What is the Harm in Forecasting Catastrophe due to Man-Made Global Warming?
In this long-read Robert H. Wade argues that the climate change consensus is dangerously stifling debate and analysis, and offers concrete policy recommendations to nuance our collective responses.
When parts of western Germany, Belgium and Netherlands have just experienced catastrophic floods and the Pacific northwest has recently broken heat records, it is counter-intuitive to challenge the prevailing pessimism about global warming – captured for example by the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf who says, “Given this signal failure [to vaccinate against Covid in line with the global interest], it is impossible to imagine we will do much more than fiddle while the planet burns.”
The danger of this mindset is that it encourages inflation of the threat-language far beyond the credible science, so that the future cannot be discussed except in terms of a choice between “disaster”, “catastrophe”, “planetary extinction” on the one hand or impossibly fast reforms to how humanity lives, works and governs, on the other.
Every sensible person agrees that (1) global warming has been happening over most of the second half of the twentieth century and on into the twenty first, and (2) most of it to date is due to greenhouse gas emissions. What could be called the “mainstream view” of climate change goes much further, onto uncertain epistemological ground: (3) man-made global warming is the main cause of all kinds of disagreeable events – including extreme weather, rising seas, and much more; (4) humanity faces impending catastrophe unless we undertake far-reaching changes to how we live, work and govern in order to cut CO2 emissions and dematerialize economies (“net zero by 2050”).
This essay identifies some of the weaknesses in the evidence presented in support of the mainstream view, including weaknesses in the claim that 97% of climate scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming, in the claim that global temperatures will rise much faster than they have been rising, and in the (implicit) claim that the horrifying worst-case scenario presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represents the likely scenario to 2100 in the absence of radical actions starting now. It identifies the incentive mechanisms that produce the exaggerations and sustain wide credence in them. At the end it considers the question: does highlighting the doomsday exaggerations serve to reduce the political and public pressures for necessary ameliorative action, in a world where powerful fossil lobbies seek to block or delay such action for reasons independent of “evidence”? To what extent must mass publics be “panicked” in order to induce enough collective political, business and family action to substantially slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions?
- Every sensible person agrees that (1) global warming has been happening over most of the second half of the twentieth century and on into the twenty first, and (2) most of it to date is due to greenhouse gas emissions.
- But too much policy discussion about global warming is polarized and locked into a “syndrome of exaggeration”. The mainstream view talks of coming disaster, catastrophe, even extinction, short of urgent and massive action on a global scale. But it is easy to question the empirical basis of this forecast – not least the long history of repeated wild exaggerations of disaster relative to what later transpired. In response an active but small “sceptical” community exaggerates its scepticism. The two sides make a syndrome in that the behaviour of each confirms the negative expectations of the other.
- What is now strangely urgent is to calm down the present climate hysteria so that safety-first resource allocation and consumption decisions can be made without “climate” being the touchstone of the very future of humanity, the current idol of the ancient human longing for Salvation in anxious times, the pathway for all the ingredients of a better world.
- The essay suggests changes in the budget and mandate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; more action by learned societies in calling to account the wild exaggerators; beefing up the Loss and Damage pillar of the Paris Agreement; boosting investment in “clean coal” technologies as well as renewables, and linking coal-power retirement to the coming on stream of attractive alternatives; creating central planning capacity at national and international levels (eg in multilateral development banks) to integrate investment decisions in energy, transport, buildings, industry and agriculture; and last but not least, respecting the principle of free speech while maintaining the standards of civil discourse.
Every sensible person agrees that (1) global warming has been happening over most of the second half of the twentieth century and on into the twenty first, and (2) most of it to date is due to greenhouse gas emissions. Many go on to say that (3) global warming is the cause of all kinds of disagreeable events – including extreme weather, rising seas, and much more; and that (4) humanity faces impending catastrophe short of far-reaching changes to how we live, work and govern in order to cut CO2 emissions and dematerialize economies. This could now be described – with only a little exaggeration – as the mainstream view.
The Impending Catastrophe
Here are examples of people and organizations claiming that catastrophe for humanity and the biosphere lies ahead if the people of developed and developing countries alike do not make radical changes soon.
The New York Times reported after the G7 Summit in June 2021 that “Mr Biden was once again part of a unanimous consensus that the world needs to take drastic action to prevent a climate disaster”. The report explains that “… the world needs to urgently cut emissions if it has any chance of keeping average global temperatures from rising above 1.5C compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which experts say the planet will experience catastrophic, irreversible damage.”
US climate envoy John Kerry delivered a dire warning on 12 May 2021 on “the mounting costs … of global warming and of a more volatile climate”. 2020’s tally of “22 hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires shattered the previous annual record of 16 such events, and that was set only 4 years ago…. You don’t have to be a scientist to begin to feel that we’re looking at a trend line.”
Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and pivotal figure in the Paris Agreement, declared in 2020, “It is only over the next 10 years from here to 2030 that we can influence what is going to happen. The scary thing is that after 2030 it basically doesn’t really matter what humans do. We will be in danger of those tipping points having a domino effect on each other and we will lose total control.” (1)
Some more examples:
Professor Frank Fenner, microbiologist, ANU, 2010: “We’re going to become extinct. Whatever we do now is too late”
John Davies, geophysicist, senior researcher at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, 2014: “With business as usual life on earth is largely doomed”.
James Hansen, former Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testifying at a Congressional hearing on global warming in 2008: “We’re toast if we don’t get on to a very different path. This is the last chance” to avoid mass extinctions, ecosystem collapse and dramatic sea level rises. “We [scientists] see a tipping point occurring right before our eyes. The Arctic is the first tipping point and it’s occurring exactly the way we said it would.” In five to 10 years [by 2013-2018], the Arctic will be free of ice in the summer.
James Hansen, testimony at Congressional hearing, 1988: “world's leading climate expert [Hansen] predicts lower Manhattan underwater by 2018”
Dr Michael Mann, Penn State: “We’re talking about literally giving up on our coastal cities of the world and moving inland”
United Nations Environment Programme, 2005: “Fifty million climate refugees by 2010.” (2)
United Nations Environment Programme, 2011: “60 million environmental refugees by 2020”
The Guardian carried a front-page story in 2004 headlined, “Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us”. The by-line reads: “Secret report warns of rioting and nuclear war. Britain will be ‘Siberian’ in less than 20 years. Threat to the world is greater than terrorism”. The text continues, “A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs…, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.” (Emphases added).
Remember that in the 1960s and 1970s many experts forecast an immanent Ice Age. For example, 1970: “Ice age by 2000”. 1971: “New Ice Age coming by 2020 or 2030.” 1976: “Scientific consensus planet cooling famines imminent”. 1978: “No end in sight to 30 year cooling trend”.
The Climate Change Consensus
The diagnoses and prescriptions in the above statements express an underlying consensus.
- Human actions (mainly burning fossil fuels and changing land use) are causing rising concentration of atmospheric CO2 (and other greenhouse gases, GHG),
- Rises in man-made GHG are causing rising global temperatures in atmosphere and seas, and
- This temperature rise poses not just a serious threat to humanity and the whole biosphere, but an existential threat.
In other words, the existence of humans and many other species is at stake if we do not succeed in drastically cutting CO2 emissions as the way to reduce the atmospheric concentration of GHG and thereby slow or reverse the rise in global temperature. In the oft used phrase, humanity faces an “existential crisis” induced by climate change caused by human actions. Implied but not normally stated, there are no benefits from higher concentrations of CO2 or higher temperature to be weighed against costs. Also implied but not normally stated, we must act to stop climate change regardless of cost, because the costs might include deep disruption of human civilization or even extinction.
We have to think of avoiding climate change as the global equivalent of avoiding explosions at nuclear power plants (Chernobyl, Fukushima). We invest heavily in safety-first measures in order to reduce the probability of a nuclear explosion to a very low level because the costs of a nuclear explosion are so huge. The same logic applies at the level of climate, in terms of the costs of average temperature rising by more than ~ 1.5 C from “pre-industrial”.
This is the Anthropogenic Global Warming Consensus, or Climate Change Consensus (CCC) for short. I use “consensus” in the same sense as “the Washington Consensus” about best policy for developing countries, the phrase coined by John Williamson in 1990.
The CCC is now well anchored into international agreements (such as the Paris Declaration), national policy, and increasingly corporate strategy too. The periodic Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reaffirm it, particularly in the Summary for Policymakers. Financial Times journalist Pilita Clark observed, “The world has rarely seen any environmental idea take off like the push to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. A fringe concept six years ago, it has gone mainstream so quickly that more than 60 percent of countries now have some sort of net zero goal, along with investors managing nearly $37tn and at least 20 percent of the 2,000 largest publicly listed companies. The International Energy Agency [IEA] warns in a striking net zero report today that all new oil, gas and coal projects and exploration must stop if global warming is to stay below 1.5C.”
Scientific support comes from the fact that 97% of climate scientists agree that man-made greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the warming of the Earth’s average temperature over the second half of the twentieth century. The 3% who are sceptical are not highly regarded scientists and some are in the pay of fossil fuel interests.
In the face of this scientific, interstate, and corporate agreement about the necessity of a global Big Push to cut CO2 emissions fast, developing countries and China carry a heavy responsibility, because they are the major source of global CO2 emissions, mainly from their consumption of fossil fuels. They must quickly follow the developed countries in investing on a massive scale in sources of renewable energy, whose prices are falling fast. Developed countries will offer large-scale financing and technical assistance for them to make the switch – in the developed countries’ self-interest.
It is true that developed countries put up most of the stock of greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere as they used fossil fuels to power their ascent to the top of the global hierarchy of income and wealth over the past two centuries. But that gives developing countries, even though they remain well down the income hierarchy, no justification for saying that they therefore have the right to carbon space for powering their economic development – because continuing to use relatively accessible, cheap and reliable fossil-fuel energy to power their growth pushes all humanity and the biosphere towards ruin.
Do Virtually all Climate Scientists Agree with the CCC?
It is widely cited that “97% of climate scientists agree warming is man-made”; or more exactly, “97% of science papers taking a position on climate change say it is man-made”. The conclusion is frequently amped up to “a 97% consensus that ‘humans are causing a global warming crisis’”.
Note that this last statement – with “crisis” – is not the same as the previous two, but all three statements tend to be conflated, so that people agreeing with “most recent warming is man-made” tend to be scored as agreeing that global warming is a crisis, which commonly gets inflated into agreeing that it is an existential crisis or the existential crisis.
Note that these statements of “consensus” do not specify the time period.
Note also that “high consensus” in science is only a weak criterion of “truth” in science – but the 97% figure is often deployed as evidence of the “truth” that warming is man-made. Of course, it is worth knowing to what extent there are “widely accepted truths” in any field. But problems come when the “fact” of consensus is established in a clearly tendentious way.
A standard source of the claim that 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is man-made is the study by John Cook et al. (2013). The study rated about 12,000 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers published between 1991 and 2011. The rating was done by 12 volunteers, each abstract was rated by two people, making 24,000 ratings. The ratings were in three categories: (1) implicit or explicit endorsement of human-caused global warming; (2) no opinion; (3) implicit or explicit rejection or minimization of the human influence. About 4,000 abstracts took a position on the cause of global warming, 97.1% of which endorsed human-caused global warming.
