Climate Change Carries Great Risks, But New York Mag Story Goes Too Far

“It is, I promise, worse than you think.”


 

Like many of you, I’ve been sounding off this week on David Wallace-Wells’ massive cover story for New York Magazine, titled “The Uninhabitable Earth.” According to the magazine itself it is now the most widely read article in the history of the publication. Not often does a science story attain this level of reach, especially amid a news cycle laser-focused on our horror show of an administration. That’s no small feat, and the author should be commended for sparking conversation on the most critical issue of our time. But what the magazine neglects to mention in their boast is that much of the engagement with the story has been of a critical rather than approbative nature — and not merely from the usual suspects but from many scientists as well.

Wells describes his article, based on a series of interviews with prominent climate scientists and researchers, as “a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action.” Over the course of 7,000 words, he explores what the world will look like by the end of this century and beyond if emissions continue apace and no collective large-scale mitigation strategies are employed — in effect the worst-case scenarios of future climate change.

The result is undeniably haunting as Wells chronicles one looming hazard after another in vivid fashion, from drought and famine, wildfires and flooding, heat waves and acidified oceans, coastal erosion and a shifting of borders to mass extinctions and higher rates of transmissible disease. To be sure, this is climate doom at its most serrated, designed to unsettle even the psychologically hardened. “No matter how well-informed you are,” he writes, “you are surely not alarmed enough.”

On one level, Wells is absolutely right. Most otherwise informed people do underestimate the gravity of climate change, and just as many undervalue what’s actually required to reverse the damage already done. And let us not forget the nearly half of Americans who reject the science altogether. Faced with these discrepancies, then, perhaps there’s something to be gained by examining the more pessimistic ends of the spectrum as derived from model projections, which are at least as probable as the best-case scenarios (e.g., keeping warming to between 1.5 and 2 C as specified under the Paris agreement). In contrast with climate coverage that customarily avoids straying too far from IPCC’s median outcomes, Wells sought to capture a future reality in which all goes to hell in a handbasket.

Unfortunately, in terms of its scientific accuracy and ability to galvanize torpid bystanders, Wells’ essay leaves much to be desired. While the piece is admirable in both scope and intent, it’s also riddled with exaggeration, outright errors, and missing context. On several occasions the author misreports certain studies, misinterprets evidence, and missumarizes key data while needlessly skewing the narrative toward apocalypticism and fatalism. Taken together, the New York Magazine article represents a missed opportunity to relay the complexities of climate change in a way that is both accessible to the general public and faithful to our best scientific understanding.

I’ve carved out a separate section below for my initial teardown of some of the issues on the science side of things. But since my fingers only have so much stamina, it was nice to see a more authoritative assay provided by the folks at Climate Feedback — a kind of scientific watchdog group that review and score popular media stories related to climate change. They scored Well’s article a negative 0.7 as a measure of overall scientific credibility (read: not good). Many points that I missed upon a first reading of the text are captured in detail in their independent evaluation of the story, concluding:

 

“While it is clear that ongoing warming of the global climate would eventually have very severe consequences, the concept of the Earth becoming uninhabitable within anywhere near the timescales suggested in the article is pure hyperbole. The author has clearly done very extensive research and addresses a number of climate threats that are indeed major issues, but generally the narrative ramps up the threat to go beyond the level that is supported by science.”

 
Reception among the climate and broader scientific community has generally been negative. Michael Mann took to Facebook to air his concerns, noting that Wells mischaracterizes the current state of research on methane feedbacks and completely misreports a recent study on satellite data in which necessary corrections were made that brought the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s dataset more in line with model simulations.

Eric Holthaus of Grist found another 14 errors and exaggerations, including Well’s discussion of human sensitivity to heat stress and elevated CO2, “reanimated” prehistoric pathogens, a “rolling death smog,” the causes of the Permian-Triassic extinction, the effects of climate change on tornadoes and hail, and intensity of past temperature changes (which I also mention below). Many other notable scientists have issued caveats of their own.

