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Alarmists Alarmed About Alarming Alarmism

Judith Curry, Climate Etc.

According to Michael Mann et al., too much alarm makes people give up on attempting climate ‘action.’

The climate change debate has entered what we might call the “Campfire Phase”, in which the goal is to tell the scariest story. – Oren Cass (twitter)

David Wallace-Wells has a recent cover story in NYMagazine:  The Uninhabitable Earth.  Subtitle: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.  The article has generated a firestorm of controversy and debate.

In terms of what is technically wrong with the NYMag article, Andy Revkin pretty much sums it up perfectly with this tweet:

Scariest stuff isn’t worst-case science; it’s bad fit of  & time scales with indiv. & collective human risk/response traits.

Apart from the predictable takedowns by the AGW ‘unconvinced,’ there has been substantial resistance to the NYMag article from elements of what is usually regarded as the ‘alarmed’ contingent:

  • Mann et al. in WaPo: and ECOWatchSuch rhetoric is in many ways as pernicious as outright climate change denial, for it leads us down the same path of inaction.
  • Climate FeedbackSixteen scientists analyzed the article and estimated its overall scientific credibility to be ‘low’.  A majority of reviewers tagged the article as: AlarmistImprecise/UnclearMisleading.
  • Chris Mooney in WaPoScientists challenge story about ‘uninhabitable Earth’
  • Ars Technica:  In both the popular and academic press, scientists argue against worst cases

If this reaction seems surprising to you, you are not the only ones surprised:

Ryan Maue (twitter): Privately more than one journalist told me they were afraid to push back against the NY Mag climate horrors piece.

IMO, the most interesting articles are those that defend development and discussion of worst case scenarios:

A few other articles with interesting points:

Fabius MaximusAfter 30 years of failure to gain support of the US public for massive public policy measures to fight climate change, climate activists now double down on the tactics that have failed them for so long. This post explains why it will not work. Nor should it. Instead they should trust the IPCC and science, showing both the good and bad news.

SF ChronicleIf you honestly believe that climate change will end all life on Earth (it won’t) or lead to some dystopian hell, what policies wouldn’t you endorse to stop it?

Consensus enforcement in the Age of Trump

So, what is going with Mann et al. in trashing the alarming NYMag article?

I saw many such ‘alarmed’ articles (perhaps not as comprehensive) in the Age of Obama, spouting alarmist predictions and concerns.  Further, the White House seemed to encourage this, as evidenced by the web site and the statements of Science Advisor John Holdren.  I never saw any push-back on this from the consensus-enforcing scientific establishment.

In the Age of Trump, alarmism clearly doesn’t influence the policy makers; the best that consensus-enforcing scientific establishment can hope for is to enforce the not very scary IPCC consensus.

And why does this matter to them? Surely this consensus enforcement is antithetical to the scientific process and progress.   It seems to be all about ‘action’ — presumably as defined by the Paris Agreement.  According to Mann et al., too much alarm makes people give up on attempting ‘action.’  Never mind that the proposed actions will have a small impact on the climate (even if you believe the climate models) during the 21st century.

Others disagree, such as Weizmann and Wagner (e.g. Climate Shock), who push the alarming ‘fat tail’ argument as the rationale for ‘action’ (greater uncertainty increases the urgency for action).

Well, I suspect that neither approach will spur ‘action’ — what is needed are new technologies.  Until then, people, corporations and nations will pursue their short-term economic well being.

Deep Uncertainty

In understanding climate change risk, and deciding on the ‘if’ and ‘what’ of ‘action’,  we need to acknowledge that we don’t know how the climate of the 21st century will play out (Deep Uncertainty, folks).  Four possibilities:

  1. It is possible that human-caused climate change will be swamped by much larger natural climate variability.
  2. It is possible/plausible  that the sensitivity of the climate is on the low end of the IPCC envelope (1.0-1.5C), with a slow creep of warming superimposed on much larger natural variability.
  3. It is possible/plausible that the IPCC projections are actually correct (right for the wrong reasons; too much wrong with the climate models for much credibility, IMO).
  4. It is possible that AGW and natural variability could conspire to cause catastrophic outcomes

We can’t put probabilities on these possible scenarios, the uncertainties are too deep.

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