So apparently the world is going to end in a few years’ time. Yawn. It's fair to say that this is a message that has been heard on a regular basis for as long as anyone can remember – traditionally from long-haired gentlemen adorned with sandwich boards, but in recent years more often from (sometimes equally hirsute) climate scientists, environmentalists and green-minded politicians.
This week's message of doom comes from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Congresswoman who is the latest big thing in US Democrat political circles. Ocasio-Cortez is on the green warpath and would like us all to know that 'the world is gonna end' in 2030 if we don't 'address climate change'. Stop sniggering at the back, this is serious.
Ocasio-Cortez’s timing, it has to be said, is not of the best. This week, the sceptically minded have been having a bit of fun at the expense of the US defence establishment, who worked themselves into a bit of a Twitter tizzy about a new Pentagon report that claimed that US military bases were at risk from changing weather patterns. This allowed us to remind everyone of the Pentagon's 2004 report, in which they advised president Bush that major European cities would be (in the Guardian's take on the story) 'sunk beneath rising seas' and that Britain would be 'plunged into a Siberian climate'. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting were to menace us as well, according to the spooks in the Pentagon. And all this by...erm...next year. I can’t say I’ve seen any sign of any of these disasters yet though.
So, it's perhaps a good idea to take wild claims like those from Ocasio-Cortez with a pinch of salt, or at least to look into the details. The idea that something bad is going to happen in 2030 has its origins in a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) towards the end of last year. The 'Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C' was not, however, an attempt to determine when the end of the world will take place but instead an attempt to determine how global temperatures could be kept below that level – the available policy options seem to be either vast expansion of energy crops and forestry (with a veil drawn over the effect on the food supply) or dramatic lifestyle changes (veganism, anyone?).
So if you search through the report’s summary for policymakers, you will look in vain for the section that discusses the end of the world taking place in twelve years’ time: surely a major oversight by the authors, if that was indeed one of their findings. Instead you will find a fairly typical IPCC report, with dramatic conclusions drawn from climate simulations to give exciting claims about the risks of a slightly warmer world. The year 2030 is simply when the scientists involved in the report think we could stabilise temperatures thus avoiding any further increase in risk.
And the magnitude of those risks is questionable. Interestingly, the summary shows signs of a toning down of the rhetoric from the IPCC on this front. For example, hurricanes, which the IPCC has always previously said would get worse in a warmer world are barely mentioned. Presumably, widening public awareness of the decline in tropical cyclones in recent decades makes this a PR necessity. Unfortunately, the similar decline in droughts is less well known, so the IPCC continues to push the idea that they will become worse in future.
So, there is no sign in the report of the world coming to an end. Nevertheless, this is not what the media reported. The Guardian, for example, said that ‘We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe’, while the Washington Post took the line that ‘The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control’. In other words, it looks as though Ocasio-Cortez has just been reading the wrong newspapers, although she’s not the only one: at this week’s Davos jamboree, David Attenborough was reported as saying that we only have a decade to ‘solve climate’ otherwise we are, apparently, ‘doomed’.
So you can see how this works: the report says that we could take dramatic steps to avoid further risks, and the more disreputable sections of press then twist this into ‘If we don’t take dramatic steps we’re going to hell in a handcart’, and then their celebrity readers repeat ad nauseam.
Interestingly, some climate scientists seem to have been speaking out against the hysteria. For example, Gavin Schmidt, the head of NASA’s climate unit, has been quoted as saying that all such time-limited frames are 'bullshit'.
He’s not wrong.
Andrew Montford is deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum.