Hyper-alarmism: “deep adaptation” and “inevitable collapse”
One thing I came across while researching my Worst Case article is Jim Bendell’s non-peer-reviewed paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating ClimateTragedy. It has received at least some attention. It’s been called “The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy”.
Since this is the kind of clickbait that suggests a complete lack of substance, I ignored it at first. But I ended up reading it to check whether he had any points I had overlooked for the Worst Case article.
I can understand that it seems legitimate to some people, even climate scientists, since much of the science he discusses is correct. However, having lots of facts right does not prevent the paper as a whole being grossly misleading.
Although I find his review of recent climate science both superficial and strongly biased, the main problem with the paper is something else: the total disconnect between his descriptions of projected climate change impacts and the idea of “social collapse”, which according to him is either “likely” or “inevitable”, and which he describes in dramatic individual terms:
When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you won’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.
How does he arrive at this conclusion? His review of “the science” ends up in a section titled “Apocalypse uncertain” in which he uses words like “suggests” and “may”. “Uncertain” can mean anything from highly unlikely to very likely, but probably not “inevitable”. “Suggests” in scientific writing is typically far from establishing that something is likely.
There is no explicit account of how he gets from uncertain to likely or inevitable. Nor does he discuss how he connects the dots between climate impacts (temperature, sea level, extreme weather events) and social collapse. He simply claims that climate change will be “disruptive and uncontrollable” without telling us what that means:
But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.
I have examined what specific impacts might be likely and how that might actually affect society, and I find very little evidence suggesting starvation, migration or war.
Lacking actual evidence for the likelihood of his dystopian visions, he produces a couple of rhetorical devices to make them seem more reasonable. The first one could be mistaken for “I must be right because everybody disagrees with me”. He admits that there is a “paucity of research that considers or starts from social collapse due to environmental catastrophe”.
Could this be due to a lack of evidence for a link between climate change—as currently seen and as plausible within this century—and social collapse? He proceeds as if that question had not occurred to him. Instead it’s due to “denial”. The words “collapse” occurs 60 times in the paper, and much of the discussion is devoted to complaining about the lack of attention given by researchers to its “inevitability”, attributing this neglect to “denial”.
He highlights psychological and social mechanisms that would cause people to not want to believe we are on the brink of collapse, and he may be right. It’s understandable that people don’t want to be that pessimistic. But clearly, you cannot prove something true simply by giving evidence that we don’t want to believe it’s true.
On the other hand, in spite of this alleged massive denial, he says that “analysts are concluding that a social collapse is inevitable”. So could there be a minority of courageous souls among scientists in the field who are willing to look the awful truth in the eye?
He does mention two “analysts” specifically. One is Charles Eisenstein, who “is a public speaker, gift economy advocate, and the author of several books”. He is clearly not a scientist, and I suppose we would have to read his books to find out how he makes a case for believing in “inevitable collapse”.
The other “analyst” is Guy McPherson, who has claimed that we will all be dead by 2026 due to climate change. This is far beyond Extinction Rebellion. He’s not saying that we have to get our act together and implement radical climate policies by then, nor even that by then it will be too late to prevent thermageddon, but that by then it will already have happened and it will all be over. This is the kind of “authority” that Bendell seems to rely on for his extreme views.
Bendell’s second rhetorical device is to pretend that the need for scientific rigor and specific evidence is a mere stylistic convention:
These descriptions [as in the earlier quote] may seem overly dramatic. Some readers might consider them an unacademic form of writing. Which would be an interesting comment on why we even write at all. I chose the words above as an attempt to cut through the sense that this topic is purely theoretical. As we are considering here a situation where the publishers of this journal would no longer exist, the electricity to read its outputs won’t exist, and a profession to educate won’t exist, I think it time we break some of the conventions of this format. However, some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amidst collapse.
It’s true that the topic is not “purely theoretical” as in pure mathematics or angels dancing on the head of a pin. But his visions of disaster are still hypothetical, and hypotheses are just speculation until they are subjected to empirical testing and logical validation.
Since the IPCC expects the current trends of economic growth and falling mortality to continue, and his view of societal collapse seems totally at odds with that assessment, he should be able to tell us why and how the IPCC is wrong about this. Disagreeing with the IPCC is perfectly valid; disagreeing without telling us why puts you outside the realm of rational discussion.
That said, Bendell does have a few specific disagreements with the IPCC, but he makes crucial mistakes in these. He explicitly claims that the IPCC is wrong about sea-level rise and the Arctic sea ice, and he claims there will be a “decline of normal agriculture”.
Sea level rise
When he tries to contradict the IPCC in the context of sea-level rise and ice loss, he is wrong, since he claims that the IPCC does not consider non-linear change:
Between 2002 and 2016, Greenland shed approximately 280 gigatons of ice per year, and the island’s lower-elevation and coastal areas experienced up to 13.1 feet (4 meters) of ice mass loss (expressed in equivalent-waterheight) over a 14-year period (NASA, 2018). Along with other melting of land ice, and the thermal expansion of water, this has contributed to a global mean sea level rise of about 3.2 mm/year, representing a total increase of over 80 mm, since 1993 (JPL/PO.DAAC, 2018). Stating a figure per year implies a linear increase, which is what has been assumed by IPCC and others in making their predictions. However, recent data shows that the upward trend is non-linear (Malmquist, 2018). That means sea level is rising due to non-linear increases in the melting of land-based ice.
