Image by John Garrett
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.