THE TERM ‘CLIMATE ALARMIST’ is usually reserved for high-profile activists, scientists or politicians — think Bill McKibben, Tim Flannery or Al Gore — who raise concerns about the catastrophic impacts of future global warming. But with the release of some frightening reports over the last 12 months, those who deny the scientific consensus on climate change will have to expand their list of ‘alarmists’ to include some unlikely suspects — the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency.
The Oxford Dictionary defines alarmist as ‘someone who exaggerates a danger and so causes needless worry or panic’. The key point is that the alarm is raised without due grounds. On that basis, very few activists, scientists or politicians who warn about future calamities from climate change are actually alarmist because the dangers of global warming are well established and accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientific institutions.
But in the lexicon of the climate denial blogosphere, ‘alarmism’ has a more specific definition, once described by skeptic Kenneth P. Green as ‘the reflexive tendency to assume worst-case scenarios generated by climate models are automatically true (and to enact public policy based on that belief)’.
Under that definition, the World Bank’s November 2012 report ‘Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided’ could well be termed alarmist. ‘It is my hope that this report shocks us into action,’ reads the foreword by Dr Jim Yong Kim, president of World Bank Group. Although the global community has agreed to keep temperature rise under two degrees, the report argues that ‘present emission trends put the world plausibly on a path toward 4°C warming within the century’.
In case a four-degree temperature rise sounds balmy but tolerable, the World Bank points out that the greatest warming would occur over land, with increases ranging from four degrees to ten degrees. Heat waves such as occurred in Russia in 2010 are likely to become ‘the new normal summer’. The warmest July in the Mediterranean could be nine degrees warmer than today’s warmest July. Other near-apocalyptic predictions include regional extinctions of coral reefs and sea level rises of up to one metre by 2100.
The summary closes with these words: ‘The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur — the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.’
But what are our chances of prevention? Not great, according to a November 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers report titled ‘Too Late for Two Degrees? Low Carbon Economy Index 2012’.
The index measures the ‘carbon intensity’ of countries, meaning the emissions per unit of GDP. If we want to limit warming to two degrees, the task ahead of us is urgent and unprecedented: ‘The global economy now needs to cut carbon intensity by 5.1 per cent every year from now to 2050 to achieve this carbon budget. This required rate of decarbonisation has not been seen even in a single year since the mid-20th century when these records began.’
If the World Bank report intended to ‘shock us into action’, the PricewaterhouseCoopers report must have had even more radical aims, as its foreword is unequivocally alarming: ‘Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world — not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.’
That brings us to two reports from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which argue for urgent action on climate change. ‘Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2°C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes,’ reads the summary of ‘World Energy Outlook 2012’. Under the IEA’s scenario to reach this two-degree target, ‘almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc.’.
‘If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.’ In other words, we have five years to begin a massive transition towards low-emissions electricity generation. Another IEA report, ‘Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map’, spells out four policies to be adopted as soon as possible, including limiting the construction of ‘least-efficient’ coal-fired power stations and partially phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.
What are we to make of these dire predictions? No doubt people who deny the seriousness of climate change will flock to the comments section and argue it’s yet more evidence of global conspiracy. I take the more plausible view that these international institutions are finally putting forward recommendations in line with the science.
Deniers are right to argue that such reports will cause worry and panic, but not because they’re wildly exaggerated ‘worst-case scenarios’. In fact, the reports argue that our current trajectory will have terrible consequences. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report, for example, ends on the phrase ‘business-as-usual is not an option’. When accountancy firms start sounding like environmental campaigners, the future looks very alarming indeed.