Andrew Montford: Alarmism No More
The scaremongers’ favourite doomsday climate scenario is in trouble.
Environmental correspondents make a good living from scare stories. In the case of the BBC’s Matt McGrath, doubly so: as well as his BBC salary, he was recently the recipient of a €100,000 award from the green blob for his work. A prize “pour encourager les autres” no doubt.
Alarmism is a pretty straightforward way to make a living, because the climate science machinery is set up specifically to generate scare stories. The way this works has recently been made clear, but before I tell that tale, a little background is necessary. In order to produce a prediction of what the climate will do, scientists use official scenarios of how carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will change. These cover a range of possible futures, from the “not-very-scary” RCP2.6, to the “OMG we’re all going to fry” RCP8.5. At first, the scenarios were officially considered equally plausible, but more recently RCP8.5 was designated the one that represented what would happen if we didn’t do anything. This was great for everyone inside the green blob: green journalists and other activists got an endless source of alarming headlines about what would happen if we didn’t decarbonise, and scientists got an easy route to favourable coverage: they simply had to look at RCP8.5 to generate the scare stories the press so craved. Since its publication, RCP8.5 has been behind almost every climate alarm story, as well as being the focus of a completely disproportionate amount of scientific attention.
Which is a problem, because RCP8.5 has long been criticised as being entirely unrealistic. As the science writer Matt Ridley pointed out some years ago, many of its underlying assumptions defy belief. For example, does anyone really think we will see a tenfold increase in coal use over the rest of this century? It is entirely implausible, particularly at a time when the world is awash in new-found supplies of cheap natural gas. But these complaints have fallen on deaf ears, and the environmentalists in the media have continued to make hay out of frightening tales of climate woe.
But that may be about to change. A few days ago, the American researcher Roger Pielke Jr pointed out that the scaremongers’ favourite scenario was already looking a bit silly, with its emissions figure for 2020 already 15% ahead of anything energy pundits expect to happen in reality. On this admittedly somewhat limited evidence, it certainly looked as if a less alarming future might be on the cards.
And then another academic, Justin Ritchie of the University of British Columbia, started analysing the International Energy Agency’s forecasts and found that they were effectively confirming Pielke’s position. In the IEA’s view, with policies already implemented, the future was going to look more like RCP4.5, one of the least scary scenarios. On average, RCP4.5 gives warming of just 1.5 degrees above today’s temperatures, and only 50 cm of sea-level rise.[i] And bear in mind that even these figures may well be overstated. That’s because such predictions are based on the vast (and vastly complicated) computer simulations that climate scientists use, and these seem to err on the side of too much warming. Certainly, they predict more warming than you would expect based on climate history since pre-industrial times.
In essence then, it looks like the science is suggesting we should dial back the alarm. Matt McGrath’s columns and reports should be full of good news stories.
Not that there is a cat’s chance of this happening, either with McGrath or anyone else on the green beat in the mainstream media. There is simply too much money to be made from peddling alarm. Expect RCP8.5 to live on.
[i] 1.8 degrees above a 1996-2005 baseline. See http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf