Tim Flannery’s Latest Climate Triumph
Congrats to paleontologist Dr Tim Flannery for new international recognition in the peer-reviewed global climate literature. Dr Flannery is head of Australia’s Climate Council, a Fellow of the deep-green Australian Academy of Science, and previously federal Labor’s Climate Commissioner on a modest $180,000 a year for a three-day week. Now his credentials have been further burnished, having just been prominently cited in a peer-reviewed paper in the International Journal of Global Warmingthis week. The paper is itself extolled in a press release from the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Timbo, congratulations!
I thought I’d have to pay $US40 for the full paper – not that I’d grudge it for Tim – but chanced on a copy here. It’s by David C. Rode and Paul S. Fischbeck, both professors at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They’re heavy hitters in the maths/engineering world of operations research, and believe in the orthodox human-caused catastrophic warming hypothesis. One of Professor Fischbeck’s earliest papers was as the co-author of “Risk Management for the Tiles of the Space Shuttle” (1994). That appeared midway between the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters. Co-professor David Rode has been an energy/electricity policy researcher for 20 years.
The paper’s title is “Apocalypse Now? Communicating extreme forecasts”. The authors are fed up with their climate mates dogmatically forecasting climate doom. Moreover, these forecasts typically lack uncertainty bands, which are the essence of real science. The professors complain that the dud doomism by 2000, 2020, 2030 or whenever generates disrepute and mockery of real scientists:
Recent evidence has also suggested that certain commonly accepted scientific predictions may indeed be exaggerated.
Rode and Fischbeck collected 79 “apocalyptic” disaster projections since 1970. They found that, in 48 cases, the predicted disaster dates have passed into history and it seems no doom occurred. The other 31 predictions are still in the future. As the authors say, “The apocalypse is always about 20 years out.” For example, the father of global warming scares, James Hansen, and fake Nobel Prize winner Michael Mann have catastrophic predictions maturing in the 2030s, although their forecasts for earlier dooms were all duds. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already had one forecast of cataclysm fail but it has more cataclysms on the cab rank for 2029 and 2050, the paper says.
The authors warn that crying wolf undermines trust in the underlying science. But they say that it’s likely that their own warnings against exaggeration will be ignored, because
making sensational predictions of the doom of humanity, while scientifically dubious, has still proven tempting for those wishing to grab headlines.
So where does our Dr Tim fit in all this? Well he’s cited no fewer than three times by the study for his climate armageddons. No, make that four because his unlamented former Climate Commission is also cited. The only other forecasters to crack four mentions are scientist/agitator James Hansen and the IPCC itself.
Paul Ehrlich, who forecast that England would be underwater from rising seas by 2000, gets three guernseys. So does loopy monarch-to-be Charles, Prince of Wales.
The other 70-odd doom specialists cited include six-mansion-owning tycoon Al Gore, the late sex-harassing grub and 13-year IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, ex-UN climate tear-jerker Christiana “Tinkerbell” Figueres, Joe Biden’s far-left muse Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and my least-impressive journo-turned-climate-guru mate David Spratt. As his other pal, Potsdam climate wunderkind Hans Joachim Schellnhuber has put it,
It is all the more important to listen to non-mainstream voices [namely Spratt] who do understand the issues and are less hesitant to cry wolf. Unfortunately for us, the wolf may already be in the house.
I also spotted Democrat Senator Tim Wirth on the list. Wirth organised for James Hansen’s 1988 testimony about global warming to be on Washington’s hottest day and also sabotaged the air-conditioning of the hearing rooms to make everyone sweat for the TV cameras. Yet another climate clown cited is Cambridge physics professor Peter Wadhams, who has never given up predicting an ice-free Arctic even when his earlier predictions (like, by 2015) failed miserably.
A few spectacularly cracked forecasts are cited, such as this one by former catastrophist James Lovelock, Fellow of the Royal Society and developer of the Gaia Hypothesis, “Before this (21st) century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.” Lovelock is not wholly green these days, much to greenies’ chagrin.
Other than Flannery, Australian sources given dishonorable mentions are the Academy of Science’s Frank Fenner, who was a great virologist but an over-the-top climate hysteric; and our very own former Chief Scientist Penny Sackett, famous for her prediction in 2004 that the world had only five years left to avoid disastrous global warming. Reading from the authors’ table, we find Flannery predictions dating from 2004 (for 2054), 2008 (for an immediate tipping point), and 2009 (for 2029). All his forecasts involve alarms about it being “too late to act” at that date to save the planet.
The paper’s authors check to see if their cited doom-criers would be alive when their forecast dates arrive. Flannery was born in 1956 so when his furthest-out apocalypse arrives, he’ll be 98 and either enjoying his vindication or explaining through toothless gums how he was misquoted.
Flannery’s copious earnings from warmist campaigning have financed a home “with environmental features at Coba Point on the Hawkesbury River, accessible only by boat.” Given the Hawkesbury floods last month, the boat must have had a good workout. In 2005 Flannery was forecasting “permanent drought” for NSW: “If the computer models are right, then drought conditions will become permanent in eastern Australia … Water is going to be in short supply across the eastern states.” His other famous quote is about “the rain that comes won’t fill our dams” but being Perth born, I most love his forecasts about climate change turning Perth into a ghost city. (Perth median house price last year, $790,000).
Getting back to the Rode and Fischbeck paper, they’re warmist believers and their critiques are more in sorrow than anger. They want doom-forecasting to be
# more nuanced and with uncertainty bars
# progressive in the sense of a series of short-term ‘building block’ forecasts leading to the long-term doom date, enabling frequent checks on forecasters’ accuracy. This will “better motivate a public acceptance of climate science that has been plagued with growing scepticism,” they write.
# less group-think among climate communicators, such as always picking round-number dates like 2030, 2050 and 2100.
The paper begins with a delightful quote from climate scientist Greta Thunberg (then 17):
I’ve been warned that telling people to panic about the climate crisis is a very dangerous thing to do, but don’t worry – it’s fine – I’ve done this before and I can assure you: it doesn’t lead to anything.
They also quote an aphorism (attributed to Carl Sagan) that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence’ and re-work it as “extraordinary predictions require extraordinary caution in communication.” They also note that doom forecasting is generally not done in a spirit of objective inquiry but to jab the authorities into action to shut down fossil fuels and destroy coal-fired power or whatever. For example, the lead-ups (should that be leads-up, by the way?) to the Copenhagen (2009) and Paris climate summits (2015) saw a surge in doom crying, serving
as focal points for the issuance of apocalyptic forecasts. For these ‘must act’ forecasts, the intent may not be literal, but emphatic, in order to encourage a belief in fear over rational scientific discourse. These apocalyptic forecasts may be issued specifically to apply political pressure to policymakers to take action on the meetings’ agendas.
Our shoals of environment reporters get beautifully slapped down. We learn that the reporters are mostly innocent of knowledge about uncertainties in science, and gravitate to quoting doom-criers who emphasise certainty that their disasters will arrive. (The Australian’s Graham Lloyd always an honorable exception).
Doulton and Brown (2009) performed a study of UK newspaper articles on climate change between 1997 and 2007 and found that ‘potential catastrophe’ was the most common discourse in news coverage, concluding that the media were prone to ‘attention cycles’ that tended to be self-amplifying, and led to the news provoking a ‘rising sense of impending catastrophe’ from climate. This type and frequency of media coverage tends toward sensationalism and an increased (but unjustified) certainty in reporting.
The authors say a study of newspaper articles on climate change in six countries showed that ‘disastrous consequences’ was the most common frame in the stories, while references to risk or likelihood was the least common frame.
Much of the media operates with an express intent to do what Taubes (1997) refers to as ‘consciousness-raising’. In doing so, the media tends to sensationalise the consequences and suppress references to uncertainty in reporting apocalyptic climate-related forecasts…When the presentation of risks is ‘sensationalised’ through the media, non-scientists are apt to perceive a risk as a greater, more immediate threat.
The salaried Rode and Fischbeck produce memes and insights that climate sceptics like Anthony Watts and Joanne Nova have long provided for free.
So once again skeptics of the climate consensus are proven to have been correct.
So is this possibly a good start?
The return to reason, without a “reset” of the policies the extremist claptrap inspired is not actually very productive.
I’d encourage everyone to “read on” to the end by clicking the link and following it to the paper where Tony’s piece is published in full.
I would like to think that the paper he’s commenting on is good news, even if (perhaps because) its authors are climate-concerned. Fair play to them for calling out what is so obvious to sceptics. I have never been able to understand how catastrophism has so successfully captured the establishment (other than those parts of the establishment which see in it an opportunity to hoover up taxpayer funds), the MSM, most political parties, and even whole swathes of the scientific establishment, given that the catastrophism is so obviously overdone. This paper at last demonstrates that some intelligent scientists also have doubts about the way “the science” is being communicated. Thank goodness for that. Now will others dare to step up to the plate?
Thank you for this post. I’ve been looking for a good study that catalogues failed doomsday predictions, and now, thanks to you, I have one. It is going straight onto my favourites.
Your article, I have to say, is right up my street. However, I do think ‘the professors’ are whistling in the wind when they say:
“The authors of the forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC should be encouraged to tone down ‘deadline-ism’. Forecasters should make an effort to influence the interpretation of their forecasts; for example, by correcting media reporting of them. The sequential releases of the IPCC’s Assessment Reports, for example, should consider calling out particularly erroneous or incomplete interpretations of statements from previous Assessment Reports.”
Fat chance of AR6 saying that, when AR5 dedicated a whole chapter to the importance of using instruments of fear to facilitate the implementation of, and adherence to, the policies deemed necessary to achieve the IPCC agenda (see my recent 5 part series on the subject (‘The IPCC on Risk’)).
Also, I have to admit that, being unfamiliar with Australian journalism, I had not come across the name of David Spratt until very recently (actually when researching my latest Cliscep article on Daniel Voronoff (‘The Books of Daniel’)). My favourite quote from him is:
“The price of failure is not a product left on the shelves or an election lost. Failure is a planet on which most people and species will not survive.”
Do you think that might be the sort of thing that ‘the professors’ had in mind when they talked about correcting the media? 🙂
What amazes me is that the authors are perceptive enough to realise the dominance of catastrophe memes, their modes of deployment and their obvious miscommunication and damage, yet still remain firm believers in a coming apocalyptic event which they think deserves to be communicated better (via quoting the best evidence for same in a more measured manner), as their conclusion says. To them this is just a communication problem, not any kind of indication that the narrative of certain catastrophe isn’t actually supported by the IPCC anyhow but has essentially manufactured its own cultural ‘truth’.
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John: Climate Code Red, named after the 2007 report of the same name, has been a source of collected works of way out doom-mongering ever since then. I think for classic apocalyptic quotes though, Spratt is outdone by his buddy Ian Dunlop, who’s actually an ex coal baron, so maybe feeling very guilty. They’ve co-authored stuff.
I’d go with lead-ups. Otherwise we’ll have winds up, Sevens Up and cocks up, which would never do.
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I do hope you don’t intend causing another one of Cliscep’s busts up with this.
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The authors of the paper betray their naivity, I think, when they refer in their conclusion to, “predictions that can be used to better motivate a public acceptance of climate science that has been plagued with growing scepticism.” If only that were true.
I also balk at their presumption that the scientists understand uncertainty but the non-scientists (i.e. deniers) don’t. If Gleick and Lewandowsky are anything to go by, this is not a safe assumption. The authors themselves talk a lot about uncertainty but do little to define it or suggest how it should be analysed and measured. They are just social observers who are trying to draw conclusions from word counts when the word itself is used variously and often inconsistently.
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So a sample size of 79 apocalyptic predictions. Removing outliers from 1881 and 1922, that makes 77 between 1970 and 2019 or just over 1.5 per annum. I am not sure this demonstrates ‘the dominance of catastrophic memes’.
I’m familiar with the work of some of the doomsayers and so I went and read some of the relevant citations. George Monbiot makes the cut for a prediction classed as ‘too late to act’ with a time horizon of 10 years. The article is here. Sure enough it features Monbiot in militant vegetarian mode, and he talks of an ‘impending crisis’, the bit where he gets all apocalyptic seems to be:
Is that really apocalyptic, and was there any truth in it? Clearly there was an element of rhetoric; it is not an either/or choice, however ten years after would take us to 2012 and global hunger has indeed been rising steadily since 2014, the feeding of grain to livestock continues to rise year on year. One third of arable land now goes to livestock feed crop cultivation rather than feeding people directly. It would be oversimplistic to attribute all famine to livestock production however it does increase overall demand and increase prices for crops and agricultural inputs. This may well feel just a little bit apocalyptic to the 680 million hungry people out there.
Hansen gets four mentions, all classified as ‘Too late to act’. The first is from the Scientific American in 2007 given a time horizon of nine years, which I guess refers to the line
One always prefers a direct quote rather than a ‘he said’, 2016 was five years ago, so I submit it is too soon to judge whether a tipping point in the global climate has in fact been broached.
Second was in the HuffPost 2007, time horizon 10 years, it does indeed contain some pessimistic forecasts – but none has yet been falsified and I can find nothing to justify the 10 year figure.
Third is from The Guardian and has the sub-head President ‘has four years to save Earth’.
But this seems to be a case of a subeditor getting creative with the quotation marks, if you click through and read the ‘full interview’ Hansen does not use those words, the closest he comes is:
So not really ‘too late to act’ then. I see this a lot, a politician says something along the lines of ‘we must change direction in the next n years or face disaster’. The n years elapse, there’s no apparent apocalypse and he gets branded in certain quarters as alarmist. This strikes me as being in a car that is heading towards a cliff edge, you warn the driver of the hazard a half mile ahead and warn he needs to start slowing down in the next minute. He does nothing, the minute elapses and no catastrophic accident occurs. Alarmist.
Fourthly the future prediction is also from the Guardian
And again features a strident sub-head: Without full decarbonisation by 2030, our global emissions pathway guarantees new era of catastrophic climate change. But again this seems to be from the imagination of an overzealous copy editor rather than the words of Hansen himself. The subject of the article is this paper. It does discuss some extreme scenarios, however I can find nothing that leads you directly or indirectly to full decarbonisation by 2030.
Michael Mann was apparently born first in 1948 and then again in 1961 and got gloomy in 2015 in an interview classified by Rode and Fischbeck as ‘Too late to Act’ with a time horizon of 0.1 years. It is in German, maybe it loses something in translation but once again I can find nothing to justify the apocalyptic classification or the timescale, quite the opposite in fact:
What a doomster!
To be clear, I am not a fan of apocalyptic predictions or catastrophic scenarios. And the quality of our science journalism is so woeful it means you always need to go to the source, preferably a journal article rather than trust the press.
After all, there’s more than enough in the unmediated literature to promote concern
Climate Change and Trace Gases
Water‐vapor climate feedback inferred from climate fluctuations, 2003–2008
Phil Clarke: Sorry for the delay before your recent comments were approved.
> Sorry for the delay before your recent comments were approved.
[Great to see you’re still reading Cliscep, Willard – Scepticus.]
HI Phil, thanks for your valuable comments. May I pick you up on one error, you say,
“however ten years after would take us to 2012 and global hunger has indeed been rising steadily since 2014.” Actually the Global Hunger Index shows hunger declining markedly, and in all major regions, see
The global food price index has also shown a slight falling trend for the past 30 years, despite a huge rise in population. Crop yields are outpacing population growth.Regards Tony
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2014 Hans Rosling and Gapminder.
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“The global prevalence of undernourishment – or overall percentage of hungry people – has changed little at 8.9 percent, but the absolute numbers have been rising since 2014. This means that over the last five years, hunger has grown in step with the global population.”
Phil Clarke, what was your final verdict on Hugh Montgomery’s Project Genie?
After delving deeper, did you recommend it as a teaching material?
That was nearly a decade ago, and these days I struggle to remember what I had for dinner yesterday.
So I don’t remember what I discovered, sorry. I’m no longer a School Governor, but I do remember I did not recommend PG to the Head even if I can’t remember why.
Phil, whatever you had for your dinner, I hope it didn’t include Kenyan beans or Argentine apples. They got a big ‘NO!’ from Project Genie because they were partly responsible for Hurricane Katrina, or summat.
I wrote the following commentary on Rode & Fischbeck for a private forum, and have been meaning to paste it in here since this article appeared. A few things needed tweaking for it to make sense, but I didn’t get around to that until this afternoon. So, as the aroma of someone else’s barbecue wafts in through the back door, if anyone is still reading this thread, here is what I took from R&F.
I suppose the thing that piqued my interest on this initially was the time horizon between prediction and apocalypse – 20 years. This was also the time horizon I tried to graph on the predictions of Arctic Ice disappearance in Denierland. More on the significance of that below. But first the paper itself, which turned out to have far more in it than that 20 year horizon. (I hope my notes have translated into serviceable prose, if anything doesn’t make sense, my apologies.)
The first thing R&F point out is that predictions of apocalypse have no historical analogue. That is, the apocalypse has never happened before. There have been plagues, droughts, famines, wars, floods, etc, but nothing that could remotely be considered globally existential for humanity. Thus, the only observations are of failed predictions, and:
They mention stock market crashes. But they don’t mention that someone somewhere is always predicting a crash, and that in stock markets at least, crashes are an ultimate certainty. I’ve lately begun Churchill’s epic history of WWII (making a temporally-appropriate diversion after a chapter or two into JB Priestley’s English Journey, so haven’t got to the actual war yet). Close to the beginning Churchill mentions that the stock markets in the 20s thought they had abolished boom and bust…
A weak form of “proof” is inductive reasoning. Just because the prediction of apocalypse has been wrong every time up till now does not prove that it will be wrong every time the prediction is made. Of course the black swan event gets its name from this flaw, where a resident of the UK who has only ever seen white swans may develop the opinion that all swans are white based on induction. Should that person then travel to Australia, a black swan will likely be encountered, & prove their belief erroneous. The dead chicken event also gets its name from the same flaw:
Bertrand Russell, quoted in wiki:
Personally I casually use induction to dismiss claims of apocalypse without troubling to analyse the details. One day I might be mistaken.
In section 2, R&F turn to the media. They note that the frequency of reports of an event is proportional to the perceived frequency with which it occurs. To take an example: press coverage of murders likely makes us think murders are more common than they are.
The most common angle taken on climate change by the media is “potential catastrophe.” “Attention cycles” are self-amplifying, leading to a rising sense of impending catastrophe (here I think of the periodic frenzy around wildfires). The media focus on catastrophic events that have not happened, and (by inductive reasoning) will never happen. Without a known “base rate”, the subjective probability of catastrophe is higher than it should be.
R&F now cite Petersen et al 2019, which was widely criticised by climate sceptics, as well as by me in Denierland. This bunch were able to show that “alarmist” scientists had lower media traction than “denier” personalities. But their kindergarten mistake was not to compare “alarmist” personalities with “denier” personalities OR “alarmist” scientists with “denier” scientists. In the first case, Greta, Al Gore et al would have trumped whichever personalities the “deniers” could muster for their first XI. In the second, if they could actually find any “denier” scientists, they would find that they were almost entirely excluded from mainstream media by gatekeeping. “There is no need to have a “denier” on for balance.”
The concept of “univocality” is raised: all experts need to sing from the same hymn sheet. Why? Because in the wider population, belief in climate change (here we may prefix “catastrophic”) is based on perceptions of i) consensus and ii) certainty. (Consensus studies, either drastically flawed and/or flaccid affairs with agreement measured on “weak” climate change metrics, are all-too-familiar to sceptics.)
