nice.

        [rips out sprinkler system and throws it in the dumpster]


  2. Mann is not alone in his criticisms. Another Washington Post article today, this one by Chris Mooney, cites a tweet from the University of Washington glaciologist Eric Steig: “What’s written’s actually beyond worst possible case. THIS is the ‘alarmism’ we get accused of. It’s important to speak out against it.”

    In other words, ‘this is our turf, you better step off before something bad happens to you’. Amusingly, articles that are actually and clearly insane manage to make AGW appear to be the middle-ground when it absolutely is not. Clever ploy.

    1. >>>cites a tweet

      journalism is dead.

  3. Wallace-Wells cherry-picks the worst-case scenarios for… crop failures

    From the source:

    If action is not taken to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, scientists predict that climate change may cause yields of corn, soybeans, and cotton? three of America’s biggest cash crops? to decrease by as much as 80% by 2100. A new study released by researchers at Columbia University and North Carolina State University in the online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details these potential impacts.

    1. From their source:

      In a paper published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, North Carolina State University agricultural and resource economist Dr. Michael Roberts and Dr. Wolfram Schlenker, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia University, predict that U.S. crop yields could decrease by 30 to 46 percent over the next century under slow global warming scenarios, and by a devastating 63 to 82 percent under the most rapid global warming scenarios.

      1. What the paper itself actually says:

        Holding current growing regions fixed, area-weighted average yields are predicted to decrease by 30?46% before the end of the century under the slowest (B1) warming scenario and decrease by 63?82% under the most rapid warming scenario (A1FI) under the Hadley III model.

        So, starting with an impossible assumption, we then set up a feedback loop of worst-case scenarios.

        1. “Holding current growing regions fixed,”

          Yep. I had a nice link to an article about how much more crops would flourish in more northern climes if global warming (as it was then, before rebranding to climate change) actually did occur. However, my last phone upgrade lost the link somehow in the data transfer. Russians maybe? Bernie, is that you?

      2. That is to say, Ron, Wallace-wells and, more importantly, his scientist cohort aren’t just cherry-picking worst case scenarios as much as outright fabricating ‘facts’.

        1. Nice deconstruction job there, M.C. Asual.

        2. m.c: Yes. There are tons of papers on the topic with far less drastic projections. Even as average global temperature has increased by about 1 degree Celsius, cereal yields are still rising.


          1. Even as average global temperature has increased by about 1 degree Celsius, cereal yields are still rising.

            That shouldn’t really be surprising though, as a warmer climate with more CO2 is eminently beneficial to plant-life on both counts.

      3. professor of economics

        ok

        1. professor of economics

          ok

          If you want to engage in science you need to look past the credentials and evaluate on the merits of the argument. Economist tend to have pretty good statistical chops (better than most climate scientists IMO). Richard Tol, Dr. Edward Wegman, and Ross McKitrick are also economists.

          1. I think it takes a bit more than massaging some statistics to determine crop yields in response to climate changes.

          2. And if they applied their economics tools to the problem, then I’d put even less weight on it.

            1. Not sure why you feel that way when both Economics and Climatology are both soft sciences, but I suppose one of them at least claims more expertise on climate. However, that isn’t what they were actually looking at here. They were looking at economic consequences of a climate model so you can see why they might need both to make their argument.

            2. Juice,

              You completely missed the point. Do you know anything about the economists I listed?

    2. Yeah plants hate CO2 and longer growing seasons. It’s a fact.

  4. RE: Apocalypse Abuse and ‘Climate Doomism’

    “”Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak?sooner than you think.”

    Assholes like David Wallace-Wells have been doom and gloom since the 1970’s and none of their predictions came true. It makes one wonder if they don’t write such bullshit because their mommy and daddy didn’t pay enough attention to them.

  5. Ron might think of apocalyptic climate hype as the creative destruction of science by advertising agencies & PR firms exercising their 1st amendment right to cry fire on a crowded planet

    Some of the biggest agencies have been pouring it on since the ’70s

    https://goo.gl/evNG9b

  6. Ron might think of apocalyptic climate hype as the creative destruction of science by advertising agencies & PR firms exercising their 1st amendment right to cry fire on a crowded planet

    Some of the biggest agencies have been pouring it on since the ’70s

    https://goo.gl/evNG9b

  7. This is from so long ago I lost the citation:
    Adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan, notable as a Democrat in the administration, urged the administration to initiate a worldwide system of monitoring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, decades before the issue of global warming came to the public’s attention.
    There is widespread agreement that carbon dioxide content will rise 25 percent by 2000, Moynihan wrote in a September 1969 memo.
    “This could increase the average temperature near the earth’s surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit,” he wrote. “This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter.”
    Wrong then (1969), wrong now (2017). “Widespread” agreement does not constitute truth; see flat earth.
    I was taught that carbon dioxide was necessary for plant life; has that changed?

    1. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter.

      On a side note, I’m having trouble seeing the downside to this scenario.

      1. Perhaps deniers aren’t so much in denial but hoping.


    2. I was taught that carbon dioxide was necessary for plant life; has that changed?

      The part where they educate people about it being necessary for plant life might have, along with what gases the plants release as a by-product. You know, oxygen, what we need to breath ourselves?

