The Daily Onion, FT and Climate Change Coverage

The Onion continues to mine climate change related news releases for its brand of biting satire. Here is a little piece they did in response to the sharp jump in carbon emissions in 2010 to a new record that I flagged in my last post.

And this on the disconnect between contemplation of the implications of climate change and actual action.

My all time favourite, though, is the article published by them in November 2010 with the headline: Global Warming Issue From 2 or 3 Years Ago May Still Be Problem.

The article captured beautifully the public and politicians’ inability to stay with the topic in the face of numerous other issues that have jockeyed for their time:

“Global warming, if you remember correctly, was the single greatest problem of our lifetime back in 2007 and the early part of 2008,” CGD president Nancy Birdsall said. “But then the debates over Social Security reform and the World Trade Center mosque came up, and the government had to shift its focus away from the dramatic rise in sea levels, the rapid spread of deadly infectious diseases, and the imminent destruction of our entire planet.”

Contrast and compare with an article by Simon Kuper titled “Climate Change: Who Cares Anymore” in the Financial Times Magazine.

Kuper highlights how the world has, in effect, grown bored with climate change and moved on despite the risks. As he puts it:

We journalists are dropping the topic too. It’s been a thrilling year for news, but the great absence on the news sites is climate change…… The environment bores readers.

And then moves on to look at the implications of neglecting the issue of climate change:

The question then becomes: what will happen? Nobody is sure. Almost all climate scientists think the outcome will be bad, perhaps catastrophic. They foresee more storms, droughts, floods and crop failures around the world, as Obama said in 2009 when he was still talking about these things.

But then we have an absolutely shocking passage confusing uncertainty with risk.

However, climate is far too complex a system to permit exact predictions. Nobody knows whether global temperatures will rise two degrees centigrade this century, nor whether that is the tipping point for catastrophe. When climate scientists make exact predictions, says Pielke, it’s usually a bid to focus the minds of politicians and voters. It hasn’t worked.

Well no actually, climate isn’t that complex to get a sense of risk (see my last three posts here, here and here). You can’t make an ‘exact prediction’ over whether a 60-a-day smoker will die from lung cancer thirty years hence. In fact, you only will know with certainty once he or she is dead—from lung cancer or other causes. But you do have a sense of probabilities and outcomes with a 60-a-day habit, and so it is with CO2.

Accordingly, the strategy that Kuper implicitly endorses makes no sense whatsoever.

Rich countries now have a semi-conscious plan: whatever happens, we’ll have the money to cope.

For we know what a world of 4 or 5 degrees Celsius of warming will bring since the earth has been there before. And we know the rough probabilities of whether we will reach 4 or 5 degrees of warming if we continue on our current emissions path.

Thus it is really The Onion, and its spoof climatologist Helen Marcus, that gets the reporting right, with a final paragraph in their piece that should make you laugh—if it doesn’t make you cry:

“Climate change is real, and we are killing our planet more every day,” said climatologist Helen Marcus, who has made similar statements in interviews in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. “We need to make a serious effort to stop it, or, you know, we’ll all die. There really isn’t much else to say.”

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