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Global Warming Hyperbole

January 29, 2013

In our social media-obsessed world, it is probably no wonder that politicians and others cannot resist the temptation to make exaggerated claims in order to obtain viral validation. This is certainly true in the context of the ongoing discussion about the impacts of human activity (i.e, greenhouse gas emissions) on the climate.

Take, for example, the recent statement of Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland:

“Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”

Or perhaps this quote from New York University economist Nouriel Roubini, also speaking at Davos:

“…New York is going to be underwater 30 years from now.”

Now, I understand the use of hyperbole to make a point and I’m sure that the folks quoted above believe that the scope of the problem justifies the over-the-top statements. But I think these kinds of statements only dilute the credibility of the speakers and diminish the quality of the discussion.

This is especially true in light of a recent study from Norway that finds the likely warming impact of doubling carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 to be much less than previously predicted. Using statistics ending in the year 2000, the scientists at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research found that the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would likely result in a temperature change of 3.7 degrees Celsius. However, when data from the years 2000 – 2010 were added into the model, “climate sensitivity” was reduced to 1.9 degrees Celsius.

While this estimate of probable global temperature increases attributable to greenhouse gas emissions is still significant, it is a far less dire prediction than that offered by Bill McKibben of 350.org, who also stated at Davos that “If we stay on our current path, our children will live in a super-heated planet that’s four or five degrees warmer than it is right now.”

The global warming discussion is challenging enough given the complexity of the science and public policy choices; a little less hype, however, might enable stakeholders of good faith on both sides to move toward acceptable solutions.

 

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