When researching previous post, I came across the article in the Guardian on James Hansen stating that “Obama had only four years to halt devastating climate change”. When I finished that post, I wondered how many other similar claims (in the form of “number of years/months to save the planet/world”) were there in Guardian articles.
As expected there were more than the one I accidentally bumped into. This post will be about the first article I found, there will be a follow-up post on the others.
That first article that I found is titled “Ten years to save the planet from mankind“, written by Gaby Hinsliff and published on 29 Oct 2006. Its subject is the Stern report that was published a day later (it is striking how the Guardian succeeds to know what is in a report before it is published). It was initially not really clear what the “from mankind” in the title is about.
This is how the report is introduced (my emphasis):
But after tomorrow, many may be asking: what is the point? The economist Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on climate change will paint an apocalyptic picture over 700 pages of where global warming could lead, arguing that, unless we act, it will cost more than two world wars and the Great Depression of the Thirties and render swaths of the planet uninhabitable. Even if the world stopped all pollution tomorrow, the slow-growing effects of carbon already pumped into the atmosphere would mean continued climate change for another 30 years – with sea levels rising for a century.
Basically, it will cost us a shitload of money to rectify the apocalyptic effects and large parts of the world would become inhabitable if we fail. Although it will cost less than doing nothing, the time frame for preventing climate change is rather short (my emphasis):
But given Stern’s verdict that preventing climate change will cost 1 per cent of global GDP – about £184 billion a year – and that it must be done in the next 10 to 15 years, the question is: where will the money come from?
The article is about how to reach that goal and the problems it will pose. So, I guess that “save the planet from mankind” means that we “prevent climate change” (meaning apocalyptic anthropogenic climate change) and erase the effects of our emissions.
I am not sure whether she represented the Stern report correctly. I am not going to dive into that report to see if see was correct, I will now try another approach. I will look at it through the eyes of an unsuspecting Guardian reader who doesn’t check sources and takes the Guardian (or similar) as its only information source on the subject. In that state of mind, I understand that global warming is a horrible thing, that some very learned professors looked into the issue and found we only have 10 to 15 years to prevent it.
Wondering what happened after that 10 – 15 years, I went looking for other articles on that report and, io and behold, there was an article on November 6 of 2016 that evaluated the Stern report after ten years. It is titled “Nicholas Stern: cost of global warming ‘is worse than I feared’” and the subtitle is “Ten years ago the leading economist warned about climate change in a landmark report – he says while there is cause for optimism, the picture is still grim”.
Jeeeeeesh. A grim picture … that is not a good sign.
(Un)surprisingly, the article doesn’t mention the previous 10 – 15 years claim. This Guardian article is based on an interview of Nicolas Stern in the Observer. Stern told that the impacts of global warming are now happening much more quickly than he anticipated (my emphasis):
Since then, global temperatures have risen to record levels. Arctic summer sea ice has continued to shrink, as have many major land-based ice sheets. Carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere in ever-increasing amounts. At the same time, low-lying coastal areas, such as south Florida and parts of Bangladesh, are experiencing more and more flooding as sea levels have risen. Scientists have begun to link extreme weather events to the planet’s changing climate, while animal and plant species are gradualling [sic] moving towards the poles. So, a decade on, is Stern plunged in despair over our prospects? Not quite. While the picture is certainly grim, the world’s top climate economist still believes there are grounds for modest optimism.
“We have been too slow in acting on climate change,” he told the Observer. “In particular, we have delayed the curbing of greenhouse gas emissions for far too long. […]”
As a naive reader and without further fact-checking, I would become very worried reading that kind of stuff. Ten years ago, the situation was dire and we had 10 to 15 years to prevent apocalyptic events. Now ten years later, it seems that impact are worse than originally thought AND we were too slow to act. But then, he says that there are grounds for (modest) optimism?
Then another curious statement when talking about infrastructure (my emphasis):
But the message has taken too long to sink in, and as result we are approaching a crunch point, he argues. In the next 20 years, as economies across the globe expand, the planet is likely to build infrastructure – roads, buildings, ports and airports – that will more than double what already exists.
The crucial issue is the nature of that infrastructure. “If it is dirty and high carbon, it will lock us into that technology for a long time. We will be sentenced to live in cities where we cannot breath or move or be productive. If we do it using sustainable technology, however, we could have an extremely attractive future where you have strong growth, poverty is reduced, cities are cleaner and forests are saved. People have not sufficiently understood the importance of the next 20 years. They are going to be the most decisive two decades in human history.”
Hey, didn’t we have just a 10 to 15 years window to “prevent climate change” as explained in the Guardian in 2006?
If we really only had a 10 to 15 years window to “prevent climate change” and if the impacts are really much worse than before and if we really have been too slow in acting on climate change, then how on Earth is it possible that he looks with optimism, albeit modest optimism, to the next two decades? That is a pretty tame answer for someone who believes that we are running out of time and with the prospect of having to pony up “more than two world wars and the Great Depression of the Thirties” and “swaths of the planet rendered uninhabitable”.
That seems to be a similar reasoning as James Hansen: warning that there was a narrow ten years window to act, yet later had to admit that changing our energy system would be difficult and would take decades. Therefor ignoring his previous claim that we didn’t have that much time left.
The only difference is that Hansen seemed to be somewhat humbled by the situation while Stern even shifts a higher gear and claims that it is in fact worse than he thought back then, despite the fact that his new time frame spans far beyond his original prediction to be able to “prevent climate change”.
Luckily for the Guardian, the public has doom prediction amnesia which allows them to get away with it and keep the alarm alive (while at the same time keeping the hope of solving it).