The Washington Post turns loose its fact-checkers on John Kerry’s claim that we have just nine years to save the planet, which he arrived at by saying we had 12 years three years ago and doing the math. But um he’s not a climate scientist, and to their credit and our surprise, the Post gives him two Pinocchios (out of a possible four) for “Significant omissions and/or exaggerations.” Along with a dressing down for not realizing that in the IPCC’s 2018 Special Report, “the key date was 2050, when the gain in emissions needs to be halted” although contradictorily, “The report’s key finding was that action needed to be taken immediately — not in 12 years.” Thus “With the ‘12-year’ fixation, he [Kerry] somehow managed to both make the task seem less urgent and also more hyperbolic.” Sadly the fact checkers themselves deserve at least two Pinocchios because their finding is quite reasonable but their explanation interlaces sensible points with hyperbole about extreme weather, bad math about warming, and scare stories.
The piece starts fairly well, warning that “Kerry is using a figure that is frequently cited but often misused. It’s a good example of how scientists may write a long and complex report, and then it’s interpreted by the news media, pundits and politicians in ways that make the scientists frustrated that their nuanced conclusions have been twisted into a talking point.” But lest they should get cancelled, they immediately add “If anything, scientists say, Kerry’s phrasing understates the problem facing the planet.”
Oh, scientists say, do they? Which scientists? You know. Them. The scientists. “The question of whether humans have contributed to climate change may still be a subject of debate in the political sphere, but it has been a settled issue among climate scientists for years.” Which they bolster by citing Anderegg et al.’s infamous 2009 paper that looked at people who published a lot of papers saying there was a climate crisis and found that they said there was a climate crisis.
The fact-checkers also cite without fact-checking it that the 2018 IPCC report “said the planet — which has already warmed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels (approximately 1850 to 1890) — would warm 1.5 degrees (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) between 2030 and 2052 unless significant steps were taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” As we’ve pointed out, the idea that we can determine to a decimal place the change in temperature between the Great Exhibition and the election of Donald Trump is silly, and the fact that it always comes out to a round number is highly suspicious.
Now speaking of round numbers, about which yes we told you so, in one of its stronger passages the fact-check quotes Drew Shindell of Duke University, a lead author of that IPCC’s “mitigation chapter”, that “To save computer time, the research community typically evaluates future climate scenarios every decade rather than every year, choosing multiples of 10. So when we wrote the IPCC report in 2018, we could examine possibilities for 2020, 2030, etc., going forward. There really wasn’t enough time to make changes in economic systems by 2020 starting from 2018, so the first time at which we could see major changes was 2030, and that’s why we could draw conclusions about how much our emissions needed to be cut by 2030 to have much chance of meeting our climate targets…. the point of all this is that there is nothing at all special about 12 years or 2030. If we cut emissions by 2029 or 2031, the necessary cuts would be similar, but we only had years that were even multiples of 10 to look at.”
So saying well, it was 12 years in 2018 so it’s now nine means you have no idea what the scientists were actually doing. It’s pseudo-precision along the lines of saying the planet has warmed by 0.8C since 1880 with 2/3 of it since 1975, which implies we know it warmed 0.26C in the century after 1880. Without having measured the temperature in about 99% of it in 1880 or, come to think of it, 1975 either. Or 2016.
Not to get themselves in trouble, the fact-checkers then cite the IPCC that “Coral reefs, for example, are projected to decline by a further 70-90% at 1.5°C (high confidence) with larger losses (>99%) at 2°C (very high confidence).” Which they rightly say means there’s a continuum or, as Judith Curry bluntly put it in advocating more realism in both science and adaptation, “1.5C is a made up problem.” Not that the fact-checkers are taking her view.
Instead the piece warns that the continuum thing means “the damage would have already started before 1.5 degrees was breached.” Which also means that if it hasn’t, including the corals not dying, there’s a bit of an issue here with the whole scary picture. As with their subsequent claim that “the world is heating unevenly. A Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post series showed that, despite an average global increase of 1 degree Celsius, in several parts of the world the 2 degree threshold has already been reached. In those regions, this has resulted in major weather changes that have upended livelihoods and cultures. More than 1 in 10 Americans — 34 million people — are living in rapidly heating regions, including New York City and Los Angeles.”
Curious that the fastest-warming places are either (a) wherever the journalist lives or (b) a giant metropolitan agglomeration with a major Urban Heat Island effect. That one they did not fact check. Or the idea that weather has upended livelihoods and cultures in New York and LA.
Finally, they quote someone telling Kerry to stop talking about specifics and instead scare people with vagueness, recommending this formulation: “The scientists have been telling us for decades that we need to act as fast as possible to avert the worst consequences of climate change. Despite that, substantive action has been delayed so long that we’re now bearing witness to the harm caused by warming that has already occurred in communities around the world. It is still well within our power to turn the tide, slowing and eventually halting global warming by bringing our net carbon emissions to zero. But we have to act now to prevent ever greater societal harm and disruption in the coming years and decades.”
The trouble, of course, is that if you talk that way people might ask who the scientists are, what the worst consequences might be, what harm you have in mind and what you want us to do. And then you’ll be back to specifics some fool might fact-check. Like that one about the polar bears dying out, which Facebook may still slap your wrist for pointing out is untrue.
Man, there are a lot of Pinocchios out there.