Tom Engelhardt: Ending the World the Human Way – Climate Change as the Anti-News

By Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. Originally posted at TomDispatch

Here’s the scoop: When it comes to climate change, there is no “story,” not in the normal news sense anyway.

The fact that 97% of scientists who have weighed in on the issue believe that climate change is a human-caused phenomenon is not a story.  That only one of 9,137 peer-reviewed papers on climate change published between November 2012 and December 2013 rejected human causation is not a story either, nor is the fact that only 24 out of 13,950 such articles did so over 21 years.  That the anything-but-extreme Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers an at least 95% guarantee of human causation for global warming is not a story, nor is the recent revelation that IPCC experts believe we only have 15 years left to rein in carbon emissions or we’ll need new technologies not yet in existence which may never be effective.  Nor is the recent poll showing that only 47% of Americans believe climate change is human-caused (a drop of 7% since 2012) or that the percentage who believe climate change is occurring for any reason has also declined since 2012 from 70% to 63%.  Nor is the fact that, as the effects of climate change came ever closer to home, media coverage of the subject dropped between 2010 and 2012 and, though rising in 2013, was still well below coverage levels for 2007 to 2009.  Nor is it a story that European nations, already light years ahead of the United States on phasing out fossil fuels, recently began considering cutbacks on some of their climate change goals, nor that U.S. carbon emissions actually rose in 2013, nor that the southern part of the much disputed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to bring particularly carbon-dirty tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast, is now in operation, nor that 2013 will have been either the fourth or seventh hottest year on record, depending on how you do the numbers.

Don’t misunderstand me.  Each of the above was reported somewhere and climate change itself is an enormous story, if what you mean is Story with a capital S.  It could even be considered the story of all stories.  It’s just that climate change and its component parts are unlike every other story from the Syrian slaughter and the problems of Obamacare to Bridgegate and Justin Bieber’s arrest.  The future of all other stories, of the news and storytelling itself, rests on just how climate change manifests itself over the coming decades or even century.  What happens in the 2014 midterms or the 2016 presidential elections, in our wars, politics, and culture, who is celebrated and who ignored — none of it will matter if climate change devastates the planet.

Climate change isn’t the news and it isn’t a set of news stories.  It’s the prospective end of all news.  Think of it as the anti-news.

All the rest is part of the annals of human history: the rise and fall of empires, of movements, of dictatorships and democracies, of just about anything you want to mention.  The most crucial stories, like the most faddish ones, are — every one of them — passing phenomena, which is of course what makes them the news.

Climate change isn’t.  New as that human-caused phenomenon may be — having its origins in the industrial revolution — it’s nonetheless on a different scale from everything else, which is why journalists and environmentalists often have so much trouble figuring out how to write about it in a way that leaves it continually in the news.  While no one who, for instance, lived through “Frankenstorm” Sandy on the East Coast in 2012 could call the experience “boring” — winds roaring through urban canyons like freight trains, lights going out across lower Manhattan, subway tunnels flooding, a great financial capital brought to its proverbial knees — in news terms, much of global warming is boring and repetitive.  I mean, drip, drip, drip.  How many times can you write about the melting Arctic sea ice or shrinking glaciers and call it news?  How often are you likely to put that in your headlines?

We’re so used to the phrase “the news” that we often forget its essence: what’s “new” multiplied by that “s.”  It’s true that the “new” can be repetitively so.  How many times have you seen essentially the same story about Republicans and Democrats fighting on Capitol Hill?  But the momentousness of climate change, which isn’t hard to discern, is difficult to regularly turn into meaningful “new” headlines (“Humanity Doomed If…”), to repeatedly and successfully translate into a form oriented to the present and the passing moment, to what happened yesterday, today, and possibly tomorrow.

If the carbon emissions from fossil fuels are allowed to continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, the science of what will happen sooner or later is relatively clear, even if its exact timetable remains in question: this world will be destabilized as will humanity (along with countless other species).  We could, at the worst, essentially burn ourselves off Planet Earth.  This would prove a passing event for the planet itself, but not for us, nor for any fragment of humanity that managed to survive in some degraded form, nor for the civilizations we’ve developed over thousands of years.

In other words, unlike “the news,” climate change and its potential devastations exist on a time scale not congenial either to media time or to the individual lifetimes of our short-lived species.  Great devastations and die-offs have happened before.  Give the planet a few million years and life of many sorts will regenerate and undoubtedly thrive.  But possibly not us.

Nuclear Dress Rehearsal

Here’s the strange thing: we went through a dress rehearsal for this in the twentieth century when dealing (or not dealing) with nuclear weapons, aka the Bomb — often capitalized in my youth as a sign of how nuclear disaster was felt to be looming over life itself.  With the dropping of that “victory weapon” on two Japanese cities in 1945, a new era opened.  For the first time, we humans — initially in Washington, then in Moscow, then in other national capitals — took the power to end all life on this planet out of God’s hands.  You could think of it as the single greatest, if also grimmest, act of secularization in history.  From 1945 on, at least prospectively, we could do what only God had previously been imagined capable of: create an End Time on this planet.

In itself, that was a remarkable development.  And there was nothing figurative about it.  The U.S. military was involved in what, in retrospect, can only be considered operational planning for world’s end.  In its first “Single Integrated Operational Plan,” or SIOP, in 1960, for instance, it prepared to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities which would then, if all went well, cease to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured.  (Those figures undoubtedly underestimated radiation and other effects, and today we also know that the exploding of so many nuclear weapons would have ended life as we know it on this planet.)  In those years, in the most secret councils of government, American officials also began to prepare for the possibility that 100 Russian missiles might someday land on U.S. targets, killing or injuring 22 million Americans.  Not so many years later, the weaponry of either of the superpowers had the capability of destroying the planet many times over.

The U.S. and the USSR were by then locked in a struggle that gained a remarkably appropriate acronym: MAD (for “mutually assured destruction”).  During the Cold War, the U.S. built an estimated 70,000 nuclear warheads and bombs of every size and shape, the Soviet Union 55,000, and with them went a complex semi-secret nuclear geography of missile silos, plutonium plants, and the like that shadowed the everyday landscape we knew.

In 1980, scientists discovered a layer of particularly iridium-rich clay in sediments 65 million years old, evidence that a vast asteroid impact had put such a cloud of particulates into the atmosphere as to deprive the planet of sunshine, turning it into a wintry vista, and in the process contributing to the demise of the dinosaurs.  In the years that followed, it became ever clearer that nuclear weapons, dispatched in the quantities both the U.S. and USSR had been planning for, would have a similar effect.  This prospective phenomenon was dubbed “nuclear winter.”

In this way, nuclear extermination would also prove to be an apocalyptic weather event, giving it an affinity with what, in the decades to come, would be called “global warming” and then “climate change.”  The nuclear story, the first (and at the time the only imaginable) tale of our extinction by our own hands, rose into the news periodically and even into front-page headlines, as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as into the movies and popular culture.  Unlike climate change, it was a global catastrophe that could happen at any moment and be carried to its disastrous conclusion in a relatively short period of time, bringing it closer to the today and tomorrow of the news.

Nonetheless, nuclear arsenals, too, were potential life-enders and so news-enders.  As a result, most of the time their existence and development managed to translate poorly into daily headlines.  For so many of those years in that now long-gone world of the Cold War stand-off, the nuclear issue was somehow everywhere, a kind of exterminationist grid over life itself, and yet, like climate change, nowhere at all.  Except for a few brief stretches in those decades, antinuclear activists struggled desperately to bring the nuclear issue out of the shadows.

The main arsenals on the planet, still enormous, are now in a kind of nuclear hibernation and are only “news” when, for instance, their very backwater status becomes an issue.  This was the case recently with a spate of headlines about test cheating and drug use scandals involving U.S. Air Force “missileers” who feel that in their present posts they are career losers.  Most of the major national arsenals are almost never mentioned in the news.  They are essentially no-news zones.  These would include the gigantic Russian one, the perhaps 200 weapons in the Israeli arsenal, and those of the British, French, Indians, and Pakistanis (except when it comes to stories about fears of future loose nukes from that country’s stock of weapons).

The only exceptions in the twenty-first century have been Iran, a country in the spotlight for a decade, even though its nuclear program lies somewhere between prospective and imaginary, and North Korea, which continues to develop a modest (but dangerous) arsenal.  On the other hand, even though a full-scale nuclear war between Pakistan and India, each of which may now have about 100 weapons in their expanding arsenals, would be a global catastrophe with nuclear-winter effects that would engulf the planet causing widespread famine, most of the time you simply wouldn’t know it.  These days, it turns out we have other problems.

The End of History?

If the end of the world doesn’t fit well with “the news,” neither does denial.  The idea of a futureless humanity is difficult to take in and that has undoubtedly played a role in suppressing the newsiness of both the nuclear situation and climate change.  Each is now woven into our lives in essential, if little acknowledged, ways and yet both remain remarkably recessive.  Add to that a fatalistic feeling among many that these are issues beyond our capacity to deal with, and you have a potent brew not just for the repression of news but also for the failure to weave what news we do get into a larger picture that we could keep before us as we live our lives.  Who, after all, wants to live life like that?

And yet nuclear weapons and climate change are human creations, which means that the problems they represent have human solutions.  They are quite literally in our hands.  In the case of climate change, we can even point to an example of what can be done about a human-caused global environmental disaster-in-the-making: the “hole” in the ozone layer over Antarctica.  Discovered in 1985, it continued to grow for years threatening a prospective health catastrophe.  It was found to be due to the effects of CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) compounds used in air-conditioning units, refrigerators, and aerosol propellants, and then released into the atmosphere.  In fact, the nations of the world did come together around CFCs, most of which have now been replaced, while that hole has been reduced, though it isn’t expected to heal entirely until much later this century.

Of course, compared with the burning of fossil fuels, the economic and political interests involved in CFCs were minor.  Still, the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is evidence that solutions can be reached, however imperfectly, on a global scale when it comes to human-caused environmental problems.

What makes climate change so challenging is that the carbon dioxide (and methane) being generated by the extraction, production, and burning of fossil fuels supports the most profitable corporations in history, as well as energy states like Saudi Arabia and Russia that are, in essence, national versions of such corporations.  The drive for profits has so far proven unstoppable.  Those who run the big oil companies, like the tobacco companies before them, undoubtedly know what potential harm they are doing to us.  They know what it will mean for humanity if resources (and profits) aren’t poured into alternative energy research and development.  And like those cigarette companies, they go right on.  They are indeed intent, for instance, on turning North America into “Saudi America,” and hunting down and extracting the last major reserves of fossil fuel in the most difficult spots on the planet.  Their response to climate change has, in fact, been to put some of their vast profits into the funding of a campaign of climate-change denialism (and obfuscation) and into the coffers of chosen politicians and think tanks willing to lend a hand.

In fact, one of the grim wonders of climate change has been the ability of Big Energy and its lobbyists to politicize an issue that wouldn’t normally have a “left” or “right,” and to make bad science into an ongoing news story.  In other words, an achievement that couldn’t be more criminal in nature has also been their great coup de théâtre.

In a world heading toward the brink, here’s the strange thing: most of the time that brink is nowhere in sight.  And how can you get people together to solve a human-caused problem when it’s so seldom meaningfully in the news (and so regularly challenged by energy interests when it is)?

This is the road to hell and it has not been paved with good intentions.  If we stay on it, we won’t even be able to say that future historians considered us both a wonder (for our ability to create world-ending scenarios and put them into effect) and a disgrace (for our inability to face what we had done).  By then, humanity might have arrived at the end of history, and so of historians.

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  1. kimyo

    two of the most sensible women i know on climate change:

    gail tverberg

    Climate change models include way too much CO2 from fossil fuels. Lack of investment capital will bring down production of all fossil fuels in only a few years. The amounts of fossil fuels included in climate change models are based on “Demand Model” and “Hubbert Peak Model” estimates of fossil fuel consumption (described in this post), both of which tend to be far too high. This is not to say that the climate isn’t changing, and won’t continue to change. It is just that excessive fossil fuel consumption needs to move much farther down our list of problems contributing to future climate change.

    nicole foss / stoneleigh

    In my view the situation is too complex and chaotic to make reliable predictions.

    Apocalyptic predictions of near term human extinction have been made by some commentators, and drastic ‘solutions’ proposed as a result. I would regard such predictions as unlikely, disempowering and dangerous, in the sense that they could, when fear is in the ascendancy anyway, provoke a disproportionate fear response that could in itself be very destructive. When people become collectively fearful, they tend to over-react as a crowd, potentially causing more damage through that over-reaction than might have been caused by the circumstance itself. Fear can be exploited to provide a political mandate for extremists who would then be able to wreak havoc on the fabric of society.

    If fear of apocalyptic climate change did grab the collective imagination, there are a number of outcomes which seem particularly plausible. All of them are counter-productive in some way. The first we have already seen – carbon trading system ponzi schemes. This involves financializing yet another aspect of reality, when over-financialization, and the consequent ballooning of virtual wealth, are what have led to our current debt crisis. Financialization is popular with the powerful, because it generates substantial, and concentrable, profits, feeding greater central control by Big Capital. It would probably also generate far more greenhouse gas emissions.

    yves, please consider re-examining the climate models, using the same skepticism you’d apply to economic models out of princeton. 97% is never science.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Neither of them are climate scientists. They are not competent to opine. It would be like me second guessing a neurosurgeon. By contrast, the people who criticize models by economists are OTHER ECONOMISTS. Climate scientists are unified on this issue. The skeptics are all either paid for by the fossil fuels industry (Exxon was even offering bounties for scientists to switch sides around the time of the IPCC) or people who hate government and environmental regs in general, or laypeople who’ve been swayed by the fossil fuels industry-funded doubtmongering.

      You need to read the book Agnotology. The “doubt the science” campaign is EXACTLY the same one the tobacco industry used for 30 years against medical researchers who found evidence that smoking caused lung cancer. Tell me how many people died due to their delaying campaign?

      I am big on people understanding the limits of their expertise. In case you missed it, we had a ginormous financial crisis and we still are moving very quickly to the C02 concentrations that pretty much all experts consider to be

      1. kimyo

        this is a chart from the ipcc’s site:

        all of the models show ‘fossil co2 emissions’ (the top row) to increase to at least roughly double the amount emitted in 2000 by 2050. 2 of the models (a1f1 and a2) are based on projections of 3x year 2000 emissions in 2050.

        tverberg’s expertise in energy extraction does extend to this arena. doubling our fossil co2 emissions by 2050 implies that we’d be pumping 130 million barrels / day. that is just not going to happen.

        Imminent peak oil could burst US, global economic bubble – study

        A new multi-disciplinary study led by the University of Maryland calls for immediate action by government, private and commercial sectors to reduce vulnerability to the imminent threat of global peak oil, which could put the entire US economy and other major industrial economies at risk.

        The peer-reviewed study contradicts the recent claims within the oil industry that peak oil has been indefinitely offset by shale gas and other unconventional oil and gas resources. A report by the World Energy Council (WEC) last month, for instance, stated that peak oil was unlikely to be realised within the next forty years at least. This is due to global reserves being 25 per cent higher than in 1993.

        The new University of Maryland study, in contrast, conducts a review of the scientific literature on global oil production and argues that the bulk of independent, credible studies indicate that a “production peak for conventional oil [is] likely before 2030”, with a “significant risk” it could occur “before 2020.” Unconventional oil such as Canadian tar sands is “unlikely to expand enough to fill the gap”, and this also applies to “shale oil and gas.”

        in order to be used for policy decisions, the models need to be re-done with more realistic fossil co2 emission scenarios. a peak in oil production by 2020 means co2 emissions will drop from then on (limited oil production will also limit coal production).

        1. SqueakyRat

          You’re missing an important point. The precise rate at which fossil carbon goes into the atmosphere is secondary. As long as that rate is greater than 0, global warming will continue.