It bears pointing out that each of Wells’ mistakes are conspicuously in the same direction: that of amping up catastrophe and painting an overly bleak depiction of our prospects. Such a pattern is hardly a coincidence as it adds fuel to the “doomist” narrative he wished to create. So what was the objective behind this narrative choice?

It appears the author’s aim was to alchemize, through scare tactics and indiscriminate dread, a shared but broadly latent concern about climate change into dire calls for action — to toggle the zeitgeist from complacency to urgency. In this light, playing fast and loose with the science can be viewed as a necessary means to shake us out of our state of collective inertia. But whether or not fear is an effective catalyst for achieving these goals — and the social science extant seems to suggest it isn’t — it should not come at the expense of scientific accuracy and public trust. Misconstruing the evidence and overplaying our hand always comes back to bite us, as fellow debunkers of the 1975 Newsweek story can earnestly attest. Yes, deniers will deny. It’s what they do, after all. But surely the solution isn’t to veer further away from the truth — to compromise on the facts?

Climate journalism has always had to toe that delicate line between accuracy and hyperbole. It’s a tough needle to thread, especially given the social and historical memory surrounding the science. Yet Wells’ article, to my mind and to those throughout the climate and earth sciences community, is a clear example of actual alarmism in the popular press, and for that reason ought to be called out as such. As honest communicators and practitioners of the science, we cannot simultaneously push back against denialist charges of alarmism while turning a blind eye to the genuine cases that crop up.

Laying out the worst repercussions a worsening climate has in store for the planet isn’t necessarily a bad idea in principle (so long as it’s accompanied by solutions), but the underlying science, and the communication thereof, matter a great deal. Just as there’s danger in understating the risks, we should likewise be wary of overstatement. As John Timmer reports at Ars:
 

“While that means pushing back against alarmism, it also means pushing back against the people who argue that climate change doesn’t pose a risk. “Claims that there are no problems are just as bad (and perhaps worse) than over-egged claims,” Schmidt said. “To retain credibility, we have to tackle both. There are of course uncertainties in the science, but that neither means we know nothing, nor does it imply that anything goes.”

 
Finally, it should go without saying that pointing out the inaccuracies in this story does nothing to undermine either the manifold risks climate change poses or the urgency of those risks. The first and second order effects of climate change are serious enough to facilitate loss of sleep. As Dr. Mann and others have noted, there is no need to push the science further than current evidence can bear.

Bottom line: We should, every one of us, be deeply worried about present and future climate change. That this far-reaching story is plagued with exaggeration and specious language is not mutually exclusive with those concerns. It is possible to be both accurate and effective, and those who strike this balance should be rewarded for their efforts. Though more measured and nuanced approaches may suffer a decline in audience share as a result, they stand a better chance of avoiding the fate of denialist fodder and loss of public trust in science.

Suspect Science

1. Bangladesh
 

“Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade.”

 
The latest IPCC report projects that sea level will rise between a half meter (1.6 feet) and a full meter (3.2 feet) by the end of the century. What does this mean for Bangladesh, with over half of the country lying < 5 m above sea level? It means that many living along the coast will eventually have to migrate inland, but it will be gradual; 1 m of SLR will not displace coastal communities all at once, and certainly not by century-end.

The bigger problem for Bangladesh from a climate perspective is nuisance flooding: over ¾ of the country lies within river deltas from the the three major rivers that flow into the country. Climate change increases moisture in the air and accelerates the hydrological cycle, leading to more (and more intense) precipitation events, wreaking continual havoc on regions prone to flooding, like Bangladesh.

The language here is much too sloppy to make proper sense of (a problem that plagues much of the piece). What does it even mean to say “we’ll lose them”? Bangladesh as a country will no longer exist? Ambiguous writing is ambiguous.

2. Methane Feedbacks
 

“…and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt.”

 
The latest evidence suggests concerns over methane “timebombs” buried in permafrost are misplaced. Many commentators have tended to exaggerate the near-term threat of climate feedbacks involving the release of frozen methane.

The key questions involved are twofold: (1) how quickly the pulses will be released into the atmosphere (i.e., gradually over the course of centuries, released on sub-decadal timescales, sustained pulses), and (2) just how much is there buried in the permafrost and deep sea hydrates?

(1) is far more important because even if a lot of CH4 is buried in certain reservoirs, it has to actually make it into the atmosphere (without first being consumed or absorbed by marine life and other reservoirs), and it also has to be outgassed at a rate quicker than its natural atmospheric lifetime (~10 years). So unless the methane pulses are on the order of sub-decadal timescales, it won’t make much of a difference for the long-term warming trend. This is why, ultimately, CO2 concentration is what matters.

A recent meta-analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Rochester concluded the following:

“This review paper provides a truly comprehensive synthesis of the knowledge on the interaction of gas hydrates and climate during the contemporary period. The authors’ sober, data-driven analyses and conclusions challenge the popular perception that warming climate will lead to a catastrophic release of methane to the atmosphere as a result of gas hydrate breakdown…not only are the annual emissions of methane to the ocean from degrading gas hydrates far smaller than greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere from human activities, but most of the methane released by gas hydrates never reaches the atmosphere. Instead, the methane often remains in the undersea sediments, dissolves in the ocean, or is converted to carbon dioxide by microbes in the sediments or water column.”

See other discussions and studies here, here, here, here and here.

3. Albedo and cloud feedbacks
 

“The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat)…”

 
IPCC reports certainly do take into account albedo and other important feedbacks, like the thinning Arctic and Greenland ice masses, as do the models. And clouds can both absorb and reflect heat. (Cloud albedo can vary from less than 10% to more than 90%.) It depends on the physical properties of the cloud (e.g., height, thickness, radiative properties). For example, stratocumulus and other shallow clouds reflect incoming insolation and are thus negative forcing agents, while cirrus clouds operate primarily in the infrared range, allowing insolation to pass through to the surface but trapping infrared radiation, and are positive forcing agents.

Thus, clouds have both shortwave (SWCRE) and longwave cloud radiative effects (LWCRE), with Section 7.2.1 of AR5 citing a net cooling effect when both are taken together. (More recent model results expect this to change to a net positive feedback as the planet grows warmer, however.)

Moreover, as Mark Maslin notes in his book Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction, 3rd ed., the physical basis of how clouds are represented (parameterized) in AOGCMs has greatly improved through the inclusion of cloud microphysical properties in the cloud water budget equations. While clouds still represent a significant source of uncertainty, studies suggest that even if the most extreme cooling (negative forcing) value is supplied for clouds, the warming factors (from GHGs) are still 3x larger.

4. Dramatic Temperature Shifts
 

“Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the geological record shows that temperature can shift as much as ten degrees or more in a single decade.”

 
Is that so? 10 degrees in a single decade? C or F? Which period/event was that? I’ve not come across any change this dramatic in my reading of the literature, certainly not a global one, and I’m fairly certain there are rate-limiting factors that would make something like this impossible, especially sans human influence (not to mention that decadal timsescale resolution is all but out of reach for currently available paleoclimate proxies).

Edit: This claim apparently refers to the Younger Dryas, as reflected in the GISP2 ice core data from Greenland. As expected, the change in temperature was restricted to the North Atlantic region and thus was not a global event as vaguely implied here.

5. No More Primates?
 

“The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were 260 feet higher, and the warming wiped out all but one species of European primates.”

 
The one species claim sounds wrong but I’m too lazy to check on that one. But given the amateurish presentation of the science on offer here, I’m inclined to distrust it on prima facie grounds.

Edit: This claim was subsequently removed from the article, and the sentence in question is now accompanied by an asterisk acknowledging the error(s).


 

Further reading:

Feature image via New Scientist