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Our Aversion to Doom and Gloom Is Dooming Us

John Atcheson, Common Dreams, Jul 24 2017 - 13:15

I worked for over 35 years in the environmental field, and one of the central debates I encountered was whether to "tell it like it is," and risk spreading doom and gloom, or to focus on a more optimistic message, even when optimism wasn't necessarily warranted.

The optimists nearly always won this debate. For the record, I was—and am—a doom and gloomer.  Actually, I like to think I'm a realist. I believe that understating the problems we face leads to understated—and inadequate responses.  I also believe that people, when dealt with honestly, have responded magnificently, and will do so again, if and when called. Witness World War II, for example, when Churchill told the Brits, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat." In those words, he helped ignite one of the most noble and dedicated periods of unity and resistance in all the annals of human endeavor.

Finally, I believe that the principles of risk management dictate that when the consequences of our actions —or our inactions—are pervasive, long lasting, irreversible and potentially devastating, we should assume worst-case outcomes.  That's why people get health insurance; it’s why they purchase insurance for their homes; it’s why they get life insurance. No one assumes they’ll get sick, that their house will burn down, or that they’re about to die, but it makes sense to hedge against these events.  It’s why we build in huge margins of safety when we design bridges or airplanes. You can’t undo an airplane crash, or reverse a bridge failure.

And you can't restore a livable climate once it's been compromised.  Not in anything other than geologic timeframes.

Yet we routinely understate the threat that climate change poses, and reject attempts to characterize the full extent of the potential for catastrophe it poses. And it's killing us.

David Wallace-Wells' recent article in the New York magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth, is a case in point.  It was an attempt to describe the worst-case scenario for climate change.  Here's the opening sentences to give you an idea of what Mr. Wallace-Wells had to say:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. 

Predictably, a large part of the scientific community reacted with hostility, and environmentalists were essentially silent. For example, Climate Feedback published a critique of Wallace-Well's article by sixteen climate scientists, leading with Michael Mann, originator of the famous hockey stick, which graphically showed how rapidly the Earth was warming. Here’s part of what Dr. Mann had to say:

The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.

The last part of Dr. Mann's statement may explain the real reason the environmental and scientific communities reacted so hostilely to Wallace-Well's article, and why they generally avoid gloom and doom, even when the news is gloomy—the notion that presenting information that details just how bad climate change could be, leads to "paralysis."

This, together with scientists' tendency to stick to the most defensible positions and the scenarios that are accepted by the mainstream—what climate scientist James Hansen calls dangerous scientific reticence—probably explain why the scientific community has tended to understate the threat of climate change, although few would describe Dr. Mann as reticent.

And it should be noted that Mr. Wallace-Well's did overstate some of the science. For example, given out current understanding of methane and carbon releases from permafrost, it appears as though it would take much longer to play out than Wallace-Wells suggested, although it likely would add as much as 2°C to projected warming by 2100. But for the most part, he simply took worst-case forecasts and used them. As Dr. Benjamin Horton—one of the scientists commenting on the Wallace-Wells article put it, "Most statements in the article are based on peer-reviewed literature."

One of the reason worst-case projections seem so dire, is that the scientific community—and especially the IPCC—has been loath to use them. For the record, ex-ante analysis of previous forecasts with actual changes show a trend that is nearer to—or worse than—the worst-case forecasts than they are to the mid-range.

The article also forecast some of the social, demographic, and security consequences of climate change that can’t be scientifically verified, but which comport with projections made by our own national security experts.

For example, in this years' Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, climate change was identified as a "threat multiplier" and Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, said in testimony presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in May of this year:

Climate change influences the entire geostrategic landscape. In that sense, one could  walk through the entire threat assessment report and identify ways in which climate  change will intersect with nearly every risk identified, and in most cases, make them worse.

Director Coats specifically highlighted health security, terrorism and nuclear proliferation as threats that climate change would exacerbate. This is coming from the Trump administration, which has been censoring climate-related information coming out of NOAA and EPA.  It’s a measure of how seriously the national security community takes the threat of climate change that they fought to keep the issue above the political fray.

Yet here again, the scientific community took issue with these claims, because they were conjecture.  Never mind that those whose job it is to assess these kinds of risks found the forecasts likely and actionable. Scientists want data and the certainty it brings, not extrapolation.

So what's the gap between future worst-case and the more typically used mid-range projections the media and scientists favor?  It's huge, and consequential.  I've pointed out some of the risky—if not absurd—assumptions  underlying the Paris Agreement in the past, but let's briefly outline some numbers that highlight the difference between what's typically discussed in the media, with projections based on worst-case—but entirely plausible—forecasts.

After Paris, there was a lot of attention paid to two targets: a limit of less than 2°C warming, and a more aggressive limit of no more than 1.5°C warming.  What was less well known and discussed was the fact that the Agreement would have only limited warming to 3.5°C by 2100, using the IPCC's somewhat optimistic assumptions.

What is virtually unknown by most of the public and undiscussed by scientists and the media is that even before the US dropped out of the Treaty, the worst-case temperature increase under the Treaty could have been nearly twice that.

Here’s why.

As noted, the 3.5°C figure had a number of conservative assumptions built into it, including the fact that there is a 34 percent chance that warming will exceed that, and the idea that we could pass on the problem to our children and their children by assuming that they would create an as yet unknown technology that would extract massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in a cost-effective way, and safely and permanently sequester it, thus allowing us to exceed the targets for a limited amount of time. 

But the fact is, some projections found that temperature increase resulting from meeting the Paris targets would exceed 4°C by 2100, even if we continued to make modest progress after meeting them – something the Treaty doesn’t require. The IPCC forecasts also ignored feedbacks, and research shows that just 3 of these will add another 2.5°C of warming by 2100, bringing the total to more than 6.5°C (or nearly 12°F). At this point, we're talking about trying to live on an essentially alien planet.

Finally, there's evidence that the Earth's natural sinks are being compromised by the warming that's happened so far, and this means that more of what we emit will remain in the atmosphere, causing it to warm much more than the IPCC models have forecasted. This could (not would) make Wallace-Well's thesis not only plausible, but likely.

But rather than discussing these entirely plausible forecasts, the media, environmentalists and too many scientists, would rather focus on a more optimistic message, and avoid "doom and gloom."

What they're actually doing is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with our children's future with two bullets in the chamber. Yes, the odds are that it won't go off, but is this the kind of risk we should be taking with our progeny's future?

There is something paternalistic and elitist about this desire to spare the poor ignorant masses the gory details.  It is condescending at best, self-defeating at worst.  After all, if the full nature of the challenge we face is not known, we cannot expect people take the measures needed to meet it.

I believe now, and I have always believed, that humans are possessed with an inherent wisdom, and that, given the right information, they will make the right choices. 

As an aside, Trump is now President because the Democrats followed the elitist and paternalistic path of not trusting the people – that and their decision to put corporate interests above the interests of citizens. 

Watching Sanders stump against the Republican's immoral tax cut for the rich disguised as a health care bill, shows the power of a little honest doom and gloom.

We could use a lot more of it across the political spectrum.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track. It is available in hardcover now, and the ebook will be available shortly. Follow him on Twitter:@john_atcheson