There’s a recent Nature Climate Change article by Shinichiro Asayam, Rob Bellamy, Oliver Geden, Warren Pearce and Mike Hulme. It’s called Why setting a climate deadline is dangerous. The basic idea is that the rise in political rhetoric that sets a fixed deadline for decisive action on climate change can be dangerous, and that the IPCC should take responsibility for its report and openly challenge the credibility of such a deadline.
This relates to recent rhetoric suggesting that we have 12 years to avoid a climate catastrophe. I have a number of problems with what this article suggests. Firstly, as others have pointed out on Twitter, this 12 year deadline is presented in a number of different ways, some of which are entirely consistent with what is presented in the IPCC reports. Even the Guardian article – used as an example in the paper – correctly describes what is presented in the IPCC report: Carbon pollution would have to be cut by 45% by 2030 – compared with a 20% cut under the 2C pathway – and come down to zero by 2050. Some of the rhetoric does indeed incorrectly represent what is being presented by the IPCC, but this has been criticised by climate scientists.
The other issue I have, is why target this rhetoric? Why not highlight that it’s dangerous to promote climate science denial? What about Lukewarmerism? Is being alarmist dangerous? Is being too optimistic about our ability to solve this problem dangerous? What about being too pessimistic? Is it not dangerous to promote a narrative that suggests we should delay acting on climate change? Maybe it’s also dangerous to suggest that we should take drastic action now? Given that any public rhetoric about this complex topic is likely to be simplistic, it’s probably pretty easy to find some reason to criticise what is presented.
The article also claims that
Climate change is a ‘wicked social problem’, one that must be resolved and renegotiated, over and over again22. Deadline-ism is at once both ineffectual and self-defeating.
I’ve discussed this issue before and, in my view, it’s simply wrong. We’ll always live in a world were climatic events can have a lot of impact. We also can’t avoid there being periods when the climate changes; we’re not going to turn off volcanoes, stop solar variability, or halt internal climate variability. However, in this context climate change refers to anthropogenically-driven climate change which is almost entirely due to our emission of greenhouse gases and aerosols into the atmosphere. We do have a solution for this; get net emissions to zero. This may be complex and difficult, but it’s not wicked.
Also, the 22 in the above quote is a citation to a paper by Reiner Grundmann, that I discussed in this post. I’ve discussed Reiner Grundmann’s work on a number of occasions and have mostly been unimpressed. Something that I’ve never discussed, and for which he should probably be better known, is that he once suggested that [t]here is an eerie similarity between race science and climate science. I’ll leave it to the readers to judge the significance of this.
The final issue I have with the article is that it’s a classic blame the messenger framing. The issue isn’t what is presented in the IPCC reports, but how it’s been interpreted, and used, by some who are promoting drastic action. I think it’s perfectly fine for climate scientists to call out those who misrepresent the science, but it’s not their fault that some have done so. The IPCC also doesn’t really have a group who could easily go around criticising those who misrepresent what is in their reports. They have administrative staff, but the reports are written by scientists who volunteer their time; there isn’t really a formal IPCC group who can then go around criticising those who misrepresent what the reports present. Maybe there should be, but there currently isn’t. Also, they’d have to be very careful that they didn’t then go from being an organisation that was policy relevant to one that was becoming policy prescriptive.
So, as you can tell, I’m not particularly taken with the article. There is more that could be said, but I’m trying, and failing, to keep this short. I’m going to end with some additional context about some of the authors that may, or may not, be useful.
Since some may be new to this topic, I thought I might provide some additional context. I’ll express some of my own views, but people should make their own minds up about the relevance.
Oliver Geden has made similar arguments before. He’s criticised temperature targets, the inclusion of negative emission technologies in some of the scenarios, and now deadline-ism (a word that the authors appear to have made up). There’s typically some truth to what he presents and I’ve sometimes found it interesting to engage with his arguments. However, I think they’re often simplistic and tend to have (as is the case here) a blame the messenger framing. Overall, I don’t find his contributions particularly helpful or constructive.
Warren Pearce has also been an author of a paper that criticised the IPCC press conference and suggested that it was incoherent. A number of us wrote a response in which we pointed out that they appeared to have misunderstood the terminology and that some of what they presented was simply not true. Warren Pearce also wrote a Guardian article asking if climate skeptics [were] the real champions of the scientific method? To be fair, his conclusion wasn’t yes but he certainly painted some well-known “skeptics” in a much more favourable light than many would regard as reasonable.
Warren Pearce has also been critical of consensus messaging (Reiner Grundmann and Mike Hulme were also amongst the authors of this paper). In this context, Warren Pearce once provided a platform for Ben Pile to criticise consensus messaging. If anyone has come across Ben Pile, you may be rather surprised by this since his understanding of this topic is woefully poor.
In the comments to that post, Mike Hulme (one of the authors of the article I was discussing above) suggested that Ben Pile was spot on. Again, if you’ve come across Ben Pile, you’ll be well aware that if you were ever about to utter the words Ben Pile is spot on the sensible thing to do would be to go back and check again that he is indeed spot on. It would probably be worth checking a couple of times, just to be sure. It’s not that Ben Pile can’t be spot on, but it’s very unlikely. Don’t forget that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Maybe it’s unfair to highlight the above, but it does provide some insights into views that some of the authors have expressed publicly. I certainly don’t find them particularly constructive voices. That, however, is mostly because I think that we should be finding ways to reduce our emissions as fast as possible while also taking into account various relevant societal and political factors. I also think we should be supporting those who are trying to communicate the importance of this topic, not criticising them because sometimes others use this information in sub-optimal ways. Of course, if you have a different preference (for example, if your preference is to delay acting on climate change), then you may find them to be constructive voices.
Why setting a climate deadline is dangerous – paper by Asayama, Bellamy, Geden, Pearce and Hulme.
Posts I’ve written about some of Oliver Geden’s other presentations.
The power of scientific knowledge – guest post by Reiner Grundmann on Roger Pielke Jr’s blog in which he suggests there is an eerie similarity between race science and climate science.
Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method? – Guardian article by Warren Pearce in which he asks if climate sceptics are the real champions of the scientific method.
Beyond counting climate consensus – article by Pearce, Grundmann, Hulme et al. in which they criticise consensus messaging.
Response by John Cook to the Pearce et al. article above.
What’s behind the battle of received wisdom? – guest post by Ben Pile on the University of Nottingham’s Making Science Public blog in which he criticises consensus messaging, and where Mike Hulme (in the comments) claims that Ben Pile is spot on.
An accurately informed public is neccessary for climate policy – response by Dana Nuccitelli to the above post.
Point Counterpoint – Rabett Run post highlighting that Mike Hulme once told Paul Price that the reason you and I disagree about climate change is that you care about future generations and I don’t.