Famine. Economic Collapse. A sun that cooks us. A New York Magazine story about the problems climate change could wreak on humanity is certainly designed to make an impact.
“It is, I promise, worse than you think,” staff writer David Wallace-Wells promises in the first sentence of his 7,000-word piece, which quickly went viral after it was published late Sunday night. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”
The doomsday story certainly made an impact. According to CrowdTangle, a platform that tracks social media traffic, the story has been shared on Facebook over 132,000 times, reaching the timelines of over 50 million people and the homepage of Reddit.
One climatologist, however, is throwing cold water on Wallace-Well’s alarming scorched-Earth tale.
Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University and director of the school’s Earth System Science Center, called out the “doomist framing” of the piece in a lengthy Facebook post, noting that there is a danger in overstating the dangers of climate change.
“The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century,” Mann wrote. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it.”
Before you think it, Mann is no climate change denier. He is widely viewed as a leader in the field of climate change, and he’s fought at the front lines of skepticism over our warming planet for nearly his entire career, writing over 200 peer-reviewed and edited publications. He was even interviewed by Wallace-Wells for his story, though he wasn’t quoted or mentioned. His problem with the story isn’t that it highlights climate change, it’s that overstating the case makes people think it’s unsolvable, and “feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.”
Mann says the article overstates some of the science in order to paint a bleak picture of an Earth that could be uninhabitable by the end of this century. For instance, Mann points to the near-term threat of climate “feedbacks” involving the release of frozen methane, noting that the science is actually more nuanced than the article indicates and doesn’t support the notion of a “planet-melting methane bomb.”
Mann also has problems with a specific line in Wallace-Well’s piece that claimed “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.”
“That’s just not true,” Mann wrote. “The study in question simply showed that one particular satellite temperature dataset that had tended to show ‘less’ warming than the other datasets, has now been brought in line with the other temperature data after some problems with that dataset were dealt with.”
Mann said the accounting for the new corrected data, the warming of the planet is progressing fairly close to what climate scientists predicted, which he notes “is bad enough.”
“The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own,” Mann wrote. “There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”
Wallace-Wells did not respond to a request for comment, but he did respond to Mann’s lengthy critique of his story on Twitter late Monday morning.
Some useful pushback to my worst-case climate story. I feel less "doomist" than "scared," but also that fear is important motivating force. https://t.co/sqnIePPdEc
— David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells) July 10, 2017