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UK Guardian: “To stop a climate catastrophe … Scientists must stop sanitising their message”

By Joe Romm on April 15, 2009 at 10:02 am

"UK Guardian: “To stop a climate catastrophe … Scientists must stop sanitising their message”"

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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.

The global warming deniers 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.

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.

Yesterday, James Randerson — the Guardian‘s environment website editor and a top UK science journalist — issued a powerful wake-up call based on the results of a recent 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 goes the familiar chant from the climate naysayers – those who are convinced climate change is not caused by people nor that its effects are overblown.

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.

Precisely.

Anyone who has ever talked to leading climate experts — and I interviewed and listened to dozens in researching my book — 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. Warming 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”.

Precisely.

Finally, a few scientist have started becoming blunt, which is why I started my category “Uncharacteristically Blunt Scientists.”  But the media still loves to focus on the pseudoscientific contrarians who counsel inaction 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 “” while Revkin gives Dyson’s nuttiness a free pass.

No one who reads this blog regularly or follows U.S. politics could possibly believe there is a great chance that we will stabilize anywhere near 450 ppm, anywhere near 2°C warming.

But anyone who reads this blog also understand 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.

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.

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32 Responses to UK Guardian: “To stop a climate catastrophe … Scientists must stop sanitising their message”

  1. Joe, you need yet another category – belligerent scientists.

    I would be happy to contribute.

  2. If scientists fail to describe it properly, they can try again until they get it right. Ooops! One of the things they fail to describe properly is the increasing rate of change.

  3. paulm says:

    “… have been toning down their message in an attempt to avoid public despair and inaction.”

    and panic.

  4. anon says:

    What irony in the fact that american settlers destroyed the native culture that contained millions of years of wisdom. ‘we do not receive the planet from out ancestors, we borrow it from our children’ – native american saying. We destroyed their culture and their wisdom and grew a thriving society that spits in the face of millions of years of wisdom! This will be looked upon as one of the greatest tragedies of human history.

  5. Dean says:

    There is an underlying challenge here. People tend to evaluate threats based on their experience, and this is not a threat that people’s personal experience prepares them for. So while understating the threat undermines preparedness, stating it in all its gory detail also brings up this reaction that it just can’t really be that bad, a few degrees of warming – even 10. After all – it’s supposed to e 10 degrees above average here this coming weekend and I’m going to love it! And it’s even tougher for climatologists because they didn’t get into science because they like being advocates.

    I don’t see that scientists have a choice given the threat, they have to be honest about it. But being honest about it also brings up this reaction from people and makes it easier for the deniers to say that they are the reasonable people.

    This is the challenge – to get people to step above their personal experience and accept warnings as real which conflict with their intuition, in the political context of a well-funded message machine that is reinforcing that reaction.

    And for a lighter point, regarding the Hansen’s comment that denialists could be in for serious treatment in the future when the doubt is gone and the compost really hits the fan. I would expect that the ‘tar’ part of tar and feathering will not be acceptable (we want to keep that tar buried deep in the ground!). So what are folks suggestions for a non-warming replacement?

  6. paulm says:

    It feels like the doldrums of inaction at the moment….
    (relative to what needs to be done)

  7. Sasparilla says:

    Nice article Joe, depressing, but I’ve been seeing this message coming from the scientific community for a while now.

    Something Randerson didn’t touch on, but is immensely important is that (according to our scientists) somewhere beyond 2.0C is where the big feedbacks (permafrost, clathrates, Amazon burning etc.) will start really kicking in and once they do we won’t have the option of stopping this show with emissions cuts (control will switch from human emissions running things to the big feedbacks taking over no matter what our emissions are), we would likely be on an elevator that our emissions cuts won’t effect taking us to far higher temps than 3 or 4.0C (the consequences of 6.0C or higher temps by the end of the century would be civilization ending).

    So I think we need to get two messages out here, we have to get our emissions down now and significantly (450ppm with pushback to 350ppm ASAP) and we cannot let the global temperature get above 2.0C higher (or therabouts) no matter what (any and all means need to be on the table for assuring that and that the big feedbacks don’t take off).