          1. different clue

            It seems reasonable to think that as long as the Carbon/Nitrous Oxide/etc. skyload remains higher than it was before the Industrial Revolution began, the
            heatup will continue regardless, only a little slower than if skydumping keeps raising the skyload. Of course a bunch of sulfur-releasing volcanoes could set off a cooldown for a while, and ongoing sun-dimmness/low sunspot behavior could slow the heat gain by injecting less light to degrade into heat to begin with. But if the sun re-brightens and gets spottier, don’t count on that bit of good luck.

        2. BondsOfSteel

          That’s a hell of a bet you’re making… that we’ll run out of carbon before we can fry ourselves. If you’re right… the misery of a rapid peak oil. If you’re wrong… the “death” of the planet. Either way, it’s a Malthusian catastrophe.

          We’ll already be warming for centuries even if we don’t hit the 450 ppm of runaway climate change. With the 400 ppm current reading… and the curve. It’s not looking good.

          We need to be working on efficiency and alternative technologies much more rapidly than we are currently. Instead, we’re working on efficiently extracting more carbon through fracking and artic drilling.

        3. Fiver

          I find the whole idea of Peak Oil Theory adherents attempting to undermine the seriousness of Climate Change science both amusing and borderline suspect.

          First, IPCC’s reporting is far too conservative, due to pervasive political interference from panel member governments of big producers and big consumers. The effects of negotiated “consensus” are far from trivial. So while total demand has slowed (for how long we cannot say) the impact of emissions to date is also significantly understated in IPCC reports.

          Second, it ought to be evident by now that the largest known reserves of conventional oil are in Iraq, Iran and Libya, all of which are producing far, far less than optimum, meaning the global price ought to be considerably lower. However, the higher prices have demonstrated that oil sands production in particular is eminently do-able at prices lower than today’s – and there is enough of that crud in Alberta and Venezuela to fuel the globe well past our own drop dead rate. To just blithely state these and oil shales etc. “likely won’t make up the difference” is mere assertion – especially so if, as appears evident, the US intends to keep Arab/Muslim oil other than Saudi oil at sub-optimum levels indefinitely.

          Third, it is the north that is warming fastest. As you know, though do not assign the appropriate valuation to that knowledge, the permafrost all across the huge northern expanses of Canada, Alaska and Russia is warming at a rate already causing the venting of methane in quantity. This gas has 20 times the impact of carbon dioxide, and there are immense quantities. Geologist Ian Stewart did a nice little demonstration out in the middle of Siberia in winter: he bored a hole in the ice, which was a metre thick and full of bubbles. He poked a bubble with a torch and there was an instant jet of flame which kept going like a gas fireplace. He repeated it all over the lake. Every year brings new reporting that we are further into the process than previously thought.

          Fourth, Climate Change is just 1 construct through which to view the effects of fossil fuels. In fact, the other environmental damage inflicted, in toto, as the direct consequence of production, upgrading, refining, transporting, refining again into fuels and feedstock for the petro-chemical industry, will all its pervasive toxic effects all through the cycle, is killing fresh water and marine environments all over the globe. Not to mention agricultural products (also huge amounts of methane, but in addition fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) pharmaceuticals, acidity levels and more which taken together will finish our oceans by 2050. The photoplankton in oceans produce the bulk of our oxygen, but we treat surface waters like sewers.

          So no matter which way you cut it, we simply must get off fossil fuels. I therefore cannot fathom why someone supposedly concerned about “peak oil” would wish to downplay the consequences of the total impact on all our ecosystems of all of the fossil fuel complex of industries. It becomes positively mysterious considering the timeframe within which we must undertake the massive transformation of economies to meet the challenge is close to identical for both issues. So why are “peak oil’ advocates trying to talk down Climate Change when all the available evidence suggest they ought to make common cause in treating these issues as emergencies of the first order, and of needful of the most immediate and urgent actions?

        4. different clue

          How much carbon do we need to skydump to warm the arctic and subarctic enough to thaw out several million square miles of permafrost beneath taiga and tundra and release all the carbon bio-sequester/stored in that permafrost? Would that “permathaw carbon release” equal or exceed the carbon we won’t extract and burn under the Tverberg theory? Would the amount of fossil fuel carbon skydumping Tverberg thinks we will be limited to be in itself enough to permathaw the frostlands and release all their carbon to the skydump?

          1. Fiver

            Good questions to which I have no precise answers, CC not being my field. I can no longer work, so I read and toss out a comment here and there. I actually agree with a lot of the stuff they were saying re systems complexity and their interactions, but really, there’s something about questioning the science on all facets of climate change, or the looming death of the oceans circa 2050, or the destruction of the great forests, or engaging at all in a number of areas of science where the consequences of error are so huge – these we cannot get wrong or minimize in any way – and at some point the keys are going to be taken away from people driving this bus.

      2. Ilargi

        Nicole never pretended to be a climate scientist, nor has she ever cast doubt on the actual science, let alone been a climate skeptic. What she – obviously – addresses in this quote are mankind’s potential responses to the science. That is not an aspect that is exclusively the terrain of climate scientists, though they’re as welcome to express their opinion as anyone else is.

        1. kimyo

          i humbly beg to differ, at least in terms of describing nicole as a skeptic. she clearly stated (paraphrasing):
          1) the models have not delivered accurate predictions
          2) they don’t reflect likely real world energy use
          3) millenia-scale forcings are not understood and thus not included in the models

          from her response to david holmgren:

          The models, while complex, have not been accurate predictors of the current situation and are therefore incomplete. As for the future, the models do not include factors such as the impact of an economic collapse or a large fall in energy use. There are multiple complex feedback loops that are not well enough understood, all of which interact with each other in highly complex ways. There is also a very long term cycle of natural forcings (note the time scale in thousands of years) providing the backdrop to anthropogenic impacts, and that is also not well enough understood. The net effect of the the very long term natural cycle and the much shorter term anthropogenic impacts is unknown.

          1. Ilargi

            I hope no-one thinks the science is complete. The planet, and the climate(s) it contains, is a very complex system, and no model will ever be the definitive one. Climatologists, and everyone else really, will be forced to keep asking questions. Such as the ones Nicole asks. Once they stop doing that, they’re lost. To equate asking questions with climate skepticism is a tendency that doesn’t bode well for the science, that’s like calling Galileo a heretic. The underlying principle is simple: more CO2 (+methane etc.) means more heat, and man increases CO2 levels. Skeptics (or most of them) seek to deny that principle; Nicole does not. But man releases all that CO2 into a highly complex system, which has precious few straight lines from A to B. Still, many people claim they do see such straight lines. And thus risk misinterpreting the data. There are no doubts about the underlying principle and general tendency, but there is about interpretation. As there should be in any dynamic science. It’s not that the science is completely off on all 3 points you mention, but that it’s not completely accurate. And why should we wish to stop there?

            1. jrs

              I’m all fine with asking questions among scientists. I am not fine with asking questions while making policy when the result of getting the bet wrong is catastrophe.

              1. Ilargi

                jrs, we can get the bet wrong in a myriad of ways. And the chance that we’ll get it wrong for not asking questions is infinitely bigger than that for asking them.

                1. lambert strether

                  Actually, with cigarette denialism your claim is false. Questions on the link between cigarettes and cancer should have been stopped long before paid agnotologists employed by the tobacco industry stopped asking them. I’m sure somebody can do or has done the math on the corpses that piled up as a result.

                  Is there a reason to think that climate change denialism won’t follow the same pattern, given that the same interests, techniques, and even actual persons are in play?

            2. lambert strether

              Hmm. First, I’m not sure how one knows that science is “complete.” Second, the question is not whether the science is complete, whatever that might mean, but whether it’s good enough for making policy.

      3. The Dork of Cork

        In my experience economists are either corrupt or lack basic common sense.
        I believe the data is pretty conclusive on this since at least 2007 and perhaps before.

        Ditto for scientists and their climate models.
        I should think scientists in general have become too roof bound – sitting looking at computer screens rather then understanding the limitations of data collection and its interaction with those same computers.

        If the UK shuts down all of its remaining dash for gas generators and needs coal for replacement of this capacity watch how the dogma will slowly change,

      4. TimR

        “Trust the experts”?

        If it’s so easy for Big Oil to buy scientists, shouldn’t we be asking which oligarchs are funding the 97% of scientists who support AGW? They certainly seem to have motive, if you look at all the neat things you get to do with carbon credits and reorganizing society, the consequent fallout of which would be mostly on the 99%.

        What about the “limits of expertise” of the climate scientists? Climatology is a generalist science, while our schools produce specialists. They only understand their small slice of the pie. It takes some bureaucrat overseeing it all to decide what it all means, and odds are he occupies his position for political, not scientific, reasons.

        Scientists are human too, and our schools are not producing brave independent thinkers. I would think that about 97% of them just want to believe what all the cool kids think; dangerous to start really asking questions and being critical of your assumptions; what if you found yourself a weirdo “denier” cut off from your peers (not to mention the really big buckets of oligarch money, the billions of dollars flowing into pro-AGW research, where AGW is taken as a given, which it’s crazy to ever question.)

        1. sittingstill

          As a scientist myself, in a field overcrowded with Phd’s jockeying for limited positions, I’ve noticed the opposite of what you describe – there is a sizable vocal subset of professionals that will go far out on theoretical contrarian limbs in order to professionally distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd. This is much more pronounced in fields of study where the theory is more ambiguous than AGW. Conversely, the effect is less pronounced where the underlying theory is less ambiguous. On a macro scale, AGW fits best into this latter category. Timing and degree, though likely more severe than we want to hope, are still up for debate, but not the central tenet. I know many clear thinking scientists who switched over from the skeptical side 10 years ago

          1. TimR

            Thanks for the input, I admit I’m not speaking from that kind of direct experience of the scientific community.
            I am surprised you find AGW so unambiguous. As a layperson, it seems like there are so many factors involved, on a cosmic scale even, some of which we may not even be aware of, and “nonlinear” effects as well; and science as I understand it is best at isolating and studying fragments of larger phenomena.

        2. Waking Up

          Most of the scientists I know, including myself, went into a field of science because they have an inquisitive nature and desire to learn more about a subject. They WANT to ask the tough questions and find solutions, that’s why many became scientists.

          Regarding your statement, that “97% of them just want to believe what all the cool kids think”, do you really think the vast majority of people who spend a great deal of time in laboratories or doing laborious research for a thesis care that much about what “the cool kids think”?

          If you want to deny the man-made effect on our climate, think about this one issue of many…the effect of vehicle exhaust control systems. What is the effect on air quality where emissions were reduced or for that matter in cities around the world where there are no standards? What would the air quality have been like now if for example, the Federal government in the 1960’s had ignored scientists and environmentalists and “denied” there was a problem? When it comes to the future of the planet and our role as individuals and as part of a larger society, shouldn’t we error on the side of making the planet as habitable as possible for future generations?

          1. TimR

            By “cool kids,” I meant their peers or maybe leaders in the field, not “cool kids” as the general public would think of it (in case that’s what you thought I meant.)

            I agree with/ support pollution controls, I like having cleaner air! AGW takes it to a different level for me, and I see lots of other (political, power) agendas involved. I’m not competent to examine the science myself, but at the same time I’m not sure I can trust it. So I remain open-minded, “skeptical.”

            1. different clue

              Well . . . I remember reading them making the prediction that the Arctic/subArctic would warm up faster than the midlatitudes . . . and that has been happening AFter they made the prediction based on the theory. Also , glaciers and icefields all over the non-Arctic have been melting/shrinking back. I don’t know if this was predicted, though. I remember some of the scientists claim to have predicted more unevenly distributed more violent storms and droughts. If a painstaking historical research revealed that they actually DID predict that beFORE it has started happening, then that is yet more support for the theory.
              So I remain open mindedly skeptical of the “skeptics”.

        3. JTFaraday

          “our schools are not producing brave independent thinkers. I would think that about 97% of them just want to believe what all the cool kids think; dangerous to start really asking questions and being critical of your assumptions”

          Well, it does seem to be the case in political history, although I was going to say that the wheels do seem to grind slowly in a truthier direction.

          But then I remembered that generation of American political historians– and really probably two successive generations– who claimed to have “refuted” Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, when they did nothing of the sort.

      5. Ilargi

        Nicole would like to share her view, which seems only fair since this is about her:

        Yves, please do not dismiss the opinions of others when you do not know what they are and are not competent to express an opinion on. I would like to point out that I am neither a climate scientist, nor an economist, yet you have published my financial work here and appear to regard me as competent to comment on that topic.

        I am a systems analyst with a formal background in biology, psychology, environmental science and international law in development. I was top graduate in the faculty of science (including biology, physics, chemistry, and geology) and also top law school graduate (combining law, economics, politics and philosophy). I have an academic specialty in power systems and nuclear safety, and a work history in environmental consultancy, power systems and renewable energy. 

        At The Automatic Earth I have been writing for many years about financial markets, herding behaviour, corruption, ponzi dynamics, geopolitics, social structures, trust, commodity supercycles, emergent properties, socioeconomic history, imperialism, labour markets and many other things . Systems analysis is about just that – understanding whole systems holistically from an interdisciplinary perspective, and being able to explain how the various subsystems interact. It is not about the hoop-jumping exercises that chasing formal qualifications all too often involves. If anything, doing that makes it more difficult to understand reality, not less, since people too often become unable to see the wood for the trees. 

        Academia pigeon-holes people in a way that breaks down intellectual interconnectedness. I would not comment on things I did not consider myself qualified to express an opinion on, but that does not mean I regard a formal academic qualification as a necessary prerequisite. Anyone sufficiently interested in learning, and with the time and necessary aptitude, is capable of learning anything they choose to learn. Autodidacts are often the most original thinkers – the ones most able to see beyond the received wisdom that constrains us in our destructive paradigm. This is because they did not waste time seeking a received wisdom stamp of approval that channels thinking in certain approved directions, and at the same time closes off far more interesting and important lines of enquiry. In my view we should be shaking up received wisdom wherever we find it, in order to see if it truly stands up to serious scrutiny. 

        Consensus is a dangerous manifestation of human herding behaviour. It shuts down debate by converting issues into items of religious faith, where one is either ‘with us or against us’. This is anathema to the principles of science, which is supposed to be about attempting to falsify one’s hypotheses.

        By the way, I agree with the quote from Gail Tverberg above, and she is also well qualified to express an opinion on this topic.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I did not ban anything. I suggest you read our comment policies. We have automatic tripwires set up and her comment went afoul of them. You of all people should be able to recognize that our comments are generally not moderated, which means they appear automatically, and we therefore do not (indeed cannot) control on a comment-by-comment basis which comments appear and which do not. And you should also have noticed my last post went up at 7 AM which means I turned in after that.

          And this long exegesis about her skills is besides the point. It simply proves my contention. She is not competent to dispute the work of climate scientists. Among other things, she lacks the mathematical chops. Climate science modeling is based on chaotic models, which are extremely daunting and beyond her expertise.

          Moreover, you and she seem to lack an appreciation for what “scientific consensus” means. It means that a number of observations from various vantage points align. This isn’t a matter of ‘everyone is using the same model.” This is that various scientists, all using THEIR OWN MODELS, are coming up with broadly similar outcomes and the date coming in continues to align with their predictions.

          Finally, if you disagree, the proper format is to carry this conversation on on your own blog, and not campaign in my comment section. The number of comments has been grossly disproportionate to my remark, which was a mere comment and not in a post proper (hence less prominent and not picked up on Google searches).

          Moreover, despite the concern trolling, my point of contention stands. She is not competent to comment on climate change models. She does not read the underlying papers on a routine basis and does not have the mathematical chops to assess them.

          If you care to argue this matter further, the place is on your blog, not here.

