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Telling children they don’t have a future is child abuse

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.

The extremist rhetoric of the Extinction Rebellion movement is quite divorced from factual evidence, science and reason. By telling children that they have no future, they’re guilty of child abuse, and it has a body count: today’s youth is the most depressed and suicidal generation ever.

Imagine going to school one day, and instead of being asked what you want to be when you grow up, you are asked what you’re going to do if you grow up.

That they might not have a future at all, and certainly not a “normal” one like their parents had, was the message of Extinction Rebellion activist Rupert Read, speaking to “a huge audience of schoolchildren at the Green Schools project”, during the Schools Climate Conference held at University College, London, earlier this year.

Ever since the hippie movement of the 1960s, every generation has produced its rebels, clamouring to overthrow the establishment and fighting for environmental and other social justice causes. Every generation has good cause: they see pollution, corruption, war, poverty and hunger, as well as a conservative, complacent society, and they want something to be done about it.

That this generation lives in the most peaceful, prosperous, and generally awesome era in human history makes no difference to the malcontents. That environmental performance and sustainability is correlated with prosperity and economic freedom has not crossed their minds. They want change, even if they cannot explain exactly why.

To keep the fires of naïve idealism burning (and the donations streaming in), environmental campaigns have to keep ratcheting up the rhetoric. The exaggeration keeps getting more extreme and further divorced from factual evidence, science and reason.

These days, Extinction Rebellion activists are telling children they should take up torches and pitchforks against their elders because they don’t have a future. And that, frankly, is psychological child abuse.

Inculcating feelings of despair, anger and helplessness are not conducive to good mental health. Study after study after study finds alarming increases in suicide rates among all age groups in the US, but particularly among “Generation Z”, the eldest of which are now 22. There are many proximate causes, but being told they have no future because their parents ruined the planet can’t possibly help. And it isn’t even true.

Luckily, the suicide rate in South Africa does not show a significant increase in the 21st century. Suicide rates among men and boys in 2016 were higher than in 2000, but that among women and girls was lower, leaving the overall rate steady. But that may not last if environmental activists keep scaring people with exaggerated narratives of catastrophe and doom.

Extinction Rebellion activists have been getting space in these pages. Geoff Davies, a retired Anglican bishop and environmental activist who idolises Greta Thunberg and believes we need neither economic growth nor capitalism, exhorts us to join the Extinction Rebellion because “our very survival, and that of our children, requires it!”

Similarly apocalyptic rhetoric permeates media reporting on climate change and environmental challenges.

Another “environmental justice” activist, Ferrial Adam, wrote about a handful of scientists (some 400) that endorsed the Extinction Rebellion, under imagery that strongly suggests the movement has science on its side.

I’m a strong believer in science, and it offends me to see science abused for such extremist purposes. Even if the movement did have science on its side, it is pretty cruel to construct worst-case scenarios and tell children that they might not grow up. But it doesn’t have science on its side.

Witness this response to a longer version of Rupert Read’s talk, from an actual climate scientist:

She continues: “I thought @ExtinctionR had grown out of this ‘many people in the UK will die very soon’ phase. I thought you wanted to be supported by evidence, and if quoting speculation about worst-worst-worst-worst case scenarios from 2-3 people, to be very clear this is not a mainstream view.”

Dr Tamsin Edwards, according to her faculty page at King’s College, London, is a climate scientist specialising in quantifying the uncertainties of climate model predictions, particularly for the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheet contributions to sea-level rise.

Although she is no sceptic, her blog is called All Models Are Wrong, which in a way (though probably not the way she intended) echoes my own view on climate science.

She is, her bio says, a lead author of the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, to be published in 2021, and a contributing author to the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate published in 2019. She is eminently better qualified to opine about climate change than me, Rupert Read, Ferrial Adams, Geoff Davis, and especially the 16-year-old Greta Thunberg.

Posts of hers particularly worth reading, for climate alarmists and climate sceptics alike, are Polar thinking, and The future will be both better and worse than we imagine.

Let’s consider some of the claims of Rupert Read and the Extinction Rebellion.

Read says that because of a heatwave in the summer of 2018, “many crops in this country, their yields were down by about a third… sooner or later you reach a point where there just isn’t enough food”.

By “heatwave”, he means a combination of a long and very cold winter, an unusually wet spring that delayed planting, and a summer heat wave. Strike one.

Although yields in the UK for 2018 did decline for many crops, none of the declines got anywhere near a third. There were some yield increases, notably maize with 12%, and most of the rest declined by single-digit percentages. Strike two.

Of course, variation in crop yields is not at all unusual. Some years, yields go up, other years, they go down.

And would you know it, the yield declines of 2018 were more than made up for by a bumper 2019 harvest. All major cereal crops increased their yield by 15% to 25%, some to record levels for this century. Strike three.

Worldwide, crop yields continue to increase and show no sign of decreases as a result of climate change.

Read says if plans to expand airports in the UK go ahead, “there is just absolutely no way we can meet our targets under the international climate agreements and if we don’t meet those targets then our weather is gonna carry on spinning out of control and we’re gonna have more heatwaves and they’re getting worse and it’s gonna go on and on”.

First, although it stands to reason that heatwaves will be more frequent in a warming climate, a 2015 study of 74 million deaths across 13 countries published in The Lancet found that cold weather claims 17 times more lives than hot weather, and almost 90% of temperature-related deaths occurred not at extreme hot or cold temperatures, but in milder non-optimum weather.

Second, the contribution of aviation to total anthropogenic warming attributed to fossil fuels was 0.8% in the year 2000. Under a climate trajectory in line with 2°C warming by 2100 and assuming the least ambitious mitigation strategy proposed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the contribution of aviation to total fossil fuel emissions will be between 1.4% and 2%.

A few extra runways at UK airports will make no meaningful difference to the climate, and certainly will not cause weather to “carry on spinning out of control”.

Read and the Extinction Rebellion make much of, you guessed it, the “sixth mass extinction”: “Many current life forms will be extinct by the end of this century,” they say.

I’ve debunked alarmist claims about the so-called sixth extinction before. It is true that humanity has had an impact on the extinction rate, and that it is probably substantially higher than the long-term background rate at present. However, even sixth extinction activists offer an incredibly large range of possible extinction rates: between 0.01% and 1% per decade. Ergo, they don’t know. At the lower end of that range, and implausibly assuming we do nothing about it, we would have lost less than 0.1% of species by 2100, and it would take 70,000 years before we lost half the planet’s species.

Perhaps their definition of “many” is different from mine.

The Extinction Rebellion activists make much of the WWF’s Living Planet Reports. This is the same organisation that in 1980 wrote: “We are losing one more animal, plant or insect species every 10 minutes. Approximately one million different species will be gone by the year 2000.”

That never happened. Not by a long shot. In fact, only 10 extinctions were documented between 1980 and 2000. Extrapolated to the estimated total species on earth, that translates to 36 extinctions.

I have on several occasions debunked the Living Planet Report numbers as statistical tomfoolery based on dubious data. And ecologists agree with me, as seen here and here.

Extinction Rebellion quotes the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on the “biodiversity crisis”, without acknowledging that the report’s conclusions were little more than an educated guess, and that it also shows how to make biodiversity great again.

They talk about an “insect die-off”, without mentioning that the study that came to that conclusion was “alarmist by bad design”. It was junk science, its conclusions unsubstantiated. Reaching any conclusions about the fate of insects will require more research, which to date has not been done.

It seems, then, that Extinction Rebellion is prone to cherry-picking worst-case-scenario claims, or make things up as they go along.

The BBC’s Andrew Neil is one of the few journalists who took the time, and did the research, to challenge the claims of the Extinction Rebellion, including that billions of people will die, children will die within two decades, and that not flying would make a difference. One almost feels sorry for poor Zion Light in this interview:

Rupert Read said we’re on the way to the collapse of our civilisation and there not being enough food on the table. All the facts contradict him, and so do the climate change assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He claims that until recently, not enough was being done, but now, the Greta Thunberg-inspired school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion have stepped up to the plate. Besides being rather self-aggrandising, this is hardly a comforting thought if they can’t even get basic facts right.

Perhaps one can forgive Thunberg her ignorance, given that she is a privileged 16-year-old from an extremely rich country, capable of borrowing racing yachts from Monaco royalty and Teslas from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Read is an academic north of 50 years of age, albeit a contributing author to the Nicholas Taleb anti-GMO paper I critiqued in a previous column. He should know better, but perhaps readers of philosophy know less about the real world than they like to think.

Among the Extinction Rebellion’s ten core principles is that they avoid “blaming and shaming”: “We live in a toxic system,” they say, “but no one individual is to blame.”

Yet just the other day, Extinction Rebellion protesters ganged up on delegates at Africa Oil Week in Cape Town, calling them “climate criminals”. Clearly, their principles are as fluid as their facts.

Seven of those protesters, incidentally, dressed in red and went by the moniker “Red Brigade”, in ominous homage to the murderous 1970s far-left terrorist organisation in Italy.

What’s lacking from Extinction Rebellion’s principles is any commitment to hew to evidence-based science. They seem quite happy to spout the most extreme falsehoods and exaggerations in pursuit of their goal, even going so far as telling innocent children they’re going to die. They’re guilty of nothing less than child cruelty and psychological abuse.

Policymakers should treat Extinction Rebellion protests with the contempt they deserve. DM