The Media is Failing Us on Climate Change

What you’ve heard about the new IPCC report is highly misleading.

A week ago, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “Global Warming of 1.5o C” came out, we got more than a lesson on climate change. We also got a lesson in what’s wrong with mainstream media coverage of climate change.

CNN’s headline was typical: “Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn“. The corresponding article had all the standard elements of climate-change coverage: a collection of threats (hotter heat waves, more extreme rainfall, more intense droughts, coral reefs dying off), a date when they’ll come due (2030), and a list of things the experts want done to avoid them (move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and develop technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere).

The problem with that article isn’t that it misstated any facts. But framing the situation in that way makes scientists sound like comic-book terrorists: “Do what we want by our deadline or the Earth is finished.”

The usual coverage invites the usual responses from those committed to denial, like this one from National Review:

Those working to raise awareness about climate change have a problem. While most Americans believe global warming is occurring and think human activities are causing it, fewer than half think it will pose a serious threat to the planet in their lifetimes.

So what do those seeking drastic change do? They publish predictions of imminent catastrophe based on computer models, threatening doom and gloom unless dramatic measures are taken immediately. When that fails, they change the deadline and try again. … Now the IPCC tells us we have until 2030, but the longer period to take action is accompanied by heightened predictions of calamities.

How the report comes to be. When you tell the story of the report from the beginning, though, it actually isn’t anything like that.

The story starts in Paris in December, 2015, when 195 nations made commitments to take action against climate change. (The US was one of the 195, but President Trump renounced the agreement in June, 2017.) The Paris Agreement recognized that global warming of 2o C above pre-industrial levels would have unacceptable consequences, and instead set a goal of trying to keep the increase down to 1.5o C. The report’s FAQ says:

With the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] invited the IPCC to provide a Special Report in 2018 on ‘the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emissions pathways’. The request was that the report, known as SR1.5, should not only assess what a 1.5°C warmer world would look like but also the different pathways by which global temperature rise could be limited to 1.5°C.

This report addresses that goal from two sides: What would the world have to do to meet the goal? And how much damage will the climate and the biosphere suffer even if we do?

Global warming is not a bomb. The biggest problem with the usual climate-change media coverage is that our standard metaphor for a future crisis — a ticking bomb — is completely wrong. Climate change is not something that will happen all at once at some point in the future; its negative effects won’t “go off” when some timer ticks down to zero. Instead, climate change is a process we are already in the middle of; negative effects — like this week’s devastation of the Florida panhandle — are already happening.

A better analogy might be smoking. Imagine you’re a heavy-smoking 25-year-old. You’re probably already seeing some effects: You get winded more easily, climbing stairs is harder, and so on. But you can live with that. Then your doctor tells you that if you keep smoking, your odds of dying before you’re 60 go up by X per cent. It might be a heart attack or lung cancer or something else, but your odds of dying go up.

Notice what he didn’t say: He didn’t say that you have until you’re 60 to change your ways. Age 60 is a somewhat arbitrary reference point that makes the situation quantifiable. The direst consequences of your smoking may hit when you’re 60, or sometime before or after that. In the meantime, the lesser effects you’ve already been seeing will get worse. And there’s a time lag: The cigarette you smoke tomorrow might (or might not) be the one that gives you cancer when you’re 57. Quitting before the cancer hits doesn’t mean it won’t hit.

On the other hand, if you quit now and exercise to get your wind back, your heart will likely regain its strength and your lungs might clear themselves out before anything happens that is significantly worse than the effects you can already see.

Climate change is like that; there are time lags all over the place. Every time a new investment is made in fossil fuel infrastructure — a new coal mine, a new oil well, a new pipeline — that’s an economic commitment to keep burning fossil fuels far into the future. And once a molecule of CO2 (or some other greenhouse gas) gets into the atmosphere, it’s likely to stay there for a long time. Yale Climate Connections reports on what would happen to the CO2 in the atmosphere if we went cold turkey on fossil fuels.

Using a combination of various methods, researchers have estimated that about 50 percent of the net anthropogenic pulse would be absorbed in the first 50 years, and about 70 percent in the first 100 years. Absorption by sinks slows dramatically after that, with an additional 10 percent or so being removed after 300 years and the remaining 20 percent lasting tens if not hundreds of thousands of years before being removed.

