The case for alarmism

by John Quiggin on November 24, 2020

Another (long) extract from the climate chapter of my book-in-progress Economic Consequences of the Pandemic is over the fold. Comments, compliments and criticism appreciated as ever.

If there is one word that should be stricken from our political vocabulary after the coronavirus pandemic, it is ‘alarmist’. For decades, it has been used as a pejorative for those who have, based on a huge body of scientific research, raised the alarm about the dangers of climate change.

Ever since the first evidence of global warming emerged, anyone who suggested that the findings of mainstream science implied a need for urgent action has bee dismissed by the advocates of inaction as an ‘alarmist’. But as the pandemic disaster has shown us, it makes sense to raise the alarm about potential catastrophes, rather than waiting to see whether or not they happen. Complacency, based on past lucky escapes, is a bigger problem than alarmism.

The force of the charge of alarmism arises from the fact that a many predicted disasters, such as the destruction of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons, have not come to pass. In many cases, including that of CFCs, disaster was avoided precisely because early action was taken, but the critics of ‘alarmism’ routinely ignore this.

But, in the course of the pandemic we have seen that, if nothing is done, alarming predictions based on solid science turn out to be true most of the time. Even as Trump andopthers were predicting that the virus would vanish in the summer, infection was spreading throughout the US and the world. Predictions of 100 000 deaths, dismissed as alarmist in April, turned out to be hopelessly over-optimistic. At the time of writing 250 000 have died in the US alone, and the ultimate death toll will probably be closer to half a million.

The same is true of global warming. Predictions of catastrophic climate change, far from being overly alarmist, have turned out to be conservative, particularly in relation to timing. Much of the discussion about global warming framed the problem as one we were leaving to our children. But as wildfires and hurricanes get steadily worse, it becomes clear that the consequences of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions are already here.

The critics of climate alarmism are, almost without exception, the same as those who downplayed the pandemic, resisted all control measures, and did nothing to prevent hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths. Donald Trump is the archetypal example, but the vast majority of political conservatives have followed the same path

To see this, it is worth examining the forces that lined up against action to mitigate climate change. Originally, they were mostly advocates for the the economic interests of oil, gas and coal corporations. The most important source of funding for climate denialists in the 1990 was ExxonMobil which took over a network of advocates, lobbyists and scientists-for-hire set up by the tobacco industry to fight restrictions on smoking. Oreskes

This pressure was reinforced by a systematic effect to undermine the science of global warming. The central role was played by an industry group called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) led by oil and coal companies and industry bodies., including Exxon and the other major oil companies along with the National Coal Association, United States Chamber of Commerce, American Forest & Paper Association, and Edison Electric Institute.

Over time, however, climate denialism took on a life of its own, as part of the ever-expanding culture wars. A network of rightwing thinktanks devoted themselves to cultivating scientists (mostly retired or unqualified) who would sign declarations saying that the threat of climate change had been overstated or fabricated.

The lines of attack used against climate scientists for decades were rapidly redeployed against scientists such as Dr Anthony Fauci, who sought to tell the truth about the pandemic in the face of Trump’s continuous lies [1].

The failure of the US to act on climate change foreshadowed the disastrous response to the pandemic. The same debating points, the same culture war appeals and to a large extent the same people who stalled any action on climate change were used to undermine any attempt at serious action to control the pandemic. Here, for example, are the Heartland Institute (), FreedomWorks and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Unsurprisingly, most climate denialists carried their attitudes over into their responses to the pandemic, first downplaying it, then opposing public health measures to combat the pandemic. A handful of dissident scientists were recruited to produce statements minimising the risks, which were then used as the basis for public declarations, such as the Great Barrington Declaration, organised by the American Institute for Economic Research, previously a bit player in the climate denial industry https://www.aier.org/pertinent_tags/climate-change/ [the Declaration is named for the town of Great Barrington, where AEIR is based. The Declaration proposes a Focused Protection strategy, described as a ‘compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk.’

The Declaration was signed on 4 October 2000, when the US was recording around 40000 cases of Covid-19 per day, just before the ‘third wave’ took off However, the town council has repudiated the declaration, emphasising its commitment to Covid-save practices

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The Same People Who Peddle Climate Denial Are Behind Coronavirus Pseudoscience


1Those, like Dr Deborah Birx, who tried to walk the tightrope between truth and Trumpism fared even worse, seen as hacks by their scientific colleagues, but failing to appease the Trumpist base, for whom nothing but abject subservience would do.

