Our Aversion to Doom and Gloom Is Dooming Us

20 07 2017

Reproduced from Commondreams.

I worked for over 35 years in the environmental field, and one of the central debates I encountered was whether to “tell it like it is,” and risk spreading doom and gloom, or to focus on a more optimistic message, even when optimism wasn’t necessarily warranted.

The optimists nearly always won this debate. For the record, I was—and am—a doom and gloomer.  Actually, I like to think I’m a realist. I believe that understating the problems we face leads to understated—and inadequate responses.  I also believe that people, when dealt with honestly, have responded magnificently, and will do so again, if and when called. Witness World War II, for example, when Churchill told the Brits, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” In those words, he helped ignite one of the most noble and dedicated periods of unity and resistance in all the annals of human endeavor.

Finally, I believe that the principles of risk management dictate that when the consequences of our actions —or our inactions—are pervasive, long lasting, irreversible and potentially devastating, we should assume worst-case outcomes.  That’s why people get health insurance; it’s why they purchase insurance for their homes; it’s why they get life insurance. No one assumes they’ll get sick, that their house will burn down, or that they’re about to die, but it makes sense to hedge against these events.  It’s why we build in huge margins of safety when we design bridges or airplanes. You can’t undo an airplane crash, or reverse a bridge failure.

And you can’t restore a livable climate once it’s been compromised.  Not in anything other than geologic timeframes.

Yet we routinely understate the threat that climate change poses, and reject attempts to characterize the full extent of the potential for catastrophe it poses. And it’s killing us.

David Wallace-Wells’ recent article in the New York magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth, is a case in point.  It was an attempt to describe the worst-case scenario for climate change.  Here’s the opening sentences to give you an idea of what Mr. Wallace-Wells had to say:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. 

Predictably, a large part of the scientific community reacted with hostility, and environmentalists were essentially silent. For example, Climate Feedback published a critique of Wallace-Well’s article by sixteen climate scientists, leading with Michael Mann, originator of the famous hockey stick, which graphically showed how rapidly the Earth was warming. Here’s part of what Dr. Mann had to say:

The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.

The last part of Dr. Mann’s statement may explain the real reason the environmental and scientific communities reacted so hostilely to Wallace-Well’s article, and why they generally avoid gloom and doom, even when the news is gloomy—the notion that presenting information that details just how bad climate change could be, leads to “paralysis.”

This, together with scientists’ tendency to stick to the most defensible positions and the scenarios that are accepted by the mainstream—what climate scientist James Hansen calls dangerous scientific reticence—probably explain why the scientific community has tended to understate the threat of climate change, although few would describe Dr. Mann as reticent.

And it should be noted that Mr. Wallace-Well’s did overstate some of the science. For example, given out current understanding of methane and carbon releases from permafrost, it appears as though it would take much longer to play out than Wallace-Wells suggested, although it likely would add as much as 2°C to projected warming by 2100. But for the most part, he simply took worst-case forecasts and used them. As Dr. Benjamin Horton—one of the scientists commenting on the Wallace-Wells article put it, “Most statements in the article are based on peer-reviewed literature.”

One of the reason worst-case projections seem so dire, is that the scientific community—and especially the IPCC—has been loath to use them. For the record, ex-ante analysis of previous forecasts with actual changes show a trend that is nearer to—or worse than—the worst-case forecasts than they are to the mid-range.

The article also forecast some of the social, demographic, and security consequences of climate change that can’t be scientifically verified, but which comport with projections made by our own national security experts.

For example, in this years’ Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, climate change was identified as a “threat multiplier” and Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, said in testimony presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in May of this year:

Climate change influences the entire geostrategic landscape. In that sense, one could  walk through the entire threat assessment report and identify ways in which climate  change will intersect with nearly every risk identified, and in most cases, make them worse.

Director Coats specifically highlighted health security, terrorism and nuclear proliferation as threats that climate change would exacerbate. This is coming from the Trump administration, which has been censoring climate-related information coming out of NOAA and EPA.  It’s a measure of how seriously the national security community takes the threat of climate change that they fought to keep the issue above the political fray.

Yet here again, the scientific community took issue with these claims, because they were conjecture.  Never mind that those whose job it is to assess these kinds of risks found the forecasts likely and actionable. Scientists want data and the certainty it brings, not extrapolation.

So what’s the gap between future worst-case and the more typically used mid-range projections the media and scientists favor?  It’s huge, and consequential.  I’ve pointed out some of the risky—if not absurd—assumptions  underlying the Paris Agreement in the past, but let’s briefly outline some numbers that highlight the difference between what’s typically discussed in the media, with projections based on worst-case—but entirely plausible—forecasts.

After Paris, there was a lot of attention paid to two targets: a limit of less than 2°C warming, and a more aggressive limit of no more than 1.5°C warming.  What was less well known and discussed was the fact that the Agreement would have only limited warming to 3.5°C by 2100, using the IPCC’s somewhat optimistic assumptions.

What is virtually unknown by most of the public and undiscussed by scientists and the media is that even before the US dropped out of the Treaty, the worst-case temperature increase under the Treaty could have been nearly twice that.

