Matt Colborn – Wishful thinking and Other Existential Threats

A dispute over extreme climate scenarios

Matt Colbaorn holds an MSc. with Distinction in cognitive science from the University of Birmingham and a D.Phil in biology from the University of Sussex

Cross-posted from Matt’s Substack-Account

IMAGE: Matt Colborn.

For over 75 years now, every January has been marked by a grim festival. This is the Doomsday Clock announcement from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The Doomsday Clock, whose time has been set every year since 1947, warns the public about how close humanity is to destroying itself with “dangerous technologies of our own making.” These dangers include the threat of nuclear war, climate breakdown, pathogens and disruptive technologies. Since 2020, the clock has been set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to doomsday since the clock began.

My bet for this year was that the clock would be moved forward. For a start, the Ukraine war had significantly inflated the threat of nuclear war. The environmental review of 2022 had also been, despite one or two hopeful signs, not good. The Guardian had called 2022 “another mile on the ‘highway to climate hell.’” Emissions were also at a record high. So ten days before the announcement I was surprised to read a piece in the New Scientist suggesting that we perhaps needn’t worry, after all.

Okay, Doomer….

Headline in the New Scientist (14th January 2023): “Why worst-case scenarios are no longer likely.” This headline advertised Graham Lawton’s column (Lawton, 2023). Lawton quotes Roger Pielke, Jr. who claims that worst case scenarios are no longer “even remotely plausible.” (Quoted in Lawton, p. 28). The justification, Pielke claims, is that the Business as Usual scenario (BAU), first discussed in the 2014 IPCC panel report, was implausible in the first place.

The Business as Usual scenario is technically known as RCP8.5. Pielke claims that RCP8.5 has been illegitimately used in the media and in scientific papers to promote alarmism about climate breakdown. He also says that RCP8.5

“wasn’t just a conservative extrapolation of current trends, but a turbocharged one that assumed, for example, that the use of coal would increase fivefold by 2100, with no climate mitigation whatsoever.” (Lawton, 2023, p. 28)

Lawton and Pielke argue that 4 or 5° Cs of warming by 2100 is no longer plausible and was always unlikely. Pielke goes on to claim that “the picture that we paint in terms of science, assessment, policy and journalism is dominated by the extreme scenario.”  (Op cit).

Jem Bendell notes that RCP8.5 has been under fire for some time. In 2020, Zeke Hausfather and Glen Peters also claimed that the scenario had been illegitimately used by the media, as a “likely ‘business as usual’ outcome.” (Hausfather & Peters, 2020). However, the authors of RCP8.5 responded to Hausfather and Peters in a letter written to PNAS. They said that what “matters for the purpose of providing input to climate models…is total atmospheric CO2 content” They also said that there “is no evidence that we have reached peak [emissions from land-use change] or peak deforestation.” (Schwalm, Glendon & Duffy, 2020, p. 27793). In other words, the credibility of Haufather and Peters’ arguments relies upon optimistic predictions about energy and land use in the coming decades. Optimistic predictions that do not look very likely to be fulfilled.

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A Wider Debate

The critics claim that RCP8.5 alone has been used to foster the promotion of “extreme scenarios.” But even without RCP8.5, there’s plenty of independent evidence that extreme climate breakdown scenarios remain a risk. For a start, climate breakdown is hitting us faster than most scientists expected, and may before long exceed our capacity to cope. Kemp et al., 2022a, in a paper titled Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios, state that even “without considering worst-case climate responses, the current trajectory puts the world on track for a temperature rise between 2.1°C and 3.9°C by 2100.” Kemp et al.’s source is an analysis of what needs to happen to meet the Paris targets, which also does not use the RCP8.5 scenario as a basis for its claims (Liu & Raferty, 2021).