{ 25 comments }

1

Tim Worstall 11.24.20 at 12:42 pm

“Predictions of catastrophic climate change, far from being overly alarmist, have turned out to be conservative, particularly in relation to timing.”

Hmm, well, I recall having this discussion a couple of decades back. With, I think, you. Using the SRES scenarios my muttering that something like A1T was possible to likely. Rather a number of others insisting that A1FI was how it was going to be.

Now here we are and even numbers of those insisting that it’s a real big problem we’ve got to change the world about, right now, are agreeing that A1FI isn’t the path we’re on and never, really, was going to be.

It’s even possible to delve down into the details and see that A1FI (which is, roughly enough to be useful, RCP 8.5) depended upon, required, that we run out of conventional oil and gas, didn’t start to use unconventional, didn’t develop renewables and thus turned back to coal. Which isn’t how it has worked out at all. We did develop unconventional – that’s what fracking is – didn’t turn back to coal and have developed renewables.

We could even start to think that something like A1T (which isn’t far off RCP 4.5) is in fact the path we’re on.

2

Mike Huben 11.24.20 at 3:25 pm

3

Alex SL 11.24.20 at 8:46 pm

It seems a bit odd to title it “the case for alarmism” and then start by saying that the word should be dropped.

Isolated “Oreskes”?

My case for alarmism is this: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions#global-emissions-have-not-yet-peaked

Despite all the shiny solar cells and wind power going up, there is no sign so far of emissions even starting to go down, so currently it seems it will take much too long to lower them to the sustainable level of close to zero.

4

JakeB 11.25.20 at 4:16 am

‘Ever since the first evidence of global warming emerged, anyone who suggested that the findings of mainstream science implied a need for urgent action has bee dismissed by the advocates of inaction as an ‘alarmist’. ‘

You’ve got a typo here. Now, if you had been discussing the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides, I might tell you to leave it in.

5

JakeB 11.25.20 at 4:30 am

‘ it makes sense to raise the alarm about potential catastrophes, rather than waiting to see whether or not they happen. ‘

Maybe I’m too data-oriented, but I would prefer to see an example right here (e.g. Norway vs. Sweden, Canada vs. US) rather than more general stuff.

‘Predictions of catastrophic climate change, far from being overly alarmist, have turned out to be conservative, particularly in relation to timing. Much of the discussion about global warming framed the problem as one we were leaving to our children. But as wildfires and hurricanes get steadily worse, it becomes clear that the consequences of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions are already here.’

Likewise here. Drop in the Siberian melting and Arctic effects happening 70 years early, or something less dramatic if you prefer.

The basic original purpose of climate denialism was purely to make profits, wasn’t it? As in Exxon’s discovering it, suppressing their findings and then as you say funding denialism groups. Perfect hypocrisy and corruption in the service of short-term profits. Is climate denialism profit-driven to the same degree? Or has it become more religious in nature? Perhaps that can be encapsulated in your mention of the culture wars.

FWIW.

6

bad Jim 11.25.20 at 7:30 am

Climate change denialism and coronavirus denialism are in many respects orthogonal; one was promoted by the fossil fuel industry, but big virus doesn’t have megabucks behind it. The powers that be favor business as usual, and deaths in the street are indiscernible from the conference rooms on the top floor, but the politics of the pandemic have gone different ways in different countries.

It became politicized in the U.S. because it was seen as a threat to the economy and thus the re-election of the president. It wasn’t a cover-up of the botched response so much as a failure to understand the problem. To be sure, the disdain for expertise which also characterized the approach to environmental issues was replicated throughout the administration. A few agencies demonstrated competence, but no departments did.

The message was mixed: we’re doing a great job dealing with the problem, but there’s nothing to worry about. In much of the country the message was received that the pandemic is fake, a Democratic scam (which implies that it’s strictly a domestic affair).

The evangelical opposition to abortion is yet another arbitrary point of contention, deliberately selected as a surrogate for opposition to racial integration. Gun control may have been originally a matter of difference between urban and rural preferences, and used to be subject to negotiation.

The point is that there is no coherence to this cluster of positions.

7

Peter T 11.25.20 at 9:49 am

Tim@1

Given what less than 2 degrees is giving us, in what way would heading for RCP4.5 not be cause for deep alarm?