      This is why I like to bring up the fact that plans need around ~170PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere to survive, and we’re far, far closer to that minimum than we are to any theoretically ‘bad’ concentration of CO2 that’s seriously out of line with historical concentrations. (~300 to ~450 now, as high as ~1500 to ~3000 in the last 500 million years, 40000 to be ‘lethal’)

      1. Just as, if not more important to this is that, biologically speaking, 37-40 degrees and 10+% concentrations of CO2 aren’t exceptionally different than what we’ve got. That is to say, the main photosynthetic players limiting yields now are the ones that break down at higher temps (as opposed to the whole system collapsing). It’s something that should be rather obvious to any evolutionary biologist as plants (the ones we cultivate anyway) are effectively adapting to/emerging from heat and carbon-scarcity. There are plenty of plants that are better adapted to higher temps but, given our current climate, they tend to be pushed into places that are water scarce.

        Moreover, climate-y types tend to forget their statistics in relation to physics. Essentially specifying omnipotence as the only survival option and invisible pink unicorns as a basal requirement. A plant robustly adapted to 50 C from a warming perspective will have to have seen 60-70 C days. Any plant that can survive 0 or 100 degrees C either has to be wholly subsumed by water or can’t rely on it. Any plant wholly subsumed or largely devoid of water is going to suck at carbon fixation. Any plant that masters the whole trick would consume humanity and the rest of the planet in pretty short order.

        1. Like ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’ except Tribbles are a strain of plant, like wheat, and instead of being everywhere on a starship, they thrive better than anything in pretty much any environment. And we can’t just beam the problem off on the Klingons.*

          *My statements should not be construed as a worst-case doomsday scenario but as (un)reasonable limits to idle and/or inebriated speculation.

  8. Good piece, Ron, your hard work on this issue is much appreciated.

    Do you think it’s possible that Wallace-Wells knows he’s selling a fantasy but justifies it as a necessary step to scare people into supporting his preferred policies? I guess in either case it’s heartening that there are lengths that even some of the truest of true believers consider too far to go to.

    1. pa: When I presented my book proposal for Eco-Scam to my editor, Thomas Dunne, at St. Martin’s Press back in 1992, he actually told me: “Ron, we’ll publish your book and we’ll both make some money. But I want to tell
      you that if you’d brought me a book predicting the end of the world, I could have made you a rich man.” I suspect that Mr. Wallace-Wells will do very well financially.

  9. Some of my more lefty facederp friends posted this, in complete seriousness.

    I just laughed and shook my head.

  10. Climate scientists denounce a scaremongering story in New York magazine.

    When the science is settled is when the killings start.

    Remember that Communism was said to be “scientific”.

    1. Well, killing others is currently considered kinda off-limits, even if humans are a disease on the planet Earth… Stay tuned, this idea (being off limits) may change soon…

      What is probably less off-limits, is the idea of killing oneself, in the name of ridding the planet of evil, planet-destroying humans! Few of the human-haters stop to consider the idea that humans may be the vanguards of evolution, destined to fend off the next life-destroying asteroid impact, and instead, becoming guardians of life on the planet! And eventually, maybe of life on the planet… And beyond! To infinity and beyond, I say!!!

      The idea of killing oneself to save the planet is one of many ideas (a minor one in this fiction, which pretty clearly sneers on the idea) contained in a FREE read (towards the end of the fiction section) at http://www.rocketslinger.com/R…..essCounty/ , by the way…

    2. There’s a “New Communism” group on my campus. I was leaving an actual scientific talk and some lady in attendance handed out pamphlets and gave us the little 30 second rundown. They still try to say it’s “scientific”, because of course we as scientists would be intrigued

  11. In 1989, the Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider notoriously argued, “We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.

    That’s what televangelists do.

    1. In the dark ages, the nobility was scared of the idea that the peasants might notice that they were getting very, very little in exchange for their taxes…

      And then the nobility discovered that they could protect the serfs from WITCHES!!! The reasons why your crops failed, your calves and baby piglets and children died of diseases, and a mysterious fire burned down your hutch, had EVERYTHING to do with the ugly old hag living next to you, was a WITCH!!! And the nobility could protect you from the WITCH! (Added bonus, you could take over her property after she was burned or drowned).

      It was just totally strange, but the NOBILITY was never found to be witches, just as Al Gore could burn 7 tons of fossil fuel to go to and accept his Nobel Prize in “fighting climate change”, and NOT be accused of being a “witch”!!!

      And today, Government Almighty protects us from “climate change”…

      1. Hence the term “Witch Hunt”. Traveling judges made their wealth by judging accused witches. Now they go against “Angry Volcano God” deniers.

  12. It’s been this way since Silent Spring.

  13. Effective use of ritual and symbolism is a good way to get a message across to the masses. What’s wrong with scientists doing it for a good cause? Surely less harmless than religion.

    1. The thing that’s lacking here is the “good cause” part… The “cause” here is leading, could lead to, MASSIVE negative impact on the world’s economy!!! When third-worlders are starving, ’cause the economy SUCKS, they make more babies, and cut down more forests for cooking fuel. AND kill more wildlife for “bush meat”. THAT (those things and more) will hurt the environment big-time!

  14. I’m too lazy to look myself but does anyone know off the top of their head just when it was that Reason finally woke up and stopped pushing the climate blame exaggeration?

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