A doomscrollers guide to climate hyperbole: countering the doomism of Deep Adaptation

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Ted Lefroyhttps://www.utas.edu.au/profiles/staff/tia/ted-lefroy
Ted Lefroy is an adjunct professor at the University of Tasmania. He trained in agricultural science and worked in extension and rural development before becoming director of the Centre for Environment at the University of Tasmania in 2005 and head of research at the Tasmanian Instiute of Agriculture in 2018.

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In his recent book The New Climate War, Michael Mann, who led the research team that gave us the global temperature hockey stick, identifies three types of opposition in the battle for climate action: deniers, doomsayers and inactivists. Climate doomism he suggests is as dangerous as denial and equally unscientific.

The unrelentingly pessimistic academic paper Deep Adaptation provides a good example of how similar methods are employed by doomsayers and denialists to tilt reality in their favour. Downloaded over one hundred thousand times, Deep Adaptation has gone on to spawn a global movement. The claim in Deep Adaptation is that humanity faces ‘inevitable near-term societal collapse’ due to uncontrollable levels of climate change bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war’. This conclusion rests on four abuses of source material: misusing terminology, treating speculation as fact, cherry picking, and taking data out of context.

Misusing terminology

The term ‘non-linear’ is used throughout Deep Adaptation to imply unstoppable, runaway climate change.  Non-linear simply means a change in the output of a system that is disproportional to change in the inputs. It implies nothing about the direction or speed of change or the feasibility of human intervention.  When Gavin Schmidt, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was asked to comment he repliedThis is nonsense. Non-linearity (which is ubiquitous) is not synonymous with ‘runaway’ climate change’.

Treating speculation as fact

At one point Deep Adaptation claims that we ‘have tipped into self-reinforcing and irreversible change’ citing a paper in the journal Nature. What those authors actually said was ‘If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization’. The qualifier ‘if’ is important. Tipping cascades, while possible, remain hypothetical – which is why Nature published this as a comment not a research report.

On global tipping points, others have arguedThe global human enterprise is driving large-scale changes in most components of the Earth system, but in a haphazard fashion, with responses often being weakly connected or transmitted slowly at a cross-continental scale’ making it ‘…implausible that the planet, or indeed most of its component systems, are primed to tip irreversibly to a radically different state that is inhospitable’.  

Cherry picking

Deep Adaptation claims there is scientific evidence for inevitable near-term societal collapse. This claim rests heavily on two phenomena: Arctic ice melt and methane release. Both rely on a few selected sources. In the case of the loss of Arctic ice, the source is the work of one scientist whose outlying predictions have not eventuated; in the case of methane release, the paper relies on the clathrate gun hypothesis first proposed in 2003 and since challenged in multiple reviews.  

Taking data out of context

A wheat field against a blue sky

On food supply, Deep Adaptation notes IPCC estimates that climate change has reduced growth in crop yields by 1–2% per decade over the past century. What it doesn’t point out is that there have been yield increases in the major crops of 3 to 8% per decade over the same period. In the UK ~3% for oats and barley, ~4% for wheat and potatoes and ~8% for sugar beet; in the USA, ~5% for corn. Climate change is having an impact on agriculture, but the major challenge right now is not the amount produced but equity of access. The major future challenge is declining investment in adaptation.

There is also the claim that ‘About half of all plant and animal species in the world’s most biodiverse places are at risk of extinction due to climate change’. The source is a modelling study of a limited selection of plants and animals in the World Wildlife Foundation’s 35 biodiversity hotpots, which represent 3% of the Earth’s surface. The study predicted that if there was a 4.5 °C rise in global mean temperature by 2100 (the IPCC’s worst case scenario) and none of these species were able to disperse to more favourable locations, 50% ‘could potentially become locally extinct’. 

To highlight this abuse of source material is not to down play the seriousness of climate change. Climate change is serious and demands we bend the emissions curve and invest in adaptation through renewable energy, carbon sequestration, food production, healthcare, and all the other millennium development goals. The conclusion that collapse is inevitable has its roots not in science but a long intellectual fascination with social decline.

Collapsology

Historian Joseph Tainter’s systematic study of societal collapse examined explanations offered for the fall of 17 societies from Rome to Mesoamerica. After assessing evidence for causes including environmental catastrophe, resource depletion, invasion, class conflict and disease, the common principle that emerged was decreasing marginal returns on investment in social and economic complexity. Tainter also noted that the process of collapse in those societies was usually slow, often rational, and occasionally resulted in improved circumstances. The collapse predicted in Deep Adaptation is ‘sudden, unavoidable starvation, and in our life time’.

When the Deep Adaptation movement banned debate on the inevitability of near-term human extinction, it became a doomsday cult and lost all scientific credibility. To claim that there is scientific evidence for inevitable near-term societal collapse is an abuse of science. Ever since the caravan of Western history pulled out of the Eastern Mediterranean over 2000 years ago it has been trailed by camp followers warning it would all end in tears. And while collapse has been the fate of many societies, science cannot tell us where and when that will happen. Every society that has ever existed has either transformed or collapsed. Which of those occurs, where that happens and how long it takes depends on people and what they chose to do. Contrary to the certainty in Deep Adaptation, the paths to the future are made, not found.

References

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