This is an essay that responds critically to the widely read piece in the New York Times that appears to be calming the nerves of climate professionals at COP27 and beyond.
Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership, University of Cumbria, UK
Cross-posted from Jem’s website
In the last couple of years some climatologists have been reassuring us that although the storms, floods, droughts, ice loss and temperature extremes are all worse and sooner than was predicted by the consensus science, the future for humanity might not be as bad as previously predicted. We are told it’s not so bad that it’s already so bad. The scientific basis for such a view was always a bit shaky, partly as it involved speculating that existing trends would not continue, while downplaying how natural feedbacks are already amplifying heating more than previously calculated. But another reason for those reassurances being shaky is that they have relied on the subjective and sometimes arbitrary choices by computer modellers, which are made within a context where colleagues, funders, bureaucrats, politicians and journalists all want to hear findings that they can work with. Instead, if we look at the geological records of past climates with greenhouse gas concentrations like today, we might expect a world average temperature rising from our current 15C to around 18C due to greenhouse gases that humanity has already added to the atmosphere. Or if we simply look at CO2 concentrations over recent years, we are tracking a graph that lands us at between 3.3C to 5.7C of warming by the end of the century, according to the cautious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC). That would mean an uninhabitable Earth for most of the children being born today.
Not cool. So should it come as a surprise that the more reassuring predictions are now being popularised? A few articles have been promoting it, but the one that appears to be influencing some people arriving at COP27, and in the wider field of climate concern, is from David Wallace Wells, in the New York Times. In Beyond Catastrophe, he argues that whereas the bad news is that climate impacts are worse than anticipated and we are heading for a disrupted future, the good news is that both action on climate change and some recalculations mean that the future looks less apocalyptic. I wondered if there was new evidence for this recalibrating of expectations, so I looked at the evidence he uses. Aside from the heartening data and expert opinions he shares on how climate awareness and action has been growing, just three scientific sources are offered for the view that humanity is already acting on climate enough to offer some hope of avoiding catastrophe. In this article I will look at those sources, and compare them with other authoritative analysis, to show that such claims for renewed hope are, sadly, insubstantial. Instead, reframing our situation to offer an emotional escape from the dire reality could be counter-productive, by giving people an excuse for remaining in service of the current systems that are destroying life on Earth. Instead, a more realistic understanding of the tragedy that humanity faces is already producing forms of reassessment and radicalisation that offer a basis for resilient social action in pursuit of lesser dystopias.
What is the evidence supporting the claim that future heating is less worrisome?
David Wallace-Wells cites the estimates of what world temperatures could be in 2100 if all the government commitments are kept to (which they aren’t being) and then compares that to the temperature projections for worst-case greenhouse gas emissions pathways (something called RCP8.5) which he dismisses as unrealistic (by reference to one comment piece), despite it mirroring the current real-world situation. This comparison of future temperatures from unrealistic speculations with the future temperatures from simple extrapolations is not logical, and yet provides the basis for claiming that expected warming has come down by nearly half in 5 years. Which then feeds the argument that apocalyptic scenarios are receding. Which then leads to an enthusiastic discussion of all the great activity that has been occurring. Which then leads to an attempt to define the boundaries of what is a credible stance on climate, including for activists.
Meanwhile, back in reality, the IPCC already provided a view on the likelihood of different future scenarios, as noted in a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “Both of the high-emission pathways considered in the IPCC’s most recent Working Group I report contain 4°C increases in the “very likely” range for 2081 through 2100, a level of heating that many scientists regard as a significant threat to civilization.” Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario for greenhouse gas concentrations (RCP8.5) is the best match to the cumulative emissions from 2005 to 2020. That’s unmitigated bad news.
Let’s have a closer look at the comment article which Wallace-Wells cites to establish a critical view of the worst-case scenarios on future emissions and their associated temperature impacts. That article claims that RCP8.5 “paints a dystopian future that is fossil-fuel intensive and excludes any climate mitigation policies…” That is not completely true, as RCP8.5 could occur even with cuts in human-caused emissions if they were overridden by amplifying natural feedbacks, for instance methane release from melting permafrost. The comment article mentions that possibility without responding to it other than saying it is better to avoid being “defeatist”. The arguments they make for avoiding worst-case scenarios are the decline of coal use and the cheapening of renewable energy. However, energy markets are often difficult to forecast, as the resurgence of coal use to an all-time high in 2021 illustrates. That is something the New York Times article also ignores. Also overlooked is the experience of decades of climate pledges not being translated into effective and timely policies. Combined with the rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that simply kills the argument that humanity has made significant progress in outcomes, rather than activities.
In a reply to the commentary, also published in the PNAS, the authors wrote that the IPCC’s worst-case scenario “is neither problematic nor misleading.” They point out that the assertions are easily falsified on the basis of recent experience:
“There is no evidence that we have reached peak [emissions] or peak deforestation. Consider a 2015 assertion that deforestation had peaked in 2012 only for that “peak” value to now have been exceeded in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 for tree cover loss and primary forest lost globally. A future downward trend in [emissions] is at odds with observational evidence and emerging geopolitical drivers.”
The data has been stacking up in favour of their concerns. Using high-resolution satellite datasets, one study found a doubling of carbon emissions from tropical forest loss over the past decade. These trends have not been explicitly factored into recent assessments, including the IPCC’s latest report. An even greater concern is that major forests will flip from being sinks or absorbers of CO2 to sources, due to forest fires and drying soils. That is why it is so concerning that another study reported on “direct empirical evidence that the Amazon rainforest is losing resilience, risking dieback with profound implications for biodiversity, carbon storage and climate change at a global scale.”
No wonder then that the scientists who criticised the commentary that Wallace-Wells used to base his “Beyond Catastrophe” dismissal of worst-case scenarios, concluded that “what is known about biotic feedbacks, our current path, and the [lack of] success of past forecasts to anticipate human behavior, [the IPCC worst case scenario of] RCP8.5 is the preferred choice for assessing the climate humans currently live in and is the best tool for assessing the risks to come through mid-century.”
These critiques demonstrate that the belief we might have less potential devastation is not a finding based on new data and science, but conversely it is using assumptions from two decades ago and ignores troubling new data. It is a view that requires putting the minor breakthroughs in the conference halls and boardrooms above what is already being measured as happening in our environment.
Now let’s have a closer look at the basis for claiming that if all government commitments are delivered, that the world might only heat up to between 2 and 3 degrees. To support that view, Wallace-Wells links to the Climate Action Tracker website, which provides outputs from their use of one climate model – the wonderfully named MAGICC model. That is a credible source within climatology. One might conclude, therefore, that the only ‘mistake’ in Wallace-Wells argument is to consider governments delivering on their promises as something to take seriously. If those commitments are as much garbage as they have been in the past, then the model will have ‘garbage in, garbage out’. However, there are further problems with being so confident about what models say, and it is not something unique to Wallace-Wells. Rather, it is an issue for the whole field of climatology.
Computer models have achieved such status in modern society that they are regarded as some kind of oracle in the field of climate science and policy. Yet the problem with relying on modelling is both the limited capacity for any of them to map complex and synchronous interactions in the natural environment, and the subjectivity involved in what to include and how. Some data that is included in the models require major leaps of faith. Specifically the lower emission scenarios modelled for the IPCC involve more than phasing out fossil fuels: they also assume the roll-out of negative emissions technologies that are suspect on both economic and technological grounds. Magicc in, Magicc out.
The subjectivity involved in the use of models reveals itself clearly when those models produce findings that are too awkward for the professionals who want to carry on as normal. For instance, when the very latest models were predicting hotter, faster and more destabilising outcomes from greenhouse gases than the older models. In response, a group of leading scientists suggested dropping the ‘hottest’ models and weighting them by how well they compared relative to other metrics. This example also shows us the key role of the selection of findings from model simulations prior to conclusions that feed into policy discussions. That is relevant to the issue of how much ‘committed warming’ there is due to existing greenhouse gas emissions, which also deserves a brief mention as we try to make sense of the level of concern we should have about potential catastrophic futures.
Whatever humanity does from now on, there is a significant amount of global warming ahead. Study of the paleontological records show that the last time there was over 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere the global average temperature was about 3 degrees higher than now. Clearly the world is different now to then, but it could be reckless to assume the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gases is much less today. The IPCC doesn’t include committed warming in its assessments because the various models that analyse it have projected varying amounts. A further study on that issue continued to find that models produce a variety of projections and thus no change was recommended by the IPCC in its guidance to policy makers. That was presented by some top climatologists as good news that the future will not warm as much as previously thought. That was a misleading claim, and crucial for our understanding of the situation, and so I examined it in some detail earlier this year.
What is the United Nations saying now?
In his article, David Wallace-Wells claims that the view that the worst-case scenarios are less likely is backed up by the latest UN report, and links to an NYT article on it. Looking at the report itself, the text to support that claim is the following:
“Taking into account [anticipated] implementation of NDCs [which are limits on Nationally Determined Contributions to greenhouse gases] up until 2030, projected global mean temperatures are subject to significant uncertainty… The best estimate of peak temperature in the twenty-first century (projected mostly for 2100 when temperature continues to rise) is in the range of 2.1–2.9 °C depending on the underlying assumptions… Assuming full implementation of NDCs, including all conditional elements, the best estimate for peak global mean temperature is 2.1–2.4 °C.”
Setting aside the problematic reliance on computer modelling alone, here we see that the estimate of 2.1–2.9°C is assuming full implementation of NDCs up to 2030. Which we have little evidence to be confident about. In any case, the key headline here is that even with full implementation of all NDCs, the planet is expected to warm over 2°C above pre-industrial levels so that there will be more amplifying feedbacks and catastrophic impacts – something the world’s top climatologists have warned us for decades. Looking at the footnote on “underlying assumptions” we see something else concerning:
“For the full implementation of NDCs (including all conditional elements), the 5–95 percentile uncertainty range (that includes both emission and climate uncertainties) covers 1.5–3.5 °C. For the scenarios assuming implementation of only unconditional elements of NDCs, the 5–95 percentile uncertainty range covers 1.8–4.3°C.”
Many readers would reasonably discount the edges of these assessments as highly unlikely. Others amongst you might consider that a civilisation-ending 4.3°C warming is something we don’t want to see within the range of possibility. In any case, as the rest of the UN report notes, neither scenario of NDC implementation is underway, rendering these calculations somewhat delusional. Instead, what is crucial in their report is they predict that global CO2 emissions will go up 10.6% by 2030, compared to 2010. That’s barely any better than previous expectations and nothing compared the 45% cut by 2030, and starting a few years ago, that was previously assessed as essential to avoid catastrophic changes. Therefore, it is difficult to see how a robust argument can be made that humanity has “cut expected warming almost in half in just 5 years,” as Wallace-Wells states. Instead, we are still on track for the worst-case warming scenarios. Although it would be a relief for the climate tragedy to morph into a potential climate victory, the three main scientific sources used in his New York Times article (rather than quotes from interviews) do not offer firm foundations for a reassurance that humanity is making a significant dent on the climate crisis.
In summary, it appears there could be a division emerging between those scientists who prefer to stick to the normal approach of extrapolation to assess what the future might be, and those who believe speculation on various changes provides a basis for significant claims about the future. Extrapolation of current trends in emissions and atmospheric concentrations takes us up to between 3.3C and 5.7C by the end of the century. Hopeful speculation, including some rather magical thinking about effectiveness of negative emissions technologies, and all governments delivering on promises that might even be beyond them to achieve, claims that is could be something nearer to half of that increase. Such speculation that things will change in unprecedented ways is not something that can be tested in normal scientific ways. Because it is not falsifiable. As guesswork and wishful thinking, the speculations are shaped by ideology and, in some cases, potential conflicts of interest due to working on related technologies and business interests. But as extrapolation points towards extermination, it is obvious why such speculation becomes so attractive. But I don’t see why it is claimed to be as scientific. And I don’t see any justification for why the extrapolators are subjected to accusations of being either unscientific or unhelpful. It would be helpful, therefore, if as many climatologists critiqued overly hopeful misreadings of the science as publicly as they current critique what they consider to be overly negative misreadings.
A hidden story is the increasing scientific engagement with bad-to-worst scenarios
A story that I have not seen hit the mass media just yet is how more scientists are calling for more engagement with the bad-to-worst scenarios of climate change and the implications for societal breakdowns. For instance, in mid-2022 there was some kerfuffle about a PNAS study entitled “Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios”, wherein an interdisciplinary team of eminent scientists concluded:
“There is ample evidence that climate change could become catastrophic. We could enter such “endgames” at even modest levels of warming. Understanding extreme risks is important for robust decision-making, from preparation to consideration of emergency responses. This requires exploring not just higher temperature scenarios but also the potential for climate change impacts to contribute to systemic risk and other cascades. We suggest that it is time to seriously scrutinize the best way to expand our research horizons to cover this field. The proposed “Climate Endgame” research agenda provides one way to navigate this under-studied area. Facing a future of accelerating climate change while blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk management at best and fatally foolish at worst.”
Writing an opinion for PNAS on “Climate change and the threat to civilization” other scientists concluded that: “There is, in sum, no solid basis at present for dismissing the broken world and global collapse as too unlikely to merit serious consideration. Given the moral and practical importance of these scenarios, we believe that science should endeavor to learn more about mechanisms that might lead to them.” In agreement, a group of eminent scientists published in the Bioscience journal a World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2022. They write that “The consequences of global heating are becoming increasingly extreme, and outcomes such as global societal collapse are plausible and dangerously underexplored.”
In mentioning the implications of global heating for potential societal collapse, these scientists are following up the previous calls from hundreds of scholars from dozens of countries on the matter. The Scholars’ Warning on Societal Disruption and Collapse was issued in November 2020, and requests more attention to not only the study of collapse scenarios, but being straight with the public and policy makers than this is a plausible future and inviting exploration of what might be done about it.
Even without these analyses, the disruption to life at existing levels of climate change suggest that the future is worse than previously predicted. Wallace-Wells notes that in his article without going into the full implications. For instance, there will be a spike in heating from cleaning up the air due to a transition off fossil fuels. Estimates vary, but it could lead to a rapid 0.5C degree rise in global average temperatures. Dr Ye Tao analysed the impacts of lockdowns on higher urban temperatures from cleaner air, to conclude that the new heat extremes in poor urban areas will threaten life and livelihoods. His recommendation, therefore, is to urgently work on localised solar radiation management – something on the fringes of the mainstream climate agenda. Such impacts are even before considering all the intersecting and amplifying crises that global heating relates to, such as food, water, finance, political strife and conflict. Whether any breakdowns in industrial consumer societies would lead to more or less global heating is extremely difficult to predict, and so there is no simple silver lining from collapse scenarios either.
Beyond climate brightsiding
You might be wondering what is the point of criticising how some people want to find hope in our relationship to climate change? One reason is that false hopes could put emissions cuts above all other considerations, in ways that could backfire through greater destruction of the biosphere. Switching the energy sources that power destructive industrial consumer societies not only continues the destruction of the biosphere, it opens new fronts in capitalism’s assault on the environment. Another reason is that it might take away time to prepare for what is unfolding and to come. Thirdly, it avoids a deeper reckoning. One that questions the entire systems of knowledge and progress that caused the predicament in the first place.
