Alarmism – it really frightens people and it sucks

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California’s imminent deathbed? Really?

Green alarmism generates newspaper sales, TV ratings and hits on social media but it is a big problem standing in the way of reasoned and effective political responses to environmental problems. The latest alarmism comes from California where the Internet is abuzz with talk of California’s water supply running out in a year’s time. It is amazing how many publications, including mainstream ones, have run this line.

The Guardian’s headline said it all: “Drought-stricken California only has one year of water left, Nasa scientist warns”.

Good heavens! Who can argue with a NASA SCIENTIST?! The Guardian names the Nasa scientist – an expert on the global water cycle, Jay Famiglietti. He has an impressive curriculum vitae.

The original source for all this is the Los Angeles Times, which ran an opinion piece by Dr Famiglietti.

On social media, there is a photo doing the rounds showing the 1930s dustbowl period in the US with a caption: “R.I.P. California (1850-2016): what we’ll lose and learn from the world’s first major water collapse”. The opener claims that NASA has announced that California is on its death-bed and only has 12 months of water left.

Alarmism is a scourge but it can easily be repudiated with some good critical thinking:

1. Always read the article, not just the sensationalist heading and opening paragraph. In The Guardian above, the actual article offers no evidence whatsoever for the claim in the headline and Dr Famiglietti’s words do not make that claim. No other Nasa scientist is quoted. The Nasa scientist has been misrepresented. Neither does Nasa claim that California is on its death-bed.

2. Check the original source, do not rely on the journalist’s take on it. Who knows, they may be influenced by green doomsdayism! Or out to sell their paper. Or, more likely, both. In this case, on checking the LA Times article by Dr Famiglietti, there is again no claim by him that California’s water supply is about to run out within 12 months. The LA Times later ran a retraction, of sorts, pointing out that the original headline suggested that California only had a year’s supply of water left and that what they meant was that there was only a year’s supply in storage. So, the editor changed the headline. And also apologized to Dr Famiglietti for calling him James instead of Jay. This aspect to the apology ran first, followed by the bit about storage. True.

3. Google the scientist to see what they actually believe. Normally I would do this but it hasn’t been necessary as a week later, on March 20th this year, the LA Times itself published a second report which allowed correction by Dr Famiglietti of the original article’s misrepresentation of his views. The key bit is: “he never claimed that California has only a year of total water supply left”. Say what? Now that’s quite a difference, a huge difference, and a point of view that does not serve an alarmist agenda. But it won’t stop the scores of thousands of sharers of the original false report spreading their alarmism via social media and other media, all with the imprimatur of a (non-existent) Nasa scientific source.

The LA Times article continues:

“He (Dr Famiglietti, the Nasa scientist) explained that the state’s reservoirs have only about a one-year supply of water remaining. Reservoirs provide only a portion of the water used in California and are designed to store only a few years’ supply. But the online headline generated great interest. Famiglietti said it gave some the false impression that California is at risk of exhausting its water supplies. The satellite data he cited, which measure a wide variety of water resources, show “we are way worse off this year than last year,” he said. “But we’re not going to run out of water in 2016,” because decades worth of groundwater remain”.

Decades worth of groundwater. Okay?

4. Be rational in considering political responses. No-one disputes that California is experiencing a severe drought, one of the worst in its history. Like Australia, that’s the way it has been for a very long time. Severe droughts are part of the landscape of America’s west coast. California has a pressing problem to do with stored water – “way worse off than last year” – during a period of extended drought. Practical responses are needed.

Why is it that no Californian government has built a large dam for water storage since the mid-1970s? The State’s population has increased by 15 million since then. I have a feeling that those who spread false alarmism also oppose the construction of large new dams to capture the rain that does fall (and that has fallen over California since the last dam was built in the 1970s). This is a logical outcome of a ‘green’ world outlook that opposes progress through mastery of Nature and development and that seeks harmony with Nature through sustainability. It is the opposite of a Marxist-influenced left-wing outlook.

