This blog was born of my awakening to the existential threat posed by climate change: in my opinion the “one risk to rule them all”. A 2010 paper by the renowned glaciologist and paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thomson titled “Climate Change: The Evidence and Our Options” was an inspiration. In this paper, he wrote:
Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilisation.
It’s been some time since I last posted, and I haven’t done a post on climate for a long while. My last scribbling was part of a series on renewables yet to be finished. Apologies. I was knocked off course in the spring of this year by a young Swedish girl by the name of Greta Thunberg and a ragtag of marvellous misfits who launched a remarkable new movement under the name Extinction Rebellion.
So coming back to post on climate change is coming home. Moreover, there was a reason for avoiding the subject for years: it hurts. Over a period within which I experienced the death of close relatives and divorce, my emotional bandwidth had gone. Climate change is depressing — and best avoided by those who are struggling.
But time has moved on and the bandwidth has been restored. Thus the resolve of Greta Thunberg, and then the force of nature which is Extinction Rebellion, has pushed me back into the fray. I am involved in climate change activism again, and it feels the right thing to do.
Nonetheless, I am also a student of risk and I like to attach numbers to things. The new climate awakening of the last 18 months in Europe has brought with it a whole lexicon of fear: crisis, collapse and catastrophe; emergency and extinction. But what do these things mean? The philosopher king and queen of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam and Gale Bradbrook, frequently talk in such “end of days” apocalyptic terms.
So the question is whether such predictions are appropriate? And do they reflect science? To tackle this question, I’m going to start by concentrating on the language deployed by Roger Hallam, heard in a string of his YouTube videos (for a recent example see here).
In these videos, Roger starts by explaining the potential for climate-induced doom for the human race and then moves on to state the case for non-violent direct action (NVDA), so forcing government action. His ideas have formed the bedrock philosophy behind Extinction Rebellion (XR), a movement that has come out of nowhere over the last 12 months to become the most successful climate change advocacy group ever.
In April 2019, Roger’s language and learning persuaded thousands of protestors to take to the streets of London and occupy many of its iconic landmarks: Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, Marble Arch and Parliament Square. In effect, the UK government ceased to control swathes of the capital for around 10 days.
What was even more stunning was the reaction of the general public. While the XR actions garnered a considerable amount of grumbling and a quite a lot of swearing, they also touched a nerve. The discussion of climate change amongst friends and family has almost become a taboo in the UK, as with almost everywhere else in the world (to see the stats on how often climate change is discussed in the US see here). But the London occupations brought to the surface a growing unease within the population, an unease suggesting something really wasn’t right with the weather, and thus the climate.
In a ComRes opinion poll taken after the April actions, 54% of respondents agreed with the statement “I believe climate change threatens our existence as a species”, a position espoused by XR. Put another way, while the majority of those polled by ComRes didn’t support XR’s actions (26% ‘for’, 32% ‘against’, 43% ‘don’t know’), the consensus now is that climate change is an existential threat.
Almost inevitably, the success of XR has garnered a response from those who don’t want climate change to become an important issue in political debate. The attack has been two-pronged. On the one hand, criticism has been levelled at the so called non-democratic nature of XR in its unwillingness to use traditional poliical channels to effect change. I will leave that issue for another day. On the other hand, a concerted effort has also been made to place XR outside of the scientific climate consensus. Roger and other spokespersons for the movement are portrayed as wild-eyed Cassandras warning about the ‘end of days’. Is such a criticism founded?
To answer that question, let’s start by listening to Roger Hallam in the BBC television programme Hardtalk (if there is a geoblock or time limit preventing your access to this programme, don’t worry as I’ve extracted Roger’s key quotes below):
While the whole programme is worth watching, here is Roger expanding upon catastrophic climate risk. In Roger’s words:
1: “The fact of the matter is, we are facing mass starvation within the next 10 years, social collapse and possible extinction of the human race. It couldn’t be worse.” (from 3:49).
