Marshall McLuhan once said “People don’t read the morning paper, they slip into it like a warm bath.” (It is variously quoted, but his son Eric confirmed in a 2006 email that this version is appropriate.) And this phrase came irresistibly to mind as we attempted to parse a major New York Times effort to ease off slightly on increasingly absurd climate alarmist rhetoric without dispelling the sense of urgency. Presumably people purchase media subscriptions to be kept well-informed, even about things they wish were not so or perhaps especially on those things. But a piece that tells us it’s better than we thought, although just as bad as ever, with hope on the horizon because of plunging renewable costs and global mobilization, the result is comfy drowsiness not the sort of informed alertness that would have us questioning whether any of these people really know what they’re talking about even while they’re talking about it.
In his backpedalling Times piece David Wallace-Wells wrote that “Just a few years ago, climate projections for this century looked quite apocalyptic, with most scientists warning that continuing ‘business as usual’ would bring the world four or even five degrees Celsius of warming”. But as CDN readers know that “business as usual” was in fact the preposterous RCP8.5 scenario and “most scientists” knew it was bunkum though they were reluctant to say so.
Finally telling us things we knew years ago, Wallace-Wells concedes: “Now, with the world already 1.2 degrees hotter, scientists believe that warming this century will most likely fall between two or three degrees.”
And it’s reassuring to think so until you jerk awake and go “Wait, ‘scientists’? What, all of them?” Or don’t, as the warmth flows soothingly over you, relieving tensions: “Thanks to astonishing declines in the price of renewables, a truly global political mobilization, a clearer picture of the energy future and serious policy focus from world leaders, we have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years.”
Bosh. Rubbish. Nonsense. Idiocy. We have cut expected warming almost in half in just five years by fiddling the computer models. Despite oft-repeated claims of plunging renewables costs, driven mostly by subsidies not real technological improvements, hydrocarbons still account for almost exactly as much of world energy usage as they did 20 years ago and there’s no sign of significant change. What’s more, and despite the remarkably silly if soothing notion of “a truly global political mobilization” that didn’t include China, India, Russia, the Middle East, Africa or Latin America, human output of “greenhouse gases” continues to rise. And RCP8.5 continues to say our faces will melt right off our heads.
To its credit, the piece eventually gets around to trashing RCP8.5 and the habit of calling it “business as usual”, and that “about half of our perceived progress has come from revising these [model] trajectories downward.”
Or not, because on the subject of this famous global mobilization, even the Globe & Mail in hyping the massive swing to renewables zealots can see happening even before it does said part of making it happen was “‘it is essential to bring everyone on board” with the energy transition, IEA executive director Fatih Birol said” which surely means they aren’t now. (And Bloomberg allows that investment in renewables will have to triple to $1.3 trillion a year, which it thinks will be easy but it’s certainly not in the bag, now is it?)
Climate Home News is having a bad time too. They say:
"Once again, the data shows the world is way off pace to deliver on its collective goal to limit dangerous levels of global heating... If delivered in full, countries’ 2030 climate plans put the world on track for 2.4-2.6C of warming. Pledges and policies still don’t offer a credible path to 1.5C. The negotiations in the beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, which start next Sunday, are unlikely to provide the breakthrough that is so desperately needed. In fact, very few decisions are expected from this year’s UN talks.”
Wow. Some massive global mobilization. We’re all going to die and nobody cares. Unless the exact opposite is true. In hyping Wallace-Wells’ piece, his New York Times colleague German Lopez said “Finally, global powers have adopted serious plans to fight climate change.”
As for Wallace-Wells, he now inhabits a world:
“with the most terrifying predictions made improbable by decarbonization and the most hopeful ones practically foreclosed by tragic delay. The window of possible climate futures is narrowing, and as a result, we are getting a clearer sense of what’s to come: a new world, full of disruption but also billions of people, well past climate normal and yet mercifully short of true climate apocalypse.”
Again you start to feel sleepy, very sleepy, calm and serene. Except we’re not living on Earth One or wherever he is. Here on the boring old actual Earth, nobody knows how much the planet will warm by 2050 or where it will warm most or least, or what it might mean if it does warm. Tweak a few model assumptions and we’re back in the oven, or cooling on the windowsill (as seems more appropriate).
OK, nobody knows except the chronic narcissists who think climate, like every other aspect of public policy, is all in the mind. As Wallace-Wells burbled, “Perhaps the most capacious and galvanizing account is one I heard from Kate Marvel of NASA, a lead chapter author on the fifth National Climate Assessment: ‘The world will be what we make it.’” What a soothing thought.
Until you snap back to full consciousness and realize it will do nothing of the sort. However malleable spherical bath oil beads may become when immersed, the real Earth will remain a roughly spherical object some 8,000 miles in diameter, seven tenths of whose surface is water, third from the sun, weighing six septillion kilograms, subject to complex and often hostile weather whose main driver is in fact the sun. We cannot add a meringue layer, change the colour of the sky, turn the temperature down to the ideal level even if we knew what it was, or even prevent Vladimir Putin from trashing Ukraine. Her words are quite literally meaningless.
Here the piece takes back what it had given. It decries:
“a failure of global efforts to limit warming to ‘safe’ levels. Through decades of only minimal action, we have squandered that opportunity. Perhaps even more concerning, the more we are learning about even relatively moderate levels of warming, the harsher and harder to navigate they seem. In a news release accompanying its report, the United Nations predicted that a world more than two degrees warmer would lead to ‘endless suffering.’”
Since life is famously a vale of tears and also the valley of the shadow of death, it would presumably continue to see much suffering if it got warmer. But to tell us we’re going to avoid the apocalypse thanks to dramatic action only to crash into it thanks to failure to act is gibberish.
Happy gibberish. Wallace-Wells liked this piece so much he wrote it twice on consecutive days, with the Oct. 27 version containing the same Kate Marvel quotation and the same goofy assurance that we are saved-but-doomed. And his editors cleared it to run with:
“thanks to delays in beginning to decarbonize, we’ve missed the opportunity for any kind of safe landing. Instead, we are already watching temperatures rise and impacts accumulate, and realizing all the while that even at a given level – two degrees Celsius, say – the force of warming is likely to be considerably harder and more punishing than we previously anticipated.”
Out of the tub and into a cold shower, because what Wallace-Wells is really trying to tell us is that the climate science was totally wrong in two key ways. First, it was wrong about how much warming there would be, having overestimated it. Second, it was wrong about how bad warming would be, having underestimated it. Which means they don’t know what they’re talking about and neither does he.
The idea that it’s both better and worse and they’ll cancel out until they don’t has us emerging from the bathroom to the strains of Hotel California: “I was thinking to myself, this could be heaven or this could be hell.” Along with the bit where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”, as the final piece of anti-wisdom:
“as the novelist Amitav Ghosh cautioned me recently, citing a late French philosopher: ‘We can’t ever forget what Bruno Latour said, which is that everything that is happening right now has climate change as the background.’ In the future, all the more so.”
More than everything. Maybe as the foreground. If only I were properly awake and words had meanings.