Oh yes, and some good news. While southern California is still in a bad way, northern California has had a reasonable soaking. Rainfall levels are at 100 percent of their historic average or above in nearly every city, and reservoirs, while still not back to normal, are steadily filling.

New dams anyone?

It’s official! Climate alarmists are now even more alarmed…

My initial attraction to the Left 45 years ago was precisely because they were the ones talking about progress – or rather Progress (with a capital P). I would tag along with my father on Saturday mornings in the mid-1960s to visit the International Bookshop run by the Communist Party in Melbourne. He would meet a few of his like-minded workmates (from the factory in which he worked) there, and together we would marvel at the Soviet and Chinese propaganda magazines. What did we marvel at? Simple: all the pictorial examples of Progress – huge dams being built, new nuclear power stations, vast areas of land being cleared for food production or residential development. Just about everything that the Greens oppose.

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The release of the IPCC’s synthesis report on climate change has resulted in predictable headlines in the mainstream media about how the planet is running out of time. The leader of the Australian Greens has asserted that the world has in fact run out of time. Coal is bad, and only ‘sustainable’ growth can be justified.

Attributing a moral quality to coal highlights the quasi-religious thinking underpinning much of the opposition to fossil fuels.

As for ‘sustainable development’ has there ever been a finer oxymoron? How does development happen without change to that condition which preceded it? That which once was, ceases to be. Which is why I support Development.

This is not for one moment to suggest that humanity should not seek to move on from fossil fuels. After all, we moved on from wind power centuries ago and have not looked back as a species. Those today who wish to go back to wind power are quite literally reactionaries.

Three questions interest me.

First, does the actual summary report of the recent IPCC synthesis justify such alarm on its own terms?

Secondly, is the IPCC so credible that all that is needed is appeal to its authority to win an argument?

Thirdly, what does any of the alarmism – the hype and the media spin – have to do with a progressive left-wing outlook? (Spoiler: absolutely nothing, but please read on).

1. I have read all the summaries of the past IPCC reports. The ‘summaries for policy makers’ are what the politicians and their advisers, and the media people, are supposed to read. The latest summary has been compiled by about 50 IPCC contributors. There is little in it to justify alarmism. For instance, despite the iconic use of tidal waves and sinking islands in media coverage of climate change, the IPCC synthesis summary points out that “Over the period 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 metre”. Sea levels are rising by a couple of millimetres – note, millimetres not centimetres – per year. It is not possible to reconcile this with Al Gore’s tidal waves swamping Manhattan or the ABC’s Science Show host claiming that hundred metre tidal waves are possible as a result of the warming.

The IPCC summary also finds that “Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change”. Again, is that cause for alarm? Haven’t human beings been adapting to such changes for centuries? Things are never static. We can adapt as a species to such change.

I could provide other examples from the summary but the point is that the IPCC forecasts are based on the time-frame to 2100. Everything in it needs to be considered in that context, namely: we have 85 years in which to adapt to even the worst changes. The planet has NOT run out of time, contrary to what the Greens and sensationalist media want us to believe.

2. The IPCC represents a form of consensus science and, of course, science has never been consensual. It has always advanced knowledge through a process of debate and argument, the testing of hypotheses, observation and theory. Dissident scientists have often been proven correct over time against the wisdom and authority of the scientific establishment at a given point in history.

Personally, I am not a climate scientist and so I can accept that the consensus represented by the IPCC might be right, despite worrying criticisms that claim a flawed IPCC process. It may be that global warming is primarily driven by human industrial activity, by CO2 emissions. Beyond that, the consensus breaks down, but this does not stop the alarmists from using the IPCC consensus to justify every manner of exaggeration and hyperbole going way outside what the IPCC actually says. This is why I view with great caution people who insist that ‘The Science is Settled’ It certainly runs counter to my Marxist instincts based on old Karl’s personal motto: “De omnibus dubitandum” – question everything!

