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Why Climate “Alarmists” Should Not Be Ignored

What if the Earth warms by 7.8 degrees?

Hurricane Harvey, as seen from the International Space Station on August 19, 2017. (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

In a December 2011 article, Noam Chomsky noted that in addition to those preaching skepticism of climate change, there exists another group of climate commentators whose input is ignored by the mainstream media: those who insist that the dangers of climate change go far beyond what we are told is the scientific consensus.

This latter group has grown increasingly vocal, especially outside the US, but it is still not being paid enough heed.

In a recent Vice article, Nafeez Ahmed broke the story of Schroders, a British investment firm with US $542 billion under management, privately advising its clients that global temperatures could reach 7.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. Of course, as is well known, the safe limit for warming is generally considered to be 2 degrees Celsius.

As Ahmed puts it, a temperature increase of 7.8 degrees “would make Earth basically uninhabitable for humans.”

Schroders is not alone in this outlook. A lengthy treatment of the idea was published by New York Magazine in July of this year, beginning with arresting words that may well one day mark out a distinct moment in time: “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” The author, David Wallace-Wells, goes on to offer some 8,000 words that give the reader every opportunity to trust that promise, weaving a narrative around 4 degrees warming, 6 degrees warming, millions dead and humanity fundamentally devastated.

Notwithstanding all of this, we seem to have become entrenched in a public understanding of climate change based on 2 degrees as a “magic” number, as if the only two possible end-game scenarios for this century are 2 degrees of warming or the happy aversion of mass tragedy.

As the Schroders report makes appallingly clear, however, the reality of the planet’s struggle against us is far more fluid and uncertain than the 2 degrees paradigm suggests. A recent study estimated that there is only a 5 percent chance that the 2-degree target will be met; it may well be that the most likely situation at this point is warming far in excess of 2 degrees.

Conservative climate estimations have predominated largely because the terms of the debate are dictated by those who benefit most from climate models and estimations that fall toward the more moderate end of the spectrum. Corporate and governmental hegemonies, no longer able to retreat from the plain fact of human-induced global warming, now devote their time to cultivating a more savory reality in which 2 degrees is what we can expect of our gently simmering planet.

Seizing the narrative in this way allows executives and lawmakers the latitude to make symbolic gestures toward preventing ecological disaster while preserving their ordinary ways. What seems an act of contrition — yes, we are causing climate change; our company is both at risk and responsible, and we will do better — is also a means to enforce the status quo. Such narratives stop us from being able to properly address the potential consequences of our (and primarily their) actions.

If precipitous warming above the 2 degrees limit is the worst-case scenario for the world, containing the discussion within a 2 degrees paradigm is (now) the best-case option for those with an interest in obfuscating the sound of the planet’s potential death-knell.

The leaked Schroders report shows that behind closed doors, however, corporations are considering a greater-than-two-degrees reality with honesty.

Hypothetical situations such as considered here are easy to dismiss as doomsday prophesying. But uncertainty is a crucial part of the conversation, albeit one that is overlooked. In another recent piece, Josh Floyd goes into significant detail on how poorly we are actually able to model climate change, advocating for what he calls “knowledge humility” on the topic.

Simply put, while we know a large amount about human interference with the climate, we are missing much minute detail with which to refine that understanding and produce similarly nuanced predictions. What is a “safe” amount of warming? What will slow our seemingly inevitable parade to that limit? What human intervention will happen, and what will its effects be? Each, for now, remain unknown and unknowable.

David Wallace-Wells’s article was controversial because it was honest on those points we do not entirely understand and made a compelling argument against reducing ourselves to complacency in the name of not troubling our pretty little heads. There is no rationale, no rhyme or reason, in calls to avoid serious discussions of very real possibilities just because we do not like the thought.

We should prefer to assess the abyss with a clear mind and know the awful truths of the future as best we can. Those who some call “climate extremists” should not be ignored. They may hold the keys to the future.

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