          1. Ilargi

            To be accurate: Those were Nicole’s words, not mine. I don’t know where the word – or idea- “ban” comes from in this regard, but not from that comment. I’m sorry this went where it did, but if you attack people on your site, they should be able to respond, and at the spot they’re attacked in; you can’t just go tell them to take it somewhere else. And to call that “campaigning” is below you. Lastly: we do not lack “an appreciation for what “scientific consensus” means”, we fill that in differently. You don’t get a monopoly.

            1. Annas

              Tom Engelhardt isn’t a climate scientist and yet what he writes is more informed than what Foss pens? Given your measure that only climate scientists are qualified to opine on the subject, why not link a post from someone prominent in that field in the first place instead of a mere spectator like TE? Seems to me a serious double standard is in play here.

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                He’s writing about the media coverage of climate change… analysis is not the same as the underlying science.

            2. lambert strether

              Where the idea came from…. I’d suggest from “seems only fair.” Eh?

              As for the rest of your comment, had you considered submitting your views on how the site should be run to the site owner for their approval?

              1. Ilargi

                Lambert, apologies, but I don’t know what your first line means.

                As for the second, I’m not talking about any specific site policy, but about “seems only fair”. What’s the alternative, start discussing a comment Yves posted here, at TAE?

                Again, I’m sorry this went where it did, but if we can’t agree to disagree anymore in peaceful and useful ways, what is left?

                I simply don’t agree with Yves’ take on this. No more, no less. Cool, let’s talk. But I will stick up for my best friend till the end of time.

                1. Lambert Strether

                  I had no idea that your complaint about “fairness” had nothing to do with this particular thread on this particular blog with its particular commenting policy, but was simply a general, context-free proffer. My bad. Seriously, this is a blog; questions of fairness or unfairness are handled by site policy.

                  Since this interchange is now about your friend, which seems to be your operational definition of “peaceful and useful” discourse, and I don’t have until “the end of time” to discuss that, I’m dropping it.

    2. SaltyJustice

      My response to this sort of denialism from economics-background types is to remind you how industrialism works in general:
      It is everywhere, always. If it can be anywhere, and it’s not there yet, it’s on its way.

      So long as there are fossil fuels to burn, they will be burnt. So long as there is air to pollute, it will be polluted. Industrialism never relents. This is the constant that overrides all others. It does not matter how complex your model is, because there is a very powerful actor that will not stop, ever, until the result is destruction of everything.

      Full disclosure: I’m a geologist and firmly in the climate-change camp. I’m not of the economics background.

      1. Susan the other

        The reason you are right is because capitalism, based on profits from extraction all along the accounting chain, has come to the end of its reason for being. It now demands growth in order to achieve profit which (Tverberg) is making the price of fossil fuels way too expensive which makes everything else unaffordable both in human and environmental terms and each time the money comes full circle, the expense of extracting fossil fuels goes up and so does the price. There’s no way to get off this merry-go-round. If this whole way of producing could be thrown into reverse it would slow the use for fossil fuels way down. The best thing the world can do right now is jumpstart this change; pass laws (as contemplated in Beijing, etc.) outlawing the personal/private use of cars. Every big city in the world. And provide alternatives – of which there are many. Now that would be very interesting – nothing boring about getting more exercise and fresh air. And the most interesting thing would be watching the big oil companies start begging, whining, threatening and downsizing. And that would bring into the clear light of our social discourse the question about the usefulness of profit because financialized profits can never compete with the usefulness of cleaning up the environment. If we could wean ourselves from oil we might be able to reconfigure “capitalism” to become an economic model with a modest future.

    3. mikkel

      Gail is extremely prescient to a point; after that point she extrapolates way too far. There is enough (low grade) coal and methane hydrates to doom the earth 10x over and both of these are starting to be exploited. It is likely that they will only be 30-50% more expensive than current techniques and therefore remain viable for a long time, perhaps even hundreds of years.

      As for Stoneleigh, nowhere does she say that the global warming outcomes aren’t probable and is merely talking messaging strategy.

      “Given that these five possibilities seem the most likely responses to real fear of climate change, and that all of them are likely to make the situation worse in some way, generating fear of climate change seems to be a counter-productive strategy. We could even see several of them at once, for a truly ghastly outcome causing harm on many fronts, and at many scales, simultaneously.

      Where awareness is raised without visceral fear, climate change still does not seem to be a motivator for the kind of constructive behaviours that might make a difference in the aggregate. The scale is too large for people to feel that individual actions could ever be useful, which is disempowering. The time-frame is too remote, leading to complacency, and the consequences are not perceived as personal. As humans we are not typically very good at addressing problems which are neither personal nor immediate.

      The economic contraction that is coming is very likely to have a far more substantial impact on emissions than any deliberate policy or collective action. The combination of this contraction and constructive collective action could be very powerful indeed, but achieving the latter action is not best done on the grounds of climate change. The same actions that would best address climate change in the aggregate are also the prescription for dealing with financial crisis and peak oil – hold no debt, consume less, relocalize, increase community self-sufficiency, reduce dependency on centralized life-support systems.”

      I completely agree with her that climate change will only be mitigated by focusing on those points and not the abstract problem.

      1. different clue

        You can only consume but so much “less” in a civilization designed to force consumption. You can’t take the bus if there is no bus to take. You can’t take the streetcar if there is no streetcar to take. If the groovy cool gentrifiers make the city too expensive for the non groovey non-cool non-hip majority to live in, then they will remain confined to the suburbs by the Social Class Apartheid under development. That means they will need a car to get to a job if they have one. No car = no job for most people, and no job = no money for those same most people and no money = you die for those very same most people. So the only real good that “personal deconsumption” does is to let the “personal deconsumers” see and identify eachother in hopes of starting a lifestyle-tribal movement and recruiting a big-enough tipping-point massload of people that they can take command and control of all the levers of social power and impose
        deconsumptionary infrastructure/mass behavior re-engineering upon a bitterly unwilling civilization.

        1. Fiver

          Advocates of limits to consumption, and I am one, typically are referencing middle income and up in terms of who should be doing some belt tightening/deconsuming. Top 20% of households do a truly stupefying % of all US consumer spending.

      2. lambert strether

        I call bullshit. You write

        As for Stoneleigh, nowhere does she say that the global warming outcomes aren’t probable and is merely talking messaging strategy.

        Stoneleigh writes (it’s the first quoted sentence, and it’s in bold):

        In my view the situation is too complex and chaotic to make reliable predictions.

        That’s a claim. It’s not a messaging strategy.

    4. James Levy

      I read this as “don’t talk this up or the bad guys will use the fear engendered to do bad stuff.” This leads to a bias to play down the threat. I’m a pick your poison man on this one: I accept the risk of “bad” people exploiting the climate crisis because if the climate scientists are right (and I’m only saying if) the resultant devastation and deaths will be staggering. Working against climate change is an insurance policy, a hedge against disaster. At this point it is not a 100%, guaranteed bet in my mind, but again the downside if the scientists are correct is staggering. And the money argument doesn’t sway me at all. The “but what about the billions lost if you are wrong?” doesn’t compare to “what about the millions who will die” on the other side of the ledger. If you have an irregular mole and the oncologist tells you it is very likely cancer, you are wise to act before there is no doubt left, because the downside of waiting is severe.

      Oh, and BTW: the “don’t worry, the world economy will collapse and therefore carbon emissions will decrease” is some cold comfort.

  2. fatmoron

    For me, it’s a simple thought experiment that makes the claim of global warming ironclad… OK, try to realize that, from the time of roughly 1840 (at least) EVERY YEAR, FROM THEN FORWARD, HUMANITY HAS BURNED MORE FOSSIL FUELS THAN THEY DID THE YEAR BEFORE… there may be dips whenever economics turn sour, but even those tend to be temporary as inevitably people need to stay warm.

    For me, the sheer size of energy consumption demands a common sense realization of consequences. America, alone, in 2008, consumed 26 Twh of energy (

    That’s one year of consumption. Add a century and a half to that total, along with dozens of other countries, and the aggregate totals are so huge that it seems ridiculous to think that there’s not an environmental impact.

