The Corner

Energy & Environment

Surely Climate Catastrophists Have a Better Argument Than This

A couple of weeks ago I published an essay (“The Problem with Climate Catastrophizing,” Foreign Affairs) that scrutinized the claims of climate catastrophists—the journalists, activists, politicians, and even scientists who insist that climate change poses an “existential threat” to human civilization and is our greatest challenge. I embraced climate science, called the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “the gold-standard summary,” and assumed that temperatures will rise by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius this century. But I argued that none of this science or accompanying economic analyses added up to the catastrophe promised; that perhaps cognitive distortions were leading catastrophists to irrational conclusions.

I was genuinely curious how catastrophists would respond. Surely there would be counterarguments I had not considered, perhaps even errors in my own analysis or contrary data and analysis with which I was unfamiliar. Instead, the one substantive response has come from Eric Holthaus, host of the “Our Warm Regards” podcast on climate change.

Holthaus called the essay “a master class in modern climate denial” and then proceeded to attempt a “fact-check.” This provided a useful indicator of the types of statements that now constitute “climate denial” and the mindset that produces catastrophism. There are a total of 18 tweets in his thread, which I’d encourage everyone to read in full. I’ll highlight a few here:

My essay opens “Climate change may or may not bear responsibility for the flood on last night’s news…,” to which Holthaus responds “your very first sentence is misleading. Fact: Climate change is producing heavier rainfalls worldwide.” One need not be a master logician to see that climate change can produce heavier rains without bearing responsibility for all floods.

Next up, the essay observes that climate catastrophism produces “a level of obsession with reducing carbon footprints that is otherwise reserved for reducing waistlines.” That’s a good line, if I do say so myself. Holthaus is not amused, responding “you’re a fan of the IPCC. why do you think ‘substantial and sustained reductions’ in GHG is an ‘obsession’?” I don’t, and obviously that’s not what I said. By obsession I mean things like promoting a podcast “in which [co-host] and I discuss killing ourselves and not having babies as a response to climate change.”

You get the idea. Holthaus objects to the uncontroversial observation that natural gas has lower greenhouse-gas emissions than coal. (Substituting natural gas for coal was a core building block of the Obama Clean Power Plan.) He calls “ridiculous” my claim that “fracking has done more in recent years to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States than all renewable energy investments combined” because, while that is true, it would not be true if one counts energy efficiency as renewable energy. (Those are not the same thing.)

In my own conclusion, I take a quote from President Obama—“what we do know is that historically, when you see severe environmental strains of one sort or another on cultures, on civilizations, on nations, that the byproducts of that are unpredictable and can be very dangerous”—and observe that what Obama says about severe environmental strains could apply to strains of militant religious extremism as well. Not so, concludes Holthaus, because “29,376 people died from terrorism worldwide in 2016 — versus 6.5M deaths *per year* from air pollution.” This point would be compelling if I was talking about air pollution, or if I was asking which phenomenon killed more people last year, but I was not.

In short, this particular reply confirmed precisely the argument of Climate Catastrophizing: that cognitive distortions are leading catastrophists to misinterpret available evidence and give preference to feelings over facts. Of course, Holthaus does not speak for all catastrophists. I remain hopeful that some have a more considered basis for their outlook and will lend their perspectives to the discussion.

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