So, the appeal to authority is not good enough for me in itself. The principal flaw of the IPCC methodology that concerns me is its emphasis on computer modelling. How have the models stood up against observed changes? Not very well, it would seem.

The IPCC’s 2013 Assessment report admitted that the “historical simulations do not reproduce the observed recent warming hiatus”. The hiatus – or absence of the expected significant increase in warming due to record levels of CO2 emissions – runs counter to the computer modelling. John Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama, and a former Lead Author for the IPCC, tested the outputs of 73 IPCC climate models against the facts observed through satellite and weather-balloon data from 1979 and 2013 and found that all the IPCC models ran hotter than the actual observed climate. Similar studies and findings can be accessed here.

3. The mainstream media portrays the oppositional views about climate change alarmism in terms of a conflict between the Right and the Left. Apparently it is left-wing to take an alarmist view and to see coal as evil. What utter nonsense!

My initial attraction to the Left 45 years ago was precisely because they were the ones talking about progress – or rather Progress (with a capital P). I would tag along with my father on Saturday mornings in the mid-1960s to visit the International Bookshop run by the Communist Party in Melbourne. He would meet a few of his like-minded workmates (from the factory in which he worked) there, and together we would marvel at the Soviet and Chinese propaganda magazines. What did we marvel at? Simple: all the pictorial examples of Progress – huge dams being built, new nuclear power stations, vast areas of land being cleared for food production or residential development. Just about everything that the Greens oppose.

Some readers will say that I was naive to fall for this propaganda. But the point is that that is what attracted me, and many others, to the ‘red left’ back then. It was not a value system based on ultra-conservative notions like ‘Sustainability’ but a belief that capitalism’s profit motive and concentrated private ownership of means of production held back progress and that socialism was the way to unleash human creativity and productivity. I still believe that is the case, that we humans “ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”.

I smirk to myself when I hear the current Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, speak of plans to develop the north of Australia into a ‘food bowl’. I first heard of that dream back in the 1960s from old veteran communists. They held it up as an example of what would happen under socialism – the centre of Australia would flourish through irrigation, they told me. Again, these were not ‘green’ values but truly progressive ones. The old blokes also assured me that such great development of the north of Australia would not happen any time soon under capitalism because there was no short-term profit to be made from it. I was maybe 16 when they told me that – I am now heading for 64. They were right.

Conclusion

For all the alarmism, greater alarmism and even greater alarmism, our two billion brothers and sisters who are hungry and do not have access to clean water will not do what some in the ‘first world’ would tell them and opt for less efficient and more costly forms of energy. In the industrialising and modernising countries of Africa, for instance, people will be lifted from extreme poverty – as the rest of us were – thanks mainly to fossil fuels. The only way to stop this process is by developing energy sources that are cheaper and more efficient than coal. But people are hungry right now. And coal is cheap, and efficient.

Another value that attracted me to the left in my youth was the sense of confidence in humanity – and that meant, and means, confidence in the future. Without that confidence, why bother?

The lack of confidence in the future on the part of what I regard as the pseudo-left is found in the oft-repeated assertion that the planet has reached its natural limits. ‘We have gone too far with our so-called progress – the planet cannot sustain it any longer’. I can think of no idea that is more reactionary than this one. It could have been said at any point in history, by any set of princes and popes.

Once upon a time, coal was used merely for ornamental purposes. In Roman times, had you suggested that that black chunk on the end of the local beauty’s necklace would power a revolution in industry and production, and in social relations, that would overthrow a future system known as feudalism and lead to secular democracy and capitalism, you would have been regarded as insane. Who knows what the next energy source will be? How dare the reactionaries tell us that the planet’s resources are finite!

Those who think that way cannot see beyond solar panels and windmills, let alone begin to consider nuclear fusion or appreciate how northern and central Australia could one day flourish.

And then there are the planets and the stars. Awaiting us.

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