In my previous post, I started to look at the apocalyptic language used by the climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR). I criticised two fact-checking entities, a fact-checking programme hosted by the BBC called More or Less and a fact-checking web site called Climate Feedback, for misrepresenting some of the statements made by one of the founders of XR.
Both of these entities discredited the co-founder of XR, Roger Hallam, through reframing his statements into something very difficult to defend; that is, they misrepresented him as saying that, if we continue on our current CO2 emission trajectory, the planet’s human carrying capacity will fall from around 7.5 billion today to one billion by the end of the century. In reality, Roger said we “could” see a world with only one billion if we continue with a policy of ‘business as usual’ for fossil fuel.
The death of over six billion is something I would label as an ‘existential’ risk: the risk of a precipitous drop in the planet’s human population leading to the potential collapse of the political, economic and technological structures that come under the broad heading of ‘human civilisation’. So not everyone will die, but a lot will, and the minority that survive will live an impoverished lifestyle that negatively impacts on their well-being.
So what is needed to get us there? In the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less, one potential trajectory to such a world was given by the presenter Tim Harford:
Extinction Rebellion provided links to articles and speeches by three scientists. None of them mentioned six billion deaths. One of them, a German atmospheric physicist called Hans Schellnhuber, did say that if we have had unlimited global warming, of eight degrees warming, may be the carrying capacity of the earth would go down to just one billion…..
….. But eight degrees of warming is very much a worst case scenario. It’s well above the range discussed in mainstream forecasts of global warming. In the last a hundred and fifty years, we’ve seen one degree of warming.
Before I tackle problems relating to the above statements, I would also like to point out that the programme makers don’t really do justice to Schellnhuber’s credentials. He is the founder of a leading climate research institute in Germany, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and has been a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s past assessment reports. He is also the climate change advisor to the European Union Commission, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Pope. Check out his Wikipedia page here.
Back to the problems. For a start, if the BBC were going to quote Schellnhuber, why didn’t they ring him up and ask his view on the existential risk posed by climate change? And why do they focus on eight degrees as being extremely unlikely, rather than whether existential risk is extremely unlikely? The claim by Roger Hallam was that an existential risk to humanity is perfectly possible. He makes no claims about the degrees of warming the earth may experience.
So what does Schellnhuber think the chances are of saving our civilisation from the negative impact of climate change? From a December 2018 interview.
First, from three minutes onwards:
Q: You just said about we are in a position where we can manage the situation. But on the flip side, what you just said, you are questioning whether civilisation is sustainable. That is a stark difference.
Schellnhuber: If we get it wrong, So if we do the wrong things — policy in economics and psychology, in science — then I think there is a very very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow, but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years. I’m pretty sure.
Q: What sort of time frame would you put on that kind of …?
Schellnhuber: Oh it can happen pretty soon, pretty quickly because you see, if a minor conflict in Syria is sending so many shock waves through migrants, for example, to Europe. So, it’s all about nonlinearity. It’s all about non-linearity stupid.
Then from nine minutes:
Giving up is not an option. Why? I’ll just give you an example. I don’t know, do you have children? If you would have a child. I have a ten years old boy. Let’s assume he has an accident. And the doctor says “OK we might save his life ,if we do this type of surgery, but there is only a five percent chance, otherwise he will die”.
Will you say, “no we don’t do it, we don’t go ahead with the surgery”? Of course you will do it. And so it’s the situation we have now. I think we have more than a five percent chance of succeeding. But it’s definitely less than 50% in my view.
What’s the option? If we have a final chance to save our culture and our civilisation. I’m just compelled to do it.
So Schellnhuber — a leading climate scientist and advisor to the Pope, Angela Merkel and the EU — thinks we have a less than 50% chance of avoiding an existential crisis brought on by climate change and that such a crisis could come quite quickly.
In conclusion, I don’t know if Tim Harford is being knowingly disingenuous in misrepresenting Roger Hallam’s statements and then misrepresenting the scientist that XR quotes; perhaps, rather, this is just sloppy investigative journalism. But the fact is one of world’s leading climate scientists absolutely supports Roger’s view on climate change risk. Surely that is a thing of interest that the programme should have wanted to explore?
Moreover, if we want to ask questions about existential risk, shouldn’t we approach academics who study existential risk? This is actually not a difficult thing to do since the UK is blessed by a number of university departments that study just such risk. Don’t the More or Less team at the BBC have access to this knowledge?
In my next post, I will look at one of those departments: Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) and some of the research they produce.
In the meantime, I will leave you with a full-length lecture given by Jochim Schellnhuber at Cambridge University in February 2019. It is a masterclass in the communication of current climate change research and I can highly recommend it.