“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” – Saul Bellow
Jem Bendell, for the Deep Adaptation Quarterly, August 2022.
As the heatwaves swept across Europe this summer, mainstream Western media gave some more attention to global heating. With 40+ degrees Celsius in the UK, for instance, many people were unnerved. They wanted to know more about what is happening and how bad it might become. This meant climate scientists were featured in the media. Then a curious thing happened. Some of those scientists began to ‘cherry pick’ the science to promote a particular narrative that the danger will cease to increase if specific policies are pursued. They presented their view as following science, and some experts then admonished people who pointed out the scientific limitations of that perspective. Does this mean there is now an ‘establishment story’ on climate change? If so, why, and what does it preclude?
Observing a range of the expert commentary in mainstream media, it does seem that there is now an establishment narrative. It goes something like this: the situation is bad but solvable by the authorities if we, the general public, do what we are told while supporting subsidies for unproven technologies and criticising anyone who doesn’t share a faith in technology, enterprise, authority and obedience [see footnote 1]. This narrative means we should never become so worried as to drop what we are doing to challenge the system and its elites. Over the coming years this narrative is likely to be enforced by establishment spokespersons, media organisations and even Bigtech algorithms suppressing alternative views. That is likely because it mirrors the way elites have always viewed the masses as a danger to themselves. It reflects how they care more about avoiding threats to their privilege than being honest about how much suffering there already is and about to occur. As Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau, explained, writing from Kenya: “The millions of people being uprooted by climate change do not benefit from the ‘stubborn optimism’ of environmental elites. Instead, they will be better served by the stubborn realism of the experts and activists now brave enough to call for urgent degrowth in rich countries and fair adaptation everywhere.”
The topic of whether there is ‘committed warming’ in global climate from past emissions due to the inertia of the Earth’s systems is one recent example of this tendency of some experts towards establishment-friendly interpretations of available science. Because it works at a nerdy level of climate science, in the past year it has sometimes been presented by scientists in ways that fit the new establishment narrative on climate, without any challenge from journalists. Looking more closely at this ‘committed warming’ issue within climatology helps reveal to us how scientific communication may now be politicised, so that public opinion can be manipulated to protect power. In the Deep Adaptation Quarterly (DAQ) we provide insight into a world of ideas and actions freed from the establishment’s attempts to make us follow the story from their ‘cherry-picked’ science, rather than the fuller science that exists on the terrible predicament we face. My editorial for this edition of the DAQ is an essay on the dangers of the establishment’s narrative on global heating and what to do about it. To illustrate the problem, I will examine the mainstream presentation of whether there will be inevitable heating of the global climate from existing CO2 emissions.
How much heat is inevitable?
Unfortunately for both humanity and life on earth, some analysis suggests that whatever humanity might do to curb future greenhouse gas emissions, dangerous levels of warming are already certain, baked into the atmosphere by past emissions. How much warming is baked in and how dangerous and how fast impacts will be is uncertain, as is how much our current and future efforts might reduce the risk of catastrophic damage. Let’s briefly look at just some of the evidence for that view.
Probably the world’s most famous climate scientist is Dr. James Hansen, formerly director of the NASA Goddard Institute. I admit I like him just as much for writing a biography of Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon. But climate science is his day job. He brought climate change to global attention when he testified to the U.S. Senate in 1988 that global warming had been detected and was already impacting weather events. Since then he has approached his research by integrating insights from three key ways we can develop understanding of potential future climates: the reconstruction of past climates from paleontology, current observational data, and computer models of weather and Earth systems. In 2013 he wrote a paper with scientists from different academic fields which concluded that “cumulative emissions of ∼1000 billion tons of carbon (GtC), sometimes associated with 2°C global warming, would in reality spur “slow” feedbacks [that would cause] eventual warming of 3–4°C with disastrous consequences.” Therefore, only steeper and earlier cuts in fossil fuel emissions could protect young people and future generations from self-reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system.
This was a direct challenge to the international climate science and climate policy communities, which focus mostly on “fast” feedbacks, assuming that slow feedbacks like ice sheet disintegration, sea-level rise, and large-scale vegetation dieback will unfold in a mostly linear, orderly fashion over long timescales of centuries to millennia and can therefore be discounted in current carbon budgets. The idea they were challenging is that there is little relevant thermal inertia in the climate system, and therefore effectively no committed or ‘baked in’ warming from past CO₂ emissions. These questions generate lively discussion in climate scientists’ blogs, twitter, and academic papers. With further colleagues and modelling, Hanson confirmed that finding in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics in 2016, concluding that “the modeling, paleoclimate evidence, and ongoing observations together imply that 2°C global warming above the preindustrial level could be dangerous.”
Hansen and his colleagues are hardly outliers: many scientists now argue that the mainstream climatology has been downplaying the sensitivity of the climate to increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Rather, “Climate change is hitting the planet faster than scientists originally thought,” explain even the scientifically cautious IPCC. If we use the geological records to look back about three million years ago, a time we call the middle-Pliocene warm period, we find CO2 levels at about current levels or lower, with global temperatures 3°C higher than what we currently experience. Because 3 is a small number, writing about 3°C might not seem very concerning. But it means something much more significant. Because it is an average for the whole planet, over sea and water, night and day. Already with only 1.2°C global ambient temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, countries are experiencing both incredible heat extremes and greater volatility of temperatures, winds and precipitation. At current 1.2°C warming, East Africa has already had four rainy seasons fail in succession. So, imagine if global warming impacts generally increased by a factor of nearly three. That is not even including any knock-on effects and tipping points that could be reached, which I will come back to in a moment.
It is easy to see why the message from the rocks and ice cores was unappealing to people in the science bureaucracy and climate policy worlds. It meant we could not pretend that reform of capitalism would work. It meant we could not confidently claim that industrial consumer societies could transition to a new way of life. It is these highly human factors which help explain why over the last few decades the policy-making establishment has gone from wondering if manmade climate change would happen, to then wondering if it would be a problem, to then negotiating what levels of climate change could be dangerous. During that time, the interpretations of the paleontological records gave far more challenging data to the policy advisors than computer models of potential climates.
It is worth remembering that in the late 1980s, the series of U.S. Congressional hearings culminating in Dr Hansen’s testimony had already conclusively established in high-level politics that climate mitigation would require decarbonizing and restructuring the energy sectors of the world’s major economies. It was an economic and geopolitical challenge that no mainstream political party was willing to take on. The establishment of the IPCC came well after that and did not make such clear conclusions about the need to transform economies until 2022 – 30 years later.
With that wider context in mind, the IPCC’s reliance on statisticians with computers saying ‘yes you can’ could be regarded as part of a bureaucratic intention of creating a credible myth of there being breathing space for industrial consumer societies [see footnote 2]. Two scientists summarised it well. Focusing on global temperature goals like staying below 2°C have been “attractive to politicians because they can allow political purposes [of being seen to act] to be fulfilled without necessarily having any specific actions follow” from their public pronouncements. You know, stuff that would inconvenience their donors, such as banning new investments in fossil fuels, punitively taxing high carbon lifestyles, and heavily regulating the banks. The only flaw in that tactic of disavowing uncomfortable realities was that ever more powerful climate models started to say, “no you can’t.”
One published study reviewed model data to conclude that there will be a “delayed emergence of a global temperature response after emission mitigation” and achieving net zero emissions immediately would still allow further global heating until 2033. Another paper that reviewed outputs from the latest generation of climate models concluded that at current levels of CO2 we are destined to break through 1.5°C at least. The key story that should have been reaching the global headlines in recent years is that the latest models are predicting hotter, faster and more destabilising outcomes from greenhouse gases than the older models. That did not happen, as instead, a group of leading scientists including Dr. Gavin Schmidt (Hansen’s successor at the Goddard Institute) suggested dropping the ‘hottest’ models and weighting them by how well they compared relative to other metrics – something the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had already done in its recent report.
If you prefer simpler models that might have less complex maths to ‘make strange’ during longer-term calculations, then you are in luck. One basic model that focused on melting permafrost controversially reported that it found a self-sustained thawing of permafrost even if all man-made greenhouse gas emissions were stopped in the model in 2020. To stop self-sustained warming in the model, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide had to be extracted from the atmosphere.
While this last model was quickly criticised as not conforming to the high standards of more complex climate models and not further discussed in the scientific literature, it offers a lesson for further discussions. Even relatively simple models can show that self-reinforcing feedbacks can be triggered, where rising temperatures then melt the permafrost which releases huge amounts of methane, which then drives further global heating, and so on. It also shows how model findings could be dismissed for their mathematics being too simple or too complicated (i.e. the latest generation of models), if their findings are inconvenient to the establishment narrative on global heating.
All the models I have just described included the continued functioning of ecosystems to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. But such an assumption is no longer credible. Using high-resolution satellite datasets, one study in early 2022 found a doubling of carbon emissions from tropical forest loss over the past decade. These trends have not been explicitly factored into recent assessments, including the IPCC’s latest report. The even greater concern is that major forests will flip from being sinks or absorbers of CO2 to sources, due to forest fires and drying soils. One study reported in 2022 on “direct empirical evidence that the Amazon rainforest is losing resilience, risking dieback with profound implications for biodiversity, carbon storage and climate change at a global scale.” One of the authors was Dr Timothy Lenton, who has brought attention to these kinds of feedbacks in the climate system reaching tipping points. Working with other scientists, he has found evidence that 9 of the 15 most crucial tipping points, where feedbacks probably become self-reinforcing, may have already begun. There is the additional risk that such feedbacks unleash a domino-like chain reaction or “tipping cascade” that could push the Earth system towards new ‘hothouse’ climates. That is extremely worrying, especially as this risk exists at current greenhouse gas concentrations and current levels of warming. Another worry is because the complexity of natural systems prevents us from knowing where thresholds lie until they have been crossed. Although some scientists admonish people for implying that 1.5°C or 2°C is a threshold, as every fraction of a degree matters, the critical tipping points that definitely exist in natural systems cannot be known through scientific method until it is too late. That means it would not be scientific to express high confidence that staying below a certain amount of global mean surface temperature rise will avoid any given tipping point from activating. Current research suggests that tipping elements in the Earth system can destabilise each other, for instance by lowering the critical temperature thresholds of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Atlantic overturning circulation, and the Amazon rainforest.
If some of this discussion seems a little abstract, then let us return to what is being observed around the world right now. Data on temperature extremes, floods, droughts, storm damage, wildfires, ice loss, sea-level rise, diseases from the wild, ecosystems collapsing and losses in agriculture, all tell us what is happening. We can even watch wildfires, the behaviour of the jet stream or methane emissions in the Arctic in real time. Studies which warn that reservoirs below and within the Siberian permafrost could be releasing methane are accessible to anyone. Some of the most dramatic changes are being observed at the poles. What is being seen there is far ahead of what the modelling projected a decade ago. For instance, climatologist Dr Xavier Fettweis said that the 2022 summer anomaly of over +5°C warmer in the Arctic “is clearly unexpected with respect to future projections”, even for the most aggressive carbon pollution scenarios that have been modelled by the IPCC. Judged by the needs of society, rather than academia, a bigger problem than the latest climate models ‘running hot’ could be that the models have been years ‘running slow’ on many aspects of the Earth system that matter most to humanity and life on Earth.
If it feels a bit torturous reading all this, then I understand. Examining some of the dry detail of the global carnage that awaits is not the most obvious choice for how to spend our time when sensing mortality is probably nearer than we thought. I am summarising some of this science because it is being marginalised by the establishment narrative on climate change. Escaping the confines of that narrative, we could dialogue from the perspective that a terrible future awaits, that we need to learn why we failed, consider what is wrong with all our systems, attempt to avert the worst, and do the difficult work of adapting, all the while not knowing if it is going to work [see footnote 3]. That is a huge challenge to the culture of our modern societies. Will more of us try? Unfortunately, when threatened with the collapse of one’s identity, worldview, and income, some experts might prefer to focus on yet more measurements, discussions and fanciful ideas of salvation. Which brings me to the part of this essay that I wish I did not have to write – about the activities of climate scientists that are unwittingly undermining commitment to action, from both the public and our leaders.
Hope springs digital?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doesn’t include research in its advice to policy makers unless that research has sufficient consensus within the scientific community. On the issue of whether there is committed warming from existing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, its 2014 assessment report said: “Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.” However, because of the lack of consensus on the amount, the IPCC did not include any ‘committed warming’ in that report’s calculations of either future temperature scenarios or what ‘carbon budgets’ exist for countries to pollute further.
Some modellers therefore thought that further studies could help clarify if that was a reasonable position for the IPCC to take. They set out to analyse the future global warming that would result if there were immediate net-zero emissions of CO2, something called the Zero Emissions Commitment (ZEC). One study included some of the most advanced climate models in the world. The results of that project were reported in 2020 in the clearly titled paper: Is there warming in the pipeline? A multi-model analysis of the Zero Emissions Commitment from CO2 written by Dr Andrew H. MacDougall and dozens of colleagues (as it was a large international project). Although the scenario of an immediate end to all fossil fuel burning, or even net zero, was not a realistic one, theirs was effectively a study on the future inhabitability of the planet. These are strange times indeed.
So, what did they find? The research team reported that the “models exhibit a wide variety of behaviours after emissions cease, with some models continuing to warm for decades to millennia and others cooling substantially.” Such diversity of results means either an average or median temperature figure would not necessarily give any confidence that it corresponds to reality. That meant they concluded that there was no reason from climate modelling science for the IPCC to change its approach of not including ‘committed warming’ in its calculations and policy deliberations. However, before anyone gets excited, they reminded us of a key limitation of their study due to how it only focused on CO2, whereas “many non-co2 greenhouse gases, aerosols, and land use changes affect global climate.” Therefore, it was a problem “that many models lack feedbacks related to nutrient limitation and permafrost carbon pools, [so] the strong dependence of [the ZEC50 models examining effects of zero carbon in 2050 ].. on terrestrial carbon uptake is concerning for the robustness of ZEC50 estimates.” Consequently, “to truly explore the question of whether global temperature will continue to increase following complete cessation of greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions, the effect of each anthropogenic forcing agent must be accounted for” [emphasis added]. In other words, they could not support conclusions on the future of life on Earth. But it did allow the IPCC to maintain its position that because there is low confidence from the models on the significance of existing CO2 contributing to future global heating, “the central estimate is taken as zero for assessments of remaining carbon budgets for global warming levels of 1.5C or 2C.” Nevertheless, in the FAQ for their subsequent 6th assessment report in 2021, the IPCC openly admitted that global warming and Arctic sea ice loss will continue in every possible scenario for the coming 20 years: “In summary, it is only after a few decades of reducing CO2 emissions that we would clearly see global temperatures starting to stabilize.” [see footnote 4].
At this point I will attempt a summary of the implications of the research I have presented so far. If global CO2 emissions reach ‘net zero’, even if that would mean atmospheric concentrations of CO2 then decrease, that will not definitely stop further global warming and not stop the increasing loss and damage. Instead, due to increasing methane concentrations, degrading carbon sinks, and some likely-triggered tipping points in the Earth system, some warming will continue – perhaps a lot – even if global CO2 emissions reach ‘net zero’ to make atmospheric concentrations of CO2 decrease (which it might not, depending on unpredictable feedbacks). Even a tipping cascade toward ‘hothouse’ climates would still be possible.
Although the ZEC research team stated that their findings were unremarkably “consistent with previous model experiments and simple theory”, in the following sections I will show how some experts presented their research as highly positive news. Therefore, those communications on this topic offer a microcosm of the misrepresentations that can undermine understanding of the situation. It is therefore a case that will interest anyone involved in climate science, activism and policy, as well as people who care about telling the truth about climate change.
Don’t get in the way of a good story?
In 2021, I began to notice some experts using this ZEC study to make the case for renewed hope. In April the industry website Carbon Brief published an Explainer: Will global warming ‘stop’ as soon as net-zero emissions are reached? [see footnote 5]. Their answer was that yes, it almost will. The author, leading climate commentator Zeke Hausfather, wrote that “the best available evidence shows that… warming is likely to more or less stop once carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reach zero, meaning humans have the power to choose their climate future.” As you already know from the discussion above, the ZEC research team did not make such a bold claim and even the IPCC stated that is not the case. Dr Hausfather used one additional study from 2010 to support his assertion, while not mentioning all the other research on the committed warming topic that I referred to earlier. When writing the article he was working with a research centre that “promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges” and which is partly funded by a major investor in climate-related businesses, Breakthrough Energy [see footnote 6].
Despite a mention of the uncertainty around methane effects in that Carbon Brief article, by October the impediments to presenting this as exciting and hopeful climate news were being ignored. One article in Scientific American used the study as a basis to claim “There’s Still Time to Fix Climate—About 11 Years.” One thing I noticed is that these discussions included a lot of data which was immaterial to real world implications. That gave the appearance of scholarliness but was utterly irrelevant. For instance, some climatologists explained how the old computer simulations of climate had failed to incorporate the amount of uptake of CO2 from the biosphere, and therefore over-played the amount of ‘committed warming’ due to existing CO2 levels or future emissions. Yet that past oversight is not necessarily material to our understanding of whether there is committed warming from all greenhouse gases in the real world. Instead, it just shows that past models can be improved and therefore any model should not be the decisive means of analysing the situation with climate change, if we want to prioritise reality over the institutional biases and limitations of climate science.
In addition, I noticed how the conversation was treated seriously by so many commentators in the wider environmental sector, despite how it could be regarded as a peak of self-obsession from the scientific community. Because humanity is not going to reach net-zero overnight. Nevertheless, by February 2022 the ‘no committed warming’ story was becoming official policy advice. The well-known and dedicated climate scientist Professor Michael Mann presented this argument to the US government (via a House Committee). His testimony included that “surface warming is likely to stabilize rather quickly, i.e. within a few years, once net carbon emissions reach zero.” When mentioning his testimony, I am sensitive to how difficult it can be for a scientist acting in good faith to provide an accurate and comprehensive summary of complex science to either the public and government. In addition, there are personal, institutional and cultural pressures to downplay the idea that humanity is not in control of our situation if we now wake up and try to change. As someone who went through the process of deciding to accept how bad our situation is, and then to communicate it to others, I know what a heavy emotional burden is involved. Yet if we choose to be in the business of science communication then that is a burden we must accept. It also means we must consider how to question experts if they are telling a story about the science which is preferable to specific commercial and political interests.
Some experts have argued the ‘committed warming’ issue is not one to spend time arguing about. I have hopefully explained its significance in revealing the problematic way some experts are approaching the topic of science communication. But it is even more important than that, at the level of social discourse, in at least two ways. First, that there is likely to be more warming even if the whole planet reaches net zero means that everyone needs to do more to prepare practically and emotionally for a future of greater disruption [see footnote 3]. It means both transformative adaptation and deep adaptation should be central topics for whole societies, not just environmental policy. Second, the existence of committed warming reminds us that there is a significant historical injustice arising from past emissions. We must not pretend that historical emissions from richer nations are less responsible for the terrible effects of climate change in poorer parts of the world. What people decide to do about ‘climate justice’ with such an awareness is another matter, but we should never downplay the harm caused from past emissions.
Don’t get in the way of a good business?
The bitter truth on the situation sometimes slips through, with articles by climate scientists Professor Bill McGuire, Professor Will Steffen and Dr. Wolfgang Knorr. Each of these men has explained that the climate will further disrupt societies whatever we do. However, most scientists keep quiet on the issue of inevitable warming and inevitable impacts. Some scientists even lambast colleagues for what they call ‘defeatism’ or ‘doomism’ and argue that we need to stay positive about the possibilities for averting catastrophic change. Such criticisms arise from incorrect assumptions on what psychology, politics and philosophy tells us about the radicalisation that can occur from ‘catastrophic imaginaries’, and how optimism can be the enemy of action.
The idea there might be no committed warming from existing CO2 emissions is particularly attractive to a range of business interests and their friends within the establishment. Some professionals do not want the public to believe anything that might undermine state subsidies for nuclear power and CO2-removal machines. To question the future viability of highly complex industrial consumer societies immediately puts further doubt on these technologies. Recognising the likelihood of ‘committed warming’ adds to such questioning.
