“Alarmism” is a term that gets bandied about a lot. It is often said that one should not call out “fire” in a crowded building. But it really depends, one might say, on whether the “calling out” is done in such a way as to simultaneously prevent a stampede and prevent anyone getting burned.
This riddle was very much on my mind as I sat down to write my thoughts on Mark Lynas’s book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (London: Fourth Estate, 2007). I don’t read much popular science literature, and I doubt I would have read this book if I hadn’t made the mistake of referring to it (in a negative manner) in the comments section of a RealClimate post. I don’t think my error was very grave. What I actually said was that if what I had heard about the book from the press materials were true, then the book was probably alarmist and not worth reading. But I don’t blame the author for asking me to read the book and see for myself. He said that the press (in this case Sunday Times (London)) had misconstrued what he says in the book, and he assured me that is was all based on very careful review of the scientific literature. I was thus both curious and obligated to read the book.
Mark Lynas will no doubt be pleased that I very much like the book. To be sure, it is alarming, but the question of whether it is alarmist is a more difficult one, and I don’t think the answer lies in debating the book. Rather, it lies in looking closely at the underlying science the book builds on. I don’t intend to do that here, but I do think that all climate scientists (particularly those that talk to the public) ought to read this book, and ask themselves a question. I’ll get to that question at the end, after saying a bit more about the book.
Six Degrees, as the title suggests, is comprised of six main chapters (plus an introduction and a conclusion). Each of the main chapters examine what the earth might look like as we raise the planet’s temperature by 1o, 2o, etc. degrees Celsius, based on what the scientific literature has to say about it. Laying out the book this way makes for a good logical progression of ideas, and a fair bit of suspense. Very few people, Lynas says, have got “the slightest idea what two, four or six degrees of average warming actually means in reality, and I’m sure he is right.
In Chapter 1, at 1o, we have predictions of, for example, an annually ice free Arctic ocean. Yes, quite plausible and supported by the literature, and perhaps occurring a little sooner than expected. At 2o, we have, “so whilst southern China can expect more flooding as the two-degree line is approached, the oceanic time lag means that it may take much longer for the rain-bearing summer monsoon to reach the drought-stricken north.” Yes, certainly plausible based on the studies Lynas cites. At 4o, we have “with global sea levels half a meter or more above current levels, [the Egyptian city of] Alexandria’s long lifespan will be drawing to a close. Even in today’s climate, a substantial part of the city lies below sea level, and by the latter part of this century a terminal inundation will have begun. … a rise in sea levels of 50 cm would displace 1.5 million people and cause $35 billion of damage.” Alarmist? Hardly. A 50 cm rise in sea level, is well within the conservative IPCC projections, even for temperature rises less than four degrees.
At 5o and 6o, the book really does start to sound alarmist, with the analogy to Dante’s Inferno – used to good literary effect throughout the book – coming very much to the fore. At five degrees, we have “an entirely new planet is coming into being – one largely unrecognizable from the Earth we know today. At six degrees, “… the pump is primed … not for flourishing palm trees in Alaska, but for the worst of all earthly outcomes: mass extinction.”
Aha, say the skeptics! It is alarmist after all. But is it? Lynas’s reference to the “entirely different planet” actually refers to the fact that at five degrees, the “remaining ice sheets are eventually eliminated from both poles.” That’s entirely true. And unlike in Gore’s discussion of sea level in Inconvenient Truth Lynas does emphasize the long timescales (thousands of years) in this case. Furthermore, there is published research that raises the likelihood of the significant loss of ice sheets at lower temperatures, and Lynas could have claimed certainty of a disappearing Greenland ice sheet in an earlier chapter. That he doesn’t do that is characteristic of the book: it doesn’t tend to go beyond the published literature. This is what Lynas claims at the outset — “all of the material in the book comes from the peer-reviewed scientific literature” – and I think he does an admirable job.
And that brings us back to the question I promised to raise at the beginning, which is this:
If a reading of the published scientific literature paints such a frightening picture of the future as Six Degrees suggests – even while it honestly represents that literature – then are we being too provocative in the way we write our scientific papers? Or are we being too cautious in the way we talk about the implications of the results?
If you are a RealClimate regular, you are undoubtedly aware of our ongoing interest in the developments in the scientific understanding of potential hurricane-climate change linkages. This is an area of the science where a substantial body of significant new research has emerged even since RealClimate’s inception in late 2004. The scientific research in this area, and the media frenzy and political theatrics that have inescapably followed it, are thoughtfully placed in a broader historical context in a fascinating new book by Chris Mooney entitled Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming. Anyone who is at all interested in the scientific history that has led to our current understanding of Hurricanes and their potential linkages with climate change, will find this book a page turner. The book is a nice complement to Kerry Emanuel’s recent book Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes (which too is so readable that it lies on our coffee table). Mooney in a sense picks up where Emanuel’s left off. Like Emanuel, he explores the history of the science. But he uses this historical context, and his studies of the personalities of key actors, to explore how the current scientific debate can be traced back to a rift that has emerged over many decades between distinct communities of atmospheric scientists.
By William and Gavin
On Thursday March 8th, the UK TV Channel 4 aired a programme titled “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. We were hoping for important revelations and final proof that we have all been hornswoggled by the climate Illuminati, but it just repeated the usual specious claims we hear all the time. We feel swindled. Indeed we are not the only ones: Carl Wunsch (who was a surprise addition to the cast) was apparently misled into thinking this was going to be a balanced look at the issues (the producers have a history of doing this), but who found himself put into a very different context indeed [Update: a full letter from Wunsch appears as comment 109 on this post]
So what did they have to say for themselves?
New addition: Download an annotated pdf of the Fraser report. An interactive pdf file, to be read on the screen, is here, and a printable version is here. Suggestions for further commenting are welcome. Additions to the pdf have to be short, and tied to particular pieces of text or figures. And of course we will only incorporate comments that we deem to be scientifically sound and cogent.
While most of the world’s climate scientists were following the IPCC fest last week, a few contrarians left out in the cold were trying to to organize their own party.
An unofficial, “Independent Summary for Policymakers” (ISPM) of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report has been delivered by the Fraser Institute. It’s a long, imposing-looking document, resembling, come to think of it, the formatting of the real Summary for Policymakers (SPM) document that was released on Friday after final negotiations of the IPCC in Paris last week. The Fraser Institute has assembled an awesome team of 10 authors, including such RC favorites as tilter-against-windmills-and-hockey-sticks Ross McKitrick, and other luminaries such as William Kininmonth, MSc, M.Admin — whose most recent paper is “Don’t be Gored into Going Along” in the Oct-Nov issue of Power Engineer. To be fair, he did publish a paper on weather forecasting, back in 1973. According to the press release, the London kickoff event will be graced by the presence of “noted environmentalist” David Bellamy. It’s true he’s “noted,” but what he’s noted for is his blatant fabrication of numbers purporting to show that the world’s glaciers are advancing rather retreating, as reported here.