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22 July 2017 12:55 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

13 lies about climate change

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

I can’t systematically counter all the hot air emitted by the 40,000 climate party-goers living it up in Paris and the public relations juggernaut that accompanies them. But I can debunk some of the scary stuff that the climate alarmists and popular media are circulating.

Among the messages of rebuke I received over my recent column denouncing the Paris Climate Conference as a waste of time and money, I found an email, helpfully pointing me to 13 devastating photos to show your friend who doesn't believe in climate change. The thing is, that link made me even less likely to believe in catastrophic climate change.

The photographs portray droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, with some melting ice and pollution thrown in for good measure. They imply that these are effects of climate change, and that we can expect more of them.

Yet most of them have little or nothing to do with climate change. They’re just dramatic images, designed to evoke an emotional reaction: fear. I could show you loads of photographs depicting how hunky-dory everything is. They’d all evoke a sense of idyllic bliss and a desire to be on holiday, but none of them would prove anything about the environment either.

The 13 photos appear on one of those click-bait listicles on a website that would be entirely forgettable, if it weren’t for its annoyingly ungrammatical name, “Upworthy”. That might make it seem like I’m a bully homing in on an easy target, but the claims it makes about natural disasters and other supposed effects of climate change are popular tropes, routinely regurgitated by environmentalists, the media, scientists and politicians.

Consider, for example, the regurgitator-in-chief, Barack Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union Address: “But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. … Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods – all are now more frequent and more intense.”

Sorry, Mr Obama. That’s wrong. I’m sure that was fact-checked, just as Upworthy claims to do fastidiously next to every byline, but it’s still wrong.

Like Obama’s line, the 13 photos directly address a claim I made towards the end of that column: “There is also no compelling evidence that extreme weather events like droughts, hurricanes or floods, are any more common or more severe than they have been in the past. Even the UN IPCC agrees.“

The IPCC, of course, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. It is the political body, convened by national governments under the United Nations banner, that seeks to synthesise the published science on climate change, and come up with a sort of narrative of talking points to which various degrees of likelihood are attributed. It claims to represent the mythical 97% of scientists who supposedly believe climate change is real and man-made. (Not to be sexist; women exhale perfectly good carbon dioxide, too, and most countries let them drive cars, nowadays.)

For the record, I don’t dispute any of the basic physics of climate change. I don’t dispute the climate is changing, that we’re presently in a warm period, that future temperatures may rise, or that human activity has an impact on climate. I just don’t believe it’s a crisis that requires urgent and costly action. In getting from raw environmental data to long-term climate forecasts, there’s plenty a slip twixt cup and lip. I believe that the dangers of climate change have been exaggerated – by some scientists, most environmentalists, many politicians and much of the media – for ideological and political ends. Moreover, as I wrote in my previous column, I think the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris is a waste of time and money, because the policy proposals on the table will produce insignificant results at potentially disastrous economic costs, while there are many competing and more urgent demands on our limited resources.

Before we get to the 13 photographs, let’s address the famous “97% of climate scientists agree” claim, since that is the first thing the article raises.

Don’t take my word for it, though — take the 97% of climate scientists’ who believe climate change is not, um, voodoo, but, in fact, a real thing largely caused by us.”

To be fair, the piece does not make the common mistake of saying 97% of scientists agree that climate change is a crisis. It specifies “climate scientists”, and merely says they believe it is “a real thing, caused by us”.

That slogan is a very vague statement that means very little, however. It crops up in several papers over the last decade or so. One such paper draws the 97% consensus claim from a student’s masters thesis, based on a poll with only two trivial questions. An exhaustive debunking of that paper reports that many of the poll participants thought it was “simplistic and biased”.

John Cook, the author of another such paper published in 2013, was quoted in graphic terms about how it was conceived: “We’re basically going with Ari’s p0rno approach (I probably should stop calling it that :-) which is AGW = ‘humans are causing global warming’. Eg – no specific quantification which is the only way we can do it considering the breadth of papers we’re surveying.”

Despite being described by its own author as porno, the 97% trope is commonly quoted even in respected circles. Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, a major centre that maintains one of the world’s three major temperature records, commented that the Cook paper simplistically divided scientists into “believers” and “non-believers”. He was scathing: “The ‘97% consensus’ article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it.”

Scientists’ positions on climate change are not a binary for-or-against, and mostly, they don’t differ on the basic science. The disagreements are about how much climate change is predicted for the future, what impacts it will have, and what, if anything, ought to be done about it. Not everyone agrees climate change is a grave crisis that requires urgent action.

