Thu 7 Jul 2011
Pat Michaels has a rather astonishing blog called Climate of Fear at Forbes.com. Too bad for Forbes – they are providing a platform for a serious climate crank who I think is far too well-educated and smart to misunderstand the things he misrepresents in his public statements and writing. His recent post on climate change and food security is a classic of the genre – and fits very well into the strategies that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway so brilliantly lay out in Merchants of Doubt (which, if you want to understand the professional climate change denial camp, you absolutely must read). It requires debunking. Hell, the man’s blog requires debunking, post by post.
So, what does Michaels have to say about climate change and food security? Well, in a nutshell he doesn’t see how climate change is a problem for agriculture – indeed, he seems to suggest that climate change will do good things for agriculture. However, a careful read of the article for what it does and does not actually say, and what evidence it draws on (mostly tangential), demonstrates that this is a piece of misdirection that, in my opinion, is criminal: insofar as it causes anyone to doubt the severity of the challenge in front of us, it will cost lives. Lots of lives.
Michaels begins with a classic of the denial genre – he goes after a New York Times article not on its merits (indeed, he never addresses any of the article’s content), but by lumping it in with every previous warning of what he calls “environmental apocalypse.” Except, of course, that the only call he actually cites is the now legendary “global cooling” fear of the 1970s – a fringe belief that was never embraced by the majority of scientists (no matter how hard the denial crowd wants you to believe it). That concern was based on patterns of natural cycles of heating and cooling that some felt were timed to push us back toward another ice age, but it was not the consensus view of scientists at the time. Michaels knows this. Either that, or he was a very, very bad graduate student, as he claims to have recieved his doctorate on the wings of “global cooling.”
Then Michaels moves to a false correlation (or non-correlation) – temperatures rose by .75 degrees C over the 20th Century (about 1.35 degrees Farenheit), but Michaels argues that since “U.S. corn yields quintupled. Life expectancy doubled. People got fat” clearly there is nothing to worry about. Except, of course, that temperature/CO2 has relatively little to do with these results – biotech and improved farming techniques were much, much more important – and one could argue that these techniques and biotech have persevered in the face of conditions that might have, in many parts of the world, led to declining yields. Hell, it is well known that the increases in per-capita food availability worldwide are not evenly distributed – According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in sub-Saharan Africa there is less food per person than there was thirty years ago. Either Michaels has a distressingly flawed understanding of correlation and no real understanding of agricultural development over the past 100 years, or he is willfully misdirecting the reader. Either case should disqualify him from writing this article.
Besides, temperature is only one concern (it is possible that some parts of the globe will warm several degrees Celsius, pushing some current staple crops out of the temperature bands in which they can germinate) – Michaels makes no mention of precipitation, except to basically trot out the old “CO2 is plant food” argument by saying “greenhouse warming takes place more in the winter, which lengthens growing seasons. With adequate water, plants then fix and yield more carbohydrate.” This is almost hilarious, as one of the biggest problems we face is finding adequate water. Rising atmospheric temperatures have driven changes in wind patterns and atmospheric moisture content which, in turn, have shifted rainfall patterns over the past century or more. Today CO2 is not able to serve as plant food in many parts of the world that most need it because the very injection of more CO2 into the atmosphere is creating declines in the rain needed to make that CO2 useful to plants. Unless Michaels is willing to argue that rainfall patterns have not shifted, and therefore is willing to ignore rain gauge data from around the world, he has just offered the reader another misleading argument.
To address these empirically-documented challenges, farmers have adopted new crops, some biotech and improved irrigation tech has helped (though in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, a region in which most agriculture is rain-fed, farmers are getting hammered by precipitation change) , but we are moving into an era where the vast bulk of work on GMOs is “defensive” – that is, trying to hold the line on yields as environmental conditions deteriorate. This is not a recipe for continued rising yields in the future – which makes a few of his later claims really, really embarrassing – if he had shame, that is. His claim that the continued increase in per capita grain production is going up means that climate change has had no effect is a logical fallacy – he is not factoring in how much production we have lost because of climate effects (and we are losing production – Southern Africa is one example). His claims about rising wheat production in the future, even in a world free of wheat rust, presume either current environmental conditions will hold or that there will be significant technological advances that boost yields – but these are assumptions, not facts that can be stated with certainty.
In short, Michael’s alignment of temperature change and improving human conditions are basically unrelated . . . unless one wants to (rightly) note that many of the things that allowed us to live longer and get fatter required manufacturing processes and transport mechanisms that burned fossil fuels, thus warming the atmosphere – in other words, causality runs the other way. We live longer and better, which is in part causing the warming of the atmosphere. But Michaels can’t even consider that direction of causality . . .
I do agree with