2. “This is the major point Extinction Rebellion is trying to say, is that it is over for this civilisation. The reason it’s over is because of the hard physics. We’re not making a political point or an ideological point or trying to be awkward or all the rest of it. We’re simply saying the science is real, the science is real, it means we’re facing social collapse. The reason we are facing social collapse is because of mass starvation and the reason we are going to have mass starvation is because of the collapse in the weather systems around the world.” (from 6:48)
3. “Teenagers are shitting themselves about what’s happening for the future. They’ve got another 50, 60, 70 years to live on this planet. By that time there could be only one billion people left! I mean that’s six billion people that could have died from starvation of being slaughtered in war. And the scale of it is beyond imagination, isn’t it?” (from 15:23)
4. “I am talking about the slaughter, death, and starvation of six billion people this century. That’s what the science predicts. That’s the trajectory we are on and that requires absolutely desperate measures to stop it. And it’s going to be painful, it’s going to be painful.” (from 16:33)
Now we need to be a bit appreciative here over the fact that written and spoken language differ. We also need to realise that this was a high pressure interview, with I’m sure a lot of adrenalin pumping through Roger’s veins. In short, grammatical phrasing and sentence structure is created in real time with no opportunity for a second edit. So we should be a little careful in attaching profound meaning where none was intended. But with that caveat, let’s look at these four statements.
The first one states that “we are facing mass starvation within the next 10 years”. Let’s see whether the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) can collaborate that statement. From the FAO, we know that undernourishment, after many years of decline, is on the rise again.
Further, within the category of undernourishment, the numbers facing crisis-level food insecurity is also moving upward, with climate change a major contributor. From page 40 of the FAO‘s “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018″:
While hunger is on the rise, it is equally alarming that the number of people facing crisis-level good insecurity continues to increase. In 2017, almost 124 million people across 51 countries and territories faced “crisis” levels of acute food security or worse, requiring immediate emergency action to safeguard their lives and preserve their livelihoods. This represents an increase compared to 2015 and 2016, when 80 and 108 million people, respectively, were reported as facing crisis levels. As with increased levels of hunger, major contributors to crisis-level food insecurity are climate-related, in particular droughts.
So, in effect, Hallam’s “mass starvation” related to climate is already with us. So his statement does appear to reflect scientific fact.
In the second statement, Roger says “it’s over for this civilisation”. This is a little more tricky to interpret. Moreover, there is no time line attached. We could take this to mean over for our existing type of civilisation (for example one built on fossil fuel and/or capitalism) or it is over for civilisation across the planet in any form. The latter interpretation was the line that Sir David Attenborough took in the BBC documentary Climate Change: the Facts (from 2:40).
Standing here in the English countryside, it may not seem obvious but we are facing a manmade disaster on a global scale. In the 20 years since I first started talking about the impact of climate change on our world, conditions have changed far faster than I have ever imagined. It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action with the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies. We’re running out of time, but there is still hope. I believe that if we better understand the threat we face, the more likely it is that we can avoid such a catastrophic future.
Nonetheless, with no number, no date and no definition of the terms civilisation and collapse, it is very difficult to say whether the statement is, in a word beloved of climate change deniers, “alarmist”.
So let’s move on to statement 3. In this statement we have something much more concrete to work with. We have a date, 2090, when present teenagers will be 70 and we have a number, 6 billions deaths taking the carrying capacity of the planet down to one billion. But did he actually say that? No, actually he didn’t! He said “by that time there “could” actually be one billion people left. So this is a statement relating to probability.
Yet in Statement 4, it appears that he is predicting 6 billion dead by 2100. At this point, I believe we need to apply a degree of common sense. Statement 3 starts at 15:23 and Statement 4 starts at 16:33, a mere 70 seconds apart. Has he changed his view on the survival chances of the majority of humankind within just over a minute? Implausible. So how do we reconcile the two statements? Well, for me, it seems pretty obvious. In the final statement, Roger appears to be considering the outcome of “a” trajectory rather than “the” trajectory.
Unfortunately, that is not how the BBC Radio 4 fact-checking programme More or Less decided to deconstruct the interview (here). Nor is it how the climate change fact-checking site Climate Feedback treated Roger’s statement (here), their key takeaway given below:
I think, in both instances, the fact checkers have gone down the slippery slope off indulging in straw man arguments; i.e., they are refuting an argument that Roger didn’t actually make. In short, they concentrated on Statement 4, and severed it from Statement 3.
In my next post, I will look in more detail at how the BBC programme More or Less and Climate Feedback came to their conclusions and whether their approach is helpful in assessing climate change risk. Ultimately, I want to move on to the much more interesting question posed by Roger in Statement 3, but with a little tweak. That is, what is the risk of a catastrophic climate outcome by end of century that results in mass death?