Every climate scientist I’ve ever spoken to thinks we can still avert the worst impacts of climate change. It is an absurd myth that either the media or scientists constantly repeat the “it’s too late” message — a myth debunked here and here.
And so we have the spectacle of the NY Times publishing an essay by a novelist (!) asserting “We already know it’s too late” to stop catastrophe — and then following that up with a piece by its climate blogger attacking this uncommon and incorrect view in order to make an erroneous (if not utterly counterproductive) larger point about how “the Biggest Climate Threat” is “Fear.”
You read that right. The headline of the second NYT piece is “An Earth Scientist Explores the Biggest Climate Threat: Fear.”
So the biggest climate threat isn’t 10°F warming, dust-Bowlification of a third of the planet’s arable land, sea level rise that doesn’t end until we have an ice free planet, ocean acidification, ever-worsening extreme weather — or all of those things happening at the same time making it all but impossible to feed 9 billion people post-2050.
No, we are to believe the biggest threat is fear. #FAIL.
Seriously, if we had too much “fear” about the very real, ever-worsening, compound threats posed by our current dawdling, well then we wouldn’t be dawdling, would we? If we were fear driven, we would be doing too much carbon pollution reduction rather than virtually none at all.
Heck, if we had even the right amount of worry — say, the amount of worry that most climate scientists have — we’d be like Lonnie Thompson, who explained in December 2010 why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” But I digress.
Let’s begin with the first NY Times whopper, the Sunday Book Review article about dystopian fiction, “Writing the End,” by novelist Nathaniel Rich. It contains these dubious assertions:
Dystopian novels about environmental apocalypses tend to contain a warning: this is the hell we will inherit if we don’t change our behavior, quickly.
But that view is obsolete. We already know it’s too late to reverse the planet’s transformation, and we know what is going to happen next — namely more of the same, just worse: superstorms, super-droughts, super-pandemics, massive population displacement, water scarcity, desertification and all the rest. The grim details can be found in any of the hundreds of nonfiction polemics published on the subject every year, books with titles like “Overheated” and “Hot.”
Let’s be clear what the science says — or, more specifically, what those nonfiction polemics say. You can read online most of Overheated (here) and Hot (here) — Amazon has conveniently (?!) posted most of their pages online.
Rich does a sleight of hand here. Yes, both those books make quite clear that because we have dawdled for so long — and because the climate and energy system both have large, intrinsic delays — we are almost certainly stuck with considerably worse superstorms, super-droughts, massive population displacement, water scarcity, and desertification than we have already seen.
Whether the “transformation” we are stuck with is “hell” is a matter of semantics, I suppose, but if hell is a metaphor for the worst place imaginable, then, no, not even close. What we are stuck with is more like “planetary purgatory” — a desperate, all-consuming effort lasting decades to keep us out of hell (and high water).
Indeed, contrary to Rich’s implications, both books he cites have the rather clear message that things could get considerably worse “if we don’t change our behavior, quickly.” Yes, 3°F to 5°F warming is going to be brutal — but it beats the hell (figuratively and, perhaps, even literally) out of 7°F warming, let alone 9°F warming or, heaven forbid, 11+°F warming.
And that matches what the best science says, as in this MIT analysis:
Humanity’s Choice (via M.I.T.): Inaction (“No Policy”) eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether future warming will be catastrophic. Aggressive emissions reductions greatly improves humanity’s chances.
Now some may say that, given our political system, we’re simply not going to act fast enough or effectively enough to stop at 3°F to 5°F. But that is a political judgment, not a scientific one.
If we were all as alarmed as the science warrants, then I believe we would make a WWII-scale effort and take the world to near zero net emissions in a couple of decades and then start sucking CO2 out of the air and go back to 350 ppm this century and perhaps even lower next century. No, that wouldn’t give us a 100% certainty of avoiding serious consequences, but it would give us a near-certainty of avoiding hell and high water.
And for those who think we are unstoppably close to crossing tipping points that will accelerate carbon feedbacks (like the melting tundra) which in turn will ensure yet higher temperature rise, the point to remember is that those feedbacks are not instantaneous. Most of them are moderately slow and temperature based — so they make the job of avoiding 7°F to 11°F warming much, much harder if we get to, say 650 ppm (let alone the 800 to 1000+ ppm we are headed toward). But they are unlikely to stop us from keeping total warming near 3°F to 5°F if we go all out to stay under 450 ppm — especially if we did get back to 350 ppm by century’s end.
Again, I’m not saying we are going to get on the path to 350 ppm (or even 450 ppm). I’m only saying that we could, and I don’t know any climate scientist who thinks those lower CO2 levels are not infinitely more manageable — and more desirable — for humanity than the higher levels. As climatologist Thompson puts it:
Unless large numbers of people take appropriate steps, including supporting governmental regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our only options will be adaptation and suffering. And the longer we delay, the more unpleasant the adaptations and the greater the suffering will be.
So the original NY Times piece was quite in error, significantly misrepresenting the books that it cites and the science they represent. Which brings us to the equally erroneous piece by NY Times climate blogger Andy Revkin and the earth scientist whose extended comment he posts.
That will be the subject of Part 2.