Notice that this should not be, but commonly is translated as “97% of climate scientists endorse …”. Notice too that the abstracts were not rated as to whether they stressed greenhouse gases or man-made changes in land use and land cover; the implicit assumption is, man-made greenhouse gases are the cause of warming. Finally, notice that the abstracts were not rated as to whether they endorsed the idea of a global warming crisis or catastrophe; only as to whether they endorsed the idea of human causes of global warming.
A Wikipedia essay describes the study as “a landmark climate research paper [which] found that 97.1% of climate scientists supported the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). As of March 2021, the paper has received at least 1,270,076 downloads.”
There is an obvious question. Does “endorsement of human-caused global warming” mean warming caused 100% by human actions, or 75%, or 50%, or 25%? Any of these may be consistent with “climate change is man-made”. By leaving the degree of causation by humans open, thumbs can be put on the scales to yield the conclusion that virtually all well-qualified scientists believe that global warming of the past several decades is caused almost entirely by human action (would not be occurring in the absence of that action).
Professor Mike Hulme, professor of Human Geography at the University of Cambridge, concludes: “The ‘97% consensus’ article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed.” Analysis by David Legates et al (2015) found that only 0.3% of the sampled papers “endorsed the standard definition of consensus: that most warming since 1950 is anthropogenic”. Research physicist Nicola Scafetta: “Cook et al (2013) is based on a straw man argument because it does not correctly define the IPCC AGW [anthropogenic global warming ] theory, which is NOT that human emissions have contributed 50%+ of the global warming since 1900 but that almost 90-100% of the observed global warming was induced by human emission”. (3)
It is testimony to the apocalyptic emotion behind people’s response to “climate change” and “global warming” that the Cook et al. paper, and others with similar methods, have commanded such credence in the face of evident flaws – notably (1) in fudging the distinction between agreeing that human actions have some role in global warming and agreeing that human actions explain most global warming; (2) in not asking whether – extent to which -- the scientists’ papers identified global warming as a problem, a crisis, an existential crisis, over what time period. (4)
By keeping it vague what the “consensus” agrees on, authors and users of the studies have given the impression that endorsement of “humans are causing global warming” means endorsement that “humans’ enhancement of the greenhouse effect will be dangerous enough to be ‘catastrophic’”, and therefore also means endorsement of the imperative for urgent, radical action on a global scale by governments, firms and families.
It is testimony to the pervasive anxiety of the zeitgeist that such surveys are routinely cited as demonstrating a near-unanimous scientific consensus in favor of radical, far-reaching climate policy (including for energy, food and materials), when the surveys do not even ask the question as to whether the respondent considers that (a) the anthropogenic component of recent warming is dangerous, and (b) dangerous enough to require a global climate policy. The surveys are almost valueless scientifically, but valuable politically.
Upward Bias in Temperature Forecasting Models
The prospect of a coming catastrophe for humanity and the biosphere rests heavily on outputs of climate forecasting models. But as David Legates and co-authors argue, these models “exhibit a strong exaggeration in their results even when narrowly adopting atmospheric carbon dioxide as the sole driver of climate responses…. [General circulation models, such as those of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] have consistently overestimated the climate sensitivity to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
Ross McKitrick (2020) begins his assessment, “Two new peer-reviewed papers from independent teams confirm that climate models overstate atmospheric warming, and the problem [of overstatement] has gotten worse over time, not better”. One of the papers (by McKitrick and John Christy) examined 38 models, the other, 48 models, used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the various US “National Assessments”, the EPA’s “Endangerment Finding”, and more.
McKitrick continues, “Both papers looked at ‘hindcasts’, which are reconstructions of recent historical temperatures in response to observed greenhouse gas emissions and other changes (eg aerosols and solar forcing). Across the two papers it emerges that the models overshoot historical warming from the near-surface through the upper troposphere, in the tropics and globally.” The study based on 48 models for 1998 to 2014 found that they warm on average 4 to 5 times faster than the observations.
McKitrick concludes, “modelling the climate is incredibly difficult, and no one faults the scientific community for finding it a tough problem to solve. But we are all living with the consequences of climate modelers stubbornly using generation after generation of models that exhibit too much surface and tropospheric warming, in addition to running grossly exaggerated forcing scenarios (eg RCP8.5).
“[W]hen the models get the tropical troposphere wrong, it drives potential errors in many other features of the model atmosphere. Even if the original problem was confined to excess warming in the tropical mid-troposphere, it has now expanded into a more pervasive warm bias throughout the global troposphere.
“If the discrepancies in the troposphere were evenly split across models between excess warming and cooling we could chalk it up to noise and uncertainty. But that is not the case: it’s all excess warming…. That’s bias, not uncertainty, and until the modelling community finds a way to fix it, the economics and policy making community are justified in assuming future warming projects are overstated, potentially by a great deal….”
The strong upward bias in temperature forecasts relative to observations compromise the models’ forecasting impacts on ecosystems, including agriculture, by exaggerating the probability of catastrophic effects.
The IPCC makes projections of future global temperatures to the end of century based on various models. They range from a low of 1.4 C to a high of 5.6 C over pre-industrial temperature (roughly 1900). The wide range makes them almost meaningless. The IPCC explains that the wide range results from uncertainty about the magnitude of the feedback between warming and increased rates of evaporation – and David Seckler adds, also about the effects of evaporation on clouds and precipitation. (5)
It is astonishing to learn that the climate models miss a critical component of the climate system -- the hydrological cycle, and specifically clouds, which the IPCC calls the “wild card” in the climate system.
The IPCC’s Worst Case Scenario is commonly used as the Business as Usual without a Radical Policy Action’ Scenario
The IPCC’s Assessment Report 5 (AR5), published in 2014, presented a range of forecasts of global climate out to 2050 and 2100, based on different assumptions about radiative forcing (a measure of how much of the sun’s energy the atmosphere traps). The most extreme – the worst case – was called Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5. It assumes ominous reversals in several basic, long-standing trends, all heading in the extremely wrong direction to 2100:
- high population growth to reach more than 12 billion people
- slow technology development
- coal consumption increases by 500 % between 2005 and 2100 (no account taken of supply constraints)
- slow GDP growth
- fast rise in world poverty
- high energy use
- high GHG emissions.
- temperature forecast: 5 C rise between 2005 and 2100.
RCP 8.5’s vision is horrifying, as worst-case scenarios should be.
A whole wave of literature, in peer-reviewed journals as well as in media, even by IPCC authors, has since presented this worst-case as either “the most likely case” or “the baseline case – business as usual without policy action”. This misleading assumption provoked a recent paper in Nature subtitled: “Stop using the worst-case scenario for climate warming as the most likely outcome” (see also, Chrobak, 2020).
The Politics: How has the CCC become so Dominant
How can we understand the present dominance of the CCC in public and political opinion around the world, despite repeated evidence -- over decades -- of wildly exaggerated forecasts of doom when compared against measured outcomes, and despite the real uncertainties (“known unknowns”) in knowledge about basic mechanisms?
We can identify several mutually reinforcing reasons.
News that fits the CCC plays into a more general logic of “If it bleeds, it leads”, meaning that the media tend to deliver negativity – about climate, health, almost anything – because readers and viewers want negatively-inflected stories. Recent research finds that across all types of articles the most popular stories have high negative content. Surprisingly, politics matters little: there is no difference between conservative and liberal outlets in propensity to deliver negativity. Rather, the difference is between media outlets by size and influence: the bigger and more influential the media brand, the stronger the bias towards the negative – showing how good they are at delivering what people want. According to Matthew Yglesias, several recent research studies find that “the kind of stories people like to consume are compulsive rather than satisfying …. You’re clicking and sharing stories about terrible things and raising alarms and listening to the alarms that are being raised by others, and it all feels very compelling precisely because it’s gloomy and alarming …. People like to get mad, then share the content so that peers can share their outrage.”
Climate lends itself well to this negativity bias. Richard Betts, then the head of climate impacts at the Met Office, explained the demand for negative climate stories (BBC News Channel, 11 January 2010, emphasis added ):
“The focus on climate change is now so huge that everybody seems to need to have some link to climate change if they are to attract attention and funding. Hence the increasing tendency to link everything to climate change – whether scientifically proven or not …. I have quite literally had journalists phone me up during an unusually warm spell of weather and ask ‘is this a result of global warming?’ When I say ‘no, not really, it is just weather’, they’ve thanked me very much and then phoned somebody else, and kept trying until they got someone to say yes it was. Talking up of the problem then gives easy ammunition to those who wish to discredit the science.”
Holman Jenkins, in The Wall St Journal (2018), describes the other side of the exaggeration incentive: “Over the past 15 or 20 years the climate beat has been handed over to reporter-activists who’ve decided that climate science is impenetrable but at least nobody ever got fired for exaggerating the risks of climate change.”
Climate scientist Judith Curry identifies a similar logic in the frequent conflation of extreme weather events and “global warming”. “In 2005 [following Hurricane Katrina] the public found it very hard to care about 1 degree or even 4 degrees of warming – heck, the temperatures varied by that much on a day-to-day basis.… However, arguments that a relatively small amount of global warming (order 1 C) could result in more intense hurricanes, well that got their attention…. The activists now had a new weapon in their arsenal – attributing extreme weather events to manmade climate change. The ‘will to act’ seemed tied to alarmism about extreme weather events. Which provides a key political role for unsupported ‘storylines’ about extreme weather events.” The “heat dome” over the Pacific northwest of the US and Canada in June 2021 was generally treated as yet more evidence of “climate change. You would not know it from the coverage, but in Washington and Oregon, the number of days per decade with temperature above 99 F shows no upward trend from 1911-20 to 2011-20. For example, the number of days above 99 F in 1971-80 was more than in 2011-20. Across the US the 1930s was arguably the hottest decade on record; the time of the deadly “Dust Bowl”, summer 1936, was the hottest summer on record between 1895 and 2020.
An attempt to push the distinction between “weather” and “climate” is unwelcome in this context, because it weakens the motivating, mobilising force of “climate” as the boundless enemy that could destroy humanity, like the Biblical Flood. The Climate Apocalypse is imminent, is the motivational message (also see Adler, 2019).
This is the deeper story behind the wild exaggerations of the forecasts and the continued high credibility of those who make them. The exaggerations express the apocalyptic thinking about climate now sweeping the world, including the financial and corporate world. They express a story of humans damaging Nature, and Nature destroying humans in return. These stories themselves express ancient de-creation stories of humans misbehaving in the eyes of God, and God punishing them. The Biblical flood occurred because God decided the people had become wicked, had stopped respecting God and Nature, so He resolved to wipe life off the face of the earth, saving only a breeding pair of each species in order to recreate the world in His image. Much the same story appeared in Sumerian culture long before the Bible, and later in the Quran, expressing a desperate human wish for Salvation.
In our more secular age, apocalyptic theology can rely on Nature in place of God -- Nature invested with God-like powers of punishment and reward.