Bendell does not seem to fully comprehend the mechanisms of sea-level rise, nor the IPCC’s handling of them.
The IPCC does not predict a linear increase. 3.2 mm/year is less than 0.3 m by 2100. This is close to the minimum predicted by the IPCC by 2100. The likely maximum according to the IPCC is 0.82, more than twice as much, showing that the IPCC considers it likely that we will see an acceleration beyond 3.2 mm/year.
NASA summarizes the IPCC’s methodology thus: “The consensus projections in the most recent IPCC report, called the Fifth Assessment or AR5, include dynamic changes in the great ice sheets—an improvement over the previous assessment, AR4, although much remains uncertain in the young field of ice sheet modeling.”
Also, as I have discussed previously, the evidence indicates that adaptation will be possible even with sea-level rise above the IPCC’s maximum likely range.
Apart from that, his reference for his claims about sea level rise (Malmquist, 2018) is bizarre. It’s a news article (not a scientific paper) by a single scientist about local sea level. Local sea level varies for reasons having nothing to do with global changes. For instance, in Oslo, Norway, where I live, the land is rising faster than the seas, causing the local sea level to fall.
Arctic sea ice
Bendell also doubts the IPCC’s projections of Arctic sea ice and apparently thinks that makes the IPCC’s projections in general “redundant”:
The warming Arctic has led to dramatic loss in sea ice, the average September extent of which has been decreasing at a rate of 13.2% per decade since 1980, so that over two thirds of the ice cover has gone (NSIDC/NASA, 2018)…One of the most eminent climate scientists in the world, Peter Wadhams, believes an ice-free Arctic will occur one summer in the next few years and that it will likely increase by 50% the warming caused by the CO2 produced by human activity (Wadhams, 2016). In itself, that renders the calculations of the IPCC redundant, along with the targets and proposals of the UNFCCC.
But “over two thirds” is simply incorrect, and substantially so. 13.2% per decade works out to about 43% in nearly 4 decades. This may still be considered dramatic, but it’s far from two thirds (~67%), making an ice-free summer in the near future seem much less likely.
And Peter Wadhams may be eminent, but his credibility is dubious based on his track record. He predicted an ice-free Arctic in summer by 2015 in 2013 and then again “in the next few years” in 2016. In 2019 there is still no sign of an accelerated decline.
In fact, there is no clear decline at all during the last decade, much less an accelerating one. Nor is there evidence of dramatic repercussions for the rest of the globe. climatetippingpoints.info gives us a more mainstream view:
Claim: A summer ice-free Arctic (called by some the “Blue Ocean Event”) will happen within the next few years and will cause an abrupt worsening of climate change and possible runaway feedbacks.
Reality: A summer ice-free Arctic will probably happen within the next few decades, but the exact year will depend on unpredictable natural variability. A summer ice-free Arctic would worsen regional warming and impacts, but would not cause a big or sudden increase in global temperatures.
Bendell has scary-looking figures about crop yields:
The models…predict a decline of normal agriculture, including the compromising of mass production of grains in the northern hemisphere and intermittent disruption to rice production in the tropics. That includes predicted declines in the yields of rice, wheat, and corn in China by 36.25%, 18.26%, and 45.10%, respectively, by the end of this century (Zhang et al, 2016). Naresh Kumar et al. (2014) project a 6–23 and 15–25% reduction in the wheat yield in India during the 2050s and 2080s, respectively, under the mainstream projected climate change scenarios.
Although the population of China is almost stable and is projected to turn downwards before 2050, taken at face value this may look like a portent of mass starvation. But there are several problems with that.
One is that the word “decline” does not mean what you think it means. It is not the expected difference between now and 2100. Instead, it’s the “predicted climate effect”, in other words, the modeled difference between a world with and without climate change in 2100, as illustrated by this quote from the Zhang et al study:
Similar to rice, when we add wind speed, the predicted climate effect on wheat changes from 0.29% to —15.26%…A one meter per second increase in wind speed decreases wheat yields by 13.35%.
In other words, the Zhang et al figures are about the effects of climate change in isolation, ignoring other factors such as adaptation and improvements in agricultural technology. Can adaptation help prevent these problems? Bendell’s other reference says yes:
However, simple adaptation options, such as change in sowing times, and increased and efficient use of inputs, could not only offset yield reduction, but could also improve yields until the middle of the century.
The other problem is that the Zhang et al study seems to be based on old models and completely unrealistic emissions scenarios. The study refers to the A1FI scenario, which dates back to 2000. FI stands for “fossil intensive”. It’s even higher than the now-discredited RCP 8.5, which even alarmist David Wallace-Wells has realized that RPC 8.5 is unrealistically pessimistic. Ross McKitrick explains:
The particularly egregious A1FI scenario was inserted into the mix near the end of the IPCC process in response to government (not academic) reviewer demands. IPCC Vice-Chair Martin Manning distanced himself from it at the time in a widely-circulated email, stating that many of his colleagues viewed it as “unrealistically high.”
Bendell’s paper runs to more than 30 pages, so obviously there is more I could have addressed. But it’s clear that his claims of likely or inevitable collapse have little or no empirical foundation, and it’s hard to see that he’s made much of a useful contribution to the discussion of climate impacts.