Kemp et al. also note that “The IPCC has yet to give focused attention to catastrophic climate change.” So far from overstating the case, the authors of the IPCC have likely understated the dangers that humanity faces later this century. Kemp et al. conclude that:

“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.” (Kemp et al., 2022a)

Roger Pielke along with Matthew Burgess and another author wrote a paper in response to Kemp’s (Burgess, Pielke & Ritchie, 2022). They claimed that, on the contrary, “IPCC reports…overemphasize catastrophic scenarios, as does broader discourse.” (Burgess, Pielke & Ritchie, 2022). They offer a counter-analysis, claiming that “Overemphasized apocalyptic futures can be used to support despotism and rashness.” (Op. cit).

Kemp and colleagues responded, disagreeing that “catastrophic scenarios are already adequately or excessively studied.” (Kemp et al, 2022b)  They also pointed out that “Burgess et al. had conflated “catastrophic climate scenarios with high-end warming scenarios….” They stated that

“High-end warming scenarios are plausible…. while [high-end] anthropogenic emissions…appear unlikely, temperatures consistent with these scenarios could be reached due to stronger than expected Earth system responses or after a longer duration of anthropogenic emissions.” (Kemp et al., 2022b).

What we have here is a conflict of narratives, and some disagreement about what the evidence suggests about the future. For non-experts, judging this sort of conflict can be very tricky. One is bombarded with contradictory analyses, interpretations and even data-sets.

For clarification about the Lawton piece, I asked Bill McGuire, an emeritus professor of Earth Sciences at UCL, for his views. McGuire is the author of a number of books, including Hothouse Earth, which I can recommend as a crucial summary of the dangers we face from climate breakdown. His conclusions about the New Scientist piece were not very flattering, and I will quote them in full.

Bill McGuire, Email, 30th January 2023:

“I have read this now and feel strongly that it presents a dangerous and irrelevant view.”

“On the basis of current policies, we could be on track for a rise as great as 3.6°C, and this is without really considering the effects of poorly constrained tipping points. If the fossil fuel corporations are allowed to burn all identified reserves, this will add 3.5 trillion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, and likely bring a double-figure rise.”

“Does Lawton really think that a projected 30 percent fall in global crop yields by 2050, as the planet’s population increases by half as much again (Chatham House, 2021), means things are ‘not as bad as they appear.’ and that widespread famine, civil unrest and society beginning to unravel, is no big deal?”

“It looks to me as if Lawton has allowed himself to be seduced by someone who has devoted his career to downplaying global heating and resulting climate breakdown.”

Then there’s the question of Lawton’s source: Roger A. Pielke Jr. Pielke, who works at the University of Colorado, has for some time been a contrarian voice in the climate debates. For example in a 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic,” he claimed that there is “scant evidence to indicate that hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought have become more frequent or intense in the U.S. or globally.” The byline claims that he was attacked by “thought police” in journalism, “activist groups funded by billionaires” and “even the White House.” His claim about weather is, however, contradicted by attribution studies, which evaluate the connection between extreme weather and climate breakdown.

The Uses of heresy

By Workshop of Virgil Master – This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.Catalogue entry: Royal MS 20 C vii, Public Domain,

The framing of Pielke as a ‘heretic’ is worth noting. Firstly, being a ‘heretic’ doesn’t necessarily mean that you are right, just as siding with mainstream science doesn’t necessarily mean that you will invariably be wrong. (And vice versa). Only a minority of scientific heretics are comparable to Galileo or Darwin; quite a few turn out to be mistaken.

It is true that academia can be a tough place for people who depart from the consensus positions of their discipline. The website of the sociologist Brian Martin has a catalogue of case-studies showing that a number of dissenting academics over the years have faced attacks, censorship and job-loss. Things can be especially tough for scientific dissenters when disputes are politicised.