8

Matt 11.25.20 at 9:58 am

I’m mostly pretty sympathetic, but a few comments. First, maybe the Y2K case is a good example? It was one where people said there could be lots of trouble, lots of work was done, and in the end there was very little trouble. Was that because of the work? I sort of think so, but I realize that I don’t actually know this. If it was at least in large part because of the work, it would be good to include. However, if it wasn’t because of the work, it should probably be included as a possible counter example. (Again, I am not at all sure what the real story is here.)

Also, you say, Dr Anthony Fauci, who sought to tell the truth about the pandemic One thing I worry about with Fauci, is that I think he was involved in the original story that masks were not important and not very effective in the US, even though at least some of the people saying this knew, or at least very strongly believed, that it wasn’t true, but they said it because they wanted to prevent hording of masks at a time when there was a short supply for doctors. That reasoning was understandable. But, the actual thing said was both stupid and highly counter-productive, in that it both made mask wearing less common, but gave fuel to people who would later point out the inconsistency as a reason to not trust the government. My impression is that Fauci, despite his many virtues, has been involved in this sort of “Dr. Knows Best” paternalism at several points in his career, despite the fact that this almost always turns out to be wrong in practice, and bad in principle. If this is right, then I am very much more hesitant to give him credit for truth-telling, or in general. (But maybe my understanding of the facts here are wrong.)

9

Tim Worstall 11.25.20 at 12:49 pm

@7

“Given what less than 2 degrees is giving us, in what way would heading for RCP4.5 not be cause for deep alarm?”

The world of 2020, actually in the year 2020, doesn’t particularly have a problem with climate change. The actual and known effects, this year, of the warming we’ve had so far that is.

Everything is based upon what is going to happen. Which, clearly, depends upon estimates of what is going to happen. Everytime there’s another piece about what is going to happen I check – often enough finding it in the footnotes or even a reference to some other document – well, what is the assumption about what is going to happen? RCP 8.5. That’s what just about everything seems to be using as the business as usual estimation of that future. It’s also the one of the RCPs that we know isn’t going to happen. We’ve already done enough to dodge it.

If you don’t like the fracking example – which I admit, I like to use pour epater – then consider having made wind and solar power price comparable, at worst, with fossil fuels, many say they’re now cheaper. So, we’re not, in a price driven world, going to increase coal usage as RCP 8.5 assumes, are we? Do recall that 8.5 requires not only that we continue to increase energy usage but that coal becomes and every greater part of that supply off into the future. That’s just not about to happen any more, is it?

10

Tim Worstall 11.25.20 at 12:50 pm

“and every ” – “an ever”

11

JimV 11.25.20 at 9:58 pm

“The evangelical opposition to abortion is yet another arbitrary point of contention, deliberately selected as a surrogate for opposition to racial integration.”

In your opinion, based on an article with that thesis based on two cherry-picked examples, and ignoring other facts such as that Billy Sunday, the founder of the the evangelical movement, preached against abortion, calling it “the murder of babies” in the very early 1900’s. You are of course entitled to that position. Mine, as someone raised in an evangelical family and community in the mid 1900’s, was that abortion was always considered settled doctrine (as murder), but did not become a political single-issue until it became legal. Has the issue since been demagogued by politicians? Yes. Is there also racism among evangelicals? Yes; but is it a sincere belief? Yes. Certainly so among my family, in which a niece forgoed breast-cancer treatment while pregnant for fear of harming the fetus. (Since she already had three small children to raise, that would not have been my counsel.)

I am not a historian and my personal evidence is anecdotal, but I don’t understand how any scholarly assessment of the issue would not have started by answered the question, “What was Billy Sunday’s position on abortion?” That question occurred to me when you previously made a similar comment to the one above, and it took me about 20 minutes to find the answer using Google Books.

The Bible College most of my family went to in New York state requires admitted students to sign a pledge against dancing and playing card games in which the cards have graven images (e.g., the standard poker or bridge deck, I think Uno is okay), among other things. There are similar colleges in New England and the Mid West that I know of. They specialize in pre-med and send teams of doctors to Africa and South America for a month of clinical work every year. The predominant evangelical sect in my (northern) experience is Wesleyan Methodist. It broke off from the Methodist sect prior to the Civil War because the parent sect did not condemn slavery. These people are not dissembling about their position on abortion–at least not the ones I know.

12

Ogden Wernstrom 11.25.20 at 10:58 pm

My thought, like Matt @8, is that Y2K is a reasonably-good example of alarm that many members of the public would later think was simply alarmism.

Was that because of the work? I sort of think so, but I realize that I don’t actually know this.

Yes, it was largely due to the work that was performed.

In 1997-1999, I updated something on the order of 1000 systems/programs/scripts that would have failed – admittedly, no one of those was a big deal – I doubt that any one of those would have made the news if it failed. There were others who did the same sort of work to keep power on, traffic lights operating, patients treated, river levels controlled and just about everything else. (Acquaintances working for BPA, a civil engineering firm, a medical imaging center, and back to the BPA guy again, plus lots and lots of people I did not know.)

It rankled me to hear/read comments to the effect that the whole Y2K thing turned out to be nothing, after I had spent 2½ years performing one tiny sliver of the total work. But I try to frame that as a success. The people who watch NASCAR for the crashes thought that Y2K was boring.

13

Ogden Wernstrom 11.25.20 at 11:03 pm

I neglected to mention: The people who clutch their pearls about Fauci’s inconsistent stance and authoritarianism paternalism usually do so in the course of supporting…Trump, of all people.

14

KT2 11.25.20 at 11:25 pm

Gaslighted by “The Same People Who Peddle Climate Denial Are Behind Coronavirus Pseudoscience”?

Scott Aaronson says:
“Huck Finn and the gaslighting of America

“This is the literal meaning of “gaslighting”: the intentional construction of an alternate reality so insistently as to make the sane doubt their sanity. It occurred to me: Huck Finn could be read as an extended fable about gaslighting. The Grangerfords make their deadly feud with the Shepherdsons seem normal and natural. The fraudulent King and Duke make Huck salute them as royalty. Tom convinces Huck that the former’s harebrained schemes for freeing Jim are just the way it’s done, and Huck is an idiot for preferring the simplistic approach of just freeing him. And of course, the entire culture gaslights Huck that good is evil and evil is good. Huck doesn’t fight the gaslighting as hard as we’d like him to, but he develops as a character to the extent he does.

“Today, the Confederacy—which, as we’ve learned the past five years, never died, and is as alive and angry now as it was in Twain’s time—is trying to win by gaslighting what it couldn’t win at Antietam and Gettysburg and Vicksburg. It’s betting that if it just insists, adamantly enough, that someone who lost an election by hundreds of thousands of votes spread across multiple states actually won the election, then it can bend the universe to its will.”…
https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=5106

15

bad Jim 11.26.20 at 7:21 am

for JimV @11, I googled “history of evangelical opposition to abortion” and found

an NPR podcast, including Randall Balmer, among others

How the Christian Right Became Prolife on Abortion and Transformed the Culture Wars

Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been pounding this point for years. There may well have been evangelical Christian opposition to abortion in the past, but it wasn’t settled doctrine until the late 1970’s (“settled doctrine” is meant as a subtle dig; Baptists aren’t supposed to work that way).

16

bad Jim 11.26.20 at 7:30 am

for the delectation of Ogden Wernstrom, from a former fellow code-wrangler, a paean to COBOL:

The Code That Controls Your Money

17

Matt 11.26.20 at 9:32 am

Thanks, Ogden Wernstrom (at 12) – that’s helpful and interesting.

18

notGoodenough 11.26.20 at 1:45 pm

As another quick thought, I agree with John Quiggin @ OP that there are striking similarities regarding this sort of thing.

For those interested in the topic, and for some thoughts from someone who went through it all, I think that one could do worse than to have a quick read through this article on the topic if one hasn´t done so already [1].

Hopefully it is of interest.

[1] DOI: 10.1177/0096340214563674
Weblink: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0096340214563674

19

Peter T 11.26.20 at 11:04 pm

“The world of 2020, actually in the year 2020, doesn’t particularly have a problem with climate change. The actual and known effects, this year, of the warming we’ve had so far that is.”

Tim has clearly never heard of Australia.

20

John Quiggin 11.27.20 at 9:24 am

@19 Exactly my thought when I read this

21

John Quiggin 11.27.20 at 9:25 am

And you could add California, Louisiania, the Amazon, the Arctic and many more bits of the map.

