Facing Down Climate Doom — Wallace-Wells’ Appropriate Alarm Earns Michael Mann’s Necessary Critiques

“Fear will NOT save us; however, fear is a prime motivator to promote new thinking and different action; to change an unsustainable status quo.” — unknown source.

“There are many things that motivate us. But the most powerful motivator of all is FEAR. “– Psychology Today.

“Both hope and fear are great motivators, and they both have the capacity to promote growth in us, but hope creates space in the mind and heart. Fear, more often than not, restricts it.” — Joyce McFadden.


When two parties seeking a good end passionately disagree over a crucial issue it is sometimes the case that one side is flat out right and the other side is dead wrong. But what is more often the case in an honest dialogue is that both sides are expressing a part of the truth and it is the duty of us, as observers, not to take sides, but to open our ears and learn as the necessary conflict unfolds.

Valid Warnings Against a Dark Future

This week, David Wallace Wells painted a scientifically imperfect, but truthful in broad-brush, picture of a bleak potential worst case scenario if human beings continue burning fossil fuels while dumping such massive volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Wells’ New York Magazine article was accurate in broad brush in that it depicted a possible worst case climate scenario where the atmosphere becomes choking and poisonous, heat becomes so great that it’s deadly to venture outside even in New York City, disease vectors multiply, breadbaskets are crushed by heat and extreme weather, and wars over dwindling resources escalate. In the larger scope, if missing the mark on a number of details, David Wallace Wells and NYMag get it right. If we don’t stop burning fossil fuels, this is basically what our future looks like. BAU fossil fuel burning ultimately looks so incredibly grim it is difficult to fathom or even talk about.

And this is the gift that Wallace-Wells has given us. The opportunity to talk about something hard and necessary. To learn and understand more both about the potential coming tragedy as well as the hope we now have in avoiding it. In other words, as science-based meta-analysis, speculation, and fiction often do — Wallace-Wells’ work helped to heighten a much-needed public discourse.

Adding the Scientific Process to the Discourse

Such a volcanic article eliciting such a powerful response was bound to draw some pretty strong critiques. And the article, in its more specific scientific failures, begged just such a reaction. Some of the best of these have come from Dr. Michael A Mann — one of the world’s best climate scientists and top advocates for rapid climate change mitigation.

Mann in today’s Washington Post notes:

The New York magazine article paints an overly bleak picture, arguing that climate change could render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Its opening story about the “flooding” of a seed vault in Norway leaves out that one of the vault’s creators told NPR “there was really no flood.” It exaggerates the near-term threat of climate “feedbacks” involving the release of frozen methane. It mischaracterizes one recent study as demonstrating that the globe is warming “more than twice as fast as scientists had thought,” when in fact the study in question simply showed that one dataset that had tended to show less warming than other datasets has now been brought in line with the others after some problems were corrected for. The warming of the globe is progressing as models predicted. And that is plenty bad enough.

And this criticism was absolutely necessary — pointing out some of the places where the New York magazine article had fallen down with regards to some of its factual basis. Wells mischaracterized the seed vault flood and a recent scientific study that basically matched satellite based temperature measures with land based temperature measures. Mann also claims that Wallace-Wells exaggerates the methane feedback issue — a very touchy subject in the present science and one that researchers have yet to convincingly nail down.

Massive methane burps are not inevitable. But they are certainly possible, and the risk grows the more the Earth warms. Loss of breathable oxygen to the extent that the article suggests is highly unlikely. But fossil fuel burning and anoxic oceans do reduce atmospheric oxygen on a smaller scale which is somewhat disturbing. And though deadly hydrogen sulfide burps from anoxic oceans are certainly possible under worst-case warming scenarios, the characterization of such events was probably a little overplayed to the minds of the more technically inclined. That said, Wallace Wells’ rolling clouds of death-inducing fog are entirely possible according to the scientific explorations of Dr. Peter Ward and Donald Canfield.

