That IPCC Report: Much Ado About Nothing
On Monday the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its newest assessment report, the sixth in a series of comprehensive reviews of climate science. It was clever of them to release it during the dog days of August, when newsworthy events are few and far between and journalists, desperate for content, think nothing of submitting hysterical think pieces about multi-thousand page documents they haven't read.
And that's exactly what's happened -- a quick look around the internet will bring you face to face with the trashiest clickbait headlines, even from supposedly sober and respectable outlets: "The Latest IPCC Report Is a Catastrophe" says The Atlantic. "IPCC report’s verdict on climate crimes of humanity: guilty as hell" is The Guardian's headline. Here's USA Today: "Code red for humanity"
The Wall Street Journal stands out among major publications, first, for admitting that they haven't yet had time to read the almost 4,000-page report, and second, for pointing out that, if the document's summary for policy makers is to be believed, then "the report doesn’t tell us much that’s new since its last report in 2013, and some of that is less dire."
The editors patiently walk through the claims causing the most combustibility among headline writers. For instance:
"It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” says the report in its lead conclusion. But no one denies that the climate has been warming, and no one serious argues that humans play no role. How could eight billion people not? Adding the adjective “unequivocal” adds emphasis but not context.
A good point, since "unequivocal" got a lot of attention:
The WSJ also breaks down the IPCC's actual projected temperature changes:
The report says the Earth has warmed by 1.1 degree Celsius since the last half of the 19th century, which is 0.1 degree warmer than its last estimate. This is not apocalyptic. The five-alarm headlines arise from the predictions of future temperature increases.... Yet the report’s estimate of “climate sensitivity”—its response to a doubling of CO2—has moderated at the top end. The likely sensitivity range, says the report, is 2.5 to 4 degrees Celsius higher than in the late 1800s. The likely range was 1.5 to 4.5 in the 2013 report.
Of course, they also point out how reliant all of these projections are on climate models, and suggest reading former Obama administration science advisor Steven Koonin for an illuminating take on the flaws of such models. The gist of it is that there are so many unknowns being factored into these models as if they were facts that their conclusions are questionable at best. As Ross McKitrick explains in a review of Koonin's book,
All the shortcuts would not be a problem if in the end they could accurately predict the climate. But... the models on average do poorly at reproducing the 20th century warming pattern, even though modelers can look at the answer and tune the models to try and reproduce it. They don’t warm enough from 1910 to 1940 and they warm too much after 1980. Both errors point to the likelihood that they depend too much on sensitivity to carbon dioxide and don’t account for long-term natural variations.
If they can't accurately account for the temperatures of the past hundred years, why on earth should we bet our lives and livelihoods on their ability to project the next hundred?
Which is really to say that blame for all of the hysteria rests with the IPCC itself. It's long been famous for issuing lengthy bad-to-worst-case-scenario reports which are then distilled into hyperbolic summaries in the hope of getting picked up by journalists. Mission accomplished. But that doesn't mean we need to pay attention.
Surprise: Models Slip and Fall Yet Again
Near the beginning of the pandemic I wrote a feature about the problem with predictive models, which were at the time being continuously cited to justify unprecedented restrictions on normal life. Time has shown the models that were in operation at the time to have been, in some respects, too gloomy, and in others, too optimistic. Which is really to say that they ended up being just as unreliable as I argued at the time, and should not, therefore, have been the north star we used to navigate through the choppy WuFlu waters.
Well, for a more recent demonstration of this phenomenon, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight rightly points out that actual Covid case numbers have fallen well below what all twenty-two CDC approved models predicted back in early May. Most (though not all) held that Covid cases would continue to decline in the U.S., pushed down by the combined forces of vaccine reception and warm weather, with the average model suggesting that we'd end up at about 28,000 cases per day. In real life that decline did indeed occur, but we've ended up with roughly half of the projected number of cases, and this with states opening much faster than the CDC was recommending at the time the models were released.
Wrong about Covid, wrong about climate change.
As I discussed in the initial post, the numerous failures of predictive models are well known to close watchers of the climate debate. We've watched a familiar cycle -- where a new model which anticipates calamity is released, inspires ominous headlines and hand wringing from professional activists and politicians, and is eventually revised when reality fails to conform to it. Of course by then the damage is done, and the headlines are burnt into the brains of regular people who don't have the time or capacity to debunk every bit of misinformation thrown their way.
Dare we hope that the failures of the pandemic are enough to open peoples' eyes? Well, if this Gallup poll is correct that 71 percent of Democrats and more than 40 percent of independents think the case number decline is a mirage, and we should continue to stay home for the foreseeable future, the answer to that is probably 'No.'
The scientist whose advice prompted Boris Johnson to lock down Britain resigned from his Government advisory position on Tuesday night as The Telegraph can reveal he broke social distancing rules to meet his married lover. Professor Neil Ferguson allowed the woman to visit him at home during the lockdown while lecturing the public on the need for strict social distancing in order to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The woman lives with her husband and their children in another house.
The epidemiologist leads the team at Imperial College London that produced the computer-modelled research that led to the national lockdown, which claimed that more than 500,000 Britons would die without the measures. Prof Ferguson has frequently appeared in the media to support the lockdown and praised the "very intensive social distancing" measures.
Booty calls for me but not for thee; the limelight just isn't good for some people.
The revelation of the "illegal" trysts will infuriate millions of couples living apart and banned by the Government from meeting up during the lockdown, which is now in its seventh week. On at least two occasions, Antonia Staats, 38, travelled across London from her home in the south of the capital to spend time with the Government scientist, nicknamed Professor Lockdown.
All sounds rather frisky in a British sort of way.
Ms Staats, a left-wing campaigner, made a second visit on April 8 despite telling friends she suspected that her husband, an academic in his 30s, had symptoms of coronavirus. She and her husband live together with their two children in a £1.9 million home, but are understood to be in an open marriage. She has told friends about her relationship with Prof Ferguson, but does not believe their actions to be hypocritical because she considers the households to be one.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, recently reminded the public that it was "illegal to be outside the home for one of any other than four reasons". Those reasons are medical emergency, daily exercise, essential food shopping and certain types of work.
Well, as they say in Britain, they were probably both "on the job."