Climate change or no climate change, is that a question?
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
Recently, a blog trying to explain “Why Apocalyptic Claims About Climate Change Are Wrong” was contributed by a Mr. Shellenberger. There were many things Mr. Shellenberger wrote, which are only half-true or not even not true at all. It is important to rectify some of the statements made for a better discussion on the topic and to make an end to constant misinformation on the topic.
Shellenberger: “Climate scientists are speaking out against grossly exaggerated claims about global warming.”
There was a recent article in Nature in which real Climate Scientists show the state of the Earth and several global tipping points, which are scientifically sound and still make sure that we live in a global emergency. There is no gross exaggeration, but the facts speak for themselves.
There is a real threat and it is not surprising that those, who feel afraid about our and their future, such as Greta Thunberg and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, outline such future risks, such as ““Around 2030 we will be in a position to set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control that will lead to the end of our civilization as we know it.”
Based on recent scientific understanding those claims are correct or even too optimistic. As we do not have any experience, we only can make predictions. What one needs to keep in mind is that predictions made 30 years ago have been quite accurate in regard to the production of CO2 while they might have been actually too optimistic in regard to its impact and the description of tipping points. Climate science is rectifying predictions – to the worse… So, expecting global tipping points and outlining those as done by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others are all but wrong statements. We talk about the future and no one can predict with 100% accuracy what it will bring.
Shellenberger: Sometimes, scientists themselves make apocalyptic claims. “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that,” if Earth warms four degrees, said one earlier this year. “The potential for multi-breadbasket failure is increasing,” said another. If sea levels rise as much as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts, another scientist said, “It will be an unmanageable problem.”
The carrying capacity of our world has been estimated to be 2 billion human beings (Science). We are almost 4 times as many at the current moment (world clock). If droughts, heat, floods impact on our food systems, and they do already, we will have a hard time feeding everyone of our fellow humans. We actually do already and millions are dying each year. That only can become worse and will make it an unmanageable problem.
I completely agree that we face troubling times and I am also aware that wording does have an impact on our fellow humans, especially those with sensitive natures, including children. But Mr. Shellenberger forgets that scientists and activists have been active since a very long time and have warned about climate change and its potential impacts on our species since many decades. They have for many years tried diplomatic language without any success and stepping up the tone is just as human. However, one needs to realize that real scientists will avoid exaggeration, but inform based on current scientific knowledge. Deciding to be more outspoken and less diplomatic in the choice of words to warn humanity about the increasing risks from climate change just comes from the increasing emergency of the situation. If scientists would have been listened to 30 years ago, such drastic language would not have been necessary.
Shellenberger: Climate change is an issue I care passionately about and have dedicated a significant portion of my life to addressing. I have been politically active on the issue for over 20 years and have researched and written about it for 17 years. Over the last four years, my organization, Environmental Progress, has worked with some of the world’s leading climate scientists to prevent carbon emissions from rising. So far, we’ve helped prevent emissions increasing the equivalent of adding 24 million cars to the road.
And? This just does not make him a climate scientist or a scientist. He simply tries to gain the trust of the reader, but he shows a lack of competence in understanding what really needs to be done. Preventing emissions alone is not what we need. We need to actively take out CO2 from the atmosphere to avoid a hothouse Earth (PNAS). Current climate policy is insufficient and will rather lead to a +3°C scenario.
Shellenberger then continues with a range of half-true statements, which are the most dangerous in a discussion. He states “that no credible scientific body has ever said climate change threatens the collapse of civilization much less the extinction of the human species". He then refers to the IPCC report, the biggest report from expert climate scientists and that it would not have been stated in one of the reports. He cites: "There is robust evidence of disasters displacing people worldwide, but limited evidence that climate change or sea-level rise is the direct cause”.
There are several points mixed up here in a generally dangerous way. Earths carrying capacity for human is 2 billion people, we are many more than that. That carrying capacity is calculated assuming healthy and functioning ecosystems that provide us with the services we need to produce food and drinking water. With an increasing world population comes an increasing demand for more food and water. The food security, btw. one of the UN sustainable development goals, is not guaranteed with a changing climate, especially when we surpass the 2°C goal. Sophisticated models of future water availability clearly show that there is a very high chance of six months of droughts in Europe if global temperatures rise to 3°C above pre-industrial levels, adding four more months to the current two months of droughts per year (Nature Climate Change). Already those two months cause damages in the billions, lead to increased food prices and put many farmers on the brink of existence. And this is for Europe, while heatwaves and droughts are already worse in many other parts of the world. So, there is a fairly high probability that billions of people will have more and more difficulties to provide themselves with the necessary amount of food and water. Further, the IPCC notes that there is limited evidence that climate change or sea-level rise is the DIRECT cause, implying that there is a probability of an important INDIRECT cause. One needs also to understand that the IPCC reports go through the scrutiny of the UN member states. Hence, the report is a minimum consensus of scientists and policymakers. So, while all is correct, the language is very carefully chosen. None does want a global panic, the least governments.
Shellenberger: "It’s not like climate doesn’t matter. It’s that climate change is outweighed by other factors. Earlier this year, researchers found that climate “has affected organized armed conflict within countries. However, other drivers, such as low socioeconomic development and low capabilities of the state, are judged to be substantially more influential.”
Here again, this is turning arguments around. Climate change and the availability of resources will definitely impact on the socio-economic development, which will lead to armed conflicts. Studies show that very clearly (e.g. PNAS). So, there is a direct relationship between climate change and those mentioned other factors. Everything is linked! There are no natural processes working in isolation. Climate change cannot be disentangled from the socio-ecological and socio-economic system in which we are living, neither can biodiversity loss.
