Sunday, 19 October 2014

Listening to the case against Prof. Guy McPherson

In discussion with Nicole Foss she has highly recommended that I listen to the following podcast from Radio Ecoshock. She is convinced that I will immediately be swayed by the force of the argument.

See my discussion of this HERE and HERE

On the contrary, I found it devoid of credible evidence and full of innuendo and crude attack.

Human extinction? Not so much
The case against going extinct soon due to extreme climate change & human impacts. Science journalist Scott K. Johnson and counter-culture podcaster

To hear the poscast GO HERE

These are the notes for the show

Last week, Dr. Guy McPherson predicted humans will go extinct by 2030. Now science journalist Scott K Johnson and counter-culture podcaster KMO explain why they disagree. It's bad, but not that bad.


In last week's Radio Ecoshock show, Dr. Guy McPherson explained his scientific reasons why he thinks humans will become extinct before the year 2040. He outlined a combined ecological collapse, already on-going in the extinction of other species, a dying ocean, the prospect of abandoned or failing nuclear plants, and the over-riding shift of Earth's climate.

McPherson is a Professer Emeritus in natural science from the University of Arizona. He has collected masses of scientific papers, news articles, and statements to show the worst of all worlds developing.

Our next guest says Guy McPherson is wrong. Scott K. Johnson describes himself as "a geoscience educator, hydrologist, and freelance science writer contributing at Ars Technica." His personal blog is at An article there has become a focal point for people questioning McPherson and the whole idea of near-term human extinction. It's title is "How Guy McPherson gets it wrong".

Scott K. Johnson

I begin by clearing on thing up. Some supporters of McPherson seem to think that anyone who disagrees with him is a climate denier. Scott Johnson is not. He thinks climate change is a clear and present danger to us all. 

Although not strictly speaking a scientist, Johnson has plenty of academic training, with a specialty in hydrology. He is a teacher, and as he says, a science journalist.

But Johnson does see a strange parallel between Guy McPherson's approach to facts, and the way climate deniers tend to use them. Scott says it involves cherry-picking some parts of a paper or report, without consider the rest of it, or even the conclusions reached by the author(s). Johnson notes that McPherson is caught in a double-bind. On the one hand, he presents his array of reasons why we will go extinct as based on science. On the other, he dismisses scientists who don't agree with his bleak prognosis as being too afraid to talk about the awful truth they know.

I point out to Scott that I have talked with scientists, often after an interview, who will say privately they are more worried than they admit publicly. That does happen. But that doesn't mean that all scientists are afraid. We have plenty of outspoken scientists, and I haven't found any that publish peer-reviewed papers who say we will become extinct in the next 25 years.

We discuss the central role played in Guy's dating scheme, the time of our extinction, by a single "paper" (which turns out to be just a blog post) by Malcolm Light of the Arctic News. I've written extensively about the unreliable nature of Malcolm Light's pretty wild prediction, including the very month and year all humans will be gone from the Northern Hemisphere. 

In what looks like a scientific paper, complete with complex graphs and charts, we find this stunning announcement: "The absolute mean extinction time for the northern hemisphere is 2031.8 and for the southern hemisphere 2047.6 with a final mean extinction time for 3/4 of the earth's surface of 2039.6."

Well that's pretty precise isn't it? In August 2031, say goodbye for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. There is a lot in this article. I won't call it a scientific "paper" until I can find evidence it was peer-reviewed or published in an official journal.

This reminds me more of religion than science. If you haven't already read that piece, please check it out here. I won't go over all that again, except to say it's a very weak spot in Guy argument, and he's sticking to it.

One thing alarmed me talking with Scott. He's had emails from spouses or relatives of people who made major life changes - quit their jobs, their relationships, or sold off their possessions. They seem fixated only on everything about our up-coming demise as a species. It seems like a kind of parallel to religious conversion, or maybe the most extreme preppers.

Guy is also aware of the mental health risks of considering our extinction. He told us last week it's been hard on him personally. His blog "Nature's Bat's Last" has had a warning, right on top, "Contemplating Suicide? Please Read This". As I say to KMO, I sometimes worry about the negative impacts of Radio Ecoshock as well. I try to balance the really bad news, at least a little, with some more positive lifestyle changes that can help us personally, and help the planet too. As you will know by the end of this program, I am not ready to grieve for the future, and in fact, I will never give up.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Scott K. Johnson in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


Another key part of Guy McPherson's case for our near-term extinction is the long list of positive feed-back loops (37 by his last count). I've said to Guy and to others, I think he's performing a service to us all by repeatedly bringing these to our attention. Guy also points out these feed-back loops can interact with each other, making climate change worse and faster. True enough, I think.

But a retired research scientist from the University of Texas has looked at all these positive feed-back loops, and say they cannot possibly amount to human extinction in the 2030's. They are bad, but not that bad.

Michael Tobis blogs at He's active in the Global Warming Fact of the Day Facebook group. His detailed examination of the extinction-level possibilities of feedback loops is found here.

First of all, once again, Tobis is not a person who downplays the developing impact of climate change. He's obviously deeply worried about it, and follows the science closely. It's just that he sees nothing scientific in the claim that positive feed-back loops add up to our extinction, much less our extinction in the next few decades.

One place I'm not sure about Tobis' argument is the way he seems to discount the interaction between feedback loops. He says they are "additive" rather than "multiplicative" the way McPherson claims, and makes a big deal about that. Maybe. But if one feedback loop, like Arctic fires, feeds another, like darkening snow on Greenland, I don't have much trouble seeing the result could be larger than the sum of it's parts. You need to check this out for yourself.

One thing for sure, as I point out in this radio interview: Guy McPherson does not give us the whole picture when he fails to tell us about negative feedback loops. These are the "brakes" in the natural system which can limit runaway climate change (so far). I've run into one recently, which you'll hear about in an upcoming show. That is the way Boreal forests, once burned, are less likely to burn again within a few decades, even if they regrow. There is a limiting factor at work, a negative feedback loop. Our picture of science is not complete without these, and we need to hunt for them as hard as we do positive feedback loops. Otherwise we are just in the business of frightening ourselves.


I've just realized I said Malcolm Light's essay about flaming death and our extinction is posted on the web site of AMEG the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. Actually it is found on the Arctic News blog. Bloggers Sam Carana and Malcolm Light were part of AMEG, but left over a year ago. AMEG and Arctic News are separate.

I was also puzzled last week to hear Guy McPherson say University of Ottawa climate scientist Paul Beckwith predicts we will see warming by as much as 16 degrees Centigrade in the next couple of decades.

The exact quote from Guy McPherson on the Radio Ecoshock show last week:

"The likes of Paul Beckwith, for example, that we are headed for the abyss. Although Paul would not use those words, and perhaps doesn't even believe that we are headed for our own extinction, even though he predicts up to 16 C temperature rise within a couple of decades, and that prediction was made more than year ago.... "

I checked this out with Paul Beckwith, and here is what he told me in an email, quote:

"During the past, around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago the Earth periodically cycled between cold glacial conditions and much warmer temperatures in so-called Dansgaard-Oeschger Oscillations (DO oscillations). Typically the temperature rise was 5 to 6 degrees C over one or two decades. The temperature would stay high for a century to millennia and then drop down again. However there was one case where the temperature rise was 16 degrees C over a few decades. This data was obtained from the Greenland Ice core records. Thus, the climate of the Earth has undergone very rapid temperature swings in the past, and is therefore capable of such changes again. I have also said that I think we are presently in early stages of abrupt climate change, and could see temperature rises of 5 to 6 degrees in a decade or two."

That the end of a quote from scientist Paul Beckwith. You can see the difference from what Guy McPherson told us. Guy was careful to say UP to 16 degrees, but we are left thinking Paul predict that WILL happen. He says it has happened in the geological record, and we are on the brink of some kind of jump in global mean temperatures, perhaps 5 or 6 degrees in a decade or two. That's far more than most scientists are willing to suggest, but I think Guy took some liberties to say Beckwith absolutely "predicts" anything like 16 degrees will happen. The picture we get is different from what the original scientists said in full, leaving us with in incorrect impression. That's why we have to be careful with Guy's communication of what the science says.

