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Posted by on Jan 23, 2005 in At TMV | 0 comments

More Doomsday Journalism

Sometimes journalists — and scientists — need to take a deep breath because  a logical thesis presented via  Doomsday Journalism can undermine an intriguing finding’s credibily — which is what happens with a new report warning that the point of no return could hit earth within 10 years on global warming.

If you read this report in England’s Independent, we all might as well take Jim Jones style Kool Aid right now:

The global warming danger threshold for the world is clearly marked for the first time in an international report to be published tomorrow – and the bad news is, the world has nearly reached it already.

The countdown to climate-change catastrophe is spelt out by a task force of senior politicians, business leaders and academics from around the world – and it is remarkably brief. In as little as 10 years, or even less, their report indicates, the point of no return with global warming may have been reached

Better cash in your insurance policies now…Our point is NOT that the findings are invalid. But the breathless, sensationalistic style doesn’t hold up once you truly read the piece. More:

The report, Meeting The Climate Challenge, is aimed at policymakers in every country, from national leaders down. It has been timed to coincide with Tony Blair’s promised efforts to advance climate change policy in 2005 as chairman of both the G8 group of rich countries and the European Union.

And it breaks new ground by putting a figure – for the first time in such a high-level document – on the danger point of global warming, that is, the temperature rise beyond which the world would be irretrievably committed to disastrous changes. These could include widespread agricultural failure, water shortages and major droughts, increased disease, sea-level rise and the death of forests – with the added possibility of abrupt catastrophic events such as "runaway" global warming, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or the switching-off of the Gulf Stream.

Notice the word "could?" These are journalist hedges.

Again, the findings and alarm being sounded are important. But if you don’t read it carefully, you figure many of us may (hedge) be in Heaven (except the politicians, of course) in about 10 years. More:

The report says this point will be two degrees centigrade above the average world temperature prevailing in 1750 before the industrial revolution, when human activities – mainly the production of waste gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), which retain the sun’s heat in the atmosphere – first started to affect the climate. But it points out that global average temperature has already risen by 0.8 degrees since then, with more rises already in the pipeline – so the world has little more than a single degree of temperature latitude before the crucial point is reached.

More ominously still, it assesses the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after which the two-degree rise will become inevitable, and says it will be 400 parts per million by volume (ppm) of CO2.

The current level is 379ppm, and rising by more than 2ppm annually – so it is likely that the vital 400ppm threshold will be crossed in just 10 years’ time, or even less (although the two-degree temperature rise might take longer to come into effect).

"There is an ecological timebomb ticking away," said Stephen Byers, the former transport secretary, who co-chaired the task force that produced the report with the US Republican senator Olympia Snowe. It was assembled by the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK, the Centre for American Progress in the US, and The Australia Institute.The group’s chief scientific adviser is Dr Rakendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The report urges all the G8 countries to agree to generate a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and to double their research spending on low-carbon energy technologies by 2010. It also calls on the G8 to form a climate group with leading developing nations such as India and China, which have big and growing CO2 emissions.

"What this underscores is that it’s what we invest in now and in the next 20 years that will deliver a stable climate, not what we do in the middle of the century or later," said Tom Burke, a former government adviser on green issues who now advises business.

The report starkly spells out the likely consequences of exceeding the threshold. "Beyond the 2 degrees C level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly," it says.

Etc. There’s more. But it’s a pity that a report that basically says policy makers must take global warming more seriously is couched in such terms that it makes you think: yet ANOTHER end-of-the-world story.

And if you’ve been around as long as the youthful, svelte-looking TMV, you ‘ve seen a lot of End of the World Stories. Stories like Y2K, nearly a century of reporting and books predicting India’s downfall (the most famous book of the early 20th Century Mother India predicted India would fall into chaos), doomsday reports on what Sadaam Hussein would do to our troops during the two U.S. military actions, reports after major fires predicting forests would take a lifetime to grow back (I have seen two forests that had been on fire now with nice green popping up and shrubbery), predictions of a massive epedemic this flu season due to a shortage of flu shots, etc.

The point is: a little restraint is not a bad idea.

If a story is couched in "could" happen or "may happen" the news source can lose its credibility when readers hit the day when The Worst Is Going To Happen and say "What happened??"

UPDATE: This report doesn’t seem quite as compelling once you look at the credentials of the committee that released it, as detailed by The Daily Ablution.