Glum and Glummer? Or is There a Glimmer? Fact-Checking “The Newsroom”.

December 5, 2014

The piece above has gone viral – it’s Aaron Sorkin’s overly gloomy “it’s all over, why bother” take on climate change.
I maintain it’s the lazy way, – just as toxic, and wrong, as ‘it’s all a plot, there is no warming”.

It’s gotten enough traction that Climate Desk has done some fact checking, and Mike Mann was asked about it in a recent radio interview, excerpted below.

James West in Mother Jones:

The scene is odd for a number of reasons. The Newsroom packages its drama based on last year’s events, and at that time, the news that the world was approaching 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been publicly anticipated for weeks. So, not a scoop in any way, or anything that anyone following the science didn’t already know.

But putting that aside, let’s take a look at Sorkin’s “facts”, as presented in the episode. How do they measure up? Let’s go line-by-line through the scene above.

In the weird parallel universe of TheNewsroom, I’m not sure when these “latest measurements” were meant to have been taken. But he’s right. We covered this at the time: The world passed that 400 ppm threshold for the first meaningful way in May 2013, when the daily mean concentration of carbon dioxide was higher than at any time in human history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The measurements are indeed taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii; you can follow what’s known as the “Keeling Curve”—a measurement of atmospheric concentration of CO2—on Twitter, naturally, thanks to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Depends what you’re defining as catastrophic failure, I suppose.  Say you were born last year, when I assume this episode was meant to be set. If we follow along current emissions trends, the planet will be 3.96°F-8.64°F (2.2°C–4.8°C) hotter than preindustrial times by your retirement. (You can type your birth year into this cool interactive, driven by data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to check how hot it will be when you’re old). That’s above temperatures recommended to be in the supposedly “safe” zone by the IPCC, and could definitely result in a variety of “catastrophes” and “failures”. As deaths increase due to things like extreme weather, droughts and wildfires, this statement seems true enough when applied to individual episodes of calamity, which will surely increase. (The number of annual deaths in the UK due to heat, for example, is predicted to rise by 257 per cent by 2050.) The EPA official is right, in one sense. But it’s also arguable that deaths are already and will continue to be linked to climate change events. The line in the script infers the failure of the planet as a whole, which I think is artful flourish to illustrate just how glum this fellow is feeling.

In addition to the Mother Jones piece, Dr. Michael Mann appeared on the “Brad Blog” radio show, and answered questions about the “Newsroom” piece.

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Mother Jones again:


Yup. That’s what the science says. The last time the atmosphere clocked 400 ppm it was 3 million years ago—the “Mid-Pliocene”—when sea levels were as much as 80 feet higher than today (see this 2007 research paper authored by a group led by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University.) I’d probably add an “around” or “about” before the “80 feet higher” in the above statement; the studies leave a margin of error. But this statement checks out.

His point is sound, but I’d like to see the writers’ sourcing—these numbers seem to date to around the late 1990s. According to a more recent 2011 NOAA report, 55 percent of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of the coast. The UN has a slightly different number: Over 40 percent of the world’s population, or 3.1 billion, lives within 60 miles of the “ocean or sea in about 150 coastal and island nations.” In the US, 39 percent of the nation’s population lived in counties directly on the shoreline in 2010.

He’s talking about the “carbon budget”, and again this is sound, despite Newsman Will’s growing anguish at a pretty devastating interview. The 565 gigaton number was popularized by Bill McKibben in a 2012 Rolling Stone article that Newsroom writers seem to have read. The number is “derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades” (done by financial analysis firm Carbon Tracker) and is what we can add into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have a reasonable chance of success of staying below that safe two degrees warming threshold. Our grumpy scientist is so despondent because, yes, 2,795 is the number of gigatons of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves in the hands of fossil-fuel companies and petrostates. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn, writes McKibben. Carbon Tracker says 80 percent of these assets need to remain unburned.


All of these things are predicted by the IPCC—I mean, not the permanent darkness thing, I don’t think that’s meant to be scientific. But yes, as we reported in May this year, Europe faces freshwater shortages; Asia can expect more severe flooding from extreme storms; North America will see increased heat waves and wildfires, which can cause death and damage to ecosystems and property. Especially in poor countries, diminished crop yields will likely lead to increased malnutrition, which already affects nearly 900 million people worldwide.

So, in all, well done Newsroom. Informative, accurate, if a little heavy-handed on the doom and gloom.