In a post on this Radio Ecoshock blog for last week's show, Guy then wrote this:

"Beckwith incorrectly believes (1) the U.S. will employ its military to cool the Arctic when the situation becomes obviously severe, and (2) humans will survive a 16 C rise in temperature. Believe his fantasies if you like. I prefer reality."

The U.S. military may well act to cool the Arctic. They just sent troops to fight Ebola in Liberia, so it's not inconceivable that after a climate panic, the Pentagon will be called to fight climate change.

The second part of that statement, that Beckwith believes humans will survive a 16 C rise in temperature is just ridiculous. Again, I checked with Paul Beckwith. He did not say that, and does not believe that. Frankly, I find it strange that Guy McPherson makes such statements, that can easily be checked and found out. Who is believing in fantasies, and who in reality?


I didn't get round to listening to the whole show ( I can get a whiff of it from listening to some of it and reading the comments and above notes). I will be accused of distortion whether or not I listen carefully to every word or not.

The first blinding thing that strikes me is that they claim (falsely) that the only sources for Guy's position is Arctic News and Malcolm Light. They then go on to ridicule and try to discredit both.

They ignore the fact that Guy's contention that the methane clathrate gun has been fired is supported in several scientific papers. And they must be blissfully unaware of all the articles  in scientific and other publications that make reference to the methane emergency.

It reminds me of what I have encountered before. "There is no proof. Provide us with the proof!"  And then when you provide it in spadefuls (as Guy McPherson does), they shout in union, "this is not proof! Provide us with the proof!"

"Tails we win, head you lose"

Not least they ignore the observational findings of the Russian team, led by Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov, who have reported on the increasing releases of methane from the Eastern Siberian ice shelf.

In this video Shakhova herself expresses her concern at what the effect of earthquakes would be on further destabilising clathrates and also, significantly (at the end of the video) about what would happen if there is a (likely) sudden "burp" of methane.

"In short, we do not like. We do not like it at all"

This has recently become a scandal as the NASA Goddard head criticised the Russian team and ridiculed the presentation of Prof. Wadhams while the Royal Society neglected to invite the Russian team to present their findings.

Details of this can be found HERE.

This is at the same time as the Swerus-3 expedition found vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor of the Laptev continental slope.

Perhaps Swedes and Russians are not trustworthy enough because hey are not part of the Anglo-American elite.

If that is not enough, then we have esteemed British scientist, Peter Wadhams reporting on the issue. He has spent 30 years in nuclear submarines making observations of the sea ice.

What is at issue is that the actual observations of scientists has measured both a much more rapid decline in Arctic sea ice as well as release of methane than that posited by consensus scientists in their computer modelling.

This has brought what the mainstream projected would occur in the next hundred years into the present and the near future.

And see this (with David Wasdell, Dr Peter Wadhams, Dr Natalia Shakhova and Dr. James Hansen.

The mainstream scientists are protecting their own reputations in the face of observed reality while even large parts of the scientific and mass media is starting to acknowledge the reality of the methane emergency.

Put all the above factors together with projections of something between a 4C and 16C increase in world temperature by some scientists the probability of mass near-term extinction of life is definitely on the table.


In some ways the discussion and comments after the show were more interesting and instructional than the show itself.

Here are some comments from Guy McPherson and some of the more sane commenters selected by me:

Guy McPherson: Beckwith told me directly, to my face, that he believed we'd survive a global-average temperature rise of 16 C. Alex, your continued disparagement of my work, which cites the work of many others, is profoundly unprofessional and disingenuous.

Your approach is clear: Find anybody to disagree with the science, and claim they're disagreeing with me. You prop up the credentials of Scott Johnson and KMO are not scientists, but they aren't scientists, they don't cite any science, and they disparage my work based on opinion, not fact.

KMO uses an incorrect title for me, and you don't correct it. I'm not a former professor.

