This may turn out to be one of the most important years in world history. The leading nations of the world are finally making serious pledges to address the greatest preventable threat to health and well-being of humanity, leading up to the Paris climate talks in December.
The success or failure of those talks may well determine the course of the next thousand years of human history. Whatever changes we are too greedy or myopic to stop from happening in the first place are “irreversible” on that timescale, as the world’s leading scientists and governments explained in November.
So, for the next 9 months (and beyond) you are going to be bombarded with countless articles, op-eds, studies, and manifestos on this most vital of topics. A few will be important, but 95% will be a waste of your time or, worse, actually leave you less well-informed than you were before.
In this article I will share with you some secret tricks used to quickly identify the time-wasters. In the last few days we have had some classic examples of time-wasting climate pieces, ones that foil such standard strategies as “Are they published in credible places?” After all, the biggest time waster was Jonathan Franzen’s piece in the New Yorker.
Other time wasters include the latest George Will Washington Post column, “‘Sustainability’ gone mad on college campuses” and a rare double time-waster in the New York Times business section, “A call to look past sustainable development.”
The Times piece is a double time waster because not only is the piece itself anti-informative but one of its goals is to get you to read an even longer, even more anti-informative essay, “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” which is “A MANIFESTO TO USE HUMANITY’S EXTRAORDINARY POWERS IN SERVICE OF CREATING A GOOD ANTHROPOCENE.” Not!
In the interest of time, let’s cut directly to the second most important thing you’ll read on climate change this year, the time-saving secrets:
- Skip climate articles by people who think the problem is hopeless or intractable — because it most certainly is not.
- Skip articles written by George Will and his ilk.
- Skip articles — especially longer climate essays — by authors who don’t explicitly tell you what temperature target or CO2 concentration target they embrace and how they’d go about attaining it.
- Skip articles embracing Orwellian terms like “good Anthropocene.”
What is the most important thing you’ll read this year? Any climate article that makes it through all those filters.
Will you miss some worthwhile pieces this way? Probably not. To see why, let’s dive into those in a little more detail.
1) Skip climate articles by people who think the problem is hopeless or intractable — because it most certainly is not. That was the premise of the Franzen New Yorker article, which inaccurately asserted “The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy.”
In no way does the Earth resemble a patient with terminal cancer where treatment is worse than essentially doing nothing unless it’s some some morphine and a pat on the back. The Earth more resembles a patient with large, especially obstructive kidney stones (aka “staghorn calculi”). As the American Urological Association explains, “Prior to the development of modern urologic techniques for treatment, mortality from untreated staghorn calculi was 27%. Currently mortality from stone disease is rare….”
We know how to deal with climate change. We know it won’t be “easy” but the economic and scientific literature make clear it will be straightforward and super cheap — and infinitely superior to the catastrophic “do nothing” approach. Also, unlike terminal cancer, untreated climate change can get worse and worse. Certainly, 4°C (7°F) warming would be a catastrophe. But 6°C (11°F) warming would be beyond imagining.
2) Skip articles written by George Will and his ilk. Okay, that’s not really a secret. But the principle extends to Wall Street Journal op-eds, pretty much any Rupert Murdoch outlet, and generally anything by a climate science denier. We are way past that point.
Suppose a CT scan showed you had a large kidney stone that might try to (unsuccessfully) squeeze out of your urinary tract any time now — or, worse, you had one of those staghorn calculi. Would you waste time with doctors who simply denied the existence of kidney stones or who said you didn’t need to worry about them because they “won’t hurt a bit”? No.
Maybe you’re thinking you should read the deniers to see what their latest arguments are. Here’s another secret: Their latest arguments are pretty much the same ones they have been using for the last decade. It is certainly worthwhile to understand what those arguments are, why they are wrong, and how to quickly rebut them. But the best and fastest way to learn all that is simply to periodically visit the website SkepticalScience.com, one of the biggest timesavers on the web.
P.S. — George Will’s article is his case for why the fossil fuel divestment movement on campus is a bad idea. Reminds one of his July 1986 piece opposing economic actions against South Africa (including divestment), “Sanctions Will Hurt The Blacks….“!! The “latest arguments” truly never change.
3) Skip articles — especially longer climate essays — by authors who don’t explicitly tell you what temperature target or emissions concentration target they embrace and how they’d go about attaining it. The best and latest science says we must stabilize total global warming as close as possible to 2°C and preferably below it. We know that is super cheap. Anything else risks multiple catastrophes that will make billions of people suffer through the accelerating destruction of a livable climate, with much of the habited and arable land on the planet Dust-Bowlified for centuries.
Again, imagine you’ve got that large kidney stone. Would you waste time with doctors who talked and talked and talked about a variety of health-related subjects but never discussed what the desired outcome should be for you in this case? Would you waste time with doctors who never recommended a specific course of immediate treatment, but instead spent much of their time criticizing those doctors who do recommend the “standard of care” treatment.
Lots of writers want the freedom to criticize those who defend the 2°C target and the very aggressive deployment of carbon-free power that such a target entails. But they know that if they actually put their own target on the table, they would be conceding humanity’s self-destruction, disputing the scientific literature or requiring the very aggressive deployment of carbon-free power they criticize.
A classic example of such an essay is the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” featured in the NY Times this week. Errors aside, this 31-page tome is a waste of time because it doesn’t tell you what the authors think should be our goal with climate action. They offer no temperature target, no CO2 concentration target, not even a broad one. The first and last mention of any target is on page 20 when the authors explain that while “Nations have also been slowly decarbonizing — that is, reducing the carbon intensity of their economies … they have not been doing so at a rate consistent with keeping cumulative carbon emissions low enough to reliably stay below the international target of less than 2 degrees Centigrade of global warming.” True.
Then the authors immediately say, “Significant climate mitigation, therefore, will require that humans rapidly accelerate existing processes of decarbonization.” Also true. Then they say, “There remains much confusion, however, as to how this might be accomplished.” No, not true at all — certainly not for the 2°C target. And not even for a 3°C target. These sentences are apparently a clever rhetorical bait-and-switch to make you think that the authors endorse the 2°C target, which they never do, while all the time they are recommending a course of action that can’t possibly hit 2°C or even 3°C.
Many independent and highly credible groups have explained in great detail what needs to be done to achieve 2°C. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is a good place to start. Basically you need a serious and rising carbon dioxide price and you have to start aggressively deploying pretty much every commercial and near commercial carbon free technology you can put your hands on.
And the 2°C target means, according to the IEA again, that you have the stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure by 2017!
But the eco-modernists want to keep building new fossil fuel plants. They are in no hurry whatsoever, writing things like “In the long run, next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways toward the joint goals of climate stabilization and radical decoupling of ￼humans from nature.” Seriously? Nuclear fusion?
Addendum to time-saving secrets: Skip any article that lists nuclear fusion as one of the “most plausible” answers to climate stabilization. How is a technology for which there is no evidence commercial viability will occur in a timescale that matters to humanity one of “the most plausible pathways”?
Why don’t the eco-modernists mention wind power, one of the most important carbon-reducing technologies throughout the scientific and economic literature? Because they aren’t really modernists and don’t know what they’re talking about, as this article explains in detail.
The entire essay will do little more than spread confusion. As evidence, I present the New York Times article on the essay, which contains some of the most ridiculous lines ever to grace the pages of the Gray Lady, starting with:
Of far greater consequence is the way the West’s environmental agenda undermines the very goals it professes to achieve and threatens to advance devastating climate change rather than retard it.
The Times never offers a shred of evidence that this ridiculous statement is true.
Inspired by the eco-modernists, the Times writes, “Windmills or biofuels would put large swaths of the earth’s surface in the service of energy production, so they have only limited usefulness.” Again, the statement is simply untrue about windmills. It is in fact a well-debunked canard most often pushed by those who oppose serious climate action. One of the reasons farmers like wind turbines is that their footprints are so small they can keep farming on the same land! And of course there is offshore wind power.
As for biofuels, it has been known for a long time that virtually all first-generation biofuels (generally crop-based) are of limited usefulness and many are just a terrible idea. Lots of people are working on next-generation biofuels that don’t require unsustainable amounts of arable land or potable water. It is entirely possible they will not succeed, but they have a much better chance of succeeding at those goals than next-generation nuclear power has at succeeding in its goal of being both safe and affordable — and the next-gen biofuels researchers have an infinitely better chance of succeeding in the next couple of decades than fusion power.
4) Skip articles embracing Orwellian terms like “good Anthropocene.”
“Anthropocene,” means “an informal geologic chronological term that marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.”
“Good Anthropocene” is an oxymoron — especially the way it is used by the few proponents of the term, which is why it has been widely criticized. Elizabeth Kolbert, one of the most thoughtful climate journalists, explained to me:
“I don’t see the value in the ‘good Anthropocene’ as a rhetorical construct, even if it’s well-intentioned. What we are doing to the planet, which is of course the reason geologists are considering renaming the epoch in which we live, is in no way good.”
She further added, “A few years ago, Paul Crutzen told me that he hoped the word Anthropocene would serve as ‘a warning to the world.’ I think part of the power of the term is that it resists modification.”
Australian author, climate expert and Professor of Public Ethics Clive Hamilton wrote, “those who argue for the ‘good Anthropocene’ are unscientific and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.”
The Ecomodernists actually talk about the possibility of “a good, or even great, Anthropocene” — yet they never tell us specifically how to get there or even what degree of warming would qualify as “great.” They do spend a lot of time criticizing the strategies needed to avoid a catastrophic Anthropocene.
Since they don’t define their terms in their largely hand-waving essay (which shares much in common with Franzen’s essay), let me. For the term “good Anthropocene” to have any meaning whatsoever, it should mean warming of 2°C or less (with CO2 levels at or below 450 parts per million), and more scientifically should be labeled “hopefully not catastrophic Anthropocene.” For the term “great Anthropocene” to have any meaning whatsoever, it should mean warming of 1.5°C or less (CO2 levels of 350 ppm, below current levels!), and more scientifically should be labeled “possibly tolerable Anthropocene.”
As Clive Hamilton emailed me Thursday, “In the face of all of the evidence of the harm that climate change will cause this century, some of which is now locked in, talk of a ‘good Anthropocene’ was delusional. But looking forward to a ‘great Anthropocene’ verges on the obscene.”
The eco-modernists and other advocates of the phrase “good Anthropocene,” however, use it to advance policies that, if followed, would insure future generations live in the “definitely catastrophic Anthropocene.”
There are many other oxymorons and torturous constructions that allow one to realize a climate article is an anti-informative time-waster. I will discuss some of those in later posts. But the “Ecomodernist Manifesto,” which is self-described as “A MANIFESTO TO USE HUMANITY’S EXTRAORDINARY POWERS IN SERVICE OF CREATING A GOOD ANTHROPOCENE,” is filled with such constructions. It contains this amazingly torturous sentence, for instance:
Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species.
Really? We have been doing most of those things for a long time (especially the first three) and yet there seems to be less and less room for all species, including us. All available science says we have already overshot the Earth’s biocapacity — and the overshoot gets worse every year.