27 Responses to “Glum and Glummer? Or is There a Glimmer? Fact-Checking “The Newsroom”.”

  1. j4zonian Says:

    dumboldguy:

    The quotes offered in your previous post are bad things. They don’t however prove anything about what will happen in the future. “Suppose it won’t take as long…” Suppose it will. Neither of us knows what will happen; the only rational choice is to accept that we don’t know and keep trying to solve our problems until either we’ve accomplished the task or know without any uncertainty at all that we’ve failed. We are not there yet, and not even close.

    “But the tundra won’t melt instantly. It will take a long time [in terms of human political action—I would have thought that meaning was obvious rather than the strawperson argument of posing geological time as what I meant] for methane in the tundra and Arctic clathrates to emerge. Other tipping points are the same, and if we have the political will, that is, if we can overcome the psychological afflictions of conservatives, we can not only stop emissions, we can sequester all the carbon emitted in the industrial age through reforestation and low-meat organic permaculture. As far as the best science shows we can still stop the worst from happening.”

    Everything there is 100% true. As far as we know, by the best science we have, we do still have time to build a renewable energy infrastructure (4-8 years if we do it as a US WWII style climate mobilization http://www.theclimatemobilization.org/ None of us knows the future; we know the direction of climate change and the expected effects but not the exact timeline. I understand you feel despair, depression, pessimism or whatever you’d like to call it; almost all of us who work on progressive causes, especially Climate Götterdämmerung do at times. But that’s no excuse for spreading that despair where it will convince others to abandon the actions that can save us. Read Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul by Marie-Louise von Franz to understand more about how beliefs in systems can collapse suddenly, reversing the course of a society.

    Other tipping points: tropical and boreal forest death, passing of oceans from CO2 and heat sinks to CO2 and heat sources, monsoon disruption, etc. By “the same”, I mean all of them tip the climate and/or other system/s to a new state, have their effect and then without other influences, stabilize at a new level.

    But the tipping points we have to worry about most are human tipping points—chaos and violence that prevent solutions from being implemented (can’t build much of a wind and solar smart grid in Somalia right now, could we?), military responses to non-military problems (like climate catastrophe)… the tendency to turn toward exactly such conservative, strong man savior solutions… Those are a combination of gradual and sudden, and not remotely predictable. Who knew even a week before, that the Berlin Wall would fall? That an attack on some symbolic buildings in the US would cause such worldwide state terrorism, oppression and business opportunities because of the fearful, rageful, deceptive and manipulative overreaction by the corporatist US government?

    The currently accepted “Kubler-Ross model” is not in sequential “stages”; they’re tasks that need to be worked on as they arise in various orders, very often more than once and usually in unique ways and combinations. Your mischaracterization of me as “bouncing around in ….etc.” is ridiculous. I accept ecological and physical reality. I understand the indisputable fact that no one knows the future and that for people and society especially, conditions and cultural beliefs and directions can and often do change unpredictably and suddenly.

    The affliction I’m speaking of has been around since at least before agriculture. It has many names; Wetiko disease is the best I’ve found.

    I’ve posted many times in other fora how to stop emissions—replacing fossil and nuclear fuels with efficiency, conservation, changed lives and clean renewable energy; reforesting the planet; local, transforming chemical industrial agriculture to low-meat organic permaculture and industry to benign biomimicing closed-loop craft-industry. How soon we could do it depends on us; if we don’t despair, deny or minimize, we’ll be able to make social, political, cultural, psychological and other changes faster. In time? No one knows. As far as we can tell, yes. I make no judgment about whether we’ll do this; I’m just saying that to survive this is what we have to do.

    I’ve never said it cannot be hopeless and don’t even know what that means. What I’ve said is that as far as we know it’s not hopeless. That is not an opinion or a feeling or judgment of our chances that’s a factual account of our state of knowledge on climate catastrophe.

    Your scorn about sequestration is clearly the result of your personal feelings of despair, depression and/or hopelessness, and have little to do with science. Your black and white thinking—that it’s either your doom and gloom or “bright-sided crap” when absolutely nothing I’ve said could remotely be interpreted that way—are indicative of some issue. Your relentless defense of your irrational pessimism, interpreting mere acceptance of unknowing as “bright-sided crap” and “wishful thinking” is an even greater indication.

    Your misinterpretations (or disinterpretations, like disinformation) of what I say are yet another indication of some depressive or other affliction. It has nothing to do with an accurate assessment of the world situation. So get into therapy. And stop attacking me (for one) for things I didn’t say, didn’t mean and don’t believe. We should be allies; you’re making that hard. Don’t live up to your name.

