Hope, Damned Lies, and Statistics

We are entering a new era of global warming denialism. Recent polling shows attitudes of GOP constituents catching up to those of independents and Democrats. That shift should result in a shift among the GOP leaders – either more sensible ones will be voted in, or the more malleable will have a change of heart.

However, don’t think this means the denialism will go away. There is a lot of middle ground between the standard denialism (the science isn’t solid enough) to standard acceptance position (significant changes are required now). For example, “global warming is real, but we’ve almost got it licked”.

I encountered an example of this middle-ground denialism through the excellent, if gloomy, article by Linda Marsa entitled, “Scorched Earth, 2200AD“.

The article describes a hell of “drenching rains with howling 100-mile-an-hour winds, alternating with fierce dust storms, the deadly soil tsunamis that rumble up from the deserts”. In this nightmare, a remnant of humanity clings to life in the lands near the North Pole. Marsa interviewed several scientists, from climatologists to archaeologists, who explain why climate change and civilizational collapse could scale to that in the article in just two centuries.

How did I get from Marsa’s article to Denialism 2.0? I had clipped it to Evernote since I wanted to annotate it. At the bottom of a note, Evernote offers to show some related content. I opened the list and “The Alarming Thing About Climate Alarmism” was at the top. From the title, I expected run-of-the-mill denialism and, out of morbid curiosity, I clicked.

But, surprise-surprise, author Bjorn Lomborg does not deny that global warming is real and caused by humans. He just thinks things aren’t so bad and that all these dire predictions are overwrought alarmism. To be sure, alarmism can lead to bad decisions. Examples of this abound. Thus, I agree with Lomborg that we should be certain policy decisions are based on solid bad news, not exaggerated bad news.

However, his basis for claiming global warming has risen to the unfounded alarmist level is a litany of cherry-picked data: less surface temperature rise than expected (the heat went into the ocean), Antarctic sea ice increased (it’s snowing more because of the increase in moisture in the atmosphere), and a couple other classics. Basically, he took the recent playbook of standard denialism and put a wool-skin of not-a-denialist over it.

I’m not going to refute these points here. That’s been done ad nauseum elsewhere and anyone who can use a search engine can find the discussions. One is either convinced by the refutations or not, and me repeating them seems a waste of time at best.

Good cherry-picking ignore counter-evidence of course, so here is the list of things that failed to abate in the last few years: Arctic sea ice diminishing, glaciers retreating, annual temperature average record setting, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels soaring, and Greenlandic and Antarctic ice sheets shrinking. Yes, you read that last item correctly: even though southern sea ice expanded, the ice on the continent itself shrank despite the snowfall increase. If tallying the lists matters, Lomborg’s is shorter.

But, enough measuring. It’s not the point – or at least not my point here.

My argument is that this sort of denialism insinuates itself into the listener’s mind far easier than the old-fashioned kind. To think that we are winning the fight against global warming is alluring. It makes one feel good – sure, we screwed up, but we’re getting it in hand, and after only a couple decades of half-assed efforts. You go, humanity!

I don’t want to deny the power of hope. We will undoubtedly need a lot of it if we are to tackle the problem. Many have already lost hope that we can act soon enough or they feel that we’re past the point of no return.

However, premature hope seems equally dangerous. We need, for lack of a better term, evidence-based hope.

Lomborg’s message of hope is a lie. A dangerous lie. Perhaps a less dangerous lie than the notion that the problem doesn’t exist at all. Less dangerous in the same way that telling you, since you have felt fine for the last few weeks, you need not worry about your cancer is less dangerous than telling you that you don’t have cancer at all. Without treatment, you still die of cancer.

“After only a couple decades” is the first problem. Even if Lomborg’s good points were valid and outnumbered the bad ones, a decade of encouraging trends means nothing context of global climate. That is puny human-scale thinking. This goose started cooking a couple centuries ago.

And that is the second, more serious punchline. Even though a couple centuries aren’t much when talking about big climate changes, if Marsa’s article has any merit, we have primed a whopper in short order.

This is a titanic thing we wrestle with. We need a sustained effort, a long-term sustained effort. At least as much as that, perhaps even predicating it, is the need for some reality-based hope. Hope that tells us we don’t need to act is exact opposite of what we need.

The changing attitudes in the US are a reason for hope. Cherry-picked, stale talking points are not.


Useful links:
Most Republicans Say They Back Climate Action, Poll Finds
Why did Earth’s surface temperature stop rising in the past decade?
Why is southern sea ice increasing?

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