2. The “political” science of the IPCC
The IPCC was established to provide a properly scientific center of gravity for discussions about climate, and issue regular balanced assessments of the state of scientific climate knowledge. But there are at least two basic problems with the IPCC process. One is that the mandate of the IPCC says that it is “to assess … the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation” (emphasis added). (6) The mandate does not mention to assess the interaction between human and natural causes. It is as though natural causes do not exist. The IPCC’s whole body of work consequently is slanted towards exaggerating human causes of given climate changes, marginalizing the role of natural causes interacting with human causes. Which among other effects leads it to give undue weight to “mitigating” climate change (by changing human actions) relative to “adapting” to climate changes partly induced by natural forces.
The common justification given by IPCC defenders is: natural causes operate only very slowly; the climate is changing fast; therefore the climate changes must be driven by humans, and humans can change their behaviour fast – when forced and sufficiently motivated to do so ( using all the techniques of Machiavelli). This justification underplays the point that some natural causes – eg the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation – do change fairly quickly, over decades, with far reaching effects (eg Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and its impacts on the Greenland ice sheet).
The second IPCC problem is that this bias to doomsday forecasts – therefore to urgent and far-reaching action -- is intensified in the process of translating from the technical reports to the summaries for policy makers. The translation – done mostly by non-scientists -- tends to downplay uncertainties and up-play certainties in an alarming, even catastrophizing direction. Hence the tendency to treat worst-case scenarios as likely scenarios. Recall the subtitle to the Nature paper, “Stop using the worst-case scenario for climate warming as the most likely outcome” (2020).
3. Logic of decision-making and logic of mobilization
The tendency to treat worst-case scenarios as likely scenarios “in the absence of radical changes to how we live, work and govern” can be understood in terms of the distinction between the logic of decision-making and the logic of mobilization or action. To make the best decision about what to do, one needs to explore a range of possible alternative courses of action, weigh up the pros and cons of each, then decide which is best. But having exposed many people to a range of options, there may be action-sapping disagreement as to which is best. To get a great mass of people to move all in one direction one needs to present them with only two alternatives, one of which is crazy, and pretend to be entirely confident of the two outcomes. (7) If they can be convinced that there are only two alternatives and one is crazy, they will follow.
The Climate Change Consensus expresses the logic of mobilization. It presents two alternatives. “Do nothing (or little)”, which leads to catastrophe, extinction, the planet becomes ungovernable, coastal cities must be abandoned, lower Manhattan will be underwater by 2018. Or else, quickly decarbonize the world economy and push towards a broader dematerialization of lifeways. No prizes for guessing which wins. This is how you mobilize people on a vast scale to do what you think must be done. Or as a US senator from the West once put it, “Managing politicians is like herding wild horses. To get them running in the same direction you have to stampede them.” (8)
4. Left and right politics
While the demand for negatively-inflected news cuts across the political spectrum, political ideology certainly shapes people’s beliefs about climate. Climate change “scepticism” is almost a talisman of the center-right and right, and is strongly promoted by fossil fuel interests. Climate “alarmism” is more pronounced on the center-left and left of the ideological spectrum. It is promoted as a sacred unifying mission by a great global phalanx of left-green civic action organizations (Extinction Rebellion is prominent).
A Guardian article describes the right-wing “sceptical” tactic. “Vested interests have long realized [that people-at-large trust climate scientists on the subject of global warming] and have engaged in a campaign to misinform the public about the scientific consensus. For example, a memo from communications strategist Frank Luntz leaked in 2002 advised Republicans, ‘Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate’. This campaign has been successful… The media has assisted in this public misconception, with most climate stories ‘balanced’ with a ‘sceptic’ perspective. However, this results in making the 2-3% seem like 50%... As a result, people believe scientists are still split about what’s causing global warming, and therefore there is not nearly enough public support or motivation to solve the problem.”
Both sides accuse the other of abusing “the science”. Both sides generate expansive pressures to describe more and more trends, issue more and more prescriptions, without ambiguity and shading, and judge more and more of the other’s claims pre-emptively. Individual issues (eg extreme weather) are not discussed in terms of their own evidence but are packaged together in ideological visions, the better to establish clear moral battle lines, disagreement being moral heresy.
This is the playing out of a larger process of polarization common when scientific disagreements become public. As described by sociologist of science Robert K. Merton, each group then responds to stereotyped versions of the other. “They see in the other’s work primarily what the hostile stereotype has alerted them to see, and then promptly mistake the part for the whole. In this process, each group … becomes less and less motivated to study the work of the other, since there is manifestly little point in doing so. They scan the out-group’s writings just enough to find ammunition for new fusillades.” (9)
The result is a “syndrome of exaggeration”: each side exaggerates evidence in its favour and downplays evidence against, which justifies the other in exaggerating evidence in its favour and downplaying evidence against; and back again. It is a syndrome in that the behaviour of each side confirms the negative expectations of the other. They often go at each other ad hominem, like adolescent school boys, including people who regard themselves as serious scientists. In the digital era members of both sides are able to quickly find one another and the enemy. (10)
Yet to talk of “two sides” is misleading, because the side championing the CCC is by far the dominant. Recall the Financial Times journalist Pilita Clark: “The world has rarely seen any environmental idea take off like the push to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.” For political leaders and increasingly business leaders, being seen to give high value to protecting the public against all the ills attributed to “climate change” – including by pledging big changes to be made long after they leave office -- is a way to show foresight, statesmanship, leading on the front foot. Many right-wing politicians and business leaders now wish to present themselves as fighters against climate change, even as they continue to support fossil-fuel industries.
5. Finance and business interests
There are now powerful industrial interest groups promoting climate alarmism for profit-seeking reasons, including those invested in the switch from fossil fuels to renewables and those invested in the switch from combustion to electrical engines. The CEO of the electric vehicle car company Lucid (a former Tesla engineer) said recently that the transition to an EV world will happen faster than anyone expects, driven by the environmental imperative. He said, “The environment is in crisis. The world needs millions of electric cars tomorrow”. He did not suggest where all the electricity will come from.
Many big players in finance see opportunities for speculative profits by playing up climate dangers. Goldman-Sachs in 2005 authored the firm’s environmental policy, which said “voluntary action alone cannot solve the climate change problem”, from a firm that has consistently opposed government regulation. It and other financial firms supported what Matt Taibbi called “a new commodities bubble disguised as an ‘environmental plan’” – a carbon credit market in the form of cap-and-trade. Coal plants, utilities, natural gas distributors and some other industries are assigned carbon emission limits. To exceed the limits they must buy credits from those who emit less than their limit. As of 2010, the volume of the market in the US was estimated as $1 trillion annually. Goldman and the others were making themselves central actors in the market. The best thing about it is that the emission limits keep being lowered, implying that the price is guaranteed to keep rising, to the benefit of the intermediaries.
On top of all this, the whole “sustainable investing” movement provides opportunities for big profits at the intersection of the already thick alphabet soup of sustainability disclosure regulations (TCFD, SASB, GRI, CDSB among others, in the case of the EU) and the lack of meaningful, reliable data. “At the moment, the risk is that it is ‘garbage in, garbage out’”, says the head of sustainable finance at S&P Global Ratings.
So the fact that the financial sector is “worried” about climate change could be taken to be part of the problem, underlining the need for public authorities to take charge and frame parameters within which private operations produce public benefits. (11)
I have argued that the “plausible” risks of climate change are commonly exaggerated within the climate community. Recall for example, Christiana Figueres, 2020, “The scary thing is that after 2030 it basically doesn’t really matter what humans do”; Kevin Drum, 2019, “[The Green New Deal] would only change the dates for planetary suicide by a decade or so”; Frank Fenner, 2010, “We’re going to become extinct. Whatever we do now is too late.” Many more in the same doomsday vein.
We have seen that the standard global warming models have a powerful built-in bias to exaggerate the rate of future temperature rise, as seen in (most of) them “hindcasting” temperature rises several times faster than actually observed. We have seen that forecasters commonly take “worst-case scenarios” as “likely scenarios in the absence of radical action” (eg reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050), to the point where Nature recently published a paper sub-titled, “Stop using the worst-case scenario for climate warming as the most likely outcome”.
The dismaying thing is that scientists and advocates have been making catastrophising global warming forecasts of this kind for decades past, normally dated some 10 to 30 years into the future. The due date comes without catastrophe, but never a retrospective holding to account. Rather, on to the next catastrophising forecast another 10 to 30 years ahead. Scientists-writers-activists know the catastrophe forecasts get the attention, the clicks, the research funding. We saw the exaggeration mechanism spelled out by Richard Betts of the BBC, Holman Jenkins of the Wall St Journal, and climate scientist Judith Curry.
The built-in exaggeration of the costs of climate change blunts the parallel with nuclear power plants. We know with high certainty the costs of nuclear explosions. We know the costs of global temperature going above 1.5 C above “pre-industrial” much less certainly, and we can see the mechanisms by which the likely costs are being systematically exaggerated.
On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that even without the doomsday exaggerations the plausible risks of climate change could be very serious, in particular because of the inherent political economy difficulty of getting needed global or regional cooperation when political action is mostly at the level of sovereign nation states (see the G20).
Coal power generation is the single biggest source of GHG emissions, and emissions from coal consumption will probably not fall fast, whatever the promises. First, coal is cheap, accessible and generates reliable power for many developing countries; in Asia, coal alone generates 40 percent of energy consumption, much higher than the world average of 29 percent. (12) Second, developing countries, including China, assert a strong claim on carbon space to power their economic development. They see it partly as a matter of fundamental justice, since developed countries emitted most of the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere and seas as the necessary condition for them becoming developed. Developed countries promise finance and technical assistance on a massive scale to accelerate the energy transition in developing countries – and have a long track record of leaving promises as promises. (See the global distribution of Covid vaccines. See the results of vaunted “voting reform” in the World Bank, leaving the US with 17% and China with 6%.) What is more, the Japanese government plans up to 22 new coal power plants, as it closes nuclear plants in the wake of Fukushima.
Then comes a question: does drawing attention to the doomsday exaggerations of the CCC – “disaster”, “catastrophe”, “extinction”, “fiddling while the planet burns” - serve to reduce the political and public pressures for necessary ameliorative action, in a world where powerful fossil lobbies seek to block or delay such action for reasons independent of “evidence”? Should “Third Way” essays like this one not be published, because “give them (deniers, sceptics) an inch and they will take a mile”? To what extent must mass publics be “panicked” in order to induce enough collective political and business action – national, international – to substantially slow the growth of GHG emissions? If we can sustain emission- and temperature-curbing action only by holding up the certainty of disaster, catastrophe, extinction, then better to let the doomsday exaggerations continue as the necessary condition for that ameliorative action. What is the harm, when the alternative is ruin for humanity and the biosphere?
The danger is that the repeated wild exaggerations produce a public backlash, a discrediting, and a strengthening of the many “deniers” who see “leftists, governments, and the United Nations” as the source of malevolence in the world. A more accurate accounting of the evidence would (hopefully) produce a more calibrated and sustained public and business response.
What to do? (13)
- The IPCC should allocate some 10% of its budget to a Red Team, dedicated to independent scrutiny of its evidence and conclusions (especially the Summary for Policymakers). (14) The IPCC should revise its mandate to require it explicitly to focus on interactions between natural forces and human actions, as it is now almost required not to, biassing its assessment of the state of scientific knowledge towards “man-made global warming” as an almost separate system.
