My article in Wired in August called “Apocalypse Not” (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/08/ff_apocalypsenot/) attracted a huge number of comments, many of which were constructive and interesting. It also led to critical responses at other sites. Here is my response to some of those responses. Wired asked me to respond, but then concluded that there was not space on their website to carry the response.
Philip Bump wrote an article in Grist attacking what he calls my “conceit” on climate change and calling my argument “bullshit”: http://grist.org/news/apocalypse-or-bust-how-wireds-climate-optimism-doesnt-add-up/. Leaving aside the insults, what was the substance of his criticism?
Mr Bump’s first point is that I am wrong that malaria will continue to decline because “comparing our relative recent success in combating malaria to the haphazard and poorly funded efforts from last century doesn’t provide much insight into how we’ll fare against more widespread malaria using existing tools”. He is entitled to this opinion but it flies in the face of published evidence on three counts. First, the retreat of malaria during the twentieth century was far from haphazard. As a chart published in Nature by Dr Peter Gething of Oxford University (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v465/n7296/images/nature09098-f1.2.jpg) shows, malaria vanished in the twentieth century from large parts of Asia, Europe and North America and became dramatically rarer in South America and South-east Asia. It also declined in Africa.
Second, the acceleration of this decline of malaria since 2000 (25% reduction in ten years) has indeed been aided by the work and funds of the Gates Foundation and others, but with new funds and new techniques it is not clear why Mr Bump thinks “it’s unlikely, though, that additional investment will continue to get the same rate of return” since he provides no evidence for this statement. Third, the “more widespread malaria” the he forecasts is largely a myth. In most of the world malaria is not limited by climate. In Africa there a few high-altitude areas – less than 3% of the continent – that might become more malaria friendly if global warming accelerates as the IPCC predicts. Surely it will continue to make sense to combat malaria itself rather than trying to fight it by combating climate change? Why should we focus on preventing that 3% increase rather than diminishing the existing 100% of malaria? As Dr Gething has written: “widespread claims that rising mean temperatures have already led to increases in worldwide malaria morbidity and mortality are largely at odds with observed decreasing global trends in both its endemicity and geographic extent” and “proposed future effects of rising temperatures on endemicity are at least one order of magnitude smaller than changes observed since about 1900 and up to two orders of magnitude smaller than those that can be achieved by the effective scale-up of key control measures.”
Incidentally, the persistence of the myth that malaria would worsen in a warming world was quite unnecessary, because a world expert on the topic tried in vain to correct the myth at an early stage. Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute, made the case within the IPCC that malaria’s range was shrinking and was limited by factors other than temperature, but was ignored and (in his words) “After much effort and many fruitless discussions I…resigned from the IPCC project [but] found that my name was still listed. I requested its removal, but was told it would remain because ‘I had contributed.’ It was only after strong insistence that I succeeded in having it removed.”
Mr Bump’s second charge is that if I am right that the threat of increased malaria as a result of global warming was greatly exaggerated, this does not prove that other aspects of climate change are exaggerated: “Even if the malaria argument held up, it would still only represent one ancillary concern stemming from global warming!” Given the prominence of the malaria-from-warming threat in the early IPCC reports and in the media, and the long battle Dr Reiter had to get the IPCC to see sense on the issue, the issue was hardly ancillary. None the less, let me take up Mr Bump’s challenge and consider some of the other threats promised in the name of climate change. For reasons of space I chose to focus on malaria but there is a long list of threats that have been downgraded as more knowledge of climate change accumulates. My first draft included two paragraphs of other examples that were left on the cutting room floor when my article was published. I reproduce them here:
“Likewise, the prediction that global warming could turn off the Gulf Stream, an idea that featured in the film The Day After Tomorrow. The fear was taken seriously in the 1990s, with the respected Nature magazine publishing a computer-model calculation that showed “a permanent shutdown” of the Atlantic “thermohaline circulation”, which drives the Gulf Stream, within a century if carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. This, commented a senior scientist, posed a risk “that no nation bordering the North Atlantic would willingly take.” Such a threat has now been abandoned as highly unlikely, one scientist commenting: “I think the notion of telling the public to prepare for both global warming and an ice age at the same [time] creates a real public relations problem for us.”
