Doom prediction amnesia

One of the things that became abundantly clear in a previous post is how incredibly easy it is replace past failed predictions by a brand new one, even when incompatible with the failed prediction. There was the example of a Belgian activist who in 2008 claimed that we only had ten year left to avert tipping points by limiting the temperature increase to 2 °C, but in 2018 -when we horribly failed to reach that target- he made a new prediction that we now had another ten years to prevent tipping points by limiting the temperature increase to … 1.5 °C.

In that post, I also noticed the similarity between this prediction and the prediction by Andrew Simms and his onehundredmonths campaign. Both claimed that 2 °C had to be averted otherwise we were in for tipping points, pointed to the authority of the IPCC to justify their claim, both started their campaign roughly at the same time (2008), both had a hard deadline in the near future for this to happen (100 months for Simms, 10 years for Balthazar). The deadlines expired without reaching the goal in both cases and both adopted a new target: limiting to 1.5 °C temperature increase, basically forgetting about their previous claim. Simms learned his lesson and didn’t propose a new deadline anymore. Balthazar apparently wasn’t that smart and adopted another, rather close-by, target date (2030). I wonder what new claim he will make when his current prediction will not materialize (odds are that it will not materialize, because his claim is not substantiated by the report he claims it is based on).

There was another similarity: both had set up a real campaign with quite some sponsors and both campaign websites are not only abandoned, also the domain registrations were not renewed (thebigask-domain got two other, not related, dubious websites going online under that name).

The fact that a campaign website gets abandoned is not big news, it is however interesting to see when it was abandoned. According to the Wayback Machine, the first occurrence of the thebigask website was February 29, 2008. My initial guess would be that it would be abandoned somewhere before the end of the predicted date. This seems not to be the case. The registration of that domain was not renewed somewhere between August 2013 and June 2014. That is roughly half the end date…

A similar story for the onehundredmonths campaign. Before September 2012, Simms wrote updates on the progress over the 100 months. Although he wrote other articles, the last update was the halfway mark written on September 30, 2012. The campaign twitter account had activity until February 4, 2013. That is somewhat over the halfway point…

Was it already clear at the halfway point that the prediction would not be reached?

That a doom prediction is forgotten and a new one is put forward, is nor rare nor new. I recently came across a 2006 prediction of James Hansen claiming we had only a brief time frame to deal with climate change (my emphasis)::

I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change … no longer than a decade, at the most.

Later, in 2009, he even claimed in the Guardian that there were only four years left to halt the devastating climate change, titled President ‘has four years to save Earth’ (my emphasis):

Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. That is the stark assessment of Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen who last week warned only urgent action by the new president could halt the devastating climate change that now threatens Earth. Crucially, that action will have to be taken within Obama’s first administration, he added.

Soaring carbon emissions are already causing ice-cap melting and threaten to trigger global flooding, widespread species loss and major disruptions of weather patterns in the near future. “We cannot afford to put off change any longer,” said Hansen. “We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead.”

Hansen said current carbon levels in the atmosphere were already too high to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Yet the levels are still rising despite all the efforts of politicians and scientists.

Not sure whether Obama set an example in that first term and it can be discussed whether he did it in his second term (by signing the Paris Accord in 2015).

Anyhow, when that deadlines past (and the other deadline came to a close), he softened his claims. From an interview in June 2016 (my emphasis):

And what makes it all the more difficult is the fact that our solutions are going to require changing the energy system, and that requires decades. So it’s a very difficult problem. But that’s what we are faced with and we have got to communicate this to the public.

Apparently we only had a maximum of ten years in 2006, that shortened to just four years in 2009, yet in 2016 Hansen recognized that changing the energy system would be difficult and would take … decades. Okay, I can certainly agree with that, changing our energy system will take many decades, but that statement is very weird following the two previous deadlines that came to an end. Suddenly, some decades more would not be a problem anymore? No mention that this change would come too late, no mention about his two past predictions either.

Such cataclysmic claims are not exclusive for the last decades. There is a lengthy tradition of (failed) doom stories in history. Hansen is only junior-grade compared to for example the notorious Paul Ehrlich. As far as I know he made doom predictions on population, pollution control, on the new ice age and later on global warming (when that became a, ahem, hot topic). If we had to believe all that he claimed back then, I would not have come to adulthood. Yet here I am, not only an adult, but an adult in a world that improved noticeably. Despite being proven wrong, Ehrlich was still believed and people still took him serious when he told yet another doom story.

If we really focused on the facts, then it should be pretty clear that those cataclysmic stories were less bad than expected. If we only have ten years to avert disaster and after that time we get another ten years, then the original prediction was obviously less bad than thought. Yet that is not were we focus on. Doom stories have been part and parcel during the time that I have been on this Earth and I don’t see it diminishing. On the contrary, those claims are broadcasted even faster via the (social) media. We tend to forget what it was that was “worse” in the past and automatically focus on the new “worse” that is currently presented to us. Our doom prediction amnesia leads to those fear mongers getting away with it and even play the trick multiple times conveying the same urgency.


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