However, Brian Martin (personal communication, 2nd February 2023) points out that in many scientific controversies — such as over pesticides, GMOs or microwaves — vested interests and scientific orthodoxy align. This means that dissenters will be opposing both. In that case, the ‘heretic’ label might be justified. In just two major scientific controversies, scientific orthodoxy clashes with vested interests. Those controversies are over tobacco and climate breakdown. Martin points out that in those cases, a scientist who challenges orthodoxy still has the backing of powerful and wealthy groups, so their position will not be nearly as risky, and might be lucrative.

In the case of tobacco and climate breakdown, the ‘heretic’ framing is also, along with arguments about free speech, used as a political weapon. Pielke’s case was cited by the Global Warming Policy Foundation as an example of academic persecution. In a report for the foundation, the journalist Donna Laframboise claimed that Pielke had been ‘hounded’ and that “the climate movement rejects clear thinking. It has little interest in sorting facts from fiction, in ensuring its efforts are based on evidence rather than dogma.” (Laframboise, 2021, p. iv). The movement, claimed Laframboise, directed “hostility and venom” at Pielke for deviating from the established consensus. (Laframboise, 2021, p. iv). She outlined details of a harassment campaign against Pielke, characterising campaigners in the worst terms.

I have little doubt that Laframboise’s views are sincerely held. I also tend to accept the claims about the harassment campaign, which apparently included attempts at “character assassination.” ( Laframboise, 2021, p. 8). However, these attacks are more than mirrored by those on climate scientists. To cite a couple of examples, Kerry Emanuel, an MIT climate scientist, received regular email threats that threatened him and family.  The same article reports that Texas Tech University professor Katharine Hayhoe received plenty of  ‘hostility and venom’ via Social media. Finally, the researchers involved in the ‘climategate’ leaks in 2009 were the targets of robbery and an organized, ongoing attack. Focusing on attacks on climate ‘heretics’ and ignoring those on mainstream climate scientists is a clear double standard.

It’s also fairly clear that such one-sided exposés have ulterior motives. Similar strategies were used in the 1960s by the tobacco industry, when the data about lung cancer emerged. Oreskes and Conway (2011) have documented that the tobacco industry also used ‘heretics’ to promote its interests. And since about 1990, fossil fuel interests have picked up these strategies and run with them. This is why ‘contrarian’ voices in the climate debates can rarely be taken at face value.

Oreskes and Conway, 2011, p. 240:

“…some “sides” represent deliberate disinformation spread by well-organized and well-funded vested interests, or ideologically driven denial of the facts. Even honest people with good intentions may be confused or mistaken about an issue.”

So things are not what they seem. The Global Warming Policy Foundation is a think-tank — or lobby group — based at the notorious 55 Tufton Street in Westminster. 55 Tufton Street is the home to a number of right-wing think tanks that are funded with dark money. And they have a very destructive influence. Advice from 55 Tufton Street is very likely what led Liz Truss to crash the UK economy in September 2022. One of the other functions of these lobby groups is to act as agent provocateurs in the so-called ‘culture wars.’ They form part of a network that propagates mis- and dis- information with the aim of promoting (conservative) liberal, extreme free market values. A report by ISD global notes that this network is used to promote inertia and inactivism

“…using arguments framed as “pro-green” and applying the veneer of fiscal pragmatism, free market logic or concerns about individual liberty to their positions. The result is that environmentalism has gradually become enmeshed in broader identity and grievance politics and emerged as a vital new front in the culture wars.” (King, Janulewicz & Arcostanzo, 2022, p. 7).

The ‘heretic’ framing, as well as a certain kind of free-speech advocacy, is often used in the culture wars. It’s an integral part of grievance politics. The tactic is to use real or imagined controversies to push an agenda that is to the advantage of those funding the think-tanks and lobby groups. The primary targets of this tactic are not the participants in the debates but onlookers — members of the public, policy makers, etc. — who could potentially be swayed by claims of unfair treatment and the advocacy of free speech. Many of us like to think that we are open-minded enough to hear dissenters out. Many of us also dislike the unfair treatment of others. The truly dishonest part of these strategies are that they use this sense of fairness for political leverage.

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