“In other words, some of the subplots of climate change have already proved exaggerated.
- The Himalayan glaciers are not melting in a hurry and even if they were, 96% of the water in the Ganges comes from rain, not melting ice.
- A gigantic methane belch when the Arctic ocean reaches some warm tipping point turns out to be implausible.
- The world’s coral reefs recover quickly and fully from bleaching episodes caused by sudden warming.
- Runaway warming is now widely agreed to be impossible.
- The United Nations was wrong in 2005 to predict (and map the whereabouts of) 50 million future environmental refugees by 2010. And so on.
Maybe these sideshows were always mistakes. Or just maybe the main event is being exaggerated too.”
I look forward to Mr Bump’s response on each of these points, few of which are ancillary. I also draw his attention to the deceleration of sea level rise, in sharp contrast to predictions, a measure that is about as central to the climate change threat as you can get. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/09/13/sea-level-acceleration-not-so-fast-recently/
Another critique of my article appeared under Lloyd Alter’s byline here: http://www.treehugger.com/energy-policy/wired-magazine-tells-us-dont-worry-be-happy-about-climate-population-resources-pandemics.html. Mr Alter accuses me of being pie-in-the sky and head-in-the-sand and objects specifically to my conclusion about the ozone hole that “the predicted recovery of the ozone layer never happened: The hole stopped growing before the ban took effect, then failed to shrink afterward. The ozone hole still grows every Antarctic spring, to roughly the same extent each year. Nobody quite knows why. Some scientists think it is simply taking longer than expected for the chemicals to disintegrate; a few believe that the cause of the hole was misdiagnosed in the first place. Either way, the ozone hole cannot yet be claimed as a looming catastrophe, let alone one averted by political action.”
Mr Alter claims that the long residence time of chloroflurocarbons in the atmosphere explains the failure of the ozone hole to shrink. He may be right, in which case he falls in the category I cited – “Some scientists think it is simply taking longer than expected for the chemicals to disintegrate” – but that hardly disproves my last statement that the ozone hole cannot yet be called a crisis that was definitely averted. Here’s a graph, from NASA (http://ozonewatch.gsfc.nasa.gov/meteorology/annual_data.html) , showing the stubborn persistence of the ozone hole:
Among the emails received at Wired was one from David Gasper of Dayton, Ohio, arguing “many situations are avoided because we listened to the alarmists and PREVENTED the extremes from happening.” Sure, and I acknowledged this in my piece. However, Mr Gasper gives two poor examples to support his case. The first is the Y2k computer bug. A huge amount of expensive work was indeed done to avert the breakdown of computers on 31 December 2012, but that does not in itself prove that the threats were not exaggerated.
Indeed the absolute lack of any major problems the next day, even in countries whose efforts were threadbare and patchy (such as Italy and South Korea and much of Africa), rather argues that they were exaggerated. Remember my argument is not that there was no threat of problems, but that the threat was overblown. Can anybody really think, in retrospect, that Senator Christopher J. Dodd, (D-CT), speaking at the first hearings of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem on June 12, 1998 was not overegging the scare when he said: “I think we’re no longer at the point of asking whether or not there will be any power disruptions, but we are now forced to ask how severe the disruptions are going to be…. If the critical industries and government agencies don’t start to pick up the pace of dealing with this problem right now, Congress and the Clinton Administration are going to have to…deal with a true national emergency.”
Mr Gasper’s other example is DDT, saying that I downplay the importance of DDT and bird populations and he points out that bald eagles and other predatory birds now thrive in his part of Ohio. He’s right and hawks and falcons now thrive where I live also. In both cases the removal of DDT was, I am convinced, crucial in the recovery of raptor populations, because DDT became concentrated as it moved up the food chain till it reached levels that did harm by thinning eggshells. However, my critique of the Rachel Carson/Paul Ehrlich scare was not about this phenomenon, but about the claim that DDT, together with other chemicals, caused cancer in human beings and would result in a severe shortening of human lifespan.
