How Headlines Promote Climate Hopelessness

July 31, 2022

I keep asking, what exactly do they teach in Journalism school? or is everything just clickbait these days? We’ve had a rash of screaming Doomist headlines on climate issues this summer.

Mike Mann tweeted a reprimand to headline writers who apparently got way out ahead of what an expert allegedly told their reporter.

Guardian:

And this is just the beginning, insists McGuire, who is emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London. As he makes clear in his uncompromising depiction of the coming climatic catastrophe, we have – for far too long – ignored explicit warnings that rising carbon emissions are dangerously heating the Earth. Now we are going to pay the price for our complacency in the form of storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves that will easily surpass current extremes.

The crucial point, he argues, is that there is now no chance of us avoiding a perilous, all-pervasive climate breakdown. We have passed the point of no return and can expect a future in which lethal heatwaves and temperatures in excess of 50C (120F) are common in the tropics; where summers at temperate latitudes will invariably be baking hot, and where our oceans are destined to become warm and acidic. “A child born in 2020 will face a far more hostile world that its grandparents did,” McGuire insists.

Now the quoted expert has come forward to say the headline misrepresents his views.

Guardian continued:

As to the reason for the world’s tragically tardy response, McGuire blames a “conspiracy of ignorance, inertia, poor governance, and obfuscation and lies by climate change deniers that has ensured that we have sleepwalked to within less than half a degree of the dangerous 1.5C climate change guardrail. Soon, barring some sort of miracle, we will crash through it.”

The future is forbidding from this perspective, though McGuire stresses that if carbon emissions can be cut substantially in the near future, and if we start to adapt to a much hotter world today, a truly calamitous and unsustainable future can be avoided. The days ahead will be grimmer, but not disastrous. We may not be able to give climate breakdown the slip but we can head off further instalments that would appear as a climate cataclysm bad enough to threaten the very survival of human civilisation.

“This is a call to arms,” he says. “So if you feel the need to glue yourself to a motorway or blockade an oil refinery, do it. Drive an electric car or, even better, use public transport, walk or cycle. Switch to a green energy tariff; eat less meat. Stop flying; lobby your elected representatives at both local and national level; and use your vote wisely to put in power a government that walks the talk on the climate emergency.”

Mann points to this piece in The Washington Post which sounds more like the mainstream scientists that I know.

Washington Post:

For many years, the scientific rule of thumb was that a sizable amount of temperature rise was locked into the Earth’s climate system. Scientists believed — and told policymakers and journalists, who in turn told the public — that even if humanity hypothetically halted all heat-trapping emissions overnight, carbon dioxide’s long lifetime in the atmosphere, combined with the sluggish thermal properties of the oceans, would nevertheless keep global temperatures rising for 30 to 40 more years. Since shifting to a zero-carbon global economy would take at least a decade or two, temperatures were bound to keep rising for at least another half-century.

But guided by subsequent research, scientists dramatically revised that lag time estimate down to as little as three to five years. That is an enormous difference that carries paradigm-shifting and broadly hopeful implications for how people, especially young people, think and feel about the climate emergency and how societies can respond to it.

This revised science means that if humanity slashes emissions to zero, global temperatures will stop rising almost immediately. To be clear, this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Global temperatures also will not fall if emissions go to zero, so the planet’s ice will keep melting and sea levels will keep rising. But global temperatures will stop their relentless climb, buying humanity time to devise ways to deal with such unavoidable impacts. In short, we are not irrevocably doomed — or at least we don’t have to be, if we take bold, rapid action.

The science we’re referencing was included — but inadvertently buried — in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, issued in August. Indeed, it was first featured in the IPCC’s landmark 2018 report, “Global warming of 1.5 C. That report’s key finding — that global emissions must fall by 45 percent by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate disruption — generated headlines declaring that we had “12 years to save the planet.” That 12-year timeline, and the related concept of a “carbon budget” — the amount of carbon that can be burned while still limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — were both rooted in this revised science. Meanwhile, the public and policy worlds have largely neglected the revised science that enabled these very estimates.

6 Responses to “How Headlines Promote Climate Hopelessness”

  1. jimbills Says:

    I won’t address the headline, which did go too far. But, please don’t stain McGuire himself or his message.

    How is McGuire wrong in saying that we have already built-in massive impacts from the emissions we’ve already released? How is he wrong in saying that we won’t meet the 1.5 degree cap? How is he wrong in saying that many sugarcoat our future instead of actually saying what we face?

    ““I know a lot of people working in climate science who say one thing in public but a very different thing in private. In confidence, they are all much more scared about the future we face, but they won’t admit that in public. I call this climate appeasement and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start to tackle the crisis.””

    How is he wrong with that last sentence?

    As a society, we should be scared out of our gourd right now – and we’re the opposite. We NEED to know what’s coming down the pike so we can DO something about it – and that’s ALL McGuire is saying.

    • Roger Walker Says:

      “Climate appeasement” – ah yes, I like that.

      The new science changes the deal, sure. But not enough to alleviate my pessimism. For two reasons.

      First – I know the requisite technology already exists, and successive iterations will improve it beyond recognition (see below: grid-scale batteries). Also, radically new stuff is pouring out of the labs in a constant stream – rare earth components will likely be redundant within ten years. The efficiency of renewable energy sources will continue to grow (exponentially?) while prices fall – it’s already cheaper to install new wind turbines than to merely maintain an existing coal plant. I know all that. But the new stuff needs to be scaled up, produced and installed very, very quickly, and therein lies the rub. For that will require a concerted, global, political effort. And the probability of that happening anytime soon is smaller than that of my rubbing a lamp and getting a brand-new Mercedes.

      Second – Our past emissions have so far caused global warming of 1.2°C. That is well within the declared Kyoto target of 1.5°. Yet the extreme events of the last few years have already been catastrophic for millions of people and are clearly on an exponential trajectory. How anyone could possibly think that 1.5° would be (even relatively) ‘safe’ beats me. Not to mention that a ceiling of 1.5° appears to be generally considered as unattainable. Moreover, the full effect of our past emissions is presumably still working its way through the inertia of System Earth and has yet to manifest itself.


  2. As Karl Popper already said; We have a moral duty to be optimistic.
    Most of all we need optimism in times wich seems to have no change of
    a good outcome. The darker the hour the more the need for optimism.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I don’t see improving theoretical best or better case scenarios (e.g., revised lag time estimate) as a reason to expect that politicians and industries will start to respond better to people’s demands for solid action, nor will it change the fact that a lot of people need to understand the reality that their houses can quickly drop in value as SLR and the corresponding insurance premium rises accelerate, and that food crop yields will tend to be much lower over the coming decades.

    What realistic changes can possibly save Lake Powell or Miami Beach or large swaths of Houston? Can the very expensive New Orleans pump and levee system be expanded to cover the surrounding parishes? Do people still plan to grow crops in the US desert Southwest?

  4. J4Zonian Says:

    “The days ahead will be grimmer, but not disastrous. We may not be able to give climate breakdown the slip but we can head off further installments that would appear as a climate cataclysm bad enough to threaten the very survival of human civilisation.”

    White privilege speaking.


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