    • jimbills Says:

      j4zonian – I just saw these, and as you initially replied to me, I’ll respond a bit here. The issue I want to discuss is your comment here:

      “Thinking everything is hopeless when it’s not is as bad as or worse than denying there’s a problem at all. It foments more complete inaction even more surely than the various levels of denying delayalism. ”

      I take a deep offense to that statement, as I believe it’s completely wrong, as well as finding it personally antagonistic. I’ll explain.

      I do think our situation regarding climate change (as well as several other major environmental issues) is hopeless. There are several main reasons. One, almost everyone, including many activists, constantly underestimate the short-, mid-, and long-term impacts of the impact (from both our current level of emissions and any future projection of emissions), and this results in supporting half-assed policies that won’t do much at all to mitigate those impacts – and that’s the best-case scenario. Many people aren’t willing to do anything at all.

      Two, really tackling the major environmental issues will require true sacrifice on the part of all humans. Our culture has no framework to support this sacrifice. Our economy will collapse if growth falters for too long (which would actually be a great and helpful sign for mitigation), and the level of sacrifice needed for our environmental issues will require a complete end to growth (and therefore, almost no one would support it).

      Three, most people, including many activists, don’t understand how our current lifestyle is supported by those activities causing these impacts. A few tweaks here and there won’t do anything. We have to redo EVERYTHING, as quickly as possible, and as radically as possible. No one but a nutter like myself would support this. Even a President like Obama says we won’t sacrifice the economy for the environment. Included in this ignorance is the level of impact of all economic activity, including that from supposedly “clean” sources (there is no “clean”, only cleaner).

      Four, we constantly forget we’re basically animals. We’re thinking animals, sure, but most of that thought goes towards justifying and satisfying our biological and social drives. On a group level, we can change when/if we really, REALLY have to (there are always individuals who can change in advance of that). But that’s the big problem with our environmental issues. We won’t fully see or understand the need until the issues are well past being able to fix.

      Five, humans, as animals, constantly compete for resources and status both on individual and group levels. Our environmental issues basically boil down to taking too much (both in extraction and pollution) from the biosphere. Reducing the levels of extraction and pollution to the necessary levels will neither be supported by the individual’s needs or by group needs (until the need is completely apparent and urgent). This is why we constantly have issues at the major climate conferences. No country wants to sacrifice much, and no country wants to sacrifice more than the other. This applies to the individual as well.

      Now – as you can see from the above, WHY I think it’s hopeless is due to man’s nature more that it is to the current level (although almost certainly vastly underestimated) of environmental destruction. I think it’s the REALISTIC position, not the pessimistic one, that we won’t change either in time, or to the sufficient level, to avoid major and catastrophic impacts from that destruction.

      Why is your quoted statement offensive? Because it’s wrong, and because it’s indicative of the underestimation I have described above.

      If I’m right that we are underestimating our problems, for us to change, we can’t be afraid to state how dire our situation is. We can’t be afraid to say how hopeless it is, too. Like I said, humanity on the group level won’t change until humanity on the group level fully appreciates the urgent need for that change. We won’t act until then – we’ll pussyfoot around and try to pretend it’ll be okay.

      The problem here ISN’T the pessimists (or realists) – it’s the optimists, which is 90%+ of humanity. No one listens to the pessimists, anyway. They’re the crazy ones – as you’re directly saying to DOG here. But too much hope leads to underestimating the size of our problems, which will lead to a failure to adequately address those problems. Too much optimism will even make us question the need to even do much at all.

      An accurate understanding (not an underestimation or overestimation) of what we already face, and what we will face, doesn’t lead to complete inaction. Neither DOG or I would even care if that were true. We would be doing the offensive statements you made to DOG about “whatever does it for you until you or we all die”.

      Despite thinking our situation is hopeless, I drive as little as possible, I take the train instead of flying, I cut my meat intake substantially, I don’t have children despite being married, I constantly watch my energy and resource consumption (that includes efficiencies and conservation), I grow some of my own food, I support candidates and businesses that hold my beliefs, and I care about my loved ones, my neighbors, and the world. Even still, I know my actions are wholly inadequate to what’s really required, even on an individual level (I live like a king compared to what’s actually sustainable).

