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Not the right month to tell us warming is bad

13 May 2020 | News Roundup

Just in time for one of the coldest springs in many years through much of North America, a massive new study says warming is worse than we thought and billions will die. As usual, it projects highly implausible temperature increases in the short run and ignores the fact that we already live in hot places, in fact most people prefer them. It relies on the now-debunked and discredited RCP8.5 emission scenario that even alarmists say is over-egged. And it hinges on the implausible ideas that climate has been stable in the long run, pretty much throughout the Holocene, and that humans are not adaptable creatures. Which makes one wonder how we will survive the summer, if it ever arrives.

The study leans on the usual pseudoscientific precision. To hear the Washington Post tell it, while typically begging the question with phrases like “heat-trapping greenhouse gases”, “The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, breaks new ground by quantifying the temperature range society is most adapted to and projecting how climate change will push people outside it.” But how would you quantify such a thing?

Unquestionably some parts of the world are more hospitable to agriculture than others. And most of the world’s food is grown in temperate regions. But it’s also interesting to see that maps dividing the world into regions each containing a billion people or ones where the equivalent of China’s population lives show that people tend to live in hot places.

Roughly one billion people live in the entire Western Hemisphere plus Australia. Another billion are in Europe plus the Middle East including European Russia. Africa accounts for another billion. Then there’s a region encompassing much of Asia including a northern part of India and western China. Another comprises most of India plus Burma and Bangladesh. Another is north-eastern China plus Korea and Japan. And the last is southeastern China plus Thailand, Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and other western Pacific archipelagos.

You get the idea? If not, check the map. Most of us survive in the hottest parts of the world, and do so despite the poverty there compared to many less-populous regions. But apparently not in the models. There, we’re in a heap of trouble.

As USA Today puts it, “The study warned that unless greenhouse gas emissions are curtailed, average annual temperatures will rise beyond the climate ‘niche’ in which humans have thrived for 6,000 years. That ‘niche’ is equivalent to average yearly temperatures of roughly 52 to 59 Fahrenheit. The researchers found that people, despite all forms of innovations and migrations, have mostly lived in these climate conditions for several thousand years.” (This take channels former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s not nearly infamous enough claim in Jakarta on Feb. 16, 2014 that “Try and picture a very thin layer of gases – a quarter-inch, half an inch, somewhere in that vicinity – that’s how thick it is. It’s in our atmosphere. It’s way up there at the edge of the atmosphere. And for millions of years – literally millions of years – we know that layer has acted like a thermal blanket for the planet – trapping the sun’s heat and warming the surface of the Earth to the ideal, life-sustaining temperature. Average temperature of the Earth has been about 57 degrees Fahrenheit, which keeps life going.”)

The paper abstract agrees: “for millennia, human populations have resided in the same narrow part of the climatic envelope available on the globe, characterized by a major mode around ∼11 °C to 15 °C mean annual temperature (MAT). Supporting the fundamental nature of this temperature niche, current production of crops and livestock is largely limited to the same conditions…”

Well yes, plants have evolved and been selected by nature and farmers alike to grow well under the conditions actually prevailing where people actually live. And yes, people live where it’s warm. But the only way to show that they prefer warm to hot is if they live in a band with cold places on one side and hot ones on the other. And they don’t. They’re crowded toward the equator.

Those billion people in southern India and Burma stopped going south when they hit ocean, not when it got too hot. Likewise those in Thailand or Indonesia. If people are crowded into the warmest parts of the planet it’s not necessarily because by sheer coincidence those parts are at the optimal temperature and anything hotter would be bad. It could be that nothing hotter was available.

It’s also fatuous to ignore the accidental and highly uneven distribution of the surprisingly short list of domesticable plants and animals at the end of the last glaciation. There’s no logical reason horses and water buffalo should be tameable and zebras and cape buffalo not, or that the Americas should contain no potential cereal crop nearly as versatile as wheat or rice. But it does explain historically higher population densities from the fertile crescent’s great river valleys through the great river valleys of Asia than in Africa or the Americas, both lacking large rivers flowing through dry, easily irrigable soil.

Then there’s the fact that Europe, once a backwater, became a granary and more because of the technological and political innovations of the Middle Ages that allowed highly productive farming of wet heavy soil and also guaranteed liberty and sheltered enterprise especially in Britain. Not really a climate issue.

The whole study rests on very slender foundations. As Eric Worrall commented tartly, “There is substantial evidence the ‘optimum’ described in the study is a historical accident. There are plenty of cultures like Thailand and India, which built large populous nations with big cities, even conquered empires, without the ‘benefits’ of a temperate climate, not to mention wealthy modern day tropical nations like Singapore, Malaysia and increasingly Indonesia.”

Still, thanks to our being dull clods we’re all going to die. The Post hyperventilates that “the position of the human climate niche is projected to change more in the next 50 years than it has during the past 6,000. Such a shift would leave 1 billion to 3 billion people outside the climate conditions that have nurtured human society to date”.

Some simple-minded people would ask, with humans living everywhere from the Arctic to Equatorial Guinea, what climate conditions we can’t seem to manage. Others would ask whether, if it does get warmer, and if in consequence it does get harder to live in the tropics, it should not also get easier to live in places like Canada and Russia. Yet others would wonder whether with per-capita wealth growing rapidly, we could not afford adaptations from air conditioning to innovative agriculture in hot places. But no. Of course not. We’ll just sit there looking dumb until we fall over. Precisely the way we historically haven’t.

2 comments on “Not the right month to tell us warming is bad”

  1. The Washington Post headline is plainly misleading when it says that the "study finds". Mathematical models are all if ... then… statements, hypotheses. They are not statements of fact or indeed, "findings" in the normal use of that word. For any of us to attempt to determine whether the output of the mathematical model is reasonable one needs to perform the kind of analysis you have done to examine the model's inputs, assumptions, mathematical steps performed within the black box, and then consider the likelihood of the outputs. Regrettably, the Washington Post hasn't done that. It is merely taken for fact the hypothesis emerging from the model. It is this tendency of lazy headline writers in the media to take model outputs as facts that has encouraged modellers to engage in competitive exaggeration, in order to attract fame and fortune. As I point out in my own recent blog post, link below, the competition is to see who can get the model with the scariest output into the public domain first. I am grateful that you have taken the time and trouble to respond to this latest abdication of journalistic responsibility by the Washington Post.

  2. Not overly complex - flora, fauna and humans will migrate away from the heat to the new temperate climates farther north and south of the equator. Fossilized tree samples in the Arctic existed in past hotter periods. Buy some real estate there - cheap now!!

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