- Learned societies should more actively seek to understand and publicize the reasons for repeated large-scale discrepancies between “hindcasts” and “forecasts” on the one hand and actual observations on the other, discrepancies strongly biased towards “disaster”.
- It is particularly important that the knee-jerk attribution of extreme weather events to global warming be challenged with reference to evidence. Judith Curry explained – quoted earlier -- why CCC advocates have a powerful incentive to attribute cases of extreme weather to global warming, tout court. She has recently written, “Apart from the reduced frequency of the coldest temperatures, the signal of global warming in the statistics of extreme weather events remains much smaller than that from natural climate variability, and is expected to remain so at least until the second half of the 21rst century.” She goes on to amplify a point made earlier about the limits of the climate models used for the IPCC assessment reports: they are driven mainly by predictions of future GHG emissions. They do not include predictions of natural climate variability arising from solar output, volcanic eruptions or evolution of large-scale multi-decadal ocean circulations. They do a particularly poor job of simulating regional and decadal-scale climate variability. (15)
- Participants on both sides have to learn the art of respecting the principle of free speech while maintaining the standards of civil discourse.
While I have stressed the CCC’s support for urgent and radical changes to the way we live, work and govern, some CCC champions argue that the world economy could continue on a largely unchanged growth trajectory provided that we switch fast from fossil fuels to renewables. Indeed, this switch is beginning to happen fast, with coal and nuclear energy production unable to compete without subsidies in areas where natural gas, wind and solar resources are readily available.
But to say that life can continue as before provided we substitute renewables for fossil fuels obscures the huge difficulties for many developing countries of getting out of fossil fuels while growing fast enough to reduce the income gap with developed countries.
- We must give high priority to investments in “clean coal” technologies, such as carbon capture, storage and use, to make the dirtier coal cleaner in existing and new coal-power plants; and link coal-power retirement to the coming on-stream of attractive alternatives. The multilateral development banks have recently or will soon announce bans on coal power. The G7 leaders meeting in mid 2021 promised to stop using government funds to finance new international coal power plants by the end of 2021. China’s Belt and Road Initiative should increase its pressure on host countries to cut back on dirty coal and boost clean coal and renewables.
- A high and immediate priority is to build a robust financing and technical assistance mechanism for help from developed to developing countries. The Paris Agreement instituted a Mitigation pillar and an Adaptation pillar. Intense debate took place around the third, Loss and Damage, the name of a mechanism to compensate for the destruction that Mitigation and Adaptation cannot prevent. Developed countries by and large have sought to marginalize the Loss and Damage pillar, as they have long sought to marginalize Special and Differential Treatment for developing countries in trade and investment agreements. “Finance is something that really rich countries, particularly the US, have made sure that there is no progress and not even discussion on”, remarked Harjeet Singh, senior advisor at Climate Action Network International. (16)
My “forecast” is that in the next two to three decades to midcentury we will make rapid progress in scientific knowledge about weather and climate, helped by longer and more accurate satellite and ocean records and by a new generation of climate models that operate at one to ten kilometers scale (as distinct from the current models’ 50 kilometer scale). We will probably continue to make rapid progress in decoupling GHG from GDP growth, with a combination of state direction-setting and private innovation focused on transformations in energy, transport, buildings, industry and agriculture, using incentives like research and development subsidies and tax credits for technology investment, and penalties for carbon-intensive activities. (17) In transport, this entails coordination across urban planning decisions, public transport investment, future of remote working, infrastructures for electric charging and hydrogen loading. (18) Transformations in these systems are already underway, and the prospect of vast new green investments, supported and under-written by the state, will intensify them. These green investments will open productive investment opportunities previously limited by stagnant wages and rising debt, which have driven investment into increasingly speculative ventures. If by two or three decades ahead it looks as though the second half of this century could well experience globally extreme climate and ocean events, we will be much more knowledgeable about what to do than we are today. (19)
In the meantime, we can give sustained attention to several other fundamental challenges facing world society, at least semi-independent of climate change, challenges which global warming, treated as the overwhelming problem facing humanity, risks putting in the shade. These include biodiversity loss as a result of human spread (seen in dramatic declines in global insect populations and ocean food chains), air pollution, and plastic and pesticide pollutions. Later, our descendants may have to think of increasing GHG in order to prevent another Ice Age.
I thank Professor David Seckler, author of Global Warming and Cooling: A Brief Introduction to the Facts, Theories and Unknowns, unpublished, 28 June 2021, for inspiring conversations and access to his “brief introduction”. I thank Professor Manfred Bienefeld for challenging conversations, and brother-in-law Spiro Zavos for sending “sceptical” links my way. I take as given the uncertainties, the “known unknowns” in the climate science as discussed by Steven Koonin in Unsettled: What climate science tells us, what it doesn’t, and why it matters (2021); see also his interview “Power Hour with Alex Epstein: Obama administration physicist explains why climate catastrophism is unscientific”, Earth Day 2021. I have also benefited from Seckler’s discussion of basic uncertainties.
Robert Wade is professor of global political economy, London School of Economics.
(1) Greta Thunberg declared to the United Nations Climate Action Summit, September 2019: “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams, my childhood with your empty words…. People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing, we are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money, and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
(2) In Norman Myers, “environmental refugees: an emergent security issue”, 13 Economic Forum, Prague, OSCE, May 2005.
(3) See also Richard Tol, “Comment on ‘Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature’”, Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 048001, April 2016. This is a careful dissection of the Cook et al paper to reveal why we cannot be confident of the 97% figure; and an assessment of other attempts to calculate the degree of consensus.