The trillion-dollar nuclear industry seeks to benefit from climate concern but might be undermined by an anticipation of disruptive changes to weather, sea levels, and societies. Wider anticipation of the latter scenario would mean less government support and a higher cost of capital. Although the role of some forms of nuclear power is recognised by many people who anticipate societal disruption, the industry has a natural affinity with anti-doomism. The trillion-dollar renewable energy sector also benefits from climate concern. However, it does not benefit from a questioning of the inadequacy of rare earth metals to realise full electrification, the damage caused to do so, and the heating spike caused by the end of the masking effect from burning fossil fuels.
The new industry of carbon capture is also attracting multi-billion dollar investments in recent years. Looking at the energetics and economics of the Direct Air Capture (DAC) machines which suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, reveals they are not a sensible part of the necessary response to the climate crisis. That was the finding of the research team after “Assessing the feasibility of carbon dioxide mitigation options in terms of energy usage” in the top journal Nature Energy. As this message was not being heard, Peter Dynes of the MEER Reflection project attempted a simple summary. He explained that over two years the Climeworks current DAC plant will capture the equivalent CO2 of pop star Taylor Swift’s annual emissions. He said their bigger plant that is taking 18 months to build, will capture 4 years’ worth of her emissions annually. Although technologically savvy humans like to think they are not superstitious, the DAC machines may be acting like ‘lucky charms’ that are clasped by people faced with threats to their identity and worldview. Though they are far more expensive and energy-intensive than, say, a bead necklace.
The author of the Carbon Brief article that I described above is now the research lead for Stripe, a technology company that invests in CO2 removal start-ups. There are now multi-billion-dollar commercial interests in DAC machines, where the business model might involve promoting the story that they will be effective, so that they obtain subsidies from governments. To help garner that support, the venture capitalists are finding friends in foundations and universities who help to promote DAC machines as an important part of ‘climate restoration’, or ‘climate repair’.
Not using climate concern for personal benefit
In private, climate scientists tell a different story to the one most of them tell in public. According to a survey by the journal Nature, 88 of 92 IPCC-author climate scientists believed we will not keep warming below 1.5 degrees to avoid widespread catastrophic damage. Despite this, every mainstream media journalist who gets in touch with me quotes the one or two climatologists who say we can still stay below 1.5 degrees.
Evidence from social psychology suggests there may be deeper psychological factors involved in the way some climate experts limit what they say in public. History and sociology show us that, whether conscious or not, members of the establishment tend to fear the public becoming ‘unruly’ and rejecting their status and authority. That is partly the result of the indoctrination into an attitude of hierarchical managerialism that we all receive through education, media and organisational cultures. It is the attitude that managers, officials and experts are the ones to be trusted with public issues, and the general public is ‘othered’ as people needing to be controlled or guided for their own benefit.
The public reticence and private openness of some scientists may have significant societal repercussions. It means that behind closed doors the scientists are sharing their personal views. Which means some authorities have been hearing a different version of events. That may be why we read of military strategists already preparing for some of the worst-case scenarios. It might also be why we learn through leaks that some of the top banks in the world are doing the same. I hold a different view. I want civil society to be fully informed of the latest science and engaged in urgent dialogue about what to do about the terrible predicament humanity faces.
That there are patterns of communication, or discourses, that reflect and protect establishment and specific commercial interests is sociology 101. So please do not be dissuaded if someone brands this analysis in this essay as ‘conspiracy’ thinking. In doing so they would be disregarding hundreds of years of sociological critique of the nature, reproduction, and power of ideology in society. I am not interested in imagining some mythical cabal that controls everything, so that I could angrily blame ‘them’ while descending into apathy. Instead, I am keenly aware of how capitalist dynamics shape ideologies, including through the way science is interpreted and communicated. On this matter, let’s remember what Dr Nyambaru Mbau in Kenya said about this issue – privilege in the West may be leading some scientists to grasp at straws of hope in ways that help maintain their lifestyles, worldviews, and identities for as long as possible. That’s got to stop.
I now realise it is time to stop avoiding arguments within the environmental sector. It is time for more scientists to break ranks. It would be a self-involved irrelevance to complain about disrespecting climatologists. Instead, all professionals should be held accountable by society. Just because someone works in medicine does not mean they are primarily concerned with everyone’s health. Just because someone works on social issues does not mean they are primarily concerned with social justice. Just because someone works on climate does not mean they are primarily concerned with climate change. Just because someone works on change does not mean they do not distract us from more significant approaches to change.
Without any rancour or judgement, it is nevertheless time to get more personal. By that, I mean it is time to admit that those of us working on environmental issues risk becoming ‘climate users’ rather than climate defenders. Climate-users are professionals who leverage climate concern for their own wealth, status, influence, and self-esteem. Many climate users start their careers with a passionate commitment to the cause but then become part of the establishment. At that point, anyone relating to climate change in ways that challenge the systems sustaining the climate-users’ privilege are particularly aggravating to them. Therefore, some climate users even try to ‘cancel’ people they label ‘doomers’ by making false accusations and character slurs, both in private and in public. Irrational and personal attacks against ‘doomers’ may therefore be a sign that someone subconsciously perceives a threat to the psychological ‘drug’ of wealth, status, influence, and self-esteem that they gain from working on the climate crisis.
‘Climate use’ is something that those of us who work on these topics need to be wary of falling into. Because ‘climate users’ may impede us all in addressing climate change as effectively as we can. When we were in the era of climate concern, the climate users warped the policy focus onto carbon ‘cap and trade’ schemes, renewables, and corporate sustainability initiatives, rather than means for equitable systemic change. Many climate users flew around the world feeling heroic. Some became millionaires. I speak of this addiction with confidence because I was connected to that world for years, within the field of corporate sustainability. I also see evidence of this approach regularly on my LinkedIn feed – especially during conferences on climate change.
In this new era of climate chaos, some climate users are now warping the focus onto wasteful carbon capture machines, mega infrastructure projects, and schemes for authoritarian power. They will likely maintain the establishment narrative on climate despite unfolding reality. In which case some scientists will reframe whatever happens in the real world as not undermining that narrative. For instance, they will downplay the relevance of a Blue Ocean Event in the Arctic happening decades ahead of mainstream predictions; perhaps by saying that is an invented term [see footnote 7]. They will claim breaking through 1.5C degrees warming will be just a momentary phenomenon if we use more precious energy for stupid carbon removal machines. They will imply that the enemy of carbon drawdown through forest conservation is the poor people who live in or near the forests – despite their low ecological footprints. They will blame ecological disasters from the mining needed to electrify high income countries as the fault of ‘bad management’ in ‘badly regulated’ countries. And in the most extreme and illogical irony, they will blame us climate realists as the cause of future climate chaos events, because they will say we undermined hope. Because addiction precludes reality. So climate users will be forever creative in justifying and feeding their habit.
Fortunately, any experts who want to ‘kick the habit’ of using climate concern for their own wealth, status, influence, and self-esteem can find support from a range of professional guides listed by the Deep Adaptation Forum. They offer counsel for people to find and maintain ways of engaging positively without needing the drug of deference to elite interests.
