Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Infinite Growth

NY Times Says Earth Has Unlimited Carrying Capacity, So Forget Climate Change and Party On, Homo Sapiens!

Temperature change over past 11,300 years (in blue, via Science, 2013) plus projected warming over the next century on humanity’s current emissions path (in red, via recent literature).

Memo to Jeff Bezos: If you want to fix the Washington Post, stop publishing anti-science pieces by Bjorn Lomborg

16 September, 2013

In a collective act of media irresponsibility, the New York Times and Washington Post have joined the Wall Street Journal in publishing “don’t worry, be happy” articles days before the big UN climate science report will say quite the opposite.
We expect the WSJ to be a haven for disinformation, and as I discussed Sunday, Matt Ridley didn’t disappoint. But it’s sad when we see at the very same time

         - The Washington Post publish a piece downplaying the climate threat from the well-known and well-debunked confusionist Bjorn Lomborg, and

- The NY Times run a Pollyannish piece, “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem” which asserts, contrary to much recent science, that, “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.”

Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, “an expert on environmental communications,” emailed me this comment on the WashPost and NYT pieces:

My opinion -– irresponsible, one-sided journalism on the part of both papers.

This really looks like the beginnings of the cultural/media counter-offensive against the forthcoming IPCC report.

That saidwhy are both the Post and Times publishing this nonsense? Either they are being played or are complicit.

Obviously fact checking is not required for op-eds in either of our “so-called” leading newspapers.

Memo to Jeff Bezos: The publication of anti-science pieces like “Don’t blame climate change for extreme weather” by Bjorn Lomborg — one of the most debunked confusionists on the planet — is one reason the Washington Post is dying. Here are two quick ways to tell if a proposed op-ed column on climate is worth publishing. Has the author written similar pieces for the anti-science WSJ editorial-page? (see “Bjorn Legacy: Lomborg Urges Climate Inaction With Misleading Stats In WSJ”). Has he or she written pieces for the WashPost that have been repeatedly debunked by climate scientists — see “Climate Science Rapid Response Team debunks Lomborg’s Post op-ed” and “WashPost recycles denier WSJ op-ed from Lomborg.” As that last link makes clear, Jeff, you have your work cut out for you.

Lomborg has lost the presumption of accuracy. He only makes implausibly sensationalistic (and, as it invariably turns out, inaccurate) claims. In his latest piece, he makes a torturous, semantic argument that because climate change doesn’t make every single kind of extreme weather more severe, we somehow can’t say that it makes any kind of extreme weather more severe.

One antidote to Lomborg is Kevin Trenberth’s 2012 piece in the journal Climatic Change (PDF here, HTML here), which explains:

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….

The air is on average warmer and moister than it was prior to about 1970 and in turn has likely led to a 5–10 % effect on precipitation and storms that is greatly amplified in extremes. The warm moist air is readily advected onto land and caught up in weather systems as part of the hydrological cycle, where it contributes to more intense precipitation events that are widely observed to be occurring.

Trenberth is senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colorado, which is currently suffering through one of those purely coincidental once-in-a-thousand-year deluges.

Global warming also makes the most dangerous heatwaves longer, stronger and more frequent. It makes the worst droughts longer lasting and more intense. It lengthens the fire season and contributes to worsening wildfires. And warming-driven sea level rise makes the most destructive storm surges even more devastating.

So I agree with Brulle that for the Washington Post to publish this Lomborg piece now, days before the big UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, is very irresponsible. Then we have the NY Times’ Buzz Lightyear piece (“to infinity and beyond”):

The world population is now estimated at 7.2 billion. But with current industrial technologies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that the more than nine billion people expected by 2050 as the population nears its peak could be supported as long as necessary investments in infrastructure and conducive trade, anti-poverty and food security policies are in place. Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future? The important message from these rough numbers should be clear. There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity. We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish.

Why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this?

They probably don’t understand this because it’s not true. For instance, “In 2009, a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists identified and quantified a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Crossing these boundaries could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.” Unfortunately, we’ve already crossed some key ones:

Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space.

And as for the claim that we could feed more than 9 billion people in 2050 “as long as necessary investments in infrastructure and conducive trade, anti-poverty and food security policies are in place,” that’s like saying we could end poverty if we had the necessary investments in antipoverty programs. Actually, it’s worse than that because of climate change, which this piece ignores entirely.

Earlier this year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a study that found cheap food is a thing of the past because of such factors as a growing population and “increasing environmental pressures” — which include climate change-fueled storms, drought and flooding that will slow the growth of global food production. In China, water shortages will be a key problems as aquifers continue to be drained and as rainfall becomes more variable. The report points out:

It is estimated that some 25% of all agricultural land is highly degraded, with growing water scarcity a fact for many countries. Many fish stocks are over-exploited, or in risk of being over-exploited.

Not exactly a rosy scenario

Last year, a report from Oxfam warned that extreme weather events would cause food prices around to world to soar in the coming decades. The report projected worldwide corn prices could spike by 500 percent by 2030!

The NY Times piece makes some handwaving arguments about human history to argue that we can overcome any challenge — but the top figure makes clear we are rapidly heading far outside the bounds of any human experience.

A 2012 review of the scientific literature published in Nature by 22 scientists, “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere” (subs. req’d). As the news release explained:

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.

It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author…. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”

… “We really do have to be thinking about these global scale tipping points, because even the parts of Earth we are not messing with directly could be prone to some very major changes,” Barnosky said. “And the root cause, ultimately, is human population growth and how many resources each one of us uses.”

Co-author Elizabeth Hadly from Stanford University said “we may already be past these tipping points in particular regions of the world….

But the NY Times ignores this vast and deep body of research to blithely assert:

The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.

Yes, well, right now what we are making of the environment in some of the world’s most arable land is a permanent Dust Bowl.

Three years ago, Lonnie Thompson published a paper explaining why climatologists are now speaking out, “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”

It may be true in the abstract that the only limit to our creating a sustainable future is our imaginations and our social systems — but it is the height of irresponsibility for the New York Times to fail to point out that right now we are being let down by both and, as a result, headed toward the abyss.

Rather than publishing largely substance-free feel-good articles that just happen to be timed a few days before the latest IPCC climate report, our major media should be informing the public about the clear and present danger to civilization posed by climate change. The unrestricted carbon pollution party needs to end — and soon.

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