I'm starting to think you have an agenda, Alex. Sadly, science doesn't seem to be part of it.

.Please point out any errors at Nature Bats Last, Scott. I will correct them.

Has anybody here actually watched the Beckwith videos? In this one, from October 2012, he anticipates up to a 6 C temperature rise within a decade or so: 

And, from December 2013, he describes up to 16 C temperature rise in less than two decades:

In both cases, he uses the past as analogs for the near future, unless I'm misinterpreting them. Am I?

Scott Johnson said...
Did you bother to watch the videos?

Guy McPherson
I did. I also know something about what I'm saying.

The temperature estimates come from Greenland ice cores. Those are local temperatures. When Paul refers to these numbers as global temperature increases, he is either misspeaking or mistaken.

Guy McPherson said...

In my opinion there's no point trying to convince people beyond presenting the abundant evidence. I've already done that, and they deny the evidence. Johnson doesn't believe the clathrate gun has been fired!

gail zawacki said...

"One thing for sure, as I point out in this radio interview: Guy McPherson does not give us the whole picture when he fails to tell us about negative feedback loops. These are the "brakes" in the natural system which can limit runaway climate change (so far). I've run into one recently, which you'll hear about in an upcoming show. That is the way Boreal forests, once burned, are less likely to burn again within a few decades, even if they regrow. There is a limiting factor at work, a negative feedback loop. Our picture of science is not complete without these, and we need to hunt for them as hard as we do positive feedback loops." 

Alex, I think this passage is indicative of how screwed we actually are for a couple of reasons that jump out. I don't agree with everything Guy says, but consider, nobody needs to HUNT for the amplifying feedbacks, there are so many of them, and they are so potent that they DWARF the initial forcing from anthropogenic CO2. The mere fact we have to "hunt" for negative feedbacks demonstrates that, such as they exist, they are vanishingly insignificant compared to the exponentially rapid amplifiers in the system. Earth always slips swiftly from a cold to a hot equilibrium, and very slowly in the opposite direction, precisely because the amplifying feedbacks in warming dominate. Second, the example of the forest fires is kind of analogous to saying, that it doesn't matter that the corpse is on the table because it can't die again. YAY! But that's just my little joke. In more general terms, and here I part company with both you and Guy, I see climate change as only ONE SYMPTOM of ecosystem collapse. It is surely a very devastating one, but even without it, humanity is a cancer on the planet. We are consuming, destroying habitat, overfishing, polluting and poisoning the air, soil and water quite literally just as fast as we possible can - and there is NO indication at all that we will wind up any differently than the deer on St. Mathews Island as a result. We simply don't have it in our DNA to rein in our appetites, our consumption, and our reproduction. So while I see nothing wrong in being happy (especially since those of us who indulge in reading on computers are the beneficiaries of both energy and human slaves) in the meanwhile. But the truth is, like Wile E. Coyote we have already plunged over the cliff, just a lot of us haven't realized it yet. And no, it is a prediction that has absolutely nothing to do with religion or cults. It is based on irrefutable, irreversible trends and a view of history unclouded by wishful thinking (or hopium, a perfectly legitimate coinage IMO).

Guy McPherson:
Writing for the 3 September 2012 issue of Global Policy, Michael Jennings concludes that “a suite of amplifying feedback mechanisms, such as massive methane leaks from the sub-sea Arctic Ocean, have engaged and are probably unstoppable.”

There you have it. A refereed journal article concluding the clathrate gun has been fired. Will it be the final nail in the deniers' coffin? Undoubtedly not, even though it follows years of overwhelming evidence in similar fashion.

gail zawacki said...
"...He is still claiming that "the clathrate gun has been fired.."

Well, it has. The oceans are warming, and that IS GOING TO melt the clathrates. It HAS TO, because the oceans will continue to warm even more, there is nothing to stop it.

You can quibble about how quickly the methane will be released (not just the clathrates but the melting permafrost and dying forests), but there really is no question that it WILL be released.


Guy McPherson said...

Clathrate summary:

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  1. The case against going extinct soon due to extreme climate change ...