The need for more scientists to rebel, and effectively
We must move beyond the ridiculous situation where it falls to striking students to bring attention to an existential crisis for humanity. Or where it falls to me, a sociologist, with only a distant past in climate science, to join the dots on the bad news in my 2018 Deep Adaptation paper and accidentally radicalise people to join Extinction Rebellion. We need more scientists to break ranks. After scientists Dr Wolfgang Knorr and Dr Peter Kalmus approached me after the release of the Deep Adaptation paper, I put them in touch with the campaign groups Extinction Rebellion and Scientists Rebellion respectively, and they have each made great contributions, trailblazing for others in their profession. Many more need to follow, and to more effectively challenge the establishment narrative on climate which I identified at the start of this essay.
It could help if more scientists admit where they have gone wrong in the past by criticising or isolating experts who were public about anticipating climate chaos. I recall when, in 2009 the group Dark Mountain was launched by environmentalists who said that it is too late to prevent catastrophic change from environmental change, including climate, I quietly sided with the people who criticised them, such as the British journalist George Monbiot. It was emotionally easier to agree with his accusations that they had given up and might undermine change – so I did not even look further into the science nor into any assumptions about psychology that George may have been making. I had to go through my own period of emotional turmoil and reconstitute my sense of self before being able to recognise my resistance to reality was about me, not about reality. Now that I have studied some psychology, I realise that it is helpful to speak out on this issue, and not project onto others the ideas and behaviours that arise from our own fears of experiencing difficult emotions. If any of us feel upset because of other people with different perspectives to us, who are simply going about their lives without direct infringement of us, then it is not their fault we feel bad. Shooting the messenger in myriad ways is almost an instinctive human behaviour. But as the reality floods in, shooting the messengers on climate breakdown will require the rhetorical equivalent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Instead, it’s time to make peace.
Apart from more scientists rebelling individually, there is the need for collective action to shift the narrative more broadly. That must involve challenging any commercial or establishment influences on climate communication and policy deliberations. Perhaps one practical step would be for groups of activist scientists such as Scientists for XR and Scientist Rebellion to promote more transparency about the financial interests of the individuals, organisations and publications that influence climate discourse. Large sums of money from industries with a direct interest in shaping professional and public understanding of climate change are now circulating amongst a variety of organisations. Therefore all publications that report on climate should clearly declare whether they receive any money from a source that is either directly or indirectly funded by investors in climate-related businesses and energy companies. Likewise, individual authors should declare whether they are paid or whether their employers are funded by such companies or organisations that they fund. Then we could be sceptical of any publication which does not make such declarations or require them of their authors. If we don’t attempt such shifts, then the handful of rebel scientists will remain a handful with little impact on official narratives on climate change issues. In addition, we risk the science of climatology losing trust and respect within both politics and society, due to it advancing narratives that align with specific powerful interests. (To make a start, I can declare that I believe I do not receive any funds from a climate-related business, either directly or indirectly. I am also unaware of any commercial interests that might benefit from the analysis in this essay).
Rebellious scientists could also push for a deeper epistemological shift in their profession. Currently the protocols for how to interpret data were developed prior to the existence of an emergency situation, as were the institutional norms. During emergencies, there is a need for ‘post-normal science’ where real time observational data and interdisciplinary approaches are used to inform rapid policy decisions. To help with that shift, more climate scientists could admit the failure of existing approaches to properly predict the impacts of our now-changing climate. Or the failure to sufficiently enable understanding of risk amongst the public and policy makers. With Dr Rupert Read, I discuss this issue in some detail in our book’s opening chapter: “What Climate Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Our Predicament.” We are not unusual in our critique and recommendations, as others also argue that “climate science needs to take risk assessment much more seriously.” Clearly the challenge is institutional, and so while rebellious scientists are commendable, without a strategy for institutional change they will not be able to shift conversations beyond establishment-friendly narratives.
The wider ideological trap of sustainability
The climatologists who communicate an establishment-friendly interpretation of the science are not unusual within the environmental sector. Whether it is wilful ignorance or their chosen communication strategy to pacify the rest of us, it is something I witness in the wider field of people working on environment and development. Individually, chatting with former colleagues, they admit how the world is backsliding on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because of systemic reasons, and that the future looks really bad. But then they ‘trot out’ the same stories of sustainable development for their employer, funders, colleagues and audiences as they have done for years. As they are paid to make a difference on social and environmental issues, maintaining this self-serving parallel reality should not go unchallenged. Therefore, along with 100 scholars, I signed a public letter calling on the international community to ditch the – now unhelpful – ideology of sustainable development. I explained why in a blog for my former colleagues in the UN, where I call for a greater focus on disaster risk reduction. Fellow signatory to the public letter, Dr Stella Nyambaru Mbau also invites the scientists and international civil servants to consider the effects of their privilege: “As I witness millions of people newly displaced and in need of humanitarian aid due to the current impacts of climate change, I wonder who has the luxury of staying positive? I have discovered that I am not alone in thinking that more scientists need to stop pretending that the future will turn out fine.”
My main reason for sharing all this critique of climate science communication is not simply for more scientists and sustainability professionals to be honest about how bad the global situation is becoming. Rather, it is to invite more awareness of how our internal drives and aversions shape the way each of us perceive reality, and the way we then communicate and act on that reality. That is important because those same inner processes will shape how we respond to whatever the reality that we come to recognise. If we remain addicted to wealth, status, influence and self-esteem, we are likely to promote problematic responses to societal breakdown. That is why I explained how there will be more support for environmental authoritarianism from the emotionally avoidant, and how to address that, in my paper in a psychology and psychotherapy journal. Many of the people engaged in the Deep Adaptation movement are taking a different approach. We recognise the seriousness of the predicament and seek to engage as positive pessimists while upholding universal values as times get tough. The latest issue of the Deep Adaptation Quarterly gives you a window on what that can involve, around the world.
Updated on 12th August with the words “to increase” inserted in the sentence: “Some of those scientists began to ‘cherry pick’ the science to promote a particular narrative that the danger will cease to increase if specific policies are pursued” after Prof Richard Betts said the absence of that clarity meant he would not read the essay. Subsequent to publication, I received some emails and saw a variety of other twitter exchanges, from climatologists, science communicators, campaigners and others. What follows are footnotes that provide additional clarifications and elaborations on the points made in the essay (footnotes published 22nd August 2022).
Footnote 1: The ‘establishment narrative’ is indeed that climate change is ‘solvable’ and that narrative is being supported by top climatologists in public.