      I’m not paralyzed, I’m not inactive, and I’m not the root of the problem. I’m not “as bad or worse” than those denying there’s no problem at all. That’s really a slap in the face – wholly uncalled for and wholly unfair. I do what I do because it’s the RIGHT THING TO DO. That’s enough reason for me.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Good response, jimbills. I am busy with real life this weekend putting on a holiday train show with my model railroad club, so I haven’t had time to respond to our newest narcissist on Crock. You have said many of the things I was thinking after reading our boy’s posts.

        I think we have someone here whose inflated self-image rivals that of Omnologos and the unlamented Engineer-Poet. It appears that “j4zonian” is a play on Jefferson, one of our founding fathers (our boy’s first name IS Jeff, apparently), someone whose philosophy our boy is attempting to live by. At least he didn’t pick Omniscium for a handle.

        j4z indicated that he posted on many “fora” (isn’t that precious?), and some quick googling revealed that is indeed the case. He runs his mouth on many “fora” and has even been banned from one because he insists he knows more than the blog owner. His Disqus profile indicates thousand of comments going back years, and some are quite revealing. I will post some links tonight or tomorrow.

        In the meantime, perhaps j4z would like to enlighten us on how his degree in “environmental education” has made him such an expert on climate change, psychology, and philosophy?

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Jimbills,

        Thank you for making many of the points that came to my mind after reading j4zonian’s message. I was too busy with “real life” over the weekend to respond to him—-my model railroad club spent the weekend putting on a holiday train show.

        I did find some time to google a bit, since j4z’s reference to posting his thoughts “many times in other fora” caught my eye and set my crap detectors to vibrating. The “preciousness” and outright pretentiousness of “FORA”, a word I don’t recall ever seeing in my 74 years, reinforced my prior feelings about his use of “j4zonian” as a handle.

        From my googlings I have ascertained that our boy is likely named Jeff, and he has expanded that to “Jeffersonian”, since it is apparent from his writings that he considers himself to be one of Jefferson’s intellectual elite that is qualified to instruct us lesser beings on how to live and think. Too bad he isn’t as smart as Jefferson.

        Googling “j4zonian” does indeed lead to many hits, and our boy has indeed posted many times on many “FORA” (that word is SO cute!). His Disqus profile alone shows nearly 6000 comments, mostly on the Grist and Common Dreams sites. He has a couple of hundred pics on Flickr as well, and if you are into pics of people sitting around bonfires playing bongos and guitars, or sitting in rows on the sand on a beach and meditating (OMMMMM!), or “communing” in yurts, or of assorted cute goats and scruffy-looking chickens, then you need to look at his Flickrstream.

        Jeffy also posts on urban homesteading sites, the Positive Peace Warrior Network, and Dave’s Garden, a plant exchange site, where his only “offering” is Weber Blue Agave, a more hardy version of Agave that gullible types believe they can grow in colder areas and use to make their own tequila. Is Jeffy being a bit dishonest there? Perhaps, since he comments on one of the ‘fora” that “the answer is solar RAILROADS with connecting bike paths”, which means he is probably a Solar Roadways booster as well.

        And guess what? Jeffy’s self-imagined Jeffersonian elitism has gotten him banned from at least one site. LOL

        http://www.dangerouscreation.com/2009/02/livni-and-netanyahu-dumb-and-dumber/

        Sally on February 3, 2009 at 12:58 pm said:

        “…..so glad you gave “J4zonian” the boot!”

        Dennis M (blog owner) on February 3rd, 2009 at 1:31 pm

        “As for J4zonian, he tried another comment today after I deleted several of his yesterday. He even asked why I’d not published his earlier propaganda pieces. If he asks that then he really has lost the plot!”

        Yes, I’m afraid we have a new narcissist visiting Crock to give Omnologos competition now that Engineer-Poet is gone. That’s enough info about our boy for now, although there are many more interesting things I discovered about Jeffy in my googling, particularly how he contradicts himself and how downright nasty he gets when challenged (all of which is already apparent in his comments here). I’ll leave that to later posts.

        (PS Forgot to mention that Jeffy says he has “a degree in environmental education”, although he doesn’t say whether that was a graduate degree that was underpinned by at least some science study as an undergraduate. Actually, my best guess up to this point is that he did his undergraduate work in philosophy with a minor in business administration—in other words, how to sling fine-sounding bullshit and develop a “business plan” so that you can get rich doing it. I suspect that’s why his basic science appears so weak here.).

        (and he lives in the San Pablo, CA area)


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