Climate change activists who exaggerate the real threat are harming their cause

Jul 3, 2024 | 0 comments

By Noah Rothman

“We cannot wait for speeches when the sea is rising around us all the time,” said Simon Kofe, the one-time foreign minister of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, in a 2021 address. Kofe’s warning was the kind of boilerplate climate-change catastrophism to which all save the most dedicated activists long ago became inured. It wouldn’t have made any waves if Kofe hadn’t delivered his missive standing in hip-deep water, flanked by United Nations and Tuvaluan flags, and wearing a smartly tailored suit. The theatrics made the point Kofe’s formulaic rhetoric could not.

Activists protest for the U.S. government to take action on climate change and reject the use of fossil fuels in New York City, September 17, 2023.

Indeed, the prospect that many of the world’s low-lying island nations and coastal enclaves will soon be subsumed due to rising sea levels has been a feature of climate-change alarmism for decades. “I think one day we will disappear,” one Tuvaluan mourned in a 2019 interview with the Guardian. “You’re making this island disappear,” read the accusatory CNN headline that graced a breathless 2015 article castigating its audience for failing to save the Marshall Islands from inundation. The oceans will “completely cover” the Maldives “within the next 30 years,” a 1988 piece in the Canberra Times warned. “But the end of the Maldives and its 200,000 people could come sooner if drinking water supplies dry up by 1992, as predicted.”

This orthodoxy has gone largely unchallenged. Indeed, it’s become an unremarkable feature of the journalistic landscape. The pop-culture press is replete with click-bait slideshows admonishing readers to visit some of the planet’s lovelier atolls “before they disappear,” and heart-rending testimonials from islanders sick with worry over the fate that will befall their homes. But as New York Times climate reporter Raymond Zhong revealed in an item published Thursday, “Scientists have begun to tell a surprising new story”:

“By comparing mid-20th century aerial photos with recent satellite images, they’ve been able to see how the islands have evolved over time. What they found is startling: Even though sea levels have risen, many islands haven’t shrunk. Most, in fact, have been stable. Some have even grown.

“One study that rounded up scientists’ data on 709 islands across the Pacific and Indian Oceans showed that nearly 89 percent either had increased in area or hadn’t changed much in recent decades. Only 11 percent had contracted.”
As correctly Zhong notes in the requisite “to be sure” paragraph, just because these “atolls aren’t about to wash away entirely” doesn’t mean “they have nothing to worry about.” But what they don’t have to worry about is being washed away entirely, which is precisely what climate scientists, activist hysterics, and the politicians who cater to both have warned since the Reagan administration. Yes, much like everywhere else on the planet, the islands will be forced to adapt to climate change and mitigate its worst effects. But that is an engineering challenge, and a surmountable one, at that. What the islands are not facing is an “existential threat.”

This is hardly the first grandiose claim by climate doomsayers to hit the skids. “In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution,” a 1970 feature in LIFE magazine warned. “By 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 assessment forecast a decrease in the severity of snow storms. Indeed, “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,” Dr. David Viner of the University of East Anglia warned in 2000. “Scientists project that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer of 2013,” said then-Senator John Kerry in 2009. In 2018, the scientific consensus around the apocalyptic warming trajectory the world’s oceans were on was successfully overthrown not through a rigorous peer-review process but through a freelancing skeptic who set out to challenge it. “I can’t imagine that there will be a human left on the Earth in ten years,” retired University of Arizona ecologist Guy McPherson warned in 2016. “There is nothing to be done in terms of preserving the human species more than a few more years.” It may be premature to call this a failed prediction, but the extinction of the human race in the next two years would come as a surprise.

The issue here is not that climate scientists don’t understand their own data, nor that they are unable to make circumspect projections about where straight-line trajectories will take the planet based on that data. It is that circumspection doesn’t make for an attention-grabbing headline, and straight-line trajectories that account for no complicating variables along the way are inherently fallacious. The incentives point both the scientific community and the activist class on whom it relies for publicity toward frenzy. Worse, when the most apocalyptic projections fail to pan out, those who notice are accused of “denying” the phenomenon of climate change altogether.

This self-reinforcing doom loop is contributing to a debilitating psychological phenomenon in which climate-change eschatologists reject good news altogether because good news can only be the nefarious product of a malign influence campaign. “It’s fair to say that recently many of us climate scientists have spent more time arguing with the doomers than with the deniers,” said one of the U.N. IPCC’s contributing authors, Zeke Hausfather, in a 2023 interview with the Washington Post. “It’s a question of risk, not known catastrophe.”

That’s admirably prudent, but Hausfather’s admonition should be directed at and internalized by his fellow climatologists. In the race to forecast the tangible impacts of climate change and illustrate its risks for the lay public, the climatological community has done more reputational damage to itself than its critics ever could.
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Noah Rothman is a senior writer at National Review. He is the author of “The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun”.

Credit: Substack

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