I heard this on the radio news this morning. Not a huge deal, if you follow the science, as many of us do. But some comments by a fellow blogger in a post made me think that some clarification of certain uses of language is needed.

The term ‘alarmist’ is frequently used to describe a person who tends to imagine, or to express a belief in, the worst possible future scenarios resulting from climate change. It is also used to describe speculative op-ed pieces which look for the ‘disaster’ in a piece of science, then emphasise this at the cost of a proper understanding of the science.

Nothing wrong with this, you might say;  such exaggerations are often agenda-driven and cause a problem for the credibility gap anyway; let’s ignore them.

As has been said elsewhere, though, it is a common strategy amongst people who wish to challenge the scientific ‘orthodoxy’, to make this claim of the results of some climate scientists’ work. hence, when James Hansen points to a matter of concern for him, that preventing a temperature rise of over 2C will be impossible within ten years, he is described as an ‘alarmist’.

In what sense is this ‘alarmist’? Only in the sense that it raises the alarm – it is a warning. But this, of course, is a deliberate misuse of the term. A person who shouts ‘Don’t step in front of that bus!’ at you as you go to cross the street is not an ‘alarmist’; he’s a lifesaver. On the other hand, the person who says ‘Look out for that Bus!’ whilst sitting with you in your living-room, may be an ‘alarmist’.

So it is inaccurate to describe the standardly-accepted, mainstream view of what we are likely to face in the coming decades as ‘alarmist’ on at least two grounds; first of all, it is by definition not an exaggeration, and secondly, it is arguably, for a few reasons, most likely to be somewhat conservative in its estimates.

So, in case you don’t know, the article above gives a flavour of the current standard mainstream view of what we are likely to face.

  • Not less than 2C of warming;
  • with action, hopefully 2-3C;
  • without action, more than 3C. Thus
  • drought, desertification,
  • flash flooding, crop failure,
  • climate-induced mass migration,
  • economic and social instability.

This is alarming. It isn’t ‘alarmist’. What is more alarming still is that this is based on conservative estimates of emissions scenarios (A1B), climate sensitivity (2.7C) and  the response of unpredictable human beings to adverse conditions.

An ‘alarmist’ position might be to posit the possibility that 2-3C of global warming will be a ‘tipping point’ for further, uncontrollable feedbacks, as a  certainty. Of course, not many people do this. So the message should be clear: if this scenario alarms you, it is because it is alarming, not because someone is exaggerating.

Remember the global lert shortage…

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