86 Responses to NY Times Criticizes Itself For Touting Myth That It Is Too Late To Avoid Climate Catastrophe, Part 2
Part 1 took on a NY Times essay that pushed the myth “We already know it’s too late” to stop climate catastrophe. In fact, many recent studies have concluded that aggressive action now to curtail carbon pollution could keep us at the low end of warming, where impacts are far more manageable.
Here I’ll extend that discussion, while taking on a NYT Dot Earth post that pushes other dangerous myths, such as the notion climate change impacts are reversible on a timescale that matters to humans.
In his post, “An Earth Scientist Explores the Biggest Climate Threat: Fear,” NYT climate blogger Revkin introduces an extended comment from Peter Keleman this way:
Here’s a “Your Dot” contribution pushing back against apocalyptic depictions of the collision between humans and the climate system — written by Peter B. Kelemen, the Arthur D. Storke Professor and vice chair in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Kelemen has done a lot of interesting work on possible ways to capture carbon dioxide from air (none being easy or cheap):
What Keleman wrote is a pushback against “apocalyptic depictions of the collision between humans and the climate system” that say it is too damn late to do anything (depictions which, as I’ve discussed, are relatively rare and generally debunked when they do appear).
“We already know it is too late to reverse the planet’s transformation, and we know what is going to happen next – superstorms, super-droughts, super-pandemics, massive population displacement, water scarcity, desertification and all the rest. Massive destruction, displacement and despair. Our worst fears are already upon us. The reality is far worse than anyone has imagined.”
These phrases are distilled from “Writing [at] the End,” an essay by Nathaniel Rich in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. They capture its doomsday ethos, and its breathtaking certainty. Rich, a novelist, is sure he knows the causes of our present ills, and the nature of the near future. He probably feels that he learned this from the 98 percent of climate scientists who – famously – agree on some things. I am part of that community; we agree that human greenhouse gas emissions are having a huge, negative effect on global climate. But I don’t agree with Nathaniel Rich.
Well first off, as anyone can easily see by checking the original, these phrases “distilled” from the Rich essay are not in order, and the second and fourth sentences are completely out of context.
“Massive destruction, displacement and despair” doesn’t refer to “what is going to happen next” — it comes from the essay’s first paragraph and applies to the aftermath of hurricane Sandy (and the aftermath of Rich’s fictional hurricane Tammy in his novel). The sentence “The reality is far worse than anyone has imagined” applies to Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, and what Rich apparently means is that our current reality is far worse than we imagined. That is hardly an unreasonable opinion to have given the bark beetle devastation, the loss of Arctic ice and apparent its impact on extreme weather, the accelerating disintegration of both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets — to name but a few realities far worse than were imagined even a decade ago.
Second, Rich is pretty clearly writing a literary, not scientific, essay. He is a novelist writing an essay about dystopian fiction and how it is having trouble keeping up with what’s actually happening in the real world. It is strange to say the least to treat this as if it were some sort of science treatise.
Third, we know where Rich “learned this from” because he tells us! It’s not “from the 98 percent of climate scientists” but rather from “nonfiction polemics” like Overheated” and “Hot” — neither of which, I might add, are written by climate scientists.
Fourth, not to nitpick or anything, but Keleman isn’t really a climate scientist, at least in the classic sense that his comments would imply — he is a (distinguished) geochemist who mostly works on geochemisty, rather than someone who has published peer-reviewed articles on, say, projected climate impacts.
I mention this only because Keleman’s next paragraph pushes the tired myth that some large number of climate scientists (and others) are exaggerating climate impacts to get grants and publicity:
Apocalyptic warnings sell newspapers, power Web sites, and are surprisingly good for marketing. Beyond the media, in the sciences and social sciences, if your research predicts a scary outcome, your name gets in the news, your grants get funded, and you feel like Paul Revere (though you might be Chicken Little). It’s a heady experience.
No, no, and no.
If the first sentence were actually true then you’d expect climate coverage would be soaring in a desperate effort by the newspaper business to stave off its ongoing collapse. Instead, of course, media coverage of climate change has itself collapsed in the past several years (see here and here) — and what little there is generally ain’t apocalyptic.
Yes, it’s true, Climate Progress is probably the most widely read climate blog, but then we do not do the kind of unjustified “it’s hopeless” messaging Keleman disdains. Indeed, we’ve criticized the very few who do — or, rather, who did, in the case of James Lovelock.