Therefore, the new story that ‘climate change is worse than we thought but won’t be as bad as we thought’ can be regarded as a form of climate brightsiding. People are encouraged to doubt what they think they know about global heating in order to ‘stay positive.’ The hope we are encouraged to have is one of being saved by the experts, with their technology and capital, while we all remain calm and obedient to authority. Although we often hear the argument that to anticipate bad-to-worst case scenarios will undermine action, there is very little evidence for that view and much psychological and sociological research to suggest otherwise. It is why Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau describes it as a misplaced positivity that reflects privilege and marginalises attention to matters such as reparations for the loss and damage experienced by people across the global South. Instead, that deeper reckoning is needed.
Speaking privately, most people who have worked on climate issues for decades tell me what has been happening. As the emissions curve is not reduced, and real-world data becomes more scary, while commitments are not kept and targets are missed, so the whole profession of climate concern develops new stories for managing their emotions and keeping the ‘show on the road’. Back in May 1992 when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was formed, 178 member states unanimously agreed to bring CO2 emissions down to 1990 levels of 354 parts per million by 2000. Annual emissions have climbed 65% since then. Then the world’s top climatologists wrote in 2009 that if global emissions had not peaked by 2020 then we would face inevitable catastrophic changes. In case you missed it, annual emissions reached a record high in 2021. And so, as expected, now we see attempts at a further reframing of the situation, despite the impacts being apparent to us. This demonstrates that for the professional class, reality must not get in the way of maintaining the stories of modernity such as human progress and control.
When David Wallace-Wells shares his belief that we have “an enormous amount of control” over future climate outcomes, he is momentarily ignoring how any heating above about 2 degrees will increase the number and intensity of amplifying feedbacks which are so complex that predictions can never be taken as certainties, especially as the feedbacks could cascade into each other. When he argues such a belief in human control motivates more climate action, he appears to be making an assumption of consequentialist ethics: that we justify doing something because of a confidence that we can achieve an intended material outcome. Whereas there will always be some consequentialist assessment of what is right or wrong to do, it is a habit of modern culture to assume that constitutes the sum total of our motivations.
That habit is widespread within the profession working on climate change. The excuses for the constant reframing of the situation that I hear from the climate scientists I speak with reflects their attachment to specific cultural norms about hope and progress. When I press them on the implications of the latest data, it becomes apparent that they want to maintain their existing worldview, identity, status, calm, and meaning. That is true even for the ones who are most troubled by the situation. Sometimes there can even be some anger towards people who are heard describing a different reality that challenges a climate professional’s identity. Because the subtext is that they are being told: your worldview was wrong, your identity was a lie, your status was a sham, your work was futile, your calm was a delusion, and your meaning was unsustainable. That is what all of us who have worked on this topic for decades are now having to face. Allowing the possibility for what some psychologists call a ‘positive disintegration’ of self is something that many scientists seek to avoid, but which can be powerfully reorienting.
So whenever we hear a version of the story that “it’s not so bad that it’s already got so bad,” let’s take a moment to ask ourselves: what else would we expect the people working in establishment institutions to say at a time like this? Just when the devastation is becoming all-too apparent. How many professionals would retain their jobs if telling the public that because it’s already so bad, that condemns the dominant systems and institutions, so people should no longer respect the professional class and institutions that they are part of?
Fortunately, already many of us know that there is a post-hope and radicalised response to the situation, where we seek to reduce harm, uphold values and find meaning within the unfolding disaster. That is why Dr Ye Tao, Dr Nyambura Mbau and I are launching a Scholars’ Oath to the Future at COP27. It is signed by over 100 scholars who are apologising for our past compromises and now committing to more radical honesty and engagement with younger people in our work. There are myriad ways of engaging from this moment on, locally and globally, practically and politically, once we break free from the limitations of the culture that generated this tragedy.