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Climate Alarmism: A Gift to Denialists

David Wallace-Wells's recent article in New York Magazine is attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention. Entitled "The Uninhabitable Earth", the article paints a gallery of climate change doomsday scenarios. From the opening sentence, "It is, I promise, worse than you think," to section titles like "Heat Death" and "The End of Food", Wallace-Wells delivers on his promise to step "beyond scientific reticence" to outline the worst-case scenario of runaway global warming. But the alarmist tone of his story is a gift to global warming denialists.

Going back at least to the original Earth Day, April 22, 1970, there has benn no shortage of prognosticators willing to go "beyond scientific reticence" to warn us of approaching doom. And, as climate deniers love to remind us, the doomsayers are always wrong. This has two detrimental effects.

First, it doesn't work. Attempting to scare people into action almost always backfires. Most people are wired, when presented with the possibility of utter destruction, to shut down and refuse to act. We might enjoy movies where the heroes succeed against seemingly impossible odds, but we don't want to play out those scenes in our own lives. And at some point, even the select few who choose to fight the good fight will either develop combat fatigue as the battle remains unwinnable, or they will grow cynical as the goalposts they're defending keep moving. Even the sturdiest worry-warrior has a threshold for fretting about an imminent doomsday that never seems to arrive.

Second, failed doomsday predictions are fodder for denialists, who are happy to focus on the most extreme predictions. It's easier to refute those who are unconstrained by scientific reticence than to come to grips with actual climate science.

And that's why it is important to note that climate scientists across the board have not been reticent in criticizing Wallace-Wells, both for the tone of his article and for his many exaggerations and misuse of science.

Michael Mann, whose 1999 paper Northern Hemisphere Temperatures During the Past Millennium introduced the "hockey stick" graph that has been the source of much agitation among denialists, took to Facebook to denounce the "doomist framing" of Wallace-Wells's piece, as well as the article's failure to get the science right. In one stroke, Mann dismantled both the alarmist argument that the earth is warming faster than scientific models project and the denialist claim that models will never be accurate enough to make reasonable projections.

Ironically, I am a co-author of a recent article in the journal Nature Geoscience (see e.g. this piece in The Guardian:…/climate-scientists-just-debun…), using that very same new, corrected, satellite dataset, that shows that past climate model simulations slightly **over-predicted** the actual warming during the first decade of the 21st century, likely because of a mis-specification of natural factors like solar variations and volcanic eruptions. Once these are accounted for, the models and observations are pretty much in line--the warming of the globe is pretty much progressing AS models predicted…which is bad enough.

The website Climate Feedback asked 16 climate scientists (including Mann) their opinion of Wallace-Wells's piece, and the general consensus agreed with Mann that many of Wallace-Wells's claims were misleading or exaggerated.

Alexis Berg of Princeton University professed sympathy to Wallace-Wells's goal of informing the public about the possible dangers of runaway climate change, but ultimately he could not endorse the article.

Nevertheless, I think the article would have gained from a more explicit acknowledgement that this particular focus is the goal of the article, as well as a from an explicit discussion (even if only qualitative) of the probabilities associated with these scenarios. Absent that, I am afraid the article, as such, feels misleading, or at least confusing for the general public.

In addition, the article contains a number of claims that are factually wrong, and a number of claims that are, to my knowledge, not substantiated by research.

I was also concerned by the implied claim that this article, being written after interviews with many climate scientists, somehow reflects scientists’ true opinion about global warming. I don’t believe it does. 

Christopher Colose of NASA GISS questioned Wallace-Wells's assertions about the possibility of large quantities of methane being released into the atmosphere as the arctic continues to warm.

There is no evidence that a very abrupt methane source(s) will be readily mobilized into the atmosphere. Such scenarios are not supported by process studies, it is not emerging observationally, and is not borne out paleoclimatically (particularly in the mid-Holocene or Eemian interglacial, where high latitude summers were hotter than today).

In plain English, the latest research doesn't suggest this will happen, field scientists have not seen it happening in the real world, and scientists studying ancient climates can find no evidence of it happening then either. So while it's possible we could see some methane released when the permafrost melts, we are more likely to face, in Colose's words, "a small trickle of CH4" rather than what Wallace-Wells describes as "twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet…partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over."

Wallace-Wells wrote his article because he didn't think people were talking enough about the dangers of the worst-case climate change scenario. He has succeeded in getting people talking, but most of the talk has focused on the exaggerations and inaccuracies of his piece. If he thought presenting a doomsday scenario might inspire people to take action to prevent it, he is likely to be disappointed.

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