  8. Greg Robie says:

    Here is a haiku as a comment. As background, my bias (and is it, too, motivated reasoning?) is that global capitalism can neither be saved nor greened. The limits to the “growth”/cancer global capitalism enables has been reached and exceeded. This is not obvious within a nation-based economic perspective concerning what can “work,” economically, to recover and green global capitalism. This is because such a nation-based mindset is held in denial of the fact that the economy is now global; the hegemony of the US dollar is dependent on OPEC oil sales being denominated in US dollars; and the over extension of credit that has grown the national economy so “vigorously,” can only be mitigated with rising wages. Capitalism, as a competition-based economic paradigm, cannot allow this and survive. This means that fiat currencies denominated in debt cannot, in our capitalistic and competitive paradigm, recover.

    False Hopes & Powerlessness & Salvation

    Climate change denied
    Green growth capitalism
    Both oxymorons!

    ©1 3/15/09 greg robie

    . . . and are both the denial and hope in the first two lines examples of motivated reasoning?

    The historical cyclical nature of wealth creation and destruction teaches that with the end of an age (in our case, the fossil fuel/industrial age–and the competitive mindset that enabled it), the wealth/bubble a paradigm enables must collapse; is collapsing. During the transition it is the dynamics of motivated reasoning that makes the hope of the next paradigm–in our case, justice–emotionally inaccessible/untenable/intellectually repulsive. Such is the nature of motivated reasoning. Such is the reason a collapsing status quo is predictably followed by periods of social chaos: The false hope must be purged from the social meme. Because motivated reasoning is non-rational, this getting over trusted feelings takes time.

    The challenge before us, if we are to spare future generations the worst of our irresponsibly blind pursuit of competition as a good thing–as a hope, is that we must hope, whole heartedly, in justice (i.e. in good faith, live it). A central bank controlled, debt-based system of currencies dependent on fossil carbon cannot finance the arrival of such justice nor effect such living. A constitutionally coined currency based on carbon credits can (http://is.gd/lJRy). Furthermore, the collapse of the existing debt-based global capitalistic model (and the perception of wealth it has created) is a prerequisite for justice to be empowered to be the hope that replace the fear and greed capitalism has been corrupted to allowed to masquerade as hope. The coinage and administration of a currency coined in carbon credits, which are held, in trust, for the human population, is our best chance for getting to the next paradigm as non-violently and rational–as lovingly–as I can imagine. Such is a death and rebirth experience. It is a shift in what hope is: from a false one to a sustainable one. This is a war against death that can be won . . . and must be fought, if one is not to already to be counted among the walking dead.

    What can others imagine as a better way to live and fight the good fight?

  9. paulm says:

    Has anyone noticed that the blog comments on climate change articles and posts in MSM have changed in tone recently.

    There is much less denial posts and comments. Much more ‘Climate Change is happening not sure what to do’ comments….

  10. Namtillaku says:

    This is a tad off topic, but close enough so I’ll ask anyway.

    WTH does the Weather Channel do nothing but report ‘weather’? If you watch that channel each day to see what your day is going to be like, you can’t help but notice that the severe weather we’re experiencing these days is, well, much more severe. Yet not even a hint of a question of why.

  11. Namtillaku says:

    OK, sorry to post so quick again. I checked, the Weather Channel is owned by NBC, which is in turn owned by GE. I have my answer now :(

  12. hapa says:

    also climate reports don’t help you pick a coat and are a bummer

  13. Phillip Huggan says:

    A lack of THC and my government’s AGW position have led me to consider prototyping terrorist blueprints as a strategy to race S.Harper to the human extinction finish line.
    Our media won’t play a whistle-blower role, about to be bailed out for endorsing the terrorist. Our Queen blew it. Our RCMP elected him. I will exterminate this species while dry, to prove my point if necessary. Send me to Guantanimo and watch me really pissed when I get out.
    Terrorists presently are using generally primitive attack methodologies.