Moreover, while it is a common trope that scary research gets your name in the news, that is also rather demonstrably not the case. To the extent that the media is paying attention at all, it would much rather run a (misleading) story on the occasional contrarian finding of a somewhat low climate sensitivity than a piece on the 95% of scientific studies published since 2007 that suggest things will be worse than we thought.
Ironically, climate scientists are as likely to be attacked as exaggerators (or as “Chicken Little,” for that matter) for reporting the increasingly dire situation we face as they are to be celebrated. Go figure.
Given Keleman’s disdain for those who supposedly get grants funded for predicting a “scary outcome,” it seems odd that he would be working on “possible ways to capture carbon dioxide from air (none being easy or cheap).” Unless inaction on CO2 emissions were to lead to a “scary outcome,” why would anyone bother with expensive, difficult measures to capture CO2???
It is, in fact, the grim reality of our predicament that justifies such work — and the recent scientific literature makes it painfully clear (see a review of over 50 recent studies here). That’s why the normally staid folks at the World Bank and PricewaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency are in a panic.
Meanwhile, my children are fearful of, and almost paralyzed by, the prospect of an inevitable, dystopian future. They would like to contribute to avoiding calamity, but they don’t see where to start, and they are told it is too late to begin. And my children are lucky, in a stable home, among the 3 percent, talented, athletic, well educated. In the face of an overarching climate of fear, people with less opportunity find there is nothing they can do to help avoid “destruction, displacement and despair.”
However, climate catastrophe is not inevitable, let alone irreversible…. But the future is unpredictable, our mistakes are correctable, and there is plenty of reason for optimism about what people can accomplish in the face of necessity.
In reverse order — no, no, and I’m really sorry about that.
It is odd for a climate scientist (though less so for a geochemist) to claim “our mistakes are correctable” and that what we face isn’t “irreversible.” The science has been crystal clear for a while that reversing climate change and its key impacts is essentially impossible on a scale of time that matters to humans. See, for instance, NOAA study finds climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with “inexorable sea level rise” and permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe (and that’s if we peak at 450-600 ppm).
I don’t know who is telling Keleman’s children it is “too late” — but it sure as heck isn’t climate scientists or most websites they could easily get to. My daughter is 6 and doesn’t worry about climate change because why should she? Certainly the kids shows she watches only touch upon the subject in the most innocuous fashion — explaining why trees are good thing, for instance.
Again it is a myth that there is “Constant Repetition of Doomsday Messages” on climate in popular culture. But Keleman concludes:
Therefore, the climate that worries me most is the climate of fear, the belief that our current trajectory leads inevitably to total disaster. This belief discourages constructive action, and can result in irrational acts by people in despair, individually, or as nations, willing to do anything to derail the juggernaut we are told is carrying us, inevitably, to destruction. Unlike environmental problems, it is less clear to me how we change this. But at least, those of us in science, social science and the media can seek to craft solutions and enlist engagement, rather than feeding fear. With hope comes action.
No (or, rather, NO!) and, sadly, no.
The first sentence is frightfully misstated, even for a strawman. The “belief that our current trajectory leads inevitably to total disaster” is pretty much an accurate one. That’s the whole point for those of us who want to dramatically change our current trajectory.
Our current trajectory — which combines no serious climate action with expanded production and consumption of the dirtiest pools of fossil fuels — puts us on track for fatally high warming. As a PricewaterhouseCoopers study from November made clear, we’re headed to 11°F warming and even stopping at 7°F requires “nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation.”
It bears repeating that warming of 7°F or beyond is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e. 4°C [7°F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level,” as climate expert Kevin Anderson explains here. Tragically, that appears to be the likely outcome of our current trajectory.
I’d be interested to know where Keleman thinks we’ll end up if we stay on “our current trajectory” and just how it doesn’t qualify as “total disaster.” As an aside, for someone who claims not to be a doomer, his 2012 talk “Peak Earth” is one heck of a downer.
As for Keleman’s claim, “with hope comes action,” that, sadly, does not appear to be the case. The 2009 climate bill that failed was pitched almost exclusively with hope — a focus on green jobs rather than apocalyptic warnings (see “Team Obama Launched The Inane Strategy Of Downplaying Climate Change Back In March 2009 and Ezra Klein’s “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?”).
It’s hard to think of a successful social movement built primarily around happy talk. This one certainly isn’t going so well….