Schellenberger: “it’s also true that economic development has made us less vulnerable, which is why there was a 99.7% decline in the death toll from natural disasters since its peak in 1931. In 1931, 3.7 million people died from natural disasters. In 2018, just 11,000 did. And that decline occurred over a period when the global population quadrupled.”
Economic development might make us less vulnerable to some extent, but where is the tipping point? Where is the limit of our economic development to cope with disasters and resource shortage? We do not really know, but we see already millions of people migrating due to resource shortage. Even rich countries have trouble dealing with this influx of people, trying to build walls, fences and blocking seaways. So, there are many climate change related issues and economic development will not save us from them. Armed conflicts might be the last escalation stage, which we hopefully never reach.
Shellenberger than makes a range of false claims in regard to sea-level rise. The European Environmental Agency EEA writes: “In Europe, the potential impacts of sea level rise include flooding, coastal erosion and the submergence of flat regions along continental coastlines and on islands. Rising sea levels can also cause saltwater intrusion into low-lying aquifers, thus threatening water supplies and endangering coastal ecosystems and wetlands. Higher flood levels increase the risk to life and property, including to sea dikes and other infrastructure, with potential impacts on tourism, recreation and transportation functions. Low-lying coastlines with high population densities and small tidal ranges are most vulnerable to sea level rise, in particular where adaptation is hindered by a lack of economic resources or by other constraints.” Focusing on the IPCC report alone is also not helpful and Shellenberger should have consulted some more sources. A two feet rise (0.6 meters) is rather at the lower end of what is to be expected, while improved models actually put the to be expected sea-level rise to 2 meters (more than six feet) and that is the MEAN and not the maximum. It will definitely be a challenge for engineers and for economies to deal with such a sea-level rise until 2100. Given that the poles are seemingly melting much faster than predicted, sea-levels may rise much earlier than 2100. Believing in technology is nice, but technology has its limits as well and it will be an arms race between Dutch engineers and Earth.
Shellenberg than asks: “What about claims of crop failure, famine, and mass death?”
For the moment we were able to cope with droughts in most parts of the world, but not all. Once water availability becomes a real issue the predictions of FAO might be proven wrong and a 6% loss in productivity for every degree Celsius we reach above pre-industrial levels will quickly lead to a reduction of yields by nearly a quarter. With an increasing world population food shortages can be expected. Maybe Mr. Shellenberger forgets that food does not grow in supermarkets and he may also forget that food prices might increase, making it inaccessible for many. We already have crop failures, even in highly developed countries like France and Germany, we do not yet suffer from famine, but humanity does in many other regions of the world. Do you really expect it will get better with increasing weather extremes and temperatures? And that it is simply a question of providing agricultural machines, irrigation and fertilizers?
Shellenberger: “Does this mean we shouldn’t worry about climate change? Not at all. “
Good to see that Mr. Shellenberg appears to be still a bit afraid of climate change. However, it is not climate change which puts 1 million species at risk of extinction, please read the global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It is clearly mentioned that there are several factors impacting in synergy, but many have in common that they are of anthropogenic origin. And it is complete nonsense of Mr. Shellenberger to write that animal extinctions are not threatening human civilization. When biodiversity breaks down, human civilization will break down. We are closely interlinked with the biotic and abiotic environment and we cannot live on the abiotic environment alone. A good example is the loss of pollinators (see pollinator report of IPBES https://ipbes.net/assessment-reports/pollinators) with which humans will loose 80% of their food resources. If biodiversity will break down, the remaining 20% will be gone as well. Then all the wonderful predictions about crop yields which have stated by Mr. Shellenberger will just be wrong.
Mr. Shellenberger continues than with a plethora of different citations and insinuations. These citations and insinuations are as bad as what the author has been criticized before at others, representing misinformation. It makes very clear that neither he nor the people he cites really know what tipping points mean. Naming them points of no return or breakpoints might be easier understandable to most people. We do not yet know everything by global climate tipping points, but the signs are there and recent scientific articles lay out what will happen (see the different documents linked to in this text). Making India wealthier by burning coal and reducing its future CO2 footprint is the dumbest thing I have read in a long while. Blaming a teenager for misinformation is also hard to beat. The mantra is that we should listen to scientists, but apparently that is too difficult, as we are not dealing with a black or white scenario, but with a very complex situation that most people are not educated to comprehend, independent of their social standing and wealth. But it is not the general public to comprehend, but to the decision makers and the politicians who took the responsibility to care for their people and the world. They should trust in what scientists, paid by tax money, find out and their recommendations how to mitigate adverse effects on our world and civilization. Yes, science of individuals can be wrong, but due to the self-reviewing and critical viewing, the overall science always shows the right and trustworthy results and implications. IPCC and IPBES put large scale reports together to distill the current knowledge in digestible documents. One only needs to read them.
Shellenberger: “Happily, there is a plenty of middle ground between climate apocalypse and climate denial.”
There is always a middle ground, a vast one. An apocalypse scenario and climate denial are the extremes of a continuum. To both of them scientists can assign probabilities in which they become true. There are not equal probabilities for a Climate apocalypse and for no Climate change and understanding that is the difficulty in which we find ourselves in. So, apocalyptic claims about climate change MIGHT be wrong, while we know that denying climate change IS wrong, the latter being scientifically proven and illustrated by the Keeling curve, which left the natural noise behind in 1988, showing a hyperventilating Earth.