  14. Craig says:

    The idea that the public should be shielded from dire predictions is utter nonsense. When faced with looming threats, people don’t cower under their bed covers. They demand action. They demand wise leadership. And they stand up and do what is right. After all, what choice do we have? But first the threat must be clear and unmistakeable. The scientific community can bring that clarity.

    So it’s about time this sea change began. Scientists have a pressing moral obligation to use the bullhorn at their disposal. They need to push their findings onto the front pages of newspapers and into the lead stories on cable news networks.

    The moment is ripe to toss flowers on the grave of the denier movement. Swing over to Morano’s Climate Depot (sorry I know his name is dead here) and you’ll see what I mean. Many of his posts just cite frightening new scientific studies. The assumption being, I guess, is that we’re supposed to find the conclusions implausible. The point and laugh defense. The other posts mainly link to fringe cranks, who probably failed high school physics, mangling climate data. The deniers are running on empty.

    One of the scientists quoted in that Guardian article said she has to remain hopeful that the world will stabilize at 2 C because she is the mother of small children. But in reality she fears the worst. I don’t want to bash scientists. Without their dedication and perseverance, people like myself would be utterly in the dark. Their research and findings have predicted years in advance the coming catastrophe.

    But if the worst case scenario occurs? What if humanity stays on its current emissions path? What if the firestorm of climatic disruptions ends up sweeping the globe? Will those manning the watchtowers be able to say they shouted as loud as they could?

  15. Al says:

    Joe,
    You touched on this before, that many of the predictions say this or that will happen by 2100, 5-7C temp rise, .8 – 2 meter sea level rise. I think that time span is too long to be very effective in convincing folks. It seemed that I read in one of the Real Climate posts, that the models have a “sweet spot” of 20 -50 years in terms of accuracy. By 20 years, the weather noise is weeded out and after 50 years, climate behavior gets too chaotic for very precise prediction. Since we have been modelling for 30 years plus now, I propose saying by 2020, we expect this temperature increase X if we stay with BAU and list predictions for each 10 years intervals. I think that would have more immediacy. Put it all in a matrix or spreadsheet for 5 or so parameters and you would have all in one graphic, a pretty powerful tool. Thanks for your work!

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Thomas Lee Elifritz — Belliger away! We need it.

    Al — Here is something just a few years in the future for you to communicate, if you wish: Solar cycle 24 is just (barely) starting, the sun being in a deep and prolonged minimum. Despite this minimum (and La Nina conditions), 2008 CE was tenth warmest on record. In six years the sun will be at a solar maximum. That implies that 2015 CE will be quite, quite hot!

  17. cugel says:

    If Copenhagen turns out like Bali, which is to say it resolutely determines to meet again in two years, maybe Geneva, it’s nice and way above sea-level … I think we’re going to see a lot more Belligerent Scientists breaking the surface. There’s only so much exasperation any individual can take.

  18. Robert says:

    Joe,

    I strongly doubt your assertion that

    “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.”

    I don’t think there is any way of working the maths out in order to make this statement. Every part of our industrial society is 100% dependent on fossil fuel and we have very little real idea of whether most of it could remain viable without it. Take a field of corn for example. How exactly are we supposed to plough, seed, harvest, keep it fertilised, free of weeds and pests, dry and transport the produce, package and cool it and get it out to consumers without using any fuel? How do you even build, maintain and decommission a wind turbine and its distribution infrasructure without using vast amounts of energy and materials? I don’t think you can do it at all, never mind for 0.2 cents on the dollar.

    On the subject of public apathy – I just don’t think people worry when they hear about a 2 deg C rise or a 1 metre SLR by 2100 (when most of us will be dead anyway). Our house is on a 100 metre contour and the temperature varied by over 15 deg C between breakfast and lunchtime today! Personally I think climate change will eventually become a massive, civilisation-threatening event, but in the meantime I can see why most people find it boring and irrelevent.