The establishment narrative is indeed that climate change is ‘solvable’ and that narrative is being supported by top climatologists in public. That does not mean that many climate scientists are saying that climate change is solvable. Instead, I mean two things. First, that the communications of many scientists have been relayed by science communicators to the sustainability professions, civil society, general public and policy makers as implying that climate change is solvable i.e. that global greenhouse gas emissions, warming, and the resulting damage can be halted within decades, and that the previously stable climate can be returned to. For instance, Kurzgesagt, among the most watched online science communications video channels, whose animation titled “We WILL fix climate change” uses selected climate and economic literature to make that case to, already, over 8 million viewers. Whereas there is more nuance in its well annotated footnotes, the video argues that establishment-friendly policies like investing in new technology to drive down the cost of carbon capture and storage, and to decouple GDP growth from resource and energy consumption can solve climate change. These are claims that are highly contested or outright dismissed in the relevant independent science (here and here). Typical of its genre, the video then provides no substance from psychology or sociology to support its exhortation that we must stay optimistic about solving climate change. This strange mix of fairly strong problem analysis and weak suggestions on what to do may actually discourage radical change, according to actual research on the subject (here, here and here).
My second concern is that some top climate scientists do tell the public that climate is solvable in a similar way to that video. One of Britain’s top climatologists, Professor Richard Betts, told the Guardian newspaper during the summer heatwave of 2022 that: “We are already seeing more frequent, longer and hotter heatwaves. We can confidently attribute this to human-caused climate change. We can expect this to keep happening until we reduce global greenhouse gas emission to net zero.” It would be a reasonable reading of that statement to think the word “this” referred to “more frequent, longer and hotter heatwaves” rather than increasing rates of them. Tidied sections from an automated transcript indicate he told viewers of BBC Breakfast on July 18th 2022: “..until we stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere the world will continue to warm and these events will happen more frequently…” and “the world will get warmer due to climate change until we reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.” [emphasis added]. Professor Myles Allen, Director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative, also went on TV and told the public that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies could achieve net zero emissions and halt warming within a generation. That is despite independent analysis showing a tremendous need to cut emissions because CCS might, at best, only help on the edges, and with huge energy demands.
I am acutely aware of how difficult it is to speak to the general public about the rightly terrifying reality of climate change, as many hundreds of scholars now assess it to be. Many, like myself, have publicly concluded that the direct and indirect effects of global heating will continue to disrupt societies to an extent that modern consumer ways of life will breakdown. To present such difficult outlooks to the general public in a brief TV news segment would be problematic. Instead, it needs the media producers and journalists to realise and feel the truth of the situation for themselves, and therefore be able to hear, not dismiss or diminish, the bad news, and for their media outlets to provide links for audiences to access emotional support, whether from community-based dialogue or professional guidance (in person or remotely). However, misrepresenting the science on both the problem and significant responses is not tenable. Scientists could learn from how Extinction Rebellion’s spokespersons framed the issue in 2018 and 2019 (myself included, in this speech to open the International Rebellion of XR in April 2019, before the wider environmental professional engaged with XR and encouraged a watering-down of its message. In other words, XR’s original message was to tell the truth that climate change is going to cause suffering around the world and in our own societies, so the need now is for each of us to prioritise giving both humanity and life on Earth a better chance by immediately exploring all possible technological, social, economic and political changes. To be a spokesperson for such a message, while avoiding becoming depressed or numb to the issue (and thus counterproductive as the message-giver), is helped by receiving emotional and psychological support – something available via Deep Adaptation Guides, as well as Scholars’ Warning community.
Footnote 2: Scientists and policy makers decide what ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from computers to listen to.
In my critique I am referring to both Global Circulation Models (GCMs) and Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs). The former are more descriptive – sophisticated computer models that calculate the flux of energy and matter in the physical climate system, bound by physical laws, while the latter include socioeconomic variables as well, which are not constrained by natural laws. The GCMs that are running hotter are the ones I mention as saying “no you can’t.” The IAMs are used to inform policy deliberations about carbon emissions. Economist Professor Robert Pindyck famously warned in 2013 that “IAM-based analyses of climate policy create a perception of knowledge and precision, but that perception is illusory and misleading.” If the IAMs truly included tipping points, rather than assuming away anything inconvenient to their elegant mathematics (as economists are prone to) then they would also be saying “no you can’t.” Therefore I also regard IAMs as an inappropriate use of modelling – they are not accurate enough to base policy deliberations upon and displace a conversation that might have been more informed by the precautionary principle.
By “statisticians” I am using a general term that refers to a key capability of the physicists, earth system scientists, engineers and economists involved in these projects i.e. there are other kinds of physicists or geologists that work more directly with observations or theoretically, relying less on modelling. The key capabilities in working with models are mathematics and statistics, and that is relevant because it shapes some of the preoccupations and limitations of the epistemic community involved in such modelling.
Footnote 3: The impacts from existing warming will definitely increase
The analysis in the essay does not conclude that there is only lots of uncertainty around the issue of committed warming from existing greenhouse gas emissions, so that we might dismiss this issue from dialogue on climate change. Rather, it cites the research that concludes that there is some ‘committed warming’ and warns that it could be very significant.
However, there is another reason why the loss, damage and disruption from climate change – both direct and indirect – will increase, whether or not global ambient temperatures suddenly stabilised at the current 1.2C or 1.3C above pre-industrial levels. That is due to the length of time it takes for a new climate to exert a full impact on natural systems, including the oceans, cryosphere, and terrestrial ecosystems. For instance, the forests and wildlife experiencing the currently increased volatility and extremes over the coming years will change over that time as a result. They are already changing due to the past years of increased volatility and extremes. That is one reason why we have already entered a period of ‘biological annihilation’ (with scientists worrying that homo sapiens might follow). A key indicator of that pressure on habitats ongoing into the future is the extent of currently diseased trees, as they weaken due to increased environmental stress. In addition, ecosystems can only cope with so many wildfires before they no longer return to their prior state over time. Therefore, the ecology we see in nature now will be very different in 20 years’ time due to existing novel levels of volatility and recurring extremes even if we suddenly stabilised at 1.3C warming. I was recently asked to explain this issue in more detail, as it is not that well documented in conservation science, as it relates to recent changes. So, here goes…
Thresholds for phase shifts in ecosystems to new equilibria can be passed long before the impacts are visible to us. Part of that issue is well known – it simply takes time for a glacier to retreat or an invasive species to spread. Other aspects of this phenomena are less well understood. Limits of species viability are influenced by extremes of temperature and moisture, which are rare by definition. For instance, a particular tree will not cope with a certain amount of heat and dryness over a certain period of time. In addition, species viability is influenced by the regularity of near-extremes, as they recover strength during more moderate periods.
As the pace of change in the climate has been so fast in the last couple of decades, we have not yet experienced the full range and new frequency of extremes now possible. Ecosystems are experiencing what were previously 1 in 100-year heatwaves now every decade or less. In addition, they are yet to experience what a 1 in 100-year event will be within the newly disturbed climate. A forest that previously experienced major fires every 100 years will have the time for species to reach maturity, to seed new trees as well as provide diverse habitat for other species. If fires now occur every 50 years or more, that means the previous forest ecosystem is no longer viable. Therefore, existing climate change may have already created ‘climate ghosts’ at both species and whole ecosystem levels – they exist today but they are on their way out. I welcome conservation biologists to comment on this issue and provide more relevant research.