In fact, many scientists disagree, and have been outspoken in saying so. In the US, over 30,000 scientists, including 9,000 with Ph.D. degrees, signed a petition, reading in part: “...proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate.”

The mere 2,500 scientists the IPCC claims to represent pales by comparison. Now it is true – as stated on a website that doth protest too much – that many of these dissenting scientists are not climate scientists. But then, climate scientists probably do not select their field of study because they believe everything is just fine. They’re a self-selected group that is naturally biased towards believing that climate change is a very important issue. For them, public dissent is a career-threatening move.

But even climate scientists are hardly unanimous. A recent survey found that only 55% of climate scientist actually agree with the IPCC position, which is that there is a 95% likelihood that human activity caused more than half of all the warming since 1951. Some 29% give that statement a lower likelihood than the IPCC does, and 15% don’t believe the statement at all. Far lower than 97% though this level of “consensus” is, there is reason to believe that it could be overstated.

A 2008 survey by Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch (behind a registration wall) found varying opinions among climate scientists, including low confidence about the ability of computer models to deal with key issues such as cloud formation and precipitation. It finds that climate scientists consider comments about climate change made by environmental activist groups to be generally somewhat inaccurate. It also shows that most climate scientists do not agree with those who present extreme accounts of catastrophic impacts related to climate change in a popular format, claiming that it is their task to alert the public, yet these are exactly the scientists most likely to be quoted by journalists.

Many climate scientists believe that climate change is real, and that human activity contributes significantly to it. But the “97% consensus” claim is, like most things about climate change, grossly exaggerated.

In this light, let’s examine the “13 devastating photographs” that are supposed to convince us that climate change is a looming catastrophe. I’ll link each one back to the specific photograph in question.

1. A critical water shortage in Lodwar, Kenya, is no joke. East Africa has been hit hard by a critical shortage of water, which climate change has only exacerbated. We'll be seeing a lot more droughts, like this one in 2009, due to rising global temperatures.”

The 2009 drought is over. However, a new drought has begun in the region. Both were caused not by global warming, but by El Niño, which is a multi-year cyclical climate phenomenon. Droughts in this region routinely lead to migration and starvation. The impact of droughts here is severe, because the population is poor and pastoral, with little access to infrastructure. For example, although two huge aquifers have been discovered below the drought-striken region, and those aquifers are sufficient to supply not only the region, but all of Kenya with reliable water, there are not enough wells to access them. Charities are trying to install free solar-powered wells, but their efforts fall woefully short of what is needed. The effects of droughts have been prolonged and exacerbated by human inaction. According to Oxfam, warning signs many months in advance were ignored, and the response was insufficient until it was too late.

So, in Kenya, we have a drought that is connected to an ordinary, recurring climate phenomenon, with severe consequences because of a lack of economic and infrastructure development, exacerbated by inadequate government response. No, it’s no joke. But it’s not climate change, either.

It is true that some projections claim there will be an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts in future as a result of climate change. Until the future happens, we cannot know whether those projections will hold up to empirical evidence.

We can, however, evaluate papers about the recent past against reality. Three researchers did this with two major papers, the authors of which include famous climate modellers such as Keith Briffa, Phil Jones and Kevin Trenberth, and both of which claimed that there has been a general increase in droughts since the 1970s.

But these giants of global warming orthodoxy used a drought severity model that turned out to be much too simple. In a letter published in the respected journal Nature, the researchers say: “Here we show that the previously reported increase in global drought is overestimated because the [Palmer Drought Severity Index] uses a simplified model of potential evaporation that responds only to changes in temperature and thus responds incorrectly to global warming in recent decades. More realistic calculations, based on the underlying physical principles that take into account changes in available energy, humidity and wind speed, suggest that there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.”

What a novel idea! Base a model on the actual physics of a thing! Perhaps someone should patent that.

Indeed, the IPCC itself has dialled back its claims about drought frequency in its latest Assessment Report, AR5: In summary, the current assessment concludes that there is not enough evidence at present to suggest more than low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century... Based on updated studies, AR4 conclusions regarding global increasing trends in drought since the 1970s were probably overstated.”

2. The Passu Glacier in Pakistan is disappearing. Quickly. This photo, taken in September 2015, shows a shrinking Passu Glacier in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. It's melting, and fast. Thanks, climate change.”

Yes, it is melting; or at least, it was melting, for a while, until recently, as far as we know. Between 1992 and 2008 it lost 3.28 km2 of its 47.63 km2 area. That represents an annual retreat of 0.45%, or 0.2 km2. Sixteen years is an awfully short time to be drawing averages from, but if this rate of retreat were to be sustained, the Passu Glacier would survive more than 200 years.

That’s not to say that climate change, with humanity’s probable contribution to it, isn’t having an effect. However, this effect is considerably exaggerated. Glaciers are not retreating only because of our greenhouse gas emissions, most of which we produced since 1950.

We’re in what is called an “inter-glacial” period. That is, we’re not in an ice age, but in the warm period between two ice ages. Ice ages come just over 100,000 years apart, and each of the previous inter-glacials peaked a degree or two warmer than we’ve had to date. Glacier retreat during an inter-glacial period is to be expected, especially at altitudes below 3,000m and latitudes of only 36°28'N, which is where Passu Glacier lies.

Besides being in an inter-glacial period over the long term, we’ve been emerging from what is known as the Little Ice Age since the 17th century. One glacier system that has been observed for rather longer than 16 years is Glacier Bay, in Alaska. A map of Glacier Bay by the US Geological Service shows that the vast majority of that system’s retreat occurred in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, well before carbon dioxide from human activity began to feature as a significant factor in climate change in the 1950s.

A more egregious version of the deception this photo attempts, is to visit glaciers or ice shelves during the spring thaw, and photograph them calving. This provides spectacular footage for the media, but it happens every year. Yet even seasonal changes are routinely exploited to illustrate climate change, as the Guardian does here.

3. Bedono, Indonesia, is no stranger to massive flooding... These floodwaters in Bedono, Indonesia, in 2013 were no laughing matter. Just like we can expect more droughts, we can also expect more flooding due to a warming planet.

4. ...Neither is Somerset, United Kingdom... This flood from 2014 in England wiped out an outrageous amount of farmland. In general, climate change means wet places will get wetter, and dry places get drier. (In both cases, not good.)

5. ...Or Fischbeck, Germany. OK, last flood photo (I swear). But doesn't this one truly show how big of a deal this is? It was taken back in 2013. You can imagine how dangerous these flood were — to both the region's wildlife and people.”

Like droughts, floods are events that occur with varying frequency and severity. In some places, like Bangladesh, they’re getting worse, but that is not true universally. For every modern anecdotal example of a severe flood, one can find historical examples of far, far worse. Perhaps the iconic case in modern Western history is the North Sea Floods of 1953, in which much of the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK was inundated, when a spring tide combined with a high storm surge caused widespread inundation by seawater. More than 2,000 deaths were recorded in Belgium, England, Scotland, and primarily the Netherlands. If it weren’t for existing sea defences, millions more people would have been at risk. This terrifying flood, widely covered on early television broadcasts, led to the construction of the massive Delta Works flood defences in the Netherlands, as well as the Thames Flood Barrier in England.

Wikipedia’s list of deadliest floods is remarkable for the absence of modern floods. The first case more recent than1980 is a mudslide in Venezuela in 1999, ranked 16th. At number 31, you’ll find the 2013 floods in northern India. Severe and deadly floods are nothing new.

Again, the IPCC gives us a consensus view: “the evidence for climate driven changes in river floods is not compelling,” it says in AR5. “[T]here continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confdence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale.”

They don’t even know whether the trend is up or down, if there is a trend at all. Dramatic photographs of floods are not evidence that floods are getting worse, let alone proof that climate change has any impact on them.

6. Brush fires, like this one in Lake Hughes, California, will be getting more and more common. This photo, taken in 2013 in Southern California, hits particularly close to home. Forest fires — a symptom of climate change that will only get worse with rising temperatures (remember when I mentioned dry places getting drier?) — remain a serious concern in the Golden State.”

If droughts are not a symptom of climate change, it would seem unlikely that wildfires are. But are they getting more common?

Guess what? You’ve been lied to. Although there have been some large fires in recent years, the longer-term trend is downwards.

Consider a chart of biomass burning in the western USA – the subject of the “devastating photograph” in question – for the last 3,000 years. You’ll notice that the present day represents the lowest point ever.

The study from which this chart is taken complains that fires are too uncommon for the liking of conservation scientists: “Since the late 1800s, human activities and the ecological effects of recent high fire activity caused a large, abrupt decline in burning... Consequently, there is now a forest ‘fire deficit’ in the western United States attributable to the combined effects of human activities, ecological, and climate changes. Large fires in the late 20th and 21st century fires have begun to address the fire deficit, but it is continuing to grow.”

