Panic is a bad response to an alleged climate crisis

One important reason I recently launched the Climate Discussion Nexus as a forum for fact-based discussion of climate science and policy is that when you raise questions about “global warming” a number of things happen that don’t remind you of reasonable debate. Like people hollering that the crisis is too urgent to waste time thinking.

For decades we’ve been told we have only 10 years to save the planet. Once it’s too late, we will see such horrors that to wait for evidence would be madness. Just in case, we’re also assured that some of the horrors are upon us, from hurricanes to heat waves to “whole towns” being wiped off the map “at a blistering pace”. But a strange thing happens when you try to test such claims.

When Greenpeace says “No excuses: our climate is on fire and it’s time to act” in December 2018 it is not obvious what the statement is meant to mean, if anything. But when the federal environment minister repeatedly refers to an increase in wildfires it is surely intended to convey that there are more wildfires than there used to be. So it’s not unfair to say wait a minute, your own forest service says there aren’t.

If forest fires had increased it might not be proof of global warming let alone human culpability. But if it didn’t happen, climate change can’t have caused it.

Climate is complicated. As indeed are forest fires. Recent trends might have been driven by changes in forest management practices, increasing human encroachment, local temperature, moisture or pest trends or some complex combination of them. There is a great deal of scope for debating the meaning of the evidence. But there is not, or should not be, much scope for citing evidence you invented.

So when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Jan. 20 of this year that “Climate change is an increasingly dire threat, with floods and fires destroying whole towns at a blistering pace” it should have caused raised eyebrows then raised hands to ask “Could you name them please?”

Obviously Fort McMurray, Alberta, had a devastating wildfire in 2016, one Catherine McKenna repeatedly cited as proof of Al Gore’s vision of the evening news resembling “a nature hike through the Book of Revelation”. But one catastrophe is not a trend.

Likewise this month socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pounced on a deadly Alabama tornado with unseemly glee, saying “The science is clear, climate change is making extreme weather events, including tornadoes, worse.” Except the U.S. has seen a decrease in number and intensity of tornados over the past half-century. 2018 was its first year since proper records began in 1950 without a single EF4 or EF5 tornado, and saw the fewest tornado deaths, 10, since informal tallies started in 1875.

As for hurricanes, the United States did not have a major one make landfall for 12 years before Harvey in late 2017, again unprecedented. And proof of… very little, actually.

What records we have suggest that extreme weather events have always fluctuated wildly. Which makes it hard to be know the appropriate time scale to separate signal from noise. A decade? Half a century? Two centuries? Or perhaps a millennium, given well-established long temperature cycles with peaks in the Minoan, Roman, Medieval and current warm periods. But one thing is clear. We should not make stuff up to stampede the public into ill-considered policy responses driven by murky science about things that aren’t even happening.

In its Dec. 2 press release declaring that the climate was “on fire” Greenpeace said “the time for political talk has long gone.” Exactly. Such statements aren’t efforts to contribute to the debate but to shut it down. Which is not how science works. Or self-government.

If you think panic is a bad response to an alleged crisis, visit us at www.climatediscussionnexus.com, sign up for our newsletter, and join the conversation.


About the Author

Dr. John Robson is Executive Director of Climate Discussion Nexus. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Texas at Austin and has worked as a historian, policy analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker for three decades. He has been examining the climate change issue for many years, including both the science and the policy debates.