The website Carbon Commentary carried a piece by Chris Goodall (http://www.carboncommentary.com/2012/08/23/2449) arguing that skin cancer was getting worse because of ozone loss, that food and metal prices were rising and that he had read a similar article in the Economist in 1997.
Mr Goodall’s piece had many errors, starting with the repeated misspelling of “Ehrlich”.
He attempted to combat my assertion that melanoma is not increasing with the following remark: “increasing skin cancer incidence has been linked to rising UV-B radiation for several decades.” He gave no source. (My article has over 75 source links at my website: http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/apocalypse-not.aspx.) Is Mr Goodall unaware that most skin cancer is not melanoma? That the increase in other skin cancers is caused, most medical scientists think, by an increase in holidays in low latitudes, not a reduction in ozone in high latitudes?
There were plenty more in the way of egregious mistakes in the piece that would never have got past the fact-checkers at Wired. His price graphs took no account of inflation! Minerals and cancers were cherry picked. For the true picture on commodities prices and the Simon-Ehrlich bet, see this chart:
and Mark Perry’s conclusion about it:
“If Simon’s position was that natural resources and commodities become generally more abundant over long periods time, reflected in falling real prices, I think he was more right than lucky, as the graph above demonstrates.
Stated differently, if Simon was really betting that inflation-adjusted prices of a basket of commodity prices have a significantly negative slope over long periods of time, and Ehrlich was betting that the slope of that line was significantly positive, I think Simon wins the bet.”
How anybody from the climate-alarm camp can argue that the recent spike in food prices might be evidence of running out of food, when we turned 40% (!!) of US grain into motor fuel last year to satisfy green campaigners, baffles me.
And the similarity of some parts of the Wired article to some parts of the Economist article in 1997 is because I wrote them both.
Finally, there was an anonymous article on a blog called Skeptical Science, which purported to correct my claims about the possibility of a “lukewarm” climate outcome that would be less damaging than some of the measures being taken to combat climate change such as biofuels. The article focused on two points, first that Greenland’s ice loss, while currently less than 1% per century as I claimed, is in fact accelerating. However, recent revisions to the data show that the true rate of ice loss is even lower, less than 0.5% per century (http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v3/n9/full/ngeo938.html) and even this comes from far too short a period to be called a trend. (It is interesting how quick some climate alarmists are to dismiss the standstill in global temperatures of the last 15 years as “too short” while accepting nine years of Greenland satellite data as a trend!)
In fact the latest work, by Kurt Kjaer of the University of Copenhagen (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/337/6094/569.abstract?sid=822b555a-638b-4a49-a021-3dab84f17457), using aerial photographs to extend the history of Greenland’s ice cap backwards in time “challenges predictions about the future response of the Greenland Ice Sheet to increasing global temperatures” by concluding that the spurts of ice loss from Greenland in 1985-1993 and in 2005-2010 were short-lived events rather than indicative of a general trend.
Skeptical Science’s other criticism was that the evidence supports a strong positive water-vapour feedback amplification of carbon-dioxide induced warming. I am glad to have confirmation that this feedback is necessary to turn CO2-induced warming into a major danger, as I argued, but I disagree that the current evidence overwhelmingly supports this. There are studies that find evidence for net positive feedbacks and studies that do not. Here’s one very recent one (http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2012/2011GL050226.shtml) that makes “relatively low projections of 21st-century warming”. And here is a recent critique of high-sensitivity studies (http://judithcurry.com/2012/06/25/questioning-the-forest-et-al-2006-sensitivity-study/). My point, remember, is not that climate change will definitely be benign, but that the possibility that it will be real but not a catastrophe is far from small and yet is usually ignored. It is surely premature to rule out the possibility of such a lukewarm future and Skeptical Science produces very threadbare evidence to support such a dogmatic conclusion.
For those who are interested in the sources I used for my original article, I have reprinted it with many live links at www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/apocalypse-not.aspx.