Scientists believe more wildfires would be a good thing for the environment. That sucks if you build your house in forested areas, obviously, but one picture of a large fire does not imply we’re facing an imminent climate-related apocalypse.

7. And polluted air, seen here in Wuhan, China, will make Earth warmer while hurting our health. This, ladies and gentlemen, is air pollution, captured in 2009 in Wuhan. Our addiction to burning fossil fuels doesn't just contribute to the planet's warming — it's downright terrible for our health. (I would not want to be a pair of lungs in that city.)”

This is perhaps the most egregious picture of the lot. First, it conflates greenhouse gas emissions with air pollutants, when they are not the same thing at all. For example, natural gas is a fossil fuel, but burning it produces almost none of the pollutants that burning coal does. The only thing it does produce, albeit at a much lower level than coal, is carbon dioxide, which is invisible and not at all a health hazard.

Second, and more importantly, particulate pollution such as that seen in the photograph does not make the Earth warmer. At least, not all of it does. Soot, when it settles on snow or ice, does so, and some carbon aerosols also cause warming, but most airborne particulates shield or reflect incoming solar radiation, so that the average effect is cooling of the surface and lower atmosphere. In fact, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration claims an increase in aerosols, caused by emissions of sulfur compounts, has offset more than a third of the global warming induced by carbon dioxide since the year 2000 (although it couldn’t explain what changed to cause that increase at such a convenient time).

Particulate matter caused the cooling trend in global temperatures between 1940 and 1970, which led to widespread fears of a pending ice age. The alarmists at the time included such luminaries as Barack Obama’s top science advisor, John Holdren and Population Bomb author, Paul Ehrlich. (The pair also proposed astonishingly extreme measures to limit population growth, should environmental circumstances demand it.)

Pollution in China is a serious consequence of its extraordinary success at pulling its peasants out of extreme poverty. As the Economist explains: “China pulled 680m people out of misery in 1981-2010, and reduced its extreme-poverty rate from 84% in 1980 to 10% now.”

But the Chinese authorities are perfectly well aware of the pollution problem, and are determined to address it. Fighting pollution may have the side-effect of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but if pollution reduction was all it took, the developed world wouldn’t be worried about contributing to climate change today.

8. Isn’t Greenland gorgeous? But wait ... there’s a catch. Whoa, the glacial ice sheet of Greenland is freaking gorgeous. Unfortunately (I hate to be Debbie Downer, but), that beautiful blue streak you see there? It’s melted water. And that’s not a good sign for coastal cities around the world, seeing as melting ice means rising sea levels.”

A recent fear, fanned by an exceptionally warm summer in 2012, is that the Greenland ice sheet is melting at a rapid clip. But is that fear justified? It is also said that if all of Greenland were to melt, sea levels would rise by more than 7m, which is indeed an alarming prospect. But how likely would that be?

For answers, I went to the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI), since Greenland is part of Denmark. This 130-year-old organisation has live maps on its website, showing where exactly Greenland is melting or freezing on any given day. It refers to the “mass balance”, which measures not only surface melting, but the entire ice sheet. As you can see from the maps, for the base period of 1990 to 2013, all of the ice sheet is stable or growing in mass. While ice mass for the hot year of 2011/12 ran slightly below the 1990-2013 baseline, the most recent two years have for the most part been slightly higher.

There is one caveat, however. As the DMI reports: “Over the year, it snows more than it melts, but calving of icebergs also adds to the total mass budget of the ice sheet. Satellite observations over the last decade show that the ice sheet is not in balance. The calving loss is greater than the gain from surface mass balance, and Greenland is losing mass at about 200 Gt/yr [over the last decade].”

That’s bad news, right? Well, not so much. Greenland’s ice cover is between 3,000m and 4,000m thick. That’s as high above the bedrock as the highest mountain in South Africa is above the sea. If this immensely thick ice sheet continues to lose mass at this rate in perpetuity, it would take 14,500 years for the entire thing to melt. During that time, sea levels would rise by 0.5mm per year as a consequence. I’m willing to bet that we’ll be able to cope with such gradual sea level rise over such a long period.

But we may not have to. A study of the previous inter-glacial period, known as the Eamian, shows that Greenland was considerably warmer than today for several thousand years, and while it did lose a significant amount of its ice, this did not cause the entire ice cap to melt rapidly, as NASA’s chief alarmist, James Hansen, seems to fear.

Yes, Greenland is gorgeous. And it will stay that way for a long time to come. It will not be the cause of our imminent demise.

9. That big red blob in the Gulf Coast? Yeah, not good. This satellite image of the Gulf Coast from 2008 captures Hurricane Gustav. It/he was a Category 3 storm that tore through Louisiana and endangered thousands. Climate change means more severe storms, just like this guy.”

Every time a major storm strikes land somewhere, especially on a coast where rich people live, it gets blamed on global warming. And tropical cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes bound to become more frequent and more severe, they say. (Did you know the exact same phenomenon is called a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, a cyclone in the Indian Ocean, and a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean?

But are there more of these storms as a result of climate change? The IPCC, in its AR5, makes it quite clear: “Current data sets indicate no signifcant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century.”

The phrase “more severe storms” can be interpreted in two ways: more storms that are severe, or storms that are more severe. If we use the second interpretation, our listicle may be on slightly firmer ground.

n the satellite era, which began in the 1970s, there is evidence of an increase in the intensity of the strongest storms in the Atlantic. Total wind energy measures also show an upward trend in the North Atlantic and western North Pacific since the 1970s. However, AR5 declares that there is limited evidence for other regions and the globe (where storm intensity may well have decreased), and it is impossible to draw longer-term trends to determine whether this is just a short-term anomaly.

In a 2012 special report by the IPCC, entitled Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, the organization declares: “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.”

And elsewhere: “The absence of trends in impacts attributable to natural or anthropogenic climate change holds for tropical and extratropical storms and tornados.”

Many reports that claim hurricanes are getting more severe focus on insured losses. There’s an obvious reason why losses might increase, even if storms are not getting worse, however: the world is getting richer, and more people live in areas vulnerable to storms. Again, the IPCC repeatedly confirms that long-term trends in losses caused by storms have not been attributed to either man-made or natural climate change.

Storms are scary, and improving our defences against them is necessary. Witness the relatively low number of injuries and deaths when a storm hits a developed country like the US, as contrasted with storms striking less developed countries. However scary, though, storms are not evidence of catastrophic climate change.

10. Vincennes Bay, Antarctica, is getting warmer (and wetter). This image, taken in Antarctica in 2008, is beautiful ... but also sad. Similar to what’s happening in Greenland, the ice near Earth's poles is melting. And Vincennes Bay is no exception.”

Our next stop is another beautiful but chilly place that is, apparently, under threat. This time, it’s Antarctica, home of the other huge land-bound ice mass that could in theory (and unlike the Arctic) cause sea level to rise by a tremendous 57m, should it melt.

Vincennes Bay is in Wilkes’ Land, south of Australia, and host to that country’s Casey research station. From satellite photographs, it is evident that several glaciers mouth into the bay. Since glaciers are essentially slow-moving rivers of ice that constantly calve at their sea-facing end, it is entirely unsurprising to see broken sea ice in Vincennes Bay. There’s nothing sad about it at all.

So if the “devastating photograph” proves nothing, is there any sign that it will, or even is, melting? Unlike the Arctic, which has been seeing some recent melting, the Antarctic has been pretty stable. Mass-balance estimates show it to be losing between 18 and 124 Gt per year. Assuming the average, that’s about a third of what Greenland is losing, despite being eight times as big. At this rate, it will melt in 326,760 years.

In short, the ice loss is negligible, and recent research has lowered the projections for future ice sheet mass loss even further, should temperatures continue to rise.

Sea ice extent has been measured for much longer than mass. In the southern hemisphere, satellite measurements show the sea ice area has been fairly consistently rising since 1979. But as you have undoubtedly heard, they also show that Arctic sea ice extent has been decreasing.

On 14 December 2009, at the COP15 climate conference, Al Gore famously said that there is a 75% change that the Arctic might be ice-free within five to seven years. He was far from the only one making predictions of an ice-free Arctic, over the years. One of the more notable is a paper dating to 1969, which claims the North Pole may be an open sea within a decade or two. Nature has rather embarrassed the prophets of doom, however. The recent trend-line only appears to have flattened, and Arctic sea ice area hasn’t come anywhere near zero.

One very inconvenient chart that has disappeared from the media comes from the very first IPCC report, back in 1990. It shows that the satellite era does not date back to 1979, as one might think, given the modern Arctic sea ice extent charts. It actually goes back to 1971/2. And this chart is very revealing. It shows a minimum sea ice anomaly around 1974, and a maximum around 1979. That means that the IPCC charts showing a downward trend since 1979, which are all we see nowadays, start from a cherry-picked maximum. If the linear trend was drawn from the date records started, it would not be negative. Steve Goddard documented the Arctic ice scam here and here.

Another inconvenient chart that I have never seen in the media, let alone an Al Gore presentation, is the global sea ice area since 1979 and the anomaly from the long-term mean. It varies with the seasons, of course, but is otherwise as regular as a heartbeat.

They’re lying to you about the ice caps. They aren’t melting at anywhere the rate they’d like you to believe.

11. And Tehuacán, Mexico, is getting hotter (and drier). A water hole in Tehuacán has definitely seen better days. The region, captured here in 2006, has been drastically affected by climate change, suffering from long, dire water shortages.”

This is a water hole in a desert region. Deserts are supposed to be dry. What a water hole looks like also depends strongly on the season, so a single photograph is evidence of exactly nothing.

If you actually look into the Tehuacán story, which is suffering the “worst drought in decades” – meaning it is not an unheard-of phenomenon – you’ll find that there are many reasons why it might be suffering water shortages. These include lack of modern water distribution infrastructure, uncompleted water treatment plants that cause sewerage to contaminate downstream water resources, growing urban populations, dependence on water-intensive maize farming, and widespread, long-term pollution from industrial activities such as textile treatment plants and chicken farms.

Remember the Nature study that found, “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.” Water shortages in Tehuacán, like that in Kenya, are unsurprising phenomena, triggered by weather, but turned critical by poverty, inadequate infrastructure and bad governance. Attributing it to human impact on the climate is nothing but speculative propaganda.

12. Coastlines, like this one in Shishmaref, Alaska, are literally falling into the sea. This is Alaska in 2006. Rising temperatures have resulted in less sea ice and thawing of coastline permafrost, which, in turn, means more erosion. And more erosion means beach communities can end up looking like this.”

This is obviously an old ruin, and the wood appears completely rotten. It is unclear whether the sand underneath it subsided, the coastline was eroded by the sea, or the support piles gave way, so it isn’t even possible to conclude a cause for the collapse, from this photograph, but so close to the beach, all of them are possible.

A few thousand years ago, someone mildly famous said, “... [A] wise man ... built his house upon the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. … [A] foolish man ... built his house upon the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Even such obvious wisdom appears not to have penetrated to whoever built this structure.

But let’s agree that as climate changes, over millennia, centuries and decades, some of us may have to adapt. We may have to move away from floodlines, marshlands and bogs, low-lying areas and coasts. If we don’t, we may have to, as the Netherlands has famously done, build flood defences. And if we persist in building shacks on the beach, we should probably anticipate their eventual fall.

13. And Marree, Australia, is one hot place. Australia — already a pretty warm place — is getting hotter because of climate change. This photo, taken of the outback in 2005, shows what increasingly hot temperatures are doing to landscapes Down Under.”

Yeah, sure. The Sahara is hot too. And Siberia is cold. So what?

You might recall the story, 20 years ago, that the Sahara was marching southwards, and the Sahel was turning into desert. The source was a 1995 UN Food and Agricultural Organisation report. It said that the desert was advancing southwards by 5km per year, that Africa would be able to feed only 55% of its population by the year 2000 and 40% by 2025, and that Nigeria’s population would explode to 338 million by 2050, which would be 123 million above what they call its “carrying capacity”.

As I wrote last year, none of these predictions came true. Hunger has decreased, and Nigeria’s population is nowhere near the predicted numbers. Most importantly, south of the Sahara, the Sahel has become greener. In fact, that is true for much of the planet. On average, the world is getting greener.

So sure, you can take a picture in a desert, somewhere, but it does not “show what increasingly hot temperatures are doing to landscapes”. It’s just a picture of a desert. It’s hot and dry in deserts, just like it’s always been.


My super-sophisticated patent-pending bullshit detector rates the “13 devastating photos” story a nine out of ten. The reason it doesn’t achieve a perfect bullshit score is because it makes long-term speculative predictions that are within the realm of possibility, even if they cannot really be proven or disproven.

Even that point is generous, since predictions about climate change have a terrible record. There is now an entire website dedicated to the more extreme pronouncements of the climate change industry. How many tipping points and last chances have we had now? Lots. And we’ll have lots more. Yet the world will not end in catastrophe.

Sensationalist fear-mongering like this, pervasive though it is, does not make the predictions of climate doom any more believable. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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