Human psychology is an astonishing thing to behold. For all sorts of reasons I don't want to get into today, the simple rule of thumb says—
You can only tell humans what they want to hear.
If you try to give them some Bad News, they won't (can't) listen. If you tell them stuff they want to hear, they applaud wildly and then go off and continue doing the stuff which makes the news bad. Nothing changes with humans.
A forthcoming IPCC report on climate change impacts beautifully illustrates this simple rule. Those who have seen the almost-final draft have been telling us what it contains. On Yale's Environment 360 website, Fred Pearce gives us the skinny in New UN Report Is Cautious On Making Climate Predictions.
Batten down the hatches; fill the grain stores; raise the flood defenses. We cannot know exactly what is coming, but it will probably be nasty, the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will warn next week. Global warming will cause wars, displace millions of people, and do trillion-dollar damage to the global economy.But careful readers will note a new tone to its discussion of these issues that is markedly different from past efforts. It is more humble about what scientists can predict in advance, and far more interested in how societies can make themselves resilient. It also places climate risks much more firmly than before among a host of other problems faced by society, especially by the poor. That tone will annoy some for taking the edge off past warnings, but gratify others for providing a healthy dose of realism.
The study, the result of a five-year review of published papers, is from the IPCC’s scientists working on the impacts of climate change. It complements an IPCC study late last year on the planetary science and will be followed next month by another that will focus on what we should do about it.
Pearce starts off in the usual scary way—"batten down the hatches"—but "careful readers" will note that the new report is "more humble about what scientists can predict, and far more interested in how societies can make themselves more resilient" to the effects of climate change.
The IPCC last issued a report on climate change impacts in 2007, but after seven years of utter failure to address the problem, it's time to strike a "new" and different tone.
The 2007 report was almost all about the impacts of climate change. Most of this report, and in particular most of the summary for policymakers, is about resilience and adaptation to inevitable climate change.
Central to that new take is setting climate change in a context of other risks, uncertainties and mega-trends such as poverty and social inequality, urbanization, and the globalization of food systems.
What some call "climate exceptionalism" — the idea that climate change is something of an entirely different order to other threats faced by the world — has been rooted out. Here climate change is painted as pervasive, since nobody can avoid it wholly, but as usually only one among many pressures, especially on the poor.
"Climate exceptionalism" has been rooted out. Our warming climate and, by extension, the extraordinary risk to marine ecosystems due to ocean acidification and many other factors, is now merely one more problem among many (urbanization, poverty, social inequality, etc.). There's nothing special about anthropogenic climate change anymore.
Indeed, the IPCC finds that climate change poses no substantial economic risk to our ever-growing global economy.
And the report is, on the face of it, more optimistic than the famous review of the economics of climate change by Britain’s Nicholas Stern in 2006.
Stern put the likely cost to the global economy of warming this century at 5-20 percent of GDP. The new IPCC draft says that a global average temperature increase of 2.5 degrees from pre-industrial levels may lead to a global loss of income of between 0.2 and 2 percent.
In so far as global GDP is expected to be 5-10 times larger than it is now by the year 2100, a global loss of income of between 0.2 and 2% is nothing at all. And that's if we reach an equilibrium surface temperature 2.5° centigrade higher than the 19th century baseline.
Those who want the details should read my long essays Your Next Stop, The Twilight Zone and Confusion In The Twilight Zone. Details on today's story can be found in IPCC report downplays economic impacts of climate change, reviewer says.
So when Fred Pearce finishes up like this
But if Americans think this puts them in a good position, they are wrong. While the report is silent on whether there might be more or stronger hurricanes hitting North America from the Atlantic (and “Katrina aside,” saw no trend in U.S. hurricane deaths since 1970), it states that “much of North American infrastructure is currently vulnerable to extreme weather events.”
The message is clear. We may not be able to make hard and fast predictions, but prudency requires that we prepare for the worst.
the question becomes why would prudency require us to prepare for "the worst" if the worst is a total economic loss in global GDP terms of (at most) 2% of income by the year 2100?
The message is clear, but it is not the message Fred Pearce thinks it is. And thus, predictably, the IPCC's 2014 report on climate change impacts will tell humans exactly what they want to hear.
Bonus Video — Give 'em hope.