In other words, the article probably leans a bit more on the darker studies of paleoclimate as an allegory for potential future harm than is comfortable to the broader scientific community — which then led to assertions that his portrayal was closer to science fiction.  This despite the fact that some of the science does point to these kinds of worst case climate events that may look rather like what Wallace-Wells describes even if, as a technical matter, he’s somewhat off with regards to the present scientific consensus according to the well-informed opinion of Mann.

Wallace-Wells = Climate Change Denier is about Three Steps too Far

But aside from these much-needed critiques, Mann unintentionally does us a bit of a disservice here. By comparing Wallace-Wells with climate change deniers, Mann is creating a false equivalency argument. Moreover, Mann also generates false hope in the public sphere by appearing to down-play climate risks, even though that was clearly not his intention. In truth, Wallace-Wells falls far closer to the mark than any climate change denier. And if any of the consensus science that Mann relies on for his assertions happens to be wrong or too conservative, then a business as usual fossil fuel burning future could look a lot more like the one Wallace Wells describes than present scientific consensus expects.

In other words, Wallace Wells warnings may turn out to be more prophetic than an overly cautious science even if the various details of a climate disaster scenario play out in ways that few of us presently expect. The future is, in other words, murky. And you absolutely don’t want to be prodding the Cthulu that is climate change based mass extinction into full wakefullness by continuing to burn fossil fuels. Nor do you want to beg that potentially very bad future in giving ammo to climate change deniers by comparing a rather rational form of alarm with what amounts to an intentional deception that has been purposefully inflicted upon the public discourse.

Wallace-Wells and Mann Should be on the Same Team

All that unpleasantness aside, Mann’s most accurate and important statement follows a couple of paragraphs down:

It is important to communicate both the threat and the opportunity in the climate challenge. Those paying attention are worried, and should be, but there are also reasons for hope. The active engagement of many cities, states and corporations, and the commitments of virtually every nation (minus one) is a very hopeful sign.

And, ironically, I think it is here where Wallace-Wells and Mann probably agree. Unlike many of the Doomers that Mann rightly criticizes, Wells has recently spoken out as a staunch advocate for exactly the kind of clean energy and policy-based solutions that Mann so rightly and passionately stumps for. In other words, Mann was absolutely right to state that any fearsome climate message should also be tempered by the amazing hope and opportunity now available to us in the form of a renewable energy transition and a shift to less consumptive, more sustainable societies. And Wallace-Wells, while not shining a light on the various escape hatches available to us now in his article has appropriately used the platform given to him to talk about just these issues:

But, you know, there’s great news from green energy, there’s great news from renewables, the cost of wind and solar power is falling, not just dramatically but much more dramatically than even the biggest boosters would have predicted five or 10 years ago. A lot of that has to do with subsidies from the Obama administration and other similar, like-minded countries around the world. But there is really good news there. And there’ve also been some limited progress on what’s called “carbon capture,” which are devices to take carbon out of the atmosphere, which will almost certainly have to be one big part of the equation. With electric cars, etc. there’s a lot of tech innovation that should give people a lot of hope.

My hope is that readers will read the piece and feel motivated to think more about the choices they make, but also to this sort of consumption choices they make. And to agitate politically for policy options that will have a positive impact, and not think of climate change as a third or fourth order political priority, but as probably the most important issue we’re facing the world today, and one that should be at the top of our minds whenever we’re thinking about public policy at all.

Moving Forward with a Shared Vision of Avoiding Climate Catastrophe

In other words, Wallace-Wells is not our enemy here. He may have stepped on a number of his unqualified facts, but he’s gotten the overall message pretty much right. And if he’s gotten a bit carried away in being scared over bad climate outcomes, then he’s in good company ;). Moreover, he’s passionately advocating for exactly the kinds of climate solutions that are absolutely needed and that do provide us all with a good measure of hope — if we pursue them. In other words, Wells has talked about climate doom. But he doesn’t walk the path of doom itself.


The Uninhabitable Earth

Doomsday Scenarios

Are Humans Doomed?

Hat tip to Suzanne

Hat tip to Rudy Sovinee

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