    But then again, I like to think I’m an objective observer…

  3. Fiver

    There is no doubt whatever as to the total damage human processes are inflicting on the planet, or that our failure to act within such a short time frame means a mind-numbing disaster for this world. I’m betting the farm that the increasing frequency and growing average strength of serious weather effects produces a fortuitous sequence or combination of these so as to soon put the fear of God back into those who run the entire complex of power built on oil, i.e., Big Oil, Big Finance, Big State, Big Military and all the other US Bigs – as without the full participation of the US it may not be possible within the time allowed.

    1. JTFaraday

      “There is no doubt whatever as to the total damage human processes are inflicting on the planet”

      I think part of the problem with “climate change” and the public is that the public really can’t evaluate it. Therefore, I really think that environmental scientists broadly would do better to reconstitute this discussion in a broader framework of environmental destruction that might be more tangible– which wouldn’t exclude the impact of fossil fuels, etc. Honestly, it may have been better when people still talked about “pollution.”

      On the other hand, if you talk about the totality of “damage human processes are inflicting on the planet” then you have to talk about resources extraction, and the only real solution there entails some sort of serious impact on the global economy.

      But there you run into another problem, which is that “economic” terror still outweighs all other terrors. No one wants to consider that the growth economy is at the root of the whole environmental problem. The so-called “left” in the US is made up of Keynesian style economists whose thinking is still fundamentally constituted by the industrial age, and entails goosing the very same economy that has been wreaking increasing havoc on the planet for two centuries already, (and not in a way that hurts capitalists one iota either, mind you).

      There’s a reason that environmental activists were some of the first political groups to land on the 21st century US terror state’s growing list of terrorists, and it’s not because they want to save the whales.

      1. Fiver

        Could not agree more, and have long argued putting all the eggs into the (then) ‘global warming’ basket was a mammoth error.

        As to ‘economic terror’, we either bite the bullet or die. That simple.

    2. different clue

      Why would it? Don’t they have their secret private-army protected bunker-communities to retreat to? Isn’t their plan to hide while we all die off and then come out when the rest of us are dead? Isn’t that what the seed vault at Svaalbard is for?

      The Armed Forces themselves are not rich people. Perhaps they will carry the democide to the heart of the Overclass before it unfolds the way the Overclass hopes and plans for.

  4. Research

    Fukushima potentially irradiating hundreds of millions of peoples staple protein diet of fish may have greater influence on our story than the loss of value of coastal real estate, the Chinese have enough ghost cities to populate with willing workers for generations…
    A few points worthy of ponder:-
    Dan Britt – Orbits and Ice Ages: The History of Climate

  5. j gibbs

    A sobering and incontrovertible reminder that making long term plans may be unnecessary. Our Nation’s business leaders (looters?) are once again deluding (delooting?) themselves even as they pride themselves on scamming the rest of us. Well, this two hundred year petroleum fueled joy ride was a hell of a trip, and when it’s over it’s over. It doesn’t matter if any of us takes this seriously unless and until an awful lot of other people do too.

  6. Mark P.

    Eh. Kind of a naive piece. Things are much more of a done deal than this author grasps.

    Specifically, if we merely consider biosystems and ecosystem collapse, here in 2014 today’s global extinction rate has risen to a level at least 100,000 times higher than the natural background extinction rate.

    This trend shows up across every vertebrate group, with 23 percent of all mammals and 12 percent of all birds currently red listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Amphibians in particular are declining rapidly, with over 32 percent of all surviving amphibian species now threatened by extinction. Among non-vertebrates, insects, plant communities and fungi are all in jeopardy.

    As for marine life, 27 percent of the world’s coral reef ecosystems already had collapsed back at the turn of this century: the largest decline came during 1998 in a “coral bleaching” event, when 16 percent of all coral reefs then existing disappeared in less than one year.

    And life in the oceans, of course, isn’t threatened merely by industrial pollution and over-fishing – rather, acidification from increased CO2 levels is the main threat. This means the odds are very much against the majority of marine species evolving or acclimating in time to respond to the changes in ocean chemistry.

    Sounds pessimistic? Alas: reasonable science supports the thesis that 90 percent of all of the large – approximately ≥50 kg – open ocean tuna, billfishes, and sharks in the ocean are (again) already gone. It’s plausible that by the 22nd century the oceans will have no coral reefs and few surviving multi-cellular organisms, with only microbes and, maybe, jellyfish composing such marine ecosystems as still exist.

    So it goes. At this point, the “gardeners” — the advocates of geoengineering and bioengineering — are going to get their shot. The latter strategy — creating resilience and hardiness in species via genetic engineering so they can withstand climate change — we can definitely do and are already doing. The geoengineering, on the other hand, is far more uncertain.

    We will find out.

  7. Don Pelton

    Yves, I agree with your observation that the two sources kimyo quoted are not climate scientists. And, not being one myself, I completely share your acceptance of peer-reviewed climate science, including anthropogenic global warming.

    Further, you say that the “skeptics are all either paid for by the fossil fuels industry … or people who hate government and environmental regs in general, or laypeople who’ve been swayed by the fossil fuels industry-funded doubtmongering.”

    For what its worth (and this is a small footnote, I admit) Nicole Foss in particular falls into none of your three categories and is actually a lot more interesting than those well-understood skeptical types.

    Rather, she falls into one of the categories Albert Bates describes in his taxonomy of “collapseniks.”.

    In her other writings, Foss has some interesting things to say about the over-financialization of various aspects of modern society (which don’t seem too controversial).

    She may be quite wrong in the excerpt kimyo quotes (in fact, I don’t actually understand those vague remarks and even whether they amount to skepticism in the ordinary sense) but my only point is that she doesn’t fall into any of your skeptic categories.

    She’s a bit more interesting than you might suppose from kimyo’s snippet.

    1. Susan

      I agree. Oppose and propose – Nicole does just that. But rather than shouting fire in a crowded theater, her version of oppose is inform. “Pssst… do you smell smoke? I do. I suggest we make our way calmly to that exit.”

      She does not claim to be a climatologist, but she is experienced in the energy sector and its finacialization.

      Not so very long ago TAE wasn’t on the radar here at NC. It was on my radar well before that. How’d I become connected? A permaculturist brought her to speak in our faltering rust belt region that is trying to reimagine how Cleveland will avoid becoming the next Detroit. In 2010 at the US Social Forum, Detroit was already well on its way to being reimagined from the bottom up bouyed by the encouragement of the likes of Grace Lee Boggs and already well stripped of technology not by the, as you call it, a ginormous financial collapse. The collapse here in the rust belt has been long and grinding. The view from a a sacrifice zone may be quite different than the one from a highrise in intellectual superiority land.

      So, top down or bottom up? Handwringing or kitchen gardening? Relocalization or false hopes in technological “solutions”? Geoengineering or rewilding? Finger pointing or tree planting? Panic or preparation? I’m with Nicole. Keep stepping. And with Ellen Brown; the debt I hold is municipal debt (thanks Nicole and Ilargi). Next step, reduce the muni debt. Small steps by many, locally, calmly. And please let us not start pumping aerosols into the stratosphere to combat climate change.

      1. lambert strether

        Nope. “In my view the situation is too complex and chaotic to make reliable predictions.”

        Nicole is not saying “Pssst… do you smell smoke?” She’ saying she doesn’t know whether there’s smoke, although there do seem to be complex, smoke-like patterns that are deserving of further examination.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      You are demonstrating halo effect bias (a cognitive bias in which you see people as all good or all bad). I put up a post by Nicole on Iceland and agree her economic work has merit.

      But the fact that she does interesting economic work has no bearing on what she writes about climate change. And you do not know the genesis of her skepticism about climate science. If you read the book Agnotology, the tobacco industry worked all sorts of channels to raise doubts about the science. Nicole’s work at its root takes the very same form as classic climate change denialism: “you can’t trust the scientists.” Just because it is more articulate does not make it different in its nature.

