Matt Ridley: Apocalypse Maybe

  • Date: 22/11/12
  • Matt Ridley, Watts Up With That

My article in Wired in August called “Apocalypse Not” attracted a huge number of comments, many of which were constructive and interesting. It also led to critical responses at other sites. Here is my response to some of those responses. Wired asked me to respond, but then concluded that there was not space on their website to carry the response.

Philip Bump wrote an article in Grist attacking what he calls my “conceit” on climate change and calling my argument “bullshit”. Leaving aside the insults, what was the substance of his criticism?

Mr Bump’s first point is that I am wrong that malaria will continue to decline because “comparing our relative recent success in combating malaria to the haphazard and poorly funded efforts from last century doesn’t provide much insight into how we’ll fare against more widespread malaria using existing tools”. He is entitled to this opinion but it flies in the face of published evidence on three counts. First, the retreat of malaria during the twentieth century was far from haphazard. As a chart published in Nature by Dr Peter Gething of Oxford University shows, malaria vanished in the twentieth century from large parts of Asia, Europe and North America and became dramatically rarer in South America and South-east Asia. It also declined in Africa.

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Second, the acceleration of this decline of malaria since 2000 (25% reduction in ten years) has indeed been aided by the work and funds of the Gates Foundation and others, but with new funds and new techniques it is not clear why Mr Bump thinks “it’s unlikely, though, that additional investment will continue to get the same rate of return” since he provides no evidence for this statement. Third, the “more widespread malaria” the he forecasts is largely a myth. In most of the world malaria is not limited by climate. In Africa there a few high-altitude areas – less than 3% of the continent – that might become more malaria friendly if global warming accelerates as the IPCC predicts. Surely it will continue to make sense to combat malaria itself rather than trying to fight it by combating climate change? Why should we focus on preventing that 3% increase rather than diminishing the existing 100% of malaria? As Dr Gething has written: “widespread claims that rising mean temperatures have already led to increases in worldwide malaria morbidity and mortality are largely at odds with observed decreasing global trends in both its endemicity and geographic extent” and “proposed future effects of rising temperatures on endemicity are at least one order of magnitude smaller than changes observed since about 1900 and up to two orders of magnitude smaller than those that can be achieved by the effective scale-up of key control measures.”[1]

Incidentally, the persistence of the myth that malaria would worsen in a warming world was quite unnecessary, because a world expert on the topic tried in vain to correct the myth at an early stage. Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute, made the case within the IPCC that malaria’s range was shrinking and was limited by factors other than temperature, but was ignored and (in his words) “After much effort and many fruitless discussions I…resigned from the IPCC project [but] found that my name was still listed. I requested its removal, but was told it would remain because ‘I had contributed.’ It was only after strong insistence that I succeeded in having it removed.”[2]

Mr Bump’s second charge is that if I am right that the threat of increased malaria as a result of global warming was greatly exaggerated, this does not prove that other aspects of climate change are exaggerated: “Even if the malaria argument held up, it would still only represent one ancillary concern stemming from global warming!” Given the prominence of the malaria-from-warming threat in the early IPCC reports and in the media, and the long battle Dr Reiter had to get the IPCC to see sense on the issue, the issue was hardly ancillary. None the less, let me take up Mr Bump’s challenge and consider some of the other threats promised in the name of climate change. For reasons of space I chose to focus on malaria but there is a long list of threats that have been downgraded as more knowledge of climate change accumulates. My first draft included two paragraphs of other examples that were left on the cutting room floor when my article was published. I reproduce them here:

“Likewise, the prediction that global warming could turn off the Gulf Stream, an idea that featured in the film The Day After Tomorrow. The fear was taken seriously in the 1990s, with the respected Nature magazine publishing a computer-model calculation that showed “a permanent shutdown” of the Atlantic “thermohaline circulation”, which drives the Gulf Stream, within a century if carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise[3]. This, commented a senior scientist, posed a risk “that no nation bordering the North Atlantic would willingly take.”[4] Such a threat has now been abandoned as highly unlikely, one scientist commenting: “I think the notion of telling the public to prepare for both global warming and an ice age at the same [time] creates a real public relations problem for us.”[5]

“In other words, some of the subplots of climate change have already proved exaggerated.

- The Himalayan glaciers are not melting in a hurry and even if they were, 96% of the water in the Ganges comes from rain, not melting ice[6].

- A gigantic methane belch when the Arctic ocean reaches some warm tipping point turns out to be implausible[7].

- The world’s coral reefs recover quickly and fully from bleaching episodes caused by sudden warming[8].

- Runaway warming is now widely agreed to be impossible[9].

- The United Nations was wrong in 2005 to predict (and map the whereabouts of) 50 million future environmental refugees by 2010[10]. And so on.

Maybe these sideshows were always mistakes. Or just maybe the main event is being exaggerated too.”

I look forward to Mr Bump’s response on each of these points, few of which are ancillary. I also draw his attention to the deceleration of sea level rise, in sharp contrast to predictions, a measure that is about as central to the climate change threat as you can get.

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