Putting that another way, emissions from the Model T’s of the 1920s are still affecting the climate today. About half of the CO2 I produced while driving to the grocery yesterday will still be warming the planet in 2068.

Some effects have longer time lags than others. If we manage to stabilize the climate at some level, for example, the heat waves and droughts might stabilize as well, and the world could adjust to a new normal in that regard. But if that stabilizing point is too high, the melting of the world’s ice might continue for some while and sea levels would keep rising.

So we don’t have until 2030 to change our ways. The whole notion that we have until the Year Y to take action completely misses the point.

Where we are in the process. The first thing the IPCC had to do was define its reference points. Like: What does “pre-industrial levels” mean? It settled on 1850-1900, which may seem a little late, given how much coal-burning industry already existed in 1850. The FAQ explains that the reference point had to be an era with temperature measurements from all over the world. (Picking an earlier period, like the 1750s, would mean using mainly European data. The results might get biased by purely local effects.) The FAQ picks up the story there:

In the decade 2006–2015, warming reached 0.87°C (±0.12°C) relative to 1850–1900, predominantly due to human activity increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Given that global temperature is currently rising by 0.2°C (±0.1°C) per decade, human-induced warming reached 1°C above pre-industrial levels around 2017 and, if this pace of warming continues, would reach 1.5°C around 2040.

But don’t forget Paris. Every major nation in the world (but the US) has made a commitment to emit less carbon than it otherwise would have. Those commitments were voluntary, based more on what the local politics could sustain rather than what the problem required. (Apparently, US politics can’t sustain any action at all, so Trump pulled out of the agreement rather than revise our commitments under it.)

Different groups of researchers around the world have analysed the combined effect of adding up all the NDCs [nationally defined contributions under the Paris Agreement]. Such analyses show that current pledges are not on track to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If current pledges for 2030 are achieved but no more, researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C. This, in turn, suggests that with the national pledges as they stand, warming would exceed 1.5°C, at least for a period of time, and practices and technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a global scale would be required to return warming to 1.5°C at a later date.

Plans to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the report notes, have not scaled up well so far. (It’s easier to plant a tree than to regrow a forest.) So relying on them is speculative; maybe something practical will develop and maybe it won’t.

One example of a [carbon dioxide removal] method in the demonstration phase is a process known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), in which atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by plants and trees as they grow, and then the plant material (biomass) is burned to produce bioenergy. The CO2 released in the production of bioenergy is captured before it reaches the atmosphere and stored in geological formations deep underground on very long timescales. Since the plants absorb CO2 as they grow and the process does not emit CO2, the overall effect can be to reduce atmospheric CO2.

Given the time lags involved in reducing CO2 through natural means, though, if we blow through the 1.5°C mark the only practical way to get back to it in any reasonable length of time involves some kind of CO2 removal process, or “negative emissions”, as they put it. That speculative technology, then, is what we’ll have to count on if nations don’t make more aggressive commitments than the ones in the Paris Agreement.

How bad is 1.5°C? Much of the report compares 1.5°C warming to 2°C, and unsurprisingly finds that 1.5°C is better. But, to return to the smoking analogy, it’s like comparing quitting smoking at 45 with quitting at 60. The statistics of the risk change, but the kinds of things at risk mostly don’t. Sea levels will rise, but not as far. Weather will get more violent, but not as much. Species will go extinct, but not as many.

Much of what is at risk depends on processes we don’t fully understand. So, for example, higher global temperatures will change weather patterns. But nobody can pinpoint a temperature at which, say, Kansas becomes a desert. National Post reports on the “climate apocalypse” talk:

A lot of the press coverage on the new report has liberally employed terms like “nightmare,” “apocalypse,” or “a world on fire.” The IPCC report contains plenty of dire scenarios of a 2 degree world: Death of the world’s coral reefs, an extra 300 million exposed to crop failures, deadly heat waves becoming an annual occurrence in South Asia. Climate change could undo decades of progress on improving human welfare, but it’s not an existential threat to the species. Even unchecked climate change is not on the scale of a nuclear holocaust; its costs are more akin to a couple world wars and global pandemics. The most dire images come from a section where report authors imagine a world in which humanity has made almost no attempt to curb emissions. By the year 2100 the world “is no longer recognizable, with decreasing life expectancy, reduced outdoor labour productivity, and lower quality of life in many regions because of too frequent heatwaves and other climate extremes.”

