When serious people try to gauge the probable effects of climate change, they have to make some assumptions.
For example, when Nicholas Stern tried it on behalf of the UK government, one of his assumptions was that the population would rise to about 15 billion souls. That would imply higher emissions than those using lower population estimates. Stern also mixed up Robert Muir Woods’ estimates of weather-related catastrophes, which also pushed up his damage estimates.
Stern came to the conclusion that temperature rises of 5-6C this century were quite likely, which is higher than most mainstream estimates. As a result, he predicted economic losses of 5% of GDP annually, starting in 2006 and lasting forever. That is a serious problem. It is not a catastrophe. In fact, it’s 11 years later and we see no sign of it having happened to date.
Some have predicted up to 100 million climate change refugees. But they predicted 25 million of them would have fled their home by the end of the Nineties. There were none. There still are none. And so it goes.
Now we have an article in New York Magazine walking through all the apocalyptic scenarios that have been trotted out since 1998. Scientists are falling over themselves to distance themselves from the article and its predictions. Read here to see Michael Mann dismiss the article. If it’s too much for Michael Mann…
Those who read this will quickly note a few things. For me, the first is that it doesn’t list its assumptions. So it’s kind of hard to take it seriously, although the media and blogosphere are using it as our latest version of the Rorschach Test.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change actually wrote quite a bit about the impacts of future climate change. A summary is here, including links to the IPCC documents. Spoiler alert–It does not predict catastrophe.
Well, all that is background to what I want to write about.
When you use the term CAGW in blog conversations about climate, some from the consensus brigade will confront you about the ‘C.’ Scientists, they say, don’t use the term catastrophe in connection with climate change. Actually, some do–but to be honest, it’s mostly bloggers, commenters and people from green NGOs that abuse the word and deserve the ‘C.’ Most scientists don’t associate climate change with catastrophe. For this we should thank them–and we should listen to them.
Sober calculations of potential impacts result in predictions of 5% increase in precipitation (without specifying where this will occur), regional increases in floods and droughts (again, without locations), about 8 inches of sea-level rise this century and changes in migratory patterns for both plants and animals. It will also get a bit warmer, although the 2C that seems the central value this century is not enough to radically change agriculture in most of the world or living patterns–except in the poorest regions, which (perhaps not coincidentally) are often the hottest already. Storm surges will increase damages to waterfront property and when sea level rise occurs in areas already subject to subsidence, those storm surges will be impressive and dangerous. Things will go a bit haywire in the Arctic, as decreased ice is likely to change weather patterns significantly in the region.
But that’s really about it. That’s what people say who have been studying the climate as a career for decades. There are some who say it might be worse, some who think it won’t be as bad as I have described… But I submit that’s a fair characterization of the consensus view on the impacts of climate change.
Scary stories sell, for the same reason scary movies are popular. We like vicarious participation in cataclysmic stories, secure with our popcorn and our friends sitting next to us in the theater.
As long as everyone understands that that’s all this is, there’s little harm involved. But when it is presented as something more than speculative fiction, there are consequences.
An Argentinian couple killed their child and themselves a few years ago because of climate change. Children are afraid of the future because people don’t tell them that these scary stories are only scary stories.
Climate change is real. Humans have almost certainly contributed to it. It may have serious impacts in certain regions in the future. It makes sense to start addressing it now, and we should start by improving the infrastructure of places that already suffer from weather disasters.
Regional climate models are not very skillful. It does make sense to adapt to regional climate change but it’s vital in that respect to know what to expect, and where. Or if it’s extreme weather adaptation you are talking about there’s very little evidence to suggest it is getting worse; and some very doubtful ‘science’ which attributes extreme weather events (usually heatwaves, droughts, deluges) to anthropogenic climate change. Adapting to more of this, on the simple expectation that it will get worse, whilst totally ignoring extreme weather events which can’t be confidently attributed to ‘global warming’ (e.g. record-breaking cold snaps – in Australia this winter, for instance) seems to be to be a bit silly, and unscientific.
But the ‘C’ word can be retired any time now without cheapening or coarsening the debate about the subject. It can join the ‘D’ word in the Climate Lexicographer’s Hall of Shame.