    [JR: I have comprehensive studies on my side, you have your opinion. As for apathy, within two decades at most -- and possibly one -- the vast majority of Americans will be desperate to reduce emissions. It may be too late by then, but the desperation will come long before the worst impacts do.]

  19. J4zonian says:

    Just a note from your local schoolmarmy fan:

    “So goes the familiar chant from the climate naysayers – those who are convinced climate change is not caused by people nor that its effects are overblown.”

    should read “… OR that its effects are overblown” to be not as confusing. And wrong. I realize that’s from the Guardian and not you, but a [note] might clear it up.

  20. Robert says:

    Joe,

    If you read the last page of the IPCC report which you quote from you will see that the range of CO2 levels that they are aiming for are levels that we are now deeming catastrophic:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/17_11_07_ipcc4.pdf

    445 – 535
    535 – 590
    590 – 710

    These (high) levels might be achievable but where I part company from you is in your assertion that 350ppm is achievable at minor cost. I don’t see how you make this case. We are already at 385ppm so it would mean phasing out all fossil fuel inputs AND sequestering carbon as well (with maybe some plan to do this over a couple of decades). For this to be realistic you have to seriously consider how industrial society could work without oil, coal and gas. As these items have been THE most vital inputs since the start of the industrial revolution it’s quite a big question…

  21. Robert says:

    “…the vast majority of Americans will be desperate to reduce emissions. ”

    Maybe. Maybe not. The real question is – will the vast majority of the human race be desperate to reduce emissions?

  22. J4zonian says:

    Robert,

    Perhaps you’re forgetting the size of the US and world economy. 1/10 of a percent of either is a HUGE amount of money! Even if the costs of transition turn out to be two or three times that (a not unreasonable error given the uncertainty you point out) it’s STILL both a huge amount of money and a fantastic bargain.

    And as far as the cornfield, we already changed the way we do everything to it once, from horses to gasoline. Yes, it took 117 years, but

    1) that was an unintentional, undirected and individual change without an overwhelming motivation like the end of civilization,

    2) no one can possibly deny that technological change happens faster now, even exponentially faster, than it did then. Remember how long the change before THAT took—10,000 years. Quite a shortening of turnover time.

    3) this change is a much smaller one than that–tractors will undergo the same transformation as our other vehicles, and the same type of evolution they already have been and are undergoing. We will simply change power sources, from oil to solar and wind electricity, and I hope, horses. In fact, all those changes are already happening. See http://www.horseprogressdays.com/welcome.html .

    Some people are disbelieving, ‘apathetic’ (aka bound up with fear and conflict) or opposed, and may be for a long time. Meanwhile, the rest of us are busy putting up windmills and solar panels, conserving, becoming vegetarian or vegan, making clear the benefits of those besides climate change, and setting a table of tools, techniques, reasons and philosophies that will be waiting for the holdouts when they get their heads around the truth.

    Belief in rotten systems can collapse overnight. Once it starts, once it gets momentum, especially once it gets beyond a certain critical mass, change can happen incredibly swiftly. The fall of the USSR, eastern Europe, and the Shah of Iran are examples. Meanwhile, get ready. Dig a cistern, get into therapy, get your bicycle out of the garage and keep telling people the truth.

  23. ecostew says:

    It seems part of the issue is that the weather guys predict weather in the near-term and climate scientists are providing us with potential AGW-related science in the future based on emission scenarios using their best understanding of science (projections grounded in state-of-the-art-models, which are updated as appropriate), and the general public doesn’t understand the difference (and it seems many weather forecasters don’t either), which provides the deniers a wealth of opportunity given the weather forecasters are frequently less than accurate.

  24. riverat says:

    Dean, the tar part of tar & feathering is actually made from distilled pine resin so it’s a bio-product. The petroleum derived tar you’re thinking of is specifically called asphalt.

  25. jorleh says:

    90% of highly educated people in northern Europe have no idea of AGW. They say some warmer decades are coming and that it would be fine to have a little warmer here around the Polar Circle. They are proud when they pay 10 euros for “green” when they fly to Thailand, many of them two or three times per year.