  8. Paul Tioxon

    The Pentagon is preparing for climate change, no matter the cause. The US Navy, dependent on the weather on a daily basis just to operate, has a keen understanding of and investment in meteorology. A lot of that stems from one of the last remaining institutional thinks tanks, inside of the Pentagon, inside all of the US Federal Government for that matter.

    The Office of Net Assessment is headed up by a 92 year Chicago U trained economist since its founding in the 1970s during the Nixon administration. One of the key characteristic of Richard M Nixon, was his drive to build a stronger state bureaucracy. One of the demands that Nixon made on his staff, other than the police state secret surveillance of dissent, was his demand for quality information, not impeded by staff editing and bias to drive policy this way or that. Nixon wanted Brandeis briefs, comprehensive information on any particular issue, with the options and all supporting arguments and data, enough for him to come to his own conclusion. Out of this demand, the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) was born. Just as LBJ transformed the US Senate into a political decision making machine that actually got bills passed that were of use to the public at large, Nixon reformed the White House to be self contained for domestic policy development. OMB would be one way to that, they get the policy right and then do the politics. In the Pentagon, beyond the reach of the demagogues and ideologues, the Heritage, the AEI, the CATOs etc, is the Office of Net Assessment.

    The ONA requested a study of the national security implications of a global increase in the temperature. The results were leaked out in a Guardian newspaper story during George W Bush’s administration. You can read that here:


    The Pentagon Elevates the Threat

    The story behind the Pentagon report on abrupt climate change is almost as remarkable as the contents of the report itself. The National Academy study of this issue crossed the desk of Andrew Marshall, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Marshall, who has worked for every secretary of defense since James Schlesinger in the 1970s, is a legendary “wise man,” known as “Yoda,” at the Pentagon. When they need someone to think about big things, the Department of Defense turns to Marshall. His most famous achievement was the promotion of missile defense. It was Marshall who authorized the $100,000 grant for Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network to analyze abrupt climate change for the Pentagon. The intent was obviously to have economic futurologists visualize the possible effects of such abrupt climate change, since they would be in the best position to speculate on the economic and social fallout of such a catastrophic development, and thus upgrade it to a major Pentagon concern.



    1. Susan the other

      Nice to hear about the rational Nixon. I have always thought and expected that the military would lead the way on this. At first I thought they would clean up the planet and when global warming took front page it seemed like a no brainer that the military – the biggest consumer of fossil fuel worldwide and by a wide margin – would put lots of effort into the most practical way forward.

  9. evil is evil

    This is the best summary that I know of. The author has been charged with cherry picking.

    I think McPherson is an optimist. He thinks that there is time left. He ignores the amount of food that will be available in the short term. There will not be enough. Then the wars for food start and all other programs get dropped in the race to secure food in an insecure world.

  10. F. Beard

    — took the power to end all life* on this planet out of God’s hands. Tom Engelhardt

    You wish! Because the End will come. But not over C02 emissions or nuclear stockpiles; but over things like oppression of the poor and injustice.

    * This dwarfs to insignificance anything man can do YET even then some bacteria might survive miles beneath the surface.

  11. F. Beard

    And, of course, it’s the wicked money system – a government-backed usury for stolen purchasing power cartel, the banking system, that drives the need for exponential growth in the first place.

    Euthanizing that cartel is not impossible or even especially difficult, I’d bet, but many cannot grasp that usury and subtle theft via government privileges should not be the basis for an economy. Instead, neo-slavery via a JG is their solution to a population dis-employed with their own stolen purchasing power instead of just restitution.

  12. Frosty

    An example of climate change and environmental underreporting by the media occurred last week in the coverage of Pete Seeger’s death. Lots was reported about his social activism and that he once was a commie. Very little was said about the fact that he became a environmental activist in the late 1960’s.

  13. The Dork of Cork

    Scientists can be overrated or over rate themselves.

    need I remind readers a humble poet (Poe) was the first to get close to solving the greatest question of Science.
    At the time these questions were more or less ignored by “official science”

    “Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy – since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all”'_paradox

    A fantastic historical breakdown of these deep questions can be found in the Dec 2001 edition of Sky and Telescope written by Ken Croswell.

  14. steelhead23

    I don’t quite see the author’s point. Is climate denialism the fault of the oil industry? I think not. Look, leadership here in the US has done about all it could to encourage us to buy cars that sip gas. Yet, each of us, individually, wants more. A skosh more room. More power. More appeal to others. Climate change is the Tragedy of the Commons, writ large. I think that’s a far better argument about why we are apathetic toward this existential question. After all, if I buy a Prius, what’s to keep my neighbor for running over me in his Excursion? By golly, if there’s still punch in the bowl, fill my cup!

    1. James Levy

      The so-called “tragedy of the commons” has been debunked. People in earlier centuries did not despoil their common lands and forests. They watched over them and made damned sure that nobody screwed them up. They fought like mad to keep them, many people being jailed, beaten, or even killed in defense of their collective commons. The evidence in the historical record is incontrovertible on this point. What we are seeing are people who are such egomaniacs that they care not one whit for their children, their extended family, community, or the future or their civilization. All they want, like toddlers, is what they want. We see a society overrun and governed by men (with some women thrown in) who refuse to grow up, make hard choices, deny their instant need for gratification, and husband (there’s an old-fashioned word!) their limited resources.

      Conservatives, who rail against indulgent parents, demand a completely indulgent society, where anyone can grab, waste, or destroy anything in the name of “liberty” and “private property.” It’s time for the government to stop indulging this shit and say, “OK, you can make whatever you want, but after the first million we’ll take 90%”, or “Fine, you want a gas-guzzling tank, you got it: 100% surcharge”; “We’ll give you child tax credits, but on a sliding scale–it isn’t our job to subsidize population growth.” Time for us to put away childish things.

      1. ginnie nyc

        I think it is time we stop calling the people you describe “conservatives”, as they have no interest in conserving any damned thing. On the contrary. As I’m half-brain dead, I can’t come up with anything catchy – only Profligate B*****ds comes to mind. No other disagreement with your main points, though.

  15. Expat

    It’s obvious that the underlying problem the denialists have is that the proximate cause of accelerated climate change is the neoliberal kleptocapitalism that has threatened every life support system on Earth and captured every political institution capable of addressing the problem.

    See, e.g., “Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions”…. “Half of the estimated emissions were produced just in the past 25 years – well past the date when governments and corporations became aware that rising greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal and oil were causing dangerous climate change.”

    Who could have guessed that the legacy of the baby boomers — the healthiest, best educated, most free generation in the history of humankind — would be 85 people who own half the world’s wealth, and the anthropocine extinction?

    Individualism caused our crisis, but it won’t fix it.

  16. washunate

    Interesting read Tom. But, I wonder if you’re describing a symptom more so than the problem?

    What is most important about oil interests is not that they are uniquely omnipotent, but rather, how pedestrian they are, how similar every other part of society now is to them. Every corner of our system, from finance to medicine to law to journalism to academia, is now littered with the relics of millions of small decisions by mostly educated, upper middle class Americans to live a bit more comfortably rather than oppose a piece of the predation.

    I think this will change over time as the unsustainability of inequality engages the more overt authoritarian impulses of the psychopaths in charge – leading to either a return to Constitutional governance or more overt Empire – but in the meantime, that’s why we’re at where we’re at. It’s why a Republican president can create the EPA in 1970 while a Democratic one can cover up a massive oil spill 40 years later. That’s not a change in the corporate landscape – that’s a change in what ‘the left’ will tolerate.

    Plus, climate change isn’t ignored by our leadership class. Their preferred solution – the national security state – just happens to be a different strategy.

    1. different clue

      “People” didn’t decide to destroy America’s integrated systems of intercity railroads, citywide trolleys, municipal streetcars. A three-player conspirace composed of General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber, and Standard Oil of New Jersey did that through fronts like National City Lines, etc. Then “people”, even “upper middle class people” were left to make their own after-the-fact decisions amid the wreckage which the Lords of Bussiness created for them.

