You Ought to Have a Look: The Catastrophe of Climate Catastrophizing and Fun at the House Science Committee

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

This time around You Ought to Have a Look at a brilliant analysis of the profound illogic of “climate catastrophizing” appearing, in all places, in Foreign Affairs, arguably the most important international contributor to precisely just that.

Written by the Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass (“he’s just like you and me, only smarter”), who often finds himself YOTHALed in these writings, it’s a logical tour-de-force that skewers the exaggerated bathos of the apocalyptics with simple economic logic and hard numbers. Along the way, the usual purveyors of gloom-and-doom, like Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich and The Club of Rome, as well as some more modern-day would-be autocrats like Harvard’s Daniel Schrag, fall victim. The intellectual carnage wrought by Cass is truly breathtaking. And it’s all in Foreign Affairs.

Cass starts off with a bang:

Climate change may or may not bear responsibility for the flood on last night’s news, but without question it has created a flood of despair. Climate researchers and activists, according to a 2015 Esquire feature, “When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job,” suffer from depression and PTSD-like symptoms. In a poll on his Twitter feed, meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus found that nearly half of 416 respondents felt “emotionally overwhelmed, at least occasionally, because of news about climate change.” 

For just such feelings, a Salt Lake City support group provides “a safe space for confronting” what it calls “climate grief.”

Panicked thoughts often turn to the next generation. “Does Climate Change Make It Immoral to Have Kids?” pondered columnist Dave Bry in The Guardian in 2016. “[I] think about my son,” he wrote, “growing up in a gray, dying world—walking towards Kansas on potholed highways.” Over the summer, National Public Radio tackled the same topic in “Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?” an interview with Travis Rieder, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University, who offers “a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.” And Holthaus himself once responded to a worrying scientific report by announcing that he would never fly again and might also get a vasectomy

Cass then notes that this fear is stoked at the highest levels, with gaudy statements by President Obama (as long as there’s no chance of an audience question, he notes), Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Bill di Blasio (the last made at the Vatican, which has also been fanning the flames).

The problem, according to Cass, is that all of this just isn’t warranted. Worst-case scenarios based upon business-as-usual give, according to the UN, a warming of three-to-four degrees (C) from 2015 to 2100 (the earth may be telling us these numbers are way high, see here for a summary of recent findings). Using even the high end of that, integrated economic/climate models (don’t laugh at the concept, please) project a worldwide increase in GDP from $76 trillion today to $490 trillion. That’s with climate change. Without it, the 2100 figure is $520 trillion. Small beer.

How small? Cass cites the model output:

In the [economic/climate model, moreover, the climate-change-afflicted world of 2105 is already more prosperous than the climate-change-free world of 2100. And because the impacts and costs of climate change emerge gradually over the century—0.3 percent of GDP in 2020, 1.0 percent in 2050—in no year does the model foresee a reduction in economic growth of even one-tenth of a percentage point. Average annual growth over the 2015–2100 period declines from 2.27 percent to 2.22 percent. 

The reason catastrophizing is wrong is its proponent’s inability to comprehend the huge degree that affluence immunizes society against catastrophe. In 1970, a severe tropical cyclone (“hurricane” in American) killed 500,000 in Bangladesh. In 2007, a similar storm took out 4,000. That’s 4,000 tragedies to be sure, but 496,000 less than there would have been with 1970 infrastructure and technology there.

Cass notes that the lurid future scenarios are often based upon some very hokey “science.” Our EPA, for example, says that in 2100, the heat-related death rate in New York City will be 50 times that of Phoenix—even though today’s Phoenix is a lot hotter than 2100’s New York. Here—and we have written scientific papers on this—EPA ignores the fact that as heat waves become more frequent, heat-related mortality drops. It’s this thing called “adaptation,” something catastrophists tend to ignore.

In one of the better turns of phrase in the climate/economic literature, Cass notes that “The costs of climate adaptation can also appear deceptively large if the alternative of maintaining the status quo is imagined to be free.” That’s because all along we are adapting to climate, changing or not.

Cass closes back-to-bathos:

As for Bry, the newspaper columnist; Rieder, the philosophy professor; and Holthaus, the meteorologist? They each decided to have kids after all.

Speaking of which, YOTHAL at the testimony before the House Science Committee hearing on Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method on March 29 by Judith Curry, John Christy, and Roger Pielke, Jr. Penn State’s Michael Mann also testified, and one-half hour after the hearing sent out a fundraising letter for 314 Action, a nonprofit group lobbying for, among other things, the defeat of Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith. Talk about chutzpah! And his letter certainly didn’t tell the truth:

But today when I appeared before the House Science Committee, I was seated with three witnesses, all of whom deny climate science or its implications.

For field notes on this trainwreck, you also ought to have a look at witness Judith Curry’s report on her blog, Climate Etc.