22

JimV 11.27.20 at 6:37 pm

BJ @15: thanks for the links. In my biased judgment an NPR podcast is not worth my time, but the historical perspective from the next link seemed balanced, e.g., “Evangelicals were always more pro-life than non-evangelicals,” which matches my personal experience. I don’t question what he says about Baptists. I have never met any that I know of. Maybe they are insincere and driven by ulterior motives–although my favorite President since Kennedy, President Carter, seemed sincere to me.

One of my nephews, who went to that Bible college I mentioned, is a doctor and spends a month in the summer working at a free clinic in Africa or South America. At his interview for Med School, the interviewer ended with, “There are some things I’m not allowed to ask you, so I’ll just say, is there anything else you want to mention about your candidacy?” To which he replied, “Yes, I don’t believe in abortion and will never assist in one or counsel anyone to have one.” He didn’t expect it to score any points at Albany (NY) Med School, but if that was what the interviewer wanted to know, he was happy to tell him. (He was loud against Trump in 2016 and badly confused his mother–“You mean we have to vote for … Hillary??”)

Roe vs. Wade was in 1973. To say that the furor among evangelicals against abortion arose in the 1970’s due to some other primary cause seems specious to me–although I am sure it was fanned by demagogues. It is one thing not to vigorously condemn others for difficult personal choices and another to accept that your teenage daughter has a right to one. As for rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants, I would guess the very popular Presidency and subsequent martyrdom of John F. Kennedy might have had something to do with that. (Prior to his election there was some demagoguery against a catholic president as there is now against socialists.) In my small rural NY hometown, during Thursday Afternoon Release Time Religious Education in high school, the Catholics marched to a Catholic Cathedral and the Protestants marched to a Methodist Chapel. Other than that we played on the same sports teams and got along fine.

In the Wesleyan Methodist Youth Christmas Party circa 1964, gifts were passed out randomly, then in alphabetical order each youth was allowed to trade their present with somebody else’s. One of the presents was an album of JFK speeches. One after the other, everyone traded their present for that album. (I later wished I had kept the LifeSavers candy.)

23

Ogden Wernstrom 11.28.20 at 12:05 am

bad Jim @16, that article brings back memories – and, informs me that I was not the only one to spend 2½ years at the task, not the only one to use a “split-the-difference” date range where 4-digit year info was not available or would be too costly to implement. (I did add warning comments to the code/script – “This routine will not work beyond the end of 2019”).

I just remembered that I commonly used 20 as my cutoff point where two-digit year values were all that was available. I hope that none of those systems were still in use as we began this year (which is apparently 1920 all over again). I think others chose that cutoff, too: a quick search, and I find reports that some embedded systems failed due to the rollover to 2020 – watches, cash registers, parking meters, video game cartridges, and handheld calculators (with mortgage-calculating macros).

In my defense, my work was almost exclusively for small businesses (and, maybe, the smaller end of medium businesses – I’d estimate revenues in the range of a couple-million US dollars per year to a few-million US dollars per month), and most chose the path with the fewest billable hours.

There are a lot of other date values that may cause alarm, if not alarmism, but somebody is already thinking ahead.

Since my previous post, I read what Mike Huben @2 linked-to, and expected I’d run across Tim Worstall’s name – but did not.

24

Moz in Oz 11.28.20 at 10:49 pm

I read “doesn’t particularly have a problem with climate change” as referring to the human population, in the sense that the great majority are happy for the climate catastrophe to continue getting worse.

The meaningful measure for democracies is “does this cause people to change their votes” and the answer is overwhelmingly “NO”. Australia… “everything I own is on fire” but somehow we still have pro-catastrophe parties at every level of government right across the country. I gather that most democracies are similar, the “climate emergency” declarations are not resulting in emergency responses but a kind of “hopefully over 20 or 30 years we can change slightly”.

25

Tim Worstall 11.29.20 at 2:04 pm

” I read what Mike Huben @2 linked-to, and expected I’d run across Tim Worstall’s name – but did not.”

1) Of course not, I advocate, and have done for a decade at least, a carbon tax to deal with the known and agreed problems of climate change. Just like our host here, JQ.

2) I’m far too minor league for someone like Nancy MacLean to take note of me. I make it onto DeSmog’s list of climate deniers for the UK though. For advocating a carbon tax to deal with the known and agreed problems of climate change….

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