Footnote 4: The IPCC view on committed warming
This quote from the IPCC reflects the view that in the real world we live in there will be inevitable warming from any of the scenarios they considered. I interpret that as also conveying how there is some committed warming from existing emissions, the extent of which is uncertain. Therefore, I am making two points:
- we should not infer from ZEC modelling anything about what will happen in the real world once (if) we hit net zero, because that modelling doesn’t include all relevant factors, such as methane, and it uses an impossible scenario.
- we should not infer from ZEC modelling anything about what will happen in the real world once (if) we start implementing IPCC pathways towards 1.5C now, because those pathways all involve further warming, with their own subsequent effects on Earth systems.
Many other scientists have also concluded that there is inevitable and significant further global warming, whatever the emissions pathway, and I cite some of them in the essay. A simple search of google scholar for “committed warming” will lead any independent or professional researcher to the extent of work on this topic prior to recent exaggerations of the ZEC50 study. If people point to IPCC mention of ZEC CO2 modelling as indicating its support for the view that there is low to no committed warming in the real world, then I believe they are exaggerating what the latest IPCC report says. Perhaps it is useful to state again: the ZEC50 studies do not tell us about the real world, but provide us information that can be fed into an assessment about the real world. That assessment must recognise the crucial limitations and exclusions of the ZEC models, and evidence from other scientific studies. To repeat: the ZEC50 studies necessarily exclude or do not fully account for crucial factors that shape the real world: other greenhouse gases, various tipping points and their interactions, the uncertain and unpredictable declining sink capabilities, and they often make optimistic assumptions about a limited amount of heating from ending aerosol masking (which happens with achieving net zero unless the loss of cooling aerosols is compensated for artificially).
Modellers themselves are typically very careful not to imply their model is predicting the world situation. They distinguish a model’s projections, or scenarios, from predictions. The IPCC has always accepted those model projections for real world policy discussion. In this essay I explained how that has been convenient for the officers of incumbent power and their favoured experts, compared to other ways of approaching the range of science available. Therefore, my essay is using the public misrepresentation of the ZEC50 issue as the latest example of a pattern of understating of existential risk in ways that reduce threats to incumbent power and misinform a generation of activists and professionals – and the general public. I realise that may be a distasteful argument for some climatologists, but believe it an important one to share to invite closer attention to such issues in future. In particular, many climate scientists should reconsider their assumptions about effective public communication and influence on policy processes. Many appear to seek to offer policymakers and the public hopeful messages in good faith that change is possible and that they should not give up, based on the more optimistic of computer model outputs. Elsewhere I have argued that this is likely overplaying the role of models and climate science in real-world decisionmaking and activism, as the psychological and sociological literature shows. Here it is also important to note that institutional decision making in modern political and economic systems does not work in such simplistic ways; by constructing hopeful “can do” messages in scenarios that both underplay real world complexity and likely trajectories, climate scientists may be achieving the opposite of their intended impact.
Footnote 5: Mentioning something as an ‘industry website’ is reasonable, and is relevant to a substantive issue about more transparency and diversity in climate dialogue.
The phrase “industry website” describes how a website is focused on a business sector, in this case the sector of people and organisations that work on climate issues. It is a multi-billion dollar sector, which also includes investments and loans where the financial success is determined by public policies. It is usual to describe a magazine or website that focuses on a sector as an industry, business or trade, magazine or website. This is an appropriate description in an essay that is inviting attention to the way climate science, communication and policy deliberation is not free of any agenda from funders or, in some cases, commercial agendas. There are both academic articles and books on the decisive and unhelpful influence of corporations on climate science communication and policy making. Therefore, this essay recommends more specific transparency about the employment and funding interests of any writer and publisher on any article in the climate field. I recognise that this is an unusual recommendation, but I make it to highlight how serious this issue has become for maintaining trust in climate science, communication and policy, and orienting civil society with the best available analysis. Carbon Brief is funded by the European Climate Foundation, who appear to be funding important work on emissions reductions, administered by 281 staff in 2021. Their approach appears to be ‘ecomodernist’ by focusing on technological change (for instance, a search for ‘degrowth’ on the ECF site generated zero hits).
It would be problematic to insinuate there is no institutional or commercial interest anywhere in climate issues. It would be unhelpful to dismiss this issue in relation to Carbon Brief or any well-funded and influential outlet. It would be defensive to dismiss this whole essay on the basis of disagreement with the term “industry website”. It would be unpleasant and unscholarly to criticise my character and scholarly capabilities due to disagreement on the use of this term. In response to such commentary, I simply restate the obvious issue that we need greater transparency, as a minimum, on both funding and employment interests associated with any climate commentary. Beyond that, although not regressive like fossil-fuel industries, any climate-related industries should not be overly influencing the climate agenda, and to push back against such influence is a necessary activity from anyone interested in the most effective understanding and global response to the situation, as described in a letter signed by over 200 scholars from over 20 countries.
Footnote 6: Mentioning Dr Hausfather employments is simply normal attention to the ‘point’ from which someone expresses a ‘viewpoint’.
Mentioning Zeke’s Hausfather employment does not imply criticism of his character or capabilities. It is to point to the importance of recognising the institutional, commercial and ideological interests that are influencing most, if not all, professionals who engage in climate science, communication and policy advocacy. The mythical and redundant notion of pure objectivity is widely regarded – for decades in social sciences – as better replaced by a ‘critical subjectivity’ which involves personal introspection but also invites external engagement on the influences and interests that may influence our own analyses. This is appropriate to mention in an essay that is inviting attention to the way climate science, communication and policy deliberation is not free of any agenda from employers. There are both academic articles and books on the decisive and unhelpful influence of corporations on environmental science communication and policy making. Therefore, this essay recommends more specific transparency about the employment and funding interests of any writer and publisher on any article in the climate field. I recognise that this is an unusual recommendation, but I make it to highlight how serious this issue has become for maintaining trust in climate science, communication and policy, and orienting civil society with the best available analysis. Clearly we want to know if someone is funded by the fossil fuel industry if they comment on climate science, just as we wanted to know if someone is funded by the sugar industry if they comment on obesity. The same is true for the burgeoning industries related to climate action – any kind of vested interest in a topic is still a vested interest.
From social media interaction, the author himself did not mention any concern about a mention of his employment – he might be more than comfortable with that being known. The exchanges that ensued included Dr Hausfather stating “I can see a risk of being too glib on the ZEC being zero when there are real uncertainties (+/- ~0.3C for CO2 alone, closer to +/- 0.5C or more for all GHGs). There are real risks of a positive ZEC, but its also important to emphasize the central estimate is no committed warming.” Therefore we agree that there are “Real risks of a positive ZEC” in the real world. As it could be “0.5C or more for all” greenhouse gases, I respectfully disagree with Zeke that it is important to emphasise the central estimate from modelling that doesn’t include all that is key within the real world, including those other greenhouse gases.