Here’s why.

As noted, the 3.5°C figure had a number of conservative assumptions built into it, including the fact that there is a 34 percent chance that warming will exceed that, and the idea that we could pass on the problem to our children and their children by assuming that they would create an as yet unknown technology that would extract massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in a cost-effective way, and safely and permanently sequester it, thus allowing us to exceed the targets for a limited amount of time.

But the fact is, some projections found that temperature increase resulting from meeting the Paris targets would exceed 4°C by 2100, even if we continued to make modest progress after meeting them – something the Treaty doesn’t require. The IPCC forecasts also ignored feedbacks, and research shows that just 3 of these will add another 2.5°C of warming by 2100, bringing the total to more than 6.5°C (or nearly 12°F). At this point, we’re talking about trying to live on an essentially alien planet.

Finally, there’s evidence that the Earth’s natural sinks are being compromised by the warming that’s happened so far, and this means that more of what we emit will remain in the atmosphere, causing it to warm much more than the IPCC models have forecasted. This could (not would) make Wallace-Well’s thesis not only plausible, but likely.

But rather than discussing these entirely plausible forecasts, the media, environmentalists and too many scientists, would rather focus on a more optimistic message, and avoid “doom and gloom.”

What they’re actually doing is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with our children’s future with two bullets in the chamber. Yes, the odds are that it won’t go off, but is this the kind of risk we should be taking with our progeny’s future?

There is something paternalistic and elitist about this desire to spare the poor ignorant masses the gory details.  It is condescending at best, self-defeating at worst.  After all, if the full nature of the challenge we face is not known, we cannot expect people take the measures needed to meet it.

I believe now, and I have always believed, that humans are possessed with an inherent wisdom, and that, given the right information, they will make the right choices.

As an aside, Trump is now President because the Democrats followed the elitist and paternalistic path of not trusting the people – that and their decision to put corporate interests above the interests of citizens.

Watching Sanders stump against the Republican’s immoral tax cut for the rich disguised as a health care bill, shows the power of a little honest doom and gloom.

We could use a lot more of it across the political spectrum.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track. It is available in hardcover now, and the ebook will be available shortly. Follow him on Twitter:@john_atcheson


Coming soon: the ‘Big Heat’

14 03 2015

Nafeez Ahmed

Nafeez Ahmed

Nafeez Ahmed

3rd March 2015

Global warming has been on vacation for a few years, writes Nafeez Ahmed. But that’s only because the excess heat – two Hiroshima bombs-worth every second – has been buried in the deep ocean. But within a few years that’s set to change, producing a huge decade-long warming surge, focused on the Arctic, that could overwhelm us all.

We probably have less than five years before we witness the ‘Big Heat’ – a supercharged surge of rapid global warming, destabilizing the climate system in deeply unpredictable ways.

Forget the so-called ‘pause’ in global warming-new research says we might be in for an era of deeply accelerated heating.

While the rate of atmospheric warming in recent years has, indeed, slowed due to various natural weather cycles – hence the skeptics’ droning on about ‘pauses’ – global warming, as a whole, has not stopped.

NASA image of the Arctic sea ice on March 6, 2010. Image: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio; Blue Marble data courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC), via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).Far from it. It’s actually sped up, dramatically, as excess heat has absorbed into the oceans. We’ve only begun to realize the extent of this phenomenon in recent years, after scientists developed new technologies capable of measuring ocean temperatures with a depth and precision that was previously lacking.

In 2011, a paper in Geophysical Research Letters tallied up the total warming data from land, air, ice, and the oceans. In 2012, the lead author of that study, oceanographer John Church, updated his research. What Church found was shocking: in recent decades, climate change has been adding heat to the oceans at an average rate of 125 Terawatts (TW).

How to convey this extraordinary fact? His team came up with an analogy: it was roughly the same amount of energy that would be released by the detonation of two atomic bombs the size dropped on Hiroshima. In other words, these scientists found that anthropogenic climate is warming the oceans at a rate equivalent to around two Hiroshima bombs per second.

Or looked at another way, all the world’s coal fired power stations currently have a generation capacity a little under 2TW. As they are typically about one third efficient, working flat out they would collectively produce about 6TW of heat and power. Now multiply by 20.

Actually, it’s worse. Much worse …

But as new data came in, the situation has looked worse: over the last 17 years, the rate of warming has doubled to about four bombs per second. In 2013, the rate of warming tripled to become equivalent to 12 Hiroshima bombs every second.

So not only is warming intensifying, it is also accelerating. By burning fossil fuels, humans are effectively detonating 378 million atomic bombs in the oceans each year – this, along with the ocean’s over – absorption of carbon dioxide, has fuelled ocean acidification, and now threatens the entire marine food chain as well as animals who feed on marine species. Like, er, many humans.

According to a new paper in Science from a crack team of climate scientists, a key reason that the oceans are absorbing all this heat in recent decades so well (thus masking the extent of global warming by allowing atmospheric average temperatures to heat more slowly), is due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), an El Nino-like weather pattern that can last anywhere between 15-30 years.

