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COMMENTARY

Climate crisis is upon us, but 'doomism' doesn't help

Our old friend Tom Toles captured the essence of a dilemma in the Washington Post a year ago, as seen here. It’s what Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, calls “doomism.” Mann, a renowned climate expert, is concerned about overstated scenarios backed by inadequate and sometimes shoddy science. Such hype makes effective action to mitigate our mean warming climate less likely. Mann’s concerns were laid out well before a study was released a few weeks ago by an Australian think tank concluding humanity would likely face an existential crisis by the middle of this century. The study received wide circulation, and reads as an accelerated worst case scenario. Even I, the less scholarly Don Paul, touched on the overstatement concern a few months ago in the Buffalo News.

Here is a tidy summation from NASA of the basic evidence connecting human activity with the irrefutable mean global warming.

Dr. Mann’s primary worry is “doomism” leads to defeatism, and may create in many minds the impression a “tipping point” has been passed or soon will be. If that were correct, some might ask what’s the use in trying to mitigate the warming? Peer-reviewed, evidence-based science does indeed show warming is ahead of climate model schedule in the oceans, the arctic, and many parts of the northern hemisphere. The climate data has been mostly bad news, and mostly worse than 1980s climate models had forecast. Yet the idea of having passed some theoretical point-of-no-return beyond which an assured existential crisis is unfolding does not have wide support in the scientific literature or among the scientists who author the studies.

There hasn’t yet been much time for peer review of this publicized Australian study. Whatever suspicions I may have about hyped doomism should not be taken as a lessening of my recognition of the severity of the climate crises we already face and the coming worsening in the decades ahead.

Some of the elements in the Australian study are based on solid evidence of future ramifications of atmospheric and oceanic warming, along with related rising sea levels. Without meaningful reductions in world greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts from the emissions-caused warming, some of the worst case scenarios are currently looking somewhat more likely by the end of the century than they did 10 years ago. The evidence to support the breakneck acceleration of those scenarios in the study, however, appear to be highly speculative.

The oceans represent the earth’s greatest energy and carbon sink, absorbing much more of the warming than the atmosphere or land mass. Let’s look at sea surface temperature anomalies compared from July 1999, when warming was already well underway:

Here are the current anomalies, just 20 years later:

The area of above average SST readings (yellow to red) has undergone a huge increase. This increase has exceeded model projections. The same is true of arctic sea ice loss and, in the last 6 years, Antarctic ice and glacier loss around the periphery of that continent. However, these accelerations are not yet on course with the extreme case presented with the Australian think tank study. There is still a case to be made that the rate and extent of warming can be meaningfully mitigated if efforts to sharply reduce the burning of fossil fuels are accelerated.

Through market forces, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions had undergone some significant decline over the last decade, partly due to the great recession reducing economic activity for several years, and mainly due to the economic advantages of replacing coal-fired utilities with less expensive natural gas. The latter is still a fossil fuel, but it emits a little less than half the carbon dioxide produced by burning coal. It wasn’t because the U.S. was “biting a bullet” to make this transition to natural gas, or recognizing environmental protocols; it was market advantages in cost. Either way, after quite a number of years of U.S. improvement, our carbon emissions started going back up again in 2018.

The world is clearly on track for serious to grave impacts in future climate change. Left to the steady rate of rising sea levels, by the end of the century hundreds of millions of coastal residents around the globe may have to relocate, and many great cities may be in grave peril of partial to complete inundation. An increase in “sunny day” tidal flooding is already underway in many cities which didn’t occur 20-30 years ago. For political and economic leaders to fail to make greater efforts to move away from fossil fuels, and make transitions in agricultural methods to reduce emissions, the worst-case scenarios become far more likely. China, the worst offender at this time in total carbon output, is finally taking action to switch to more alternative power generation, and India is beginning to do the same. Both nations have a long, long road to travel.

Here is what Michael Mann had to say in a Washington Post article last year, before the Australian study was published: “The evidence that climate change is a serious challenge that we must tackle now is very clear. There is no need to overstate it, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness. Some seem to think that people need to be shocked and frightened to get them to engage with climate change. But research shows that the most motivating emotions are worry, interest and hope. Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.

It is important to communicate both the threat and the opportunity in the climate challenge. Those paying attention are worried, and should be, but there are also reasons for hope. The active engagement of many cities, states and corporations, and the commitments of virtually every nation (minus one) is a very hopeful sign. The rapid movement in the global energy market towards cleaner options is another. Experts are laying out pathways to avoid disastrous levels of climate change and clearly expressing the urgency of action. There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes, if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is largely in our hands.”

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