Climate and Food: Bad Enough Without Exaggeration

A number of readers asked me to comment on the recent Argentine report that predicts disaster for world food supplies based on Climate Change in the near term. I hadn't done so because I was honestly puzzled by the report, which got a lot of attention, and raised awareness of climate food issues, but seemed to be predicting a much greater degree of near-term warning than is likely, barring extreme climate forcings. I was a little surprised to see such a comparatively obscure report get so much attention, when in fact, more reputable analyses have been largely ignored.

I'm grateful then that my colleage James Hrynyshyn at Class:M did a good job of going over the difficulties with the climate analysis and why this report probably shouldn't get the kind of attention it did:

Basically, what we have here is a small, previously unknown NGO in Argentina releasing a report that warns of serious threats to the global food supply if climate change continues apace. The only thing that made this report particularly interesting -- and therefore newsworthy -- was the alleged fact that the warming expected by 2020 is 2.4 °C above pre-industrial levels. Which is crazy talk, as any climatologist would have pointed out had the authors of the study bothered to ask.

This little piece of nonsense means the entire report's fundamental conclusions are highly suspect, and should have consigned it to the dust bins of history. But the mainstream media being what it is, journalists who don't even know the very simplest of the basics about climatology were assigned the task of covering of the report's release. Even the AAAS cranked out a non-critical release, although it was subsequently retracted. Worse, Scientific American bought the story, and continued to get the facts wrong even after the problem was brought to the editors' attention. The Guardian runs down the whole sordid tale.

How easy was it to tell that the report's nightmarish scenario is bonkers? Well, given that the world has warmed about 0.8 °C since the start of the industrial revolution a couple of centuries back, the idea that it would warm twice as much in just 9 years doesn't pass even the most liberal of smell tests. The report's authors came up with that number by confusing -- or conflating as academics like to say -- two different ways to measure carbon-dioxide equivalency. There's a Real Climate post from three years back that explains the science, the basic upshot of which is, you need to take into account the warming and cooling effects of all fossil-fuel emissions, not just those that increase warming, to get an idea of just how all the different outputs will effect the climate. This the Argentinians did not do.

The thing is the food situation is serious enough that it doesn't require the slightest bit of exaggeration. The 2008 food crisis emerged in a period of record world food production, and we know that any strain on the food system is likely to push us back into disaster. We don't need to go beyond mainstream reports to know that the implication of climate change for food is potentially disastrous. If you aren't worried about the world food picture in the coming decades, frankly, you are taking drugs or dumb as a rock - there's absolutely no need to exaggerate.


More like this

..than is likely, barring extreme climate forcings.

And the rationale for "barring extreme climate forcings" is what?

I have to wonder what Hrynyshyn's & your motives are for downplaying the likelihood of climatic warming to a degree that while extreme, is well within the bounds of possibility, Sharon. Has Seed Media told its paid bloggers to tone down the message, on behalf of their advertisers?

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 25 Jan 2011 #permalink

DD, kiss my ass.

The point, which you are perfectly capable of grasping without my explanation if you want to. is that such climate forcings occurring in the next 9 years are statistically extremely unlikely, and the paper implied that they were likely, using unlikely data as correct data. Sure, it could happen - but if you are going to use extreme data, you need to make a case for it - you won't find that case in the paper.

Moreover, bad data gets jumped on hard by people who want to avoid doing anything about climate change. I don't think it is all that hard to figure out why someone who actually wants to see climate change addressed would want to use good data.


I dunno Sharon, when I see Shell Oil ads at the top or top right of your blog page, I have to question your corporate employer's motives. For the message to be corrupted by the very medium that conveys it is virtually inevitable. But anyway, thanks for these concessions:

..that such climate forcings occurring in the next 9 years are statistically extremely unlikely.. Sure, it could happen..

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 25 Jan 2011 #permalink

If BigScienceblogs was trying to censor the message, they would not allow it to appear at all; they wouldn't print it in full and then have their bloggers say "it's potentially statistically possible but really unlikely." That's very inefficient messaging from the evil overlords.

A global average temperature increase of 2C in less than 10 years is a caricature of reckless doomsaying. "It could happen, technically, hypothetically" doesn't say much for an argument, and says less for the arguer; it puts us into the territory of discussing catastrophic asteroid impacts, where even the people who care don't care.

Let's not go back and sanitize things, DD - you didn't primarily impugn the integrity of SEED, but of me, implying that I would change what I write because of their pressure. That was an insult, and you know that perfectly well. The good thing is that the editorial policy of this blog is that you can say any insulting thing you want about me - which you know - and not get censored or edited in any way, the way you would if you said it about another reader. I hope this provides needed relief from stress in your life and makes you feel happier and more relaxed.

The part that bothers me isn't the implication that I'm a whore with no integrity, but the part that implies I'm a cheap, skanky whore, willing to sell myself for the minute hundredth of a cent of Shell's money that actually comes my way - seven months after I write the post. But as I said, go at it.

I find it interesting, though, that your argument would be "well, it is conceivable that through a wrong methodology and outright error these people might be, by sheer coincidence, right about the outcomes, so we should definitely prioritize this paper over papers that are just as scary but use good data." Seems a little weird to me, but hey.


DD, you get the Shell Oil Banner ad because YOU search for such things and the COOKIE tells the advertiser what to post on the ad that is directed to YOU. This cookie reports and the program then thinks you might be interested in buying some gas or oil. Me, I'm a 53 yr old man and I get an ad (that is up right now) for American Girl dolls. Really, this is because I sell such things, I don't play with them (much).It's the same with you and Shell.

You don't seem to be a thorough thinker and I feel it would be wise for you to give that problem some attention.

Sharon, you are exactly right. Bad science needs to be exposed, especially if it SUPPORTS our general opinion. Bad studies fuel the opposition, and rightfully so. Good work!

By Tom Fitzsimmons (not verified) on 25 Jan 2011 #permalink

DD, you get the Shell Oil Banner ad because YOU search for such things..

What are you talking about Tom? I don't search for any ads, nor do I click on them to enlarge them, or pay any attention to them. I can't help seeing them, however. Diverting the attention of readers to the ads is the sole purpose of this web page. Maybe Seed profiles me in some way but if so it's none of my doing.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 25 Jan 2011 #permalink


Hrynyshyn, who usually bashes AGW denialists, does a post this morning dissing a paper that discusses the impact of AGW on agriculture, over a relatively minor point regarding the likely rapidity of warming. Then you piggyback on that paper with a ditto post. (See your fellow blogger Chad Orzel's Jan. 23 post "De-clutter the Internet!") Neither of you address the real issue of food security, which is odd since this is a recurrent topic of your blog posts and would have made a good follow up on Hrynyshyn's point about timing. You both know that IPCC projections have almost invariably underestimated the rate & severity of warming. You both know, and admit, that a 2.4^oC mean global temperature increase over pre-industrial levels by 2020 is not impossible. You decline to explain why "extreme climate forcing" should be barred from consideration, or why the interactions of + feedbacks & or breakdown of - feedbacks receive underemphasis in climate change models. I observe all of this and wonder what's going on.

As mandated by law, Seed Media's only consideration is corporate profit. You receive remuneration for blogging for Seed Media. We saw what Seed Media's ethics amounts to last summer during the "Pepsigate" scandal. Why is it untoward for me to suspect that corporate representatives may have cautioned their employees - you & Hrynyshyn - against going against the interests of their paid advertisers? After all, AM talk show hosts will say most any outrageous thing but the thing you won't hear them saying is anything that could conceivably compromise the profit interests of those who advertise on their shows. Then you get all pissy & defensive when I suggest such a thing as potential content intervention by management. You say, "..your argument would be.. '..we should definitely prioritize this paper over papers that are just as scary but use good data.'" Where did I say that we should "prioritize" this paper over any others? My only point has been, and is, that a 2.4^oC increase in temps. over pre-industrial levels by 2020 isn't as far outside the realms of likelihood as you & Hrynyshyn (or Shell Oil) apparently would like your readers to believe. (See my comments on Hrynyshyn's blog for a more detailed explanation of why this is so.) That this point should provoke you to violate your own comment policy & project a stress relief motive onto me only makes me think: "Hmmm. Hit a nerve. Must be hitting pretty close to home with my suspicions."

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 25 Jan 2011 #permalink

Funny, I've never seen the Shell Oil ad here.

"Your strong response to my wild made-up accusations proves that I touched a nerve and was actually right all along" was a snotty non-thought when coming from the likes of Bjorn Lomborg and Andrew Wakefield, and it looks no better from you, DD.

"I touched a nerve when I insulted your integrity...that must mean you are a sleazy whore, because you wouldn't have minded me calling you one either..." Ok, DD, whatever.

The reason Hrynyshyn and I both talked about this paper's *inaccuracies* is that it got a lot of media attention and a lot of people didn't understand its inaccuracies.

Saying something is not impossible doesn't make it likely - I've talked about climate change's impact on the food system in many dozens of posts - this one was about something very slightly different. I do reserve the right to write about what I want - if you want someone to write about what you want, get a blog.


Hi Sharon,
I recognise the disservice done by exaggerations and the ammo they provide to those wanting to question the integrity of the "Green Movement" and its claims.

But I believe there is an important rhetorical role for exaggeration in how it anchors the public debate.

Put simply, there is hysterical exaggeration on the other side about what decarbonisation, relocalisation, principles of personal responsibility etc will do to the economy, to jobs, to American (or other) sovereignty etc etc; and these play on fear rather than fact (I'm not saying such changes won't be radical, but that compensatory lifestyle improvements never get talked about except on blogs like yours).

To a mass audience, the more visceral response associated with fear of the threats to lifestyle effortlessly crowd out the more sombre, sober, science driven rhetoric of "average two degrees" and "likely increased frequency of" etc.

Without having read the article you refer to, I regard such exaggerations in as potentially important in rebalancing the scale, so that for those whose info comes from the Daily Tele rather than the IPCC, the "compromise" or "happy medium" is in a range more likely to conform to reality.

A couple of years ago, you did me the great honour of responding in a post to a comment where I had suggested that you had a responsibility to empower your readers rather than to drive up fear. A couple of years on, I take it all back. I now think we are going to need a powerful emotion to destroy (Schumpeter like) the complacency before we will take meaningful steps towards remaking our societies sustainably.

By Mandarina (not verified) on 30 Jan 2011 #permalink

Mandarina, I think we do need to use fear. That said, I also think that the use of fear has to be done carefully and wisely, and this isn't one of those examples. This paper could easily be used to provide ammunition by climate denialists who want to suggest that climate advocates are intentionally exaggerating. I don't think that's what happened at all - they clearly mistook their numbers, but it behooves others to say so up front, to point out the error, and then move on to good data. We can do plenty of fearmongering ;-) with the truth - it is scary as hell. I feel very strongly that the side of truth has no need to lie, support mistakes or misrepresent data - there's far too much truth on our side. I do, however, take your larger point and agree with it.