Where does 2030 come from? We’re on pace to breech 1.5°C in 2040, so why is everybody talking about 2030? Time lags.

If current pledges for 2030 are achieved but no more, researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C. …

A world that is consistent with holding warming to 1.5°C would see greenhouse gas emissions rapidly decline in the coming decade, with strong international cooperation and a scaling up of countries’ combined ambition beyond current NDCs. In contrast, delayed action, limited international cooperation, and weak or fragmented policies that lead to stagnating or increasing greenhouse gas emissions would put the possibility of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels out of reach.

Should we believe the IPCC? In a word: Yes. They’re not infallible prophets, but they do represent the consensus of the world scientific community.

Climate-change skeptics try to paint the argument as he-said/she-said, with vested interests lining up on both sides. But in fact, the overwhelming vested interest is on the climate-change-denial side: Fossil fuels in the ground represent literally trillions of dollars on the books of fossil-fuel corporations. If that coal and oil and natural gas can’t be burned, some of the world’s largest corporations — not to mention governments like Saudi Arabia or Russia — are insolvent.

Within the scientific community, motives are split. Some scientists have staked their reputations on climate change, but no one really wants to believe their grandchildren face some hellish future. A climate scientist who could make a genuinely persuasive case in the other direction would be celebrated. Fossil fuel companies would create institutes from thin air, if necessary, to fund his or her research.

That’s why, when you push hard on the question of climate-change-believing vested interests, denialists eventually resort to some version of the Global Socialist Conspiracy.

Global warming is not about science, but about politics — that is, about expanding the power of elites using the coercive instruments of government to control the lives of people everywhere. Just as the governing class embraces ineffective Keynesian stimulus spending to justify expansion of government, they now extol [anthropogenic global warming] as the basis for increasing their power to rule over the rest of us.

Why scientists around the world are more committed to expanding the coercive power of elites than to finding scientific truth is never fully explained. What’s more, promoters of this theory deny the obvious: If you have a genuine scientific case that global warming isn’t happening (or is going to level off on its own, without any changes in public policy), trillions of dollars in otherwise stranded assets are waiting to support you.

Techniques of denial. If you’re a fossil-fuel company and you want to keep selling your product, you don’t have to convince people that climate change isn’t happening, you just have to spread doubt and rely on the human tendency to resist change.

And here’s where our smoking metaphor does double duty: The techniques for spreading doubt about science go back to the tobacco companies, who wanted to create just enough doubt about the cigarette/cancer link that people who wanted to keep smoking could talk themselves out of quitting. (A lot of those doubtful people, I will point out, died. But they bought a lot of cigarettes before they did.) You can see echoes in that National Review quote above.

For example, back in the 60s and 70s, tobacco-company-funded groups like the Tobacco Institute would say that the cigarette/cancer link was just “statistical”, implying that statistics was some kind of voodoo science not worth your notice. National Review is repeating a similar fossil-fuel industry talking point when it refers contemptuously to “computer models”.

Like statistics, computer modeling is something the average person doesn’t understand, and so it is a good target for unscrupulous people who want to sow doubt. But computer modeling is how we predict almost anything complicated these days. Predictions of hurricane tracks, for example, are based on computer models.

And yes, a dishonest programmer can make a computer spit out anything he or she wants. But that’s why the scientific community has processes for assessing claims. Something like the IPCC report doesn’t come from just one guy with an iMac. Each claim has been examined by dozens, sometimes hundreds or thousands, of scientists who are trained to look for mistakes or fraud in this particular area. They come from countless institutions in 195 countries. No vested interest ties them all together. The vested interest, recall, lies with the trillions of dollars at risk for the fossil-fuel industry.

What’s the overall message of the report? The commitments nations made in the Paris Agreement are steps in the right direction, but they aren’t adequate. If that’s all the world does, 1.5°C will be locked in by 2030, even if it won’t show up until 2040 or so. To avoid 1.5°C, we have to phase out fossil fuels far more quickly.

What you won’t find in the report is a safe zone, a line in the sand that tells us how far we can go. Where we are now isn’t “safe”, it’s just less risky than where we’re headed.

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  •  On October 16, 2018 at 1:18 am

    Yes, Jan, I did get the birthday card, and Gregg is coming over thursday for lunch and a cat visit! Hugs, Audrey Brooks


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