In its previous positive phase, which ran from around 1977 to 1998, the PDO meant the oceans would absorb less heat, thus operating as an accelerator on atmospheric temperatures. Since 1998, the PDO has been in a largely negative phase, during which the oceans absorb more heat from the atmosphere.

Such decadal ocean cycles have broken down recently, and become more sporadic. The last, mostly negative phase, was punctuated by a brief positive phase that lasted 3 years between 2002 and 2005.

Where’s all the heat gone? Buried in the deep ocean

The authors of the new study, Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, University of Minnesota geologist Byron Steinman, and Penn State meteorologist Sonya Miller, point out that the PDO, as well as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), have thus played a major role in temporarily dampening atmospheric warming.

So what has happened? During this period, Mann and his team show, there has been increased “heat burial” in the Pacific ocean, that is, a greater absorption of all that heat equivalent to hundreds of millions of Hiroshimas.

For some, this has created the false impression, solely from looking at global average surface air temperatures, of a ‘pause’ in warming. But as Mann said, the combination of the AMO and PDO “likely offset anthropogenic warming over the past decade.”

Therefore, the ‘pause’ doesn’t really exist, and instead is an artifact of the limitations of our different measuring instruments.

“The ‘false pause’ is explained in part by cooling in the Pacific ocean over the past one-to-two decades”, Mann told me, “but that is likely to reverse soon: in other words, the ‘slowdown’ is fleeting and will likely soon disappear.”

The disappearance of the ‘slowdown’ will, in tangible terms, mean that the oceans will absorb less atmospheric heat. While all the accumulated ocean heat “is certainly not going to pop back out”, NASA’s chief climate scientist Dr. Gavin Schmidt told me, it is likely to mean that less atmospheric heat will end up being absorbed:

“Ocean cycles can modulate the uptake of anthropogenic heat, as some have speculated for the last decade or so, but … net flux is still going to be going into the ocean.”

Next, the heat will transfer to the atmosphere

According to Mann and his team, at some point, this will manifest as an acceleration in the rise of global average surface air temperatures. In their Science study, they observe:

“Given the pattern of past historical variation, this trend will likely reverse with internal variability, instead adding to anthropogenic warming in the coming decades.”

So at some point in the near future, the PDO will switch from its current negative phase back to positive, reducing the capacity of the oceans to accumulate heat from the atmosphere.

That positive phase of the PDO will therefore see a rapid rise in global surface air temperatures, as the oceans’ capacity to absorb all those Hiroshima bomb equivalents declines – and leaves it to accumulate in our skies. In other words, after years of slower-than-expected warming, we may suddenly feel the heat.

So when will that happen? No one knows for sure, but at the end of last year, signs emerged that the phase shift to a positive PDO could be happening right now. In the five months before November 2014, measures of surface temperature differences in the Pacific shifted to positive, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This is the longest such positive shift detected in about 12 years. Although too soon to determine for sure whether this is, indeed, the beginning of the PDO’s switch to a new positive phase, this interpretation is consistent with current temperature variations, which during a positive PDO phase should be relatively warm in the tropical Pacific and relatively cool in regions north of about 20 degrees latitude.

In January 2015, further signs emerged that the PDO is right now in transition to a new warm phase. “Global warming is about the get a boost”, ventured meteorologist Eric Holthaus. Recent data including California’s intensifying drought and sightings of tropical fish off the Alaskan coast “are further evidence of unusual ocean warming”, suggesting that a PDO transition “may already be underway a new warm phase.”

While it’s still not clear whether the PDO is really shifting into a new phase just yet, when it does, it won’t be good. Scientists from the UK Met Office’s Hadley Center led by Dr. Chris Roberts of the Oceans and Cryosphere Group estimate in a new paper in Nature that there is an 85% chance the faux ‘pause’ will end in the next five years, followed by a burst of warming likely to consist of a decade or so of warm ocean oscillations.

Arctic faces a double warming whammy

Roberts and his team found that a ‘slow down’ period is usually (60% of the time) followed by rapid warming at twice the background rate for at least five years, and potentially longer.

And mostly, this warming would be concentrated in the Arctic, a region where temperatures are already higher than the global average, and which is widely recognized to be a barometer of the health of the global climate due to how Arctic changes dramatically alter trends elsewhere.

Recent extreme weather events around the world have been attributed to the melting Arctic ice sheets and the impact on ocean circulations and jet streams.

What this means, if the UK Met Office is right, is that we probably have five years (likely less) before we witness the ‘Big Heat’ – a supercharged surge of rapid global warming that could last a decade, further destabilizing the climate system in deeply unpredictable ways.



Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author, and international security scholar. He is a regular contributor to The Ecologist where he writes about the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises. He has also written for the Guardian, The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, Prospect, New Statesman, Vice, Le Monde diplomatique, among many others. His new novel of the near future is ZERO POINT.

Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed and Facebook.

Website: www.nafeezahmed.com

This article was originally published on Vice magazine’s Motherboard.


Climate Danger Threshold Approaching

29 04 2014

The National Center for Science Education, the nation’s leading organization in support of science education, has awarded Professor Michael Mann the coveted Friend of the Planet award.