  17. BillR

    I would like to comment Gail Tverberg’s post at the top. It may be true that humans have only 5-20 years before fossil fuel consumption collapses due to financial collapse or a EROEI “wall” that collapses extraction. Nonetheless, fossil fuel additions to climate change in my mind matter very much going forward. Much evidence suggests that climate exists in a “stable” state of ocean currents, jet streams, heat input and release to the atmosphere, and the movement of gases between rock, biological material, oceans, and atmosphere. What humans are currently doing is pushing the limits of this climate state. I think most paleontological and climate history suggests that once this stable state is breached, patterns will collapse. The history is contains many exmaples of climate (as measured in pollen mixes, sea-levels, and Co2 content) changing slowly, and then rapidly. All sorts of postive feedbacks may push us into a choatoic period of rapid change: Rapid changes in albeido, rapid increases in wildfires, melting of permafrost and increase in methane release, etc.

    It MATTERS that we try to get fossil fuel consumption under control because we don’t really know when that moment of no return will come. We do know the system is changing, and there is allot that suggests it is changing in unpredicable and non-linear ways. When I first was looking at this issue 5-10 years ago, the changing of the jet-stream was not really discussed. Now it is becoming evident to several climate scientists that the typical flows of the jet stream are changing as the ice-cap melts and the north warms quicker than the equatorial regions. The lessening of the temperature differential between the poles and the equator is causing the jet stream to slow and “wander”. What other suprises might await?

    I just don’t get the attitude of some Peak-Oil and financial commentators that their issue needs to be paid attention to moreso than other sustainability and resilience issues. Humanity is faced with multiple coming limits, all manifesting themselves due to our growth and unsustainable economics. ANY discussion about them among most people is worthwhile as we need a higher awareness of the troubling trends in ALL of them… climate, energy, finance, water, population, economics…etc.

    1. different clue

      Last night I decided to look up on the Web what the temperature was right here in Ann Arbor.
      -1 degree Fahrenheit. (I won’t keep saying Farenheit. This is America. We use natural organic Fahrenheit degrees the way God made them).
      Anyway . . . it was – 1 degree in Ann Arbor. At the very same time it was 0 degrees in Barrow, Alaska. One degree warmer than in Ann Arbor. Up there on the Arctic Ocean coast.
      Warmer than Ann Arbor. And it was 37 degrees in Reykjavik, Iceland. Right around the Arctic Circle. 39 degrees warmer than Ann Arbor. In winter. Last night. Iceland.

  18. Mike

    After 10 years of trying to explain Peak Oil to the masses, there are still loads of people who come out with the same old crap about reserves and technology improvements, etc.
    After 25 years of trying to explain the Greenhouse Effect there are still people who don’t think its happening, and others who over-react and claim we are going extinct, or that a tipping point, that the models don’t predict, is here right now.

    The fragile financial system and the complexity of the industrial system are the real weak points. The actions of TPTB in preparation for the collapse are the things to watch. The sheer desperation as they flail about on energy policy is instructive, as is the number of places around the world where chaos/war is breaking out. WW3 must be part of their Plan B.

  19. Hugh

    Interesting that Nicole Foss says the situation is “too complex and chaotic to make reliable predictions” but then goes on to predict that apocalyptic scenarios are “unlikely”.

    As I have written in the past, we have three near term problems: kleptocracy, wealth inequality, and class war. I think we have until about until 2030 to deal with these, and by this I mean not begin to deal with them but have dealt with them. We need to do this because we have three existential crises that face us in this century. Here I think Foss’ gradualism is just completely wrong. Climate change is only part of one of these crises. The crises are overpopulation, resource exhaustion, and environmental degradation. We either deal with these crises or, being natural processes, they will deal with us. In addition to climate change under the heading of environmental degradation, we have pollution, loss of species, and ecosystem collapse. Under resource exhaustion, the principal two are energy and water. All of these are exacerbated by overpopulation. Our planet could have sustained a population of about 3 billion at a reasonably high technology level. We are, of course, considerably over that at 7 billion headed toward 9 billion around 2040. I wonder if Foss has ever looked at the Census projections for population growth in various parts of the world and ever asked how the land can sustain them.

    We are already seeing some of the consequences of these problems in the growing zones of political instability and the increased number of failing and failed states. We are seeing growing concerns and budding conflicts over water use in all the world’s great transnational watersheds.

    Foss’ position that we shouldn’t rush into anything and that things aren’t as bad as they seem is unrealistic in the extreme. I am all for reasoned, smart approaches, but these approaches are going to need to be massive and we have precious little time to get them up and running.

    1. Fiver

      I agree with a great deal of what you’re saying, but must strongly insist that we do not have 15 years to sort out or political economy and THEN start on transformative economic systems changes. We have 15-20 years to make ALL the changes vis a vis either getting off fossil fuels entirely, or finding as yet unknown ways to ameliorate all of fossil fuel’s profoundly negative effects – the latter to me seems highly unlikely, so what we really need is a something like a global ‘Manhattan Project’ even our current idiocracy can launch – I think over the next 5 years they are going to have a scare big enough to ‘focus the mind’, even it’s the prospect of being hanged by the masses in the morning, though I think it more likely the acceleration of awful weather events just may do the trick.

      1. different clue

        Only if those weather events carry the death and devastation to the heart of the Overclass.

  20. Jackrabbit

    Thank you Yves. This is really the challenge of our time. Allow me to share a story that affected me at a young age.

    When I was in college, I met the father of a girl I was interested in. He was a scientist and a consultant (not sure for whom) and he was very interested in my opinion because I was a physics major. Its clear now that he saw me as a ginnea pig on which he tried several explanations of why acid rain was not a problem for the northeast. But his exhortations failed because I already knew some of the science.

    Looking back, it was clear that he was paid handsomely to make the scientific case for acid rain. My interactions with him colored my understanding of how science could be corrupted. It was so casual. He didn’t seem to have any ethical concern. And why should he? Whether its science or economics, there doesn’t seem to be any backlash against those that work against the common good.

    1. b'emet

      To me, the greatest risks from fossil fuels have always come from the trade itself.

      At the most extreme, all the world’s military establishments have been developed to guarantee by threat of war each nation’s access to fossil fuels. The greatest sources of pollution have been the wars already fought for these fuels. And accidents of mining and transport of fuel have been the greatest environmental disasters.

      Looking ahead, the fragility of the world’s economies run presently the greatest hazard to public well being, and every glitch in the financing of energy resources threatens to bring on systemic collapse and global disorder. All of the world’s dysfunctional and oppressive political establishments thrive primarily on disputes about fossil fuel policies.

      Peak oil concerns sustain the military and economic terror. We will be mighty lucky to survive long enough for climate changes to do us real harm.

  21. Jim S

    I would like to see so-called fossil fuel consumption reduced, and in absolute terms, not merely per capita. Burning it simply because it’s there (Peak Oil or no Peak Oil) is foolish and self-destructive (AGW or no AGW). I feel that any rational person who cares about the environment would hold the same position, regardless of stance on AGW/Climate Change.

    So I would be interested to see articles here at NC on approaches to reduce oil and coal consumption which address how it might be done, specifically addressing how it may be done without penalizing developing nations for the developed nations’ sins and how change in developed nations can be accomplished (i.e. How can Americans be persuaded to drive cars less and walk more), beyond campaigning for awareness of Climate Change. My small observation is that it would probably be slightly easier to accomplish by promoting a positive rather than a negative.

    1. different clue

      The developing nations will punish themselves ( and us) for their own sins of today and tomorrow. China will deep ramping up its carbon skydumping. So will India. So will others. They will reap the heatup in due time.

  22. different clue

    If your view is correct you have a contrarian investment opportunity to make serious money for yourself and/or your descendants by borrowing all the credit you can to buy seaside property along the Gulf or Florida coast. You’ll be “laughing last” all the way to the bank when the sea level fails to rise the way we think it will over time. What are you waiting for? Get out there and buy that seacoast oceanside waterfront property today!

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