Our Approach to Climate Change Isn’t Working. Let’s Try Something Else.

Our Approach to Climate Change Isn’t Working. Let’s Try Something Else.
By Kevin Drum
Jul 10 2017

Last night I read “The Uninhabitable Earth,” by David Wallace-Wells. That’s because I’m willing to read pretty much anything by David Wallace-Wells. His piece is self-consciously a worst-case doomsday scenario that describes what could happen if the earth’s temperature rises a lot and we don’t do anything about it. “No matter how well-informed you are,” says Wallace-Wells, “you are surely not alarmed enough.”

This morning I woke up to a bunch of criticisms of the article from the climate change community. They seemed to fall into two camps:

• The story contains some factual errors.
• It is too pessimistic.

I haven’t seen any good evidence for serious factual errors. Michael Mann says that Wallace-Wells exaggerates “the near-term threat of climate ‘feedbacks’ involving the release of frozen methane,” and calls out “erroneous statements like this one referencing ‘satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.’ ” I would ding Wallace-Wells for some sloppy phrasing here, but that’s all. He briefly mentions the warming power of methane in permafront, but fails to put it in context (released over a long period, as is most likely, melting permafrost will have a modest effect). And new satellite data shows a doubling of warming since 1998 in the satellite data, not in overall climate projections. These things should have been written more accurately, but they’re hardly fact-checking felonies.

The bigger criticism, then, is that Wallace-Wells is trying to scare the hell out of everyone, and that’s just not productive. Here is Andrew Freedman:

The science can be scary, but it shouldn’t be paralyzing, and it certainly doesn’t justify worrying about whether humans will even be able to survive on this planet by the end of this century.

….Wallace-Wells does accurately capture the prevailing optimistic attitude of many climate scientists, including those who have been studying this issue for decades….Katharine Hayhoe, a climate researcher at Texas Tech University, possesses the optimism that Wallace-Wells writes about….“The time to act is now — but not out of fear, with panicked, knee-jerk reactions that burn us out,” Hayhoe said. “We need to act based on measured hope and confidence that the science is right, the impacts are serious, and there are solutions to the gravest threats climate change poses if we choose them now.”

In more than a decade of reporting on climate science and policy, I have yet to meet a pessimistic climate scientist. Sure, they know better than most people what unfortunate scenarios lie around the corner, but they also have faith in people to work to avert them.

This is not really a criticism, though. It’s just a disagreement about the nature of the human race. How optimistic are you that human beings will respond fast enough to avert the worst effects of climate change? Hayhoe is pretty optimistic. Freedman is pretty optimistic. Wallace-Wells thinks they’re whistling past the graveyard, and we humans could stand to have our noses rubbed in exactly what kind of danger we’re facing.

Is this productive? Or does it just make people feel depressed and unlikely to work toward change? Good question. I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think climate scientists have any special insight into this. But this gives me an opportunity to say something that’s been on my mind for years now.



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