People may not agree with the theory, widely shared by other scholars, that there is scientific reticence within climatology and the IPCC, which hinders radical critique of economic systems and the establishment. That scientific reticence exists due to institutional and personal situations (e.g. employment and funding). To label a mention of the ideology and interests of an employer as an ‘ad hominem’ criticism of the author distracts from the point of the obvious involvement of power in shaping ideology and discourse, including scientific interpretations, prioritisations and communications. It implies a bad faith approach from me to the topic, and so itself could be seen as an ‘ad hominem’ criticism. As it is used to dismiss the concerns outlined in the essay, it could appear to be a tactic complementing the ongoing evasion of scientific analyses that do not fit with the establishment narrative on climate that my essay identifies and critiques. Leaving aside those problematic responses, I appreciate the counter argument that if policy makers and investors believed there is more ZEC, then there might even be more commitment to Negative Emissions Technologies from some of them. This reminds us that any assessment of the science can be used by professionals with a vested interest, and it will be useful to bring attention to that aspect of climate deliberation.
Footnote 7: Clear water at the North Pole will be downplayed by the establishment-serving scientists
Subsequent to the essay being published I have been told of existing reticence to see the significance, when it occurs, of a starkly visible situation of clear blue water at the North Pole. The issue centres around whether one can describe such an event as a ‘tipping point’ that will produce a ‘phase shift.’ Such tipping points are concerning because they are critical thresholds at which even a tiny perturbation can qualitatively alter the state or trajectory of a system. Tipping points can interact over huge distances. If the first tipping point is reached, it can destabilise other systems, lowering the critical temperature thresholds at which they, in turn, reorganise into a different state. A global tipping cascade may be slow-moving by human standards, if it occurs, but could be beyond the influence of humans once it has begun. With these considerations in mind, some of the researchers on tipping points include the loss of Arctic sea ice as one such tipping point. The 2008 paper that defined “tipping elements” as large-scale components of the Earth system that measure at least 1000 km in length and that can reach tipping points, ranked Arctic sea ice as the most likely of all near-term tipping points, warning it could activate within 0.5-2°C warming relative to a 1980-1999 baseline. Lead author, Professor Tim Lenton, extended the list of Arctic tipping elements in 2012 and discussed interventions to stop them.
Fast forward ten years and today we can see discussion of tipping points in our daily news: for example, warns Lenton, “Fire regimes in the wet tropics can pass a tipping point from localized fires to much larger ‘mega fires’ – a bit like a phase transition in physics. Such mega-fires now seem to be happening in the American West, Australia and even the Arctic.” However, other scientists argue that irreversibility of a change is a necessary condition for defining a tipping point. They claim that because in the most advanced generation of models (CMIP6) the sea-ice extent in September responds linearly to cumulative CO₂ emissions and can return if the climate subsequently cools. The latest IPCC report has supported this view as one among several possible definitions. It defines a summer sea-ice free Arctic not as a tipping point or as “susceptible to abrupt change” but sees a winter sea-ice free Arctic as a tipping point. At best, this is confusing because the loss of summer sea ice would likely cause the loss of winter sea ice within decades. Three issues arise here.
The first issue is that there will not be such a reduction in global average temperatures, unless we assume fantastical, speculative levels of solar geoengineering, and certainly not in the Arctic where temperatures have been rising 4-times faster than the global average. Those temperature rises offer some indication of the self-reinforcing feedbacks already occurring in that region, which are more complicated than most studies account for. Even the most advanced climate models (CMIP6) have systematically under-projected that localised heating. Therefore, the scientists who focus on theoretical reversibility due to their mathematical modelling based on impossible hypotheticals are undermining, not supporting, our understanding of climate reality. That the IPCC sides with their view is consistent with past patterns of preferring the less troubling results available from climate models (see “What Lies Beneath”). Instead they could have dismissed such modelling as irrelevant to any possible future pathway and thus the reality we face.
Second, the reification of any concept like ‘tipping point’ can compromise understanding of risks in the real world. In this case, what is most important is whether the loss of sea ice is both an indicator and driver of non-linear change that is not easily influenced by human counter measures and that will have knock-on effects that we cannot undo even if we slow human contributions to global warming. Whether or not something is defined as a tipping point, the conditions that have produced an observable phenomenon, and the implications of those conditions on wider systems, are what is key in complex systems. The conditions are a huge amount of energy (ocean heat content) introduced into an Arctic that is warming far faster than the rest of planet Earth due to location-specific feedbacks. The world’s top climate scientists included this issue in their 2009 summary for delegates to the UNFCCC conference in Copenhagen, stating: “an abrupt reduction in Arctic summer sea ice extent also triggers rapid warming on land and subsequent permafrost degradation.” The implications of an Arctic with very little multi-year sea ice, then none at all, is that it will increase already-noticeable disruptions to the large-scale ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns that move energy and humidity around the globe. It has been known for years that a sea-ice free Arctic will profoundly disrupt human civilisation, as even the self-declared anti-doomist initiative Scientists’ Warning has summarised.
The third issue is more specifically about communications. Whereas this topic might seem like a matter of scientific semantics, there is a massive communications downside to defining something as widely recognisable as ‘tipping points’ as only being those system changes that are irreversible and then proving something theoretically reversible. It confuses even scientific communicators, and engenders reticence amongst policy advisors. This is illustrated by a scientific briefing delivered by the UK’s Met Office on 28th January 2020 at the British Prime Minister’s residence and office. Arctic sea ice was described as a tipping point on one slide, but then not included in the list of tipping points on the last slide. It meant that at the end of the presentation the situation in the Arctic was downplayed in significance compared to other climate changes. A scientist in the email chain that prepared the briefing noted that sea level rise was “perhaps more important than arctic sea ice” for the British government. The briefing itself may have elaborated, but the presentation does not explain that a sea-ice free Arctic could trigger tipping points (e.g. the Greenland ice sheet) that would rapidly accelerate sea level rise amongst other dramatic effects on the region, Britain and beyond. Has this apparent confusion and reticence over the Arctic arisen due to the misuse of models, theories and impossible scenarios? Analysis that is not rooted in reality should have no place in high-stakes political decisions where mistakes can damage national interest and everyone’s lives.
The term ‘Blue Ocean Event’ is a communications device used to bring attention to the issue. It is commonly defined as Arctic sea ice extent under 1 million km². The existence of this term has already been criticised by science bloggers who choose to argue against alarming readings of the science on tipping points. Elsewhere I have deconstructed their prose to show what bias they bring and how misleading their conclusions are. However, many climate experts continue to link to such source materials when arguing for less alarming readings of the situation. Ultimately, top scientists need to decide for themselves whether they want to use their education and unique insights into Earth system dynamics to warn the public as clearly as possible, to give them the opportunity to make informed decisions. No one else can play this role for a truly global governance problem like climate change because few groups in society possess both the necessary analytical tools and institutional access to policymakers.