Uncertainty leads to no political action, so has to be minimised.
Apocalyptic predictions, meanwhile, whether they have any basis in fact, can alter public perception, leading to pressure from below on politicians, as the public clamour to be saved from Mencken’s Hobgoblin.
Does the repeated failure of predictions weaken faith in the cause? R&F cite the case of a UFO cult in the 50s, when the non-arrival of the promised cataclysm for a time strengthened belief in the prediction instead. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but you can imagine how that might work in a cult (by definition, living in an information silo).
Social dynamics, say R&F, lead to a convergence of belief. Note that this need not be a convergence on the truth. It relies on a (presumably unconscious) negotiation between individuals to arrive at the preferred forecast.
“Few would suggest that the probability of a climate-related apocalyptic event at some time in the future occurring is zero…” (s2.4, p.196.) That is an interesting assertion, and I count myself among the “few” who believe that the probability of climate catastrophe is a big fat zero, at least on the horizon of the next century, and probably the next millennium too. The opposite – a ratchet in probability ending in eventual certainty – is “climate deadlineism”, where artificial cliff edges are constructed from nuanced models (I know, I know), where there are no such cliff edges. I suppose we could take the fabled 2 degree/ 1.5 degree targets as such cliff edges. Nature, of course, does not recognise such break points.
While too much uncertainty complicates the sordid business of policy making, suppressing it handily raises the profile of the issue at hand. On the other hand overstating the apocalypse might just make the public inured to the predictions.
Here R&F refer to Petersen et al again. Petersen et al’s thesis was that there was an anti-science bias in the media; R&F wonder whether this might instead be an anti-uncertainty bias. The media like to trumpet certain doom. Buts, ifs, and maybes just ain’t fun, & don’t get no click action.
Forecasts of doom are divided by R&F into “event” – predictions of catastrophe – and “must act” forecasts. The latter tend to be concentrated around climate conferences. R&F then digress into a discussion about how predictions of doom cluster on whole decades, e.g. 2030 might be the date of apocalypse, but no-one is predicting 2029. They criticise this based on work in finance where certain analysts – “nickel heapers” – rounded up the dates of their forecasts to years ending in 5 or 0, and were less accurate than their colleagues who gave an exact year.
Sceptics’ forecasts of non-apocalypse come in for criticism towards the end. R&F ask for uncertainty. I offer 100% certainty of no apocalypse.
In their conclusion, R&F state that the belief that the risks of climate change are exaggerated is growing, and that communications relying on hype and alarm undermine trust in the messenger. We can but hope.
Their advice is to improve credibility by shortening forecasts (which will, however, always be wrong). Scientists, they say, should not indulge in deadineism; they should correct media misrepresentation of their studies (i.e. try to undermine the “certain doom by year x” approach; I somehow don’t think it’s going to happen).
Almost their last word is a caution not to extrapolate from physical predictions to social outcomes. Personally, I think the social outcomes are the ones that actually matter. A change in temperature is very abstract. Fifty million climate refugees by a certain year ending in a 0 is something else altogether.
Finally, why the 20 year horizon? Twenty years is a nice figure. I think 20 years is a Goldilocks figure. It arises from the kind of tuning we deplore in climate models. Choose too short a time horizon and bad things happen: either everyone thinks it’s too late to act or you’re soon proven wrong. Choose too long a time horizon and different bad things happen: people relax and think they can deal with the problem in a generation or two. Instead you have to tune things just right: near enough to generate a bit of urgency, but far enough in the future that actually achieving the goal is still plausible.
>”Uncertainty leads to no political action, so has to be minimised.”
Unless, of course, you are a member of the team that believes uncertainty is ‘a source of actionable knowledge’.
This is the thing about uncertainty and climate activism. To the extent that one is certain, one must act. And to the extent that one is uncertain, one must act. It must be good never having to think about anything.