Who Says There’s No Climate Emergency?
By Dr. Alison Green (10/03/2019)
National Director (UK), Scientists Warning
and co-Director of Transition Lab
On 24th September, Breitbart, a far-right American news outlet, published an article saying that 500 scientists were telling the United Nations that there is “no climate emergency.” 
As a globally connected and trusted voice of science, Scientists Warning takes seriously its responsibilities to the public. Indeed, since Scientists Warning came about following the publication in 2017 of a journal article written by Professor William Ripple and others entitled, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”, the Breitbart news item tries to generate some uncertainty as to whether or not there is a climate crisis.
This is a dangerous trajectory. The “World Scientists Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” was endorsed by 15,234 scientists (including several Nobel laureates) from 184 countries at the point of publication in November 2017. Several thousand more scientists have since come forward to endorse the findings of the paper. Less than two years later, the scientific research on which the conclusions were based remains sound. Indeed, Ripple and his colleagues are to publish a further follow-up paper in which World Scientists declare a climate emergency.
If anything, research since November 2017 has revealed that the climate and ecological crises are graver than thought at that time. The IPCC 1.5 report of 2018 reinforces this message, presenting data indicating that aspects of climate breakdown are manifesting faster than expected. A further paper published in 2018 by Steffen at al entitled “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” and commonly cited as the “Hothouse Earth” paper explored the possibility that planetary boundaries might soon be breached. The authors warn that:
“Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions—Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed.”
Figure 1 reprinted below, represents the risk. The small ball in the upper right quadrant represents the present location of the planet along the dimensions of rising temperature and rising sea level. In this figure, 2 degrees C represents a significant point above preindustrial temperature. The implication of the paper is that if we breach this particular threshold, the the planet could be set onto a trajectory that could result in a ‘hothouse earth’. The authors write:
“If the world’s societies want to avoid crossing a potential threshold that locks the Earth System into the Hothouse Earth pathway, then it is critical that they make deliberate decisions to avoid this risk and maintain the Earth System in Holocene-like conditions.”
Ripple et al (in press, 2019) summarise the various climactic impacts o a ‘hothouse earth’:
- Increasing CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide),
- Increasing global surface temperature,
- Increasing ocean heat content,
- Increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather and associated damage costs,
- Rising sea level,
- Rising ocean acidity,
- Increases in areas of land burned in the United States
- Loss of Arctic sea ice,
- Loss of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets,
- Declines in glacier thickness worldwide
The evidence for human-induced climate change is overwhelming. The calls for urgent action are ever more frequent, and louder. These are perhaps best exemplified by the School Climate Strikes, inspired by Greta Thunberg. Scientists globally have united behind the striking children (see Hagerdorn et al, 2019). Declarations of a climate emergency are being made on a daily basis around the globe. The EAUC announced in July of 2019 that over 7000 universities and colleges have now declared a climate emergency.
In the face of the evidence for climate breakdown and given that so many organisations and bodies are acting on the science and declaring a climate emergency, what evidence might these 500 scientists be using upon which to base their claim that there is in fact no climate emergency at all? And who are these 500 scientists?
What evidence do the scientists cite to support their claim that there is no climate emergency?
Surprisingly, the letter itself contains no evidence at all to support the claims made. This in itself is striking, as science is cumulative and evidence-based. Without evidence to support a claim, the statement cannot be held to be true.
Claim 1: Natural as well as anthropogenic factors cause warming
It is true that the geological record shows that the earth has been cooler than it is today, and that it has been warmer. However, the rate at which warming is occurring today is unprecedented, and the scientific evidence is clear that the primary drivers are human activity.
Claim 2: Warming is far slower than predicted
On the contrary, evidence is accruing that indicates that changes are happening faster than expected. Lorenz et al (2019) found that:
“On average across Europe the number of days with extreme heat and heat stress has more than tripled and hot extremes have warmed by 2.3 °C from 1950–2018. Over Central Europe, the warming exceeds the corresponding summer mean warming by 50%. Days with extreme cold temperatures have decreased by a factor of 2–3 and warmed by more than 3 °C, regionally substantially more than winter mean temperatures.”
The paper makes clear that even within Europe, the trends are much larger than expected, and greater than predicted by natural variability.
Claim 3: Climate policy relies on inadequate models
Any model is an approximation and based on the best available data. The models developed and used by the IPCC scientists have, if anything, under-estimated the extent of climate breakdown.
Claim 4: CO2 is plant food, the basis of all life on Earth
It is true the CO2 is vital to life. However, CO2 is a greenhouse gas. The levels of CO2 in the atmosphere at present exceed 400ppm, and have not been this high for at least 10-15 million years. In short, humans are entering uncharted territory. The dangers of these very high levels of CO2 far outweigh the imagined benefits, as we are seeing.
Claim 5: Global warming has not increased natural disasters
Climate change is increasing both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. This is documented in the research reported here https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180321130859.htm
Claim 6: Climate policy must respect scientific and economic realities
This claim rests on the repeated assertion that there is no climate emergency. However, the authors of the letter have provided no evidence to support this assertion. The weight of evidence supports the claim that there IS a climate emergency. In the face of a climate emergency, climate policy should be consistent with the science. And the science is clear, and unequivocal. Let’s now turn to the matter of who are these so-called scientists.
Who are the 500 scientists?
The 500 scientists come from just 23 nations, with over 100 coming from Italy. It is worth noting at the outset that the 500 scientists represent just a small fraction of the number of signatories to the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” (2017) article.
The list of 500 individuals includes primarily men, and a relatively large number of retired individuals, or those holding the status ‘emeritus’. Once retired, an individual’s access to laboratory facilities, data, modelling techniques and laboratory staff is largely negligible. This calls into question the extent to which any claims made by such individuals are based on current and recent science. This is not to say that retired individuals cannot contribute to debate.
A number of the individuals described as scientists are in fact science journalists. Journalism is not science. Of the individuals who are scientists, a great many work in the fields of economics, geology and nuclear energy. Their credibility then in claiming to be experts in the field of climate science must be called into question. As a psychologist who specialises in the field of human expertise, I am qualified to write on this. True expertise reflects the accumulation over time of a large body of domain-specific knowledge and skills. And the weight of evidence shows that an expert in one field can rarely transfer their expertise to another field. So for instance, a skilled mathematician cannot solve immensely complex chemistry problems.
Of the list of 500 so-called scientists, only a subset have credentials in a science, and hardly any of the individuals have expertise in climate science. It is also a matter of grave concern that a number of the signatories have either current or former interests in the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel industry has, for decades, funded campaigns of misinformation that are well-documented. These sorts of vested interests would typically be declared by scientists of integrity. Indeed, many would judge the obvious conflict of interests to render their contributing to the letter in question an impossibility.
The claims made by the so-called scientists are unsubstantiated, and therefore cannot be accepted. The motivations and qualifications of the authors are also called into question. The Alliance of Scientists rejects the claims made.
Those wishing to read a rigourous debunking of further climate science misconceptions may wish to read this article in The Conversation by Professor Mark Maslin of University College, London (https://theconversation.com/five-climate-change-science-misconceptions-debunked-122570?fbclid=IwAR01mDTM6jRzwunlmok74cAZGJmd4BseSDLkByMut-0BcBRPAjUWnzYqxJ0)
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