  26. Martin Hedberg says:

    Why do we accept the talk about “lowering the emission”, when we might as well saying “leaving the fossil carbon in the ground”. A reduction of the human induced emissions of CO2 implies that carbon eventually is not taken out from the ground. If you want to reduce emissions by 80%, you have to reduce the amount of coal/gas/oil you dig up by approximately… 80%. (If this is enough is another story). And it needs to be done pretty soon, maybe some years ago.

    A. No world leaders dare to talk public about the consequences of not digging up the carbon (for ex Who will get it? How to tackle poverty? What will happen with Russian and Saudi economy? What about all pensions (voters) invested in carbon industry?).
    B. No world leaders dare to talk about the fact that whatever carbon is brought up from the ground, it will eventually be emitted as CO2 (Maybe not by me or you, but by somebody). Instead we accept the talk about lowering our own emissions as if that was enough.

    Implication for those who argue we can “save climate” with wind power, low energy light bulbs, efficient cars, personal reduction of emission, carbon trading etc: It is NOT saving ourselves from catastrophic climate changes. It is however maintaining welfare when we have done what we have to do, namely: Leaving the fossil carbon in the ground (and the trees on the ground). Not just a plan or a goal for the future, but actually leaving it there. For a start.

    Not even talking about leaving the carbon in the ground makes me a bit pessimistic about our capability to deal with our own the future, added upon all the knowledge we have about climate scenarios and the lack of strategies for dealing with major consequences.

    As long as there is an acceptance for a baseline that says it is okay to bring up the coal/gas/oil as long as you use it efficiently, we are failing.
    We need to understand that we no longer have access to the carbon stored in the sediments. We have to survive without it. With it, many peoples won’t.

  27. paulm says:

    Well said Martin.

    Our eyes are wide shut.

  28. paulm says:

    It is an intriguing human dilemma on sacrifice.

    If we leave the fuel in the ground people are going to die now.

    If we take it out we all die later.

  29. Robert says:

    Completely agree with Martin H. Bottom line is – we need to stop mining coal, oil and gas and then treat it as permanently off limits. With the exception of a small amount of carbon which is sequestered in landfill it is a true statement to say that if you mine fossil fuel it finishes up in the atmosphere (and ocean).

    Which brings us back to the question – is it actually possible to keep industrial civilisation going without fossil fuel inputs? A big question that I don’t see too many people giving serious thought to.

  30. J4zonian says:

    Many people have. One who has, publicly and with jokes, is Derrick Jensen. He says no; the only sustainable human way of life is the stone age way. A Ray Dasmann article in CoEvolution Quarterly years ago comes to mind as well, saying sort of the same thing. I say we don’t have to decide now. As long as we head as fast as possible in that direction without so much chaos and violence that it overwhelms us psychologically, politically and culturally, we will get to at least temporarily survivable levels. We can then decide to go on paring away technology or stay put and try to make a go of it, Amishly, medievally, anciently, or solarwindily post-petroleumly.

    I think of far greater importance than “deciding” what level of “civilization” we can be trusted with, is healing the collective and individual psyche of its PTSD, attachment disorder or whatever you want to call it–that makes any level a murderous one.

  31. Robert says:

    J4zonian,

    I concur. The only proven sustainable way of life is the one that nature evolved. Everything we do is, on the face of it, unsustainable.

    Here is some food for thought. The Gaia principle postulates that self-regulation of the planet’s environment is an emergent property of life, but without much of an explanation of why.

    This recent paper by scientists at the UK Met Office postulates that the Gaia mechanism self-selects from a range of Gaia mechanisms, some of which are self-regulatory and some anti-regulatory:

    http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/publications/HCTN/HCTN_77.pdf

    When a bad one takes over (an “anti-Gaia”) the responsible species dies off and the system resets. Hence the reason that self-regulation is emergent.

    The authors stop short of saying that the human race is the most powerful anti-Gaia force ever, but the implication is clear (especially as they work for the Met Office). I don’t suppose they wanted to get fired.