(4) See also Peter Doran and Maggie Zimmerman, “Examining the scientific consensus on climate change”, EOS, 3 June 2011. They asked two survey questions: (1) When compared with pre-1800’s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant? (2) Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures? They did not ask: (3) Do you think a warmer world is a problem? They sent out over 10,000 surveys, received over 3,000 responses, selected 79 “actively publishing climate scientists”, and concluded that 97% of those said yes to questions 1 and 2. See Willis Eschenbach, “Why the claimed ‘97% consensus’ is meaningless”, Watts Up With That?, 22 June 2021, and comments.
(5) David Seckler, Global Warming and Cooling: A Brief Introduction to the Facts, Theories and Unknowns, unpublished, 28 June 2021.
(6) IPCC, “Principles governing IPCC work, approved at the fourteenth session …. on 1 October 1998 [amended several times up to October 2013]”
(7) As Obama told Michael Lewis: “Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work…. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out….[A]fter you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically “ (emphasis added).
(8) David Seckler, Global Warming and Cooling: A Brief Introduction to the Facts, Theories and Unknowns, unpublished, 28 June 2021.
(9) Robert K. Merton, 1973, “Social conflict over styles of sociological work”, in The Sociology of Science, University of Chicago Press, emphasis added.
(10) See the website Watts Up With That? for many examples from right-wing perspective, especially in the comments. Mark Perry, denouncing “experts” who warn of climate dangers, paraphrases an expert prediction as, “If we don’t immediately convert to socialism and allow Alexandria Ocasio-Crazy to control and organize our lives, the planet will become uninhabitable”. Scientist Patrick Michaels, writing about academia (American and British), generalises: “… normal career progression is all but derailed if a person expresses a scintilla of non-left views in casual conversations, faculty meetings, public discourse, teaching, grant applications, submitted publications, or the promotion process.” “Death spiral in American academia”, Watts Up With That?, 10 June 2021. Others on the website delight in describing those they disagree with as “totalitarian fanatics and extremists of the far Left in the West”. In the US context they overlook how Republicans benefit from countermajoritarian rules of the game, including the Senate, the electoral college, and the Supreme Court.
(11) “Climate wars” are especially intense in Australia, the second biggest exporter of coal by volume. The current government resists committing to net zero by 2050 and funnels large tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. It is supported by the Murdoch media empire (60% of Australia’s national and metropolitan papers), and by highly-paid semi-skilled miners. But across Australia discussion in communities and companies is shifting from how to save coal to how to ensure compensation for the loss of well-paid mining jobs, and Rio Tinto and BHP are exiting thermal coal production -- amid a flurry of proposals by small miners eager to capitalise on their exits. See Jamie Smyth, 2021, “Global demand is expected to fall as countries commit to ever tighter emissions targets. So why are federal and state governments still pumping billions into the polluting fossil fuel industry?”, Financial Times, 4 May.
(12) As for the oil and gas industry, it accounts for 42% of global GHG emissions, directly and indirectly. The listed oil majors are selling a large chunk of assets, but “in the short term production could shift to private or state-owned companies which face much less scrutiny over their activities. Some of these new owners will use that relative obscurity to squeeze as much production as they can out of the oilfields they are acquiring without disclosing the environmental consequences.” Anjli Raval, 2021, “The $140bn asset sale: Big Oil’s push to net zero”, Financial Times, 7 July.
(13) Compare the following with the action agenda of Andreas Malm, How To Blow Up A Pipeline. “Here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start. Announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.” We operate from different epistemic standards. Quoted in Ezra Klein, 2021, “Where is the urgency on climate change?”, New York Times (International), 19 July.
(14) Chelsea Harvey reports on the House Science Committee hearings in late March 2017, at which John Christy, Judith Curry and others argued in favour of “red teams”. She quotes: “What’s happened in the IPCC is they’ve just stopped selecting people who disagree with the consensus. So you have a consensus of those who agree with the consensus.” Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that using red teams to challenge accepted climate science is “a completely ridiculous proposition…. The notion that we would need to create an entirely different new approach … is unfounded and ridiculous and simply intended to promote the notion of a lack of consensus about the core findings, which in fact is a false notion.” Michael Mann said, those who think that evidence supports an alternative approach to climate change – he had John Christy specifically in mind --“start out with their ideology and then work backwards to decide which science they like and which they don’t…But that’s not how scientific research works….It’s not about belief. It’s about evidence.” No one in climate science is more steered by evidence than Christy.
(15) The New York Times reports that 27 scientists have come together to form World Weather Attribution to conduct “rapid attribution” analysis, which “aims to establish if there is a link between climate change and specific extreme events like heat waves, heavy rain storms and flooding. The goal is to publicize any climate connection quickly, in part to thwart climate denialists who might claim that global warming had no impact on a particular event " (“Climate change drove western heat wave’s extreme records, analysis finds”, 7 July 2021, italics added). This is a recipe for thumbs-on-the-attribution-scale as the syndrome of exaggeration plays out.
(16) Quoted in Bernard Ferguson, “Climate damage and loss”, New York Times (International ), 26-27 June 2021
(17) Wall Street Journal (9 July, 2021, p. A2) reports that US petroleum consumption per inflation adjusted dollar of GDP fell from 5,000 BTUs in 1980 to 1,700 BTUs in 2020, an astonishing fall of 76%, most of it due to the shift to a services economy. Total BTUs still rose because of GDP growth.
(18) As just one example of the great wave of innovation under way, many companies are now racing to find the formula for low-carbon concrete.
(19) This paragraph follows the basic argument of David Seckler, Global Warming and Cooling: A Brief Introduction to the Facts, Theories and Unknowns, unpublished, 28 June 2021.