As my regular readers know, the emphasis of this blog is evidence-based, environmental decision-making. I care that reliable scientific data is being used to make informed policy decisions. As such, I try to push back when science is abused by individuals attempting to sway environmental policy. Few topics see this type of behaviour more than in the climate change debate where a whole school of activists have decided that apocalyptic language is the key to achieving their goals. These Chicken Little’s regularly make extraordinary, and generally unsupportable, claims and are seldom called out when they do. Today I am going to examine one recent example to demonstrate why I believe this approach is so misguided.
The example comes from my Twitter feed. In it a literature teacher from a high school in Paris made a series of simply ridiculous claims. Instead of being rightly ignored, this post went viral. Here is the post which at current count has received almost 136,000 retweets and almost 250,000 likes.
Needless to say when I first saw the tweet (when it still only had a few dozen retweets), I responded:
What to say? Virtually none of these statements is correct. The oceans are not being killed, forest cover is increasing, fertile soil is at similar levels to what it was decades ago, the insect story is not true… apocalyptic claims do not help the fight against climate change
I was quickly attacked with the common response asking me to prove that what I claimed was true, my favourite being
While you have to admire the all caps tweeting, anyone familiar with the scientific method knows it is up to the person making the extraordinary claim to prove their thesis; or as Carl Sagan put it: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“.
Perhaps spurred on by my request, the author provided a series of tweets to support his claims. As I will demonstrate, these tweets (while appreciated by his followers) did nothing to support his opinions. Instead, it appeared they were offered safe in the knowledge that few of his followers would ever bother to read them.
In the next sections, I will briefly show why these references don’t support his contentions. I will then conclude with my take of why viral disinformation like this doesn’t help in the fight against climate change. Those not interested in the debunking feel free to go straight to the conclusion, as for the rest of you:
1) The oceans are being killed
In each of these cases the author (Ben) starts with an issue of concern to the scientific community, and then turns up the rhetoric to an 11. We can all agree that: “Overfishing, acidification, coral & seabed destruction, plastic & chemical pollution, ocean anoxia, phytoplankton, etc...” are serious issues that need to be addressed. However, we also know that none of these is indicative of the oceans “being killed“. Instead, each represents an ongoing challenge that reduces the quality and diversity of life in our oceans.
Looking at the references he uses to support his claim: the Forbes article is about overfishing; the Geochemical article is about microplastics; the Cell article is about ocean wilderness; and the PSMag article is about marine plastics. The one thing they all have in common is none supports Ben’s general argument that the “oceans are being killed“. They talk about risks to certain populations or sub-populations within the oceans but none of them support the general premise that the oceans will die in any real sense. They simply don’t support his wild rhetoric.
Forests will soon be gone
As for these citations: the Science Daily (20,000 scientists) article does not mention forests at all while the Academic.oup (Biosciences) is a particularly egregious misstatement. He presents the line “especially troubling is….deforestation” in his tweet; however this is another example of why ellipses are so often used by the unscrupulous. Here is the entire section in the original article:
Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels (Hansen et al. 2013), deforestation (Keenan et al. 2015), and agricultural production…
The article does not claim that all forests are disappearing due to climate change, but rather that deforestation of some forests is increasing GHG emissions. I can’t imagine that careful use of ellipses was accidental. As for the PNAS article, it isn’t even about forests. So once again what appears to be deliberate misuse of irrelevant articles to support an unsound premise. Anyone sensing a trend?
In response to this tweet I pointed readers to two recent high-profile sources a study from NASA and article in Nature. Both detail the fact that in the last few decades the planet has greened and forest cover has increased. To be clear, we aren’t talking about obscure journals or organizations. This is NASA which is specifically tasked to study this problem and an article in Nature (one of the highest profile journals in the world). These are sources an activist who claims to care about forest cover should be familiar with.
Fertile Soil Is Disappearing
Now we all know that farming and land use practices have degraded our topsoil but Ben doesn’t even try to support his claim in this tweet. Instead he just provides a Guardian article that says that they aren’t doing enough to protect topsoil. It doesn’t back up his position that “fertile soil is disappearing” but any reasonable observer would have realized that this would be the case by now wouldn’t they? As a note, while the degradation of topsoil is a critical environmental concern, recent changes in farming approaches (like no-till farming) are making great strides in protecting our precious topsoil.
Megafauna risk extermination
This time Ben links to a thread of his own that warns of the issue while never indicating the technical basis for his concern. No links, no problems for his supporters; 703 of them re-tweeted his claim. Apparently none noticed that he failed to actually provide support for his case.
Admittedly this is the one claim that is closest to being true, large mammals are in trouble thanks to human encroachment on their habitat, but still Ben’s claim is a massive exaggeration.
Insects are vanishing
In this case the first link is to the article that is the source material for my last blog post where I showed that the article algorithm wasn’t able to support the hypothesis. The second is a link to an article that talks about loss of insect biodiversity in a small portion of Germany. Neither supports his greater claim of a global insect apocalypse.
You must get the point by now. In each case presented, the references proffered to support his statements do nothing of the sort. Given the length of this post already I will end the debunking here.
One might ask what an activist has to gain (except lots of “likes” on Twitter) by posting such a ridiculous list of claims. I’ve been informed (by another activist) that they do this to open the Overton Window. For those not familiar with the term here is a good definition:
The Overton window is the range of ideas the public is willing to consider and accept — ideas a politician to could successfully campaign on. This window shifts over time, as it’s subject to the trends of social thought and norms. All social reform movements have to shift the Overton window to make progress.
The problem is that you don’t open the Overton Window by attempting to mislead. There is a reason why the story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” resonates so strongly in our society. It is because virtually every culture agrees that repeatedly making false claims destroys your credibility. You don’t open the Overton Window by deliberately misleading the public, you slam the window of discussion shut. People tune you out and politicians avoid you for fear that your dishonesty will stain their reputations. That is why so few professional scientists are willing to step up to support these people. It is always young graduates (with no reputations to protect) and retired professionals and academics (who can trade in on their history) who tend to speak out on these files.
The fight against climate change is going to be a long, hard struggle and as I have said time-after-time you win these fights by being known as the person everyone trusts to shoot straight. If you sell your reputation for momentary social media glory you will burn out just as quickly. Fighting climate change isn’t going to happen in one day. It is about incremental change. Going from coal, to natural gas to a mostly renewables energy system will take time and a lot of money. Developing new battery technologies that will allow long-range trucking and rail to electrified is a daunting and expensive challenge. These are how climate change will be beaten. Not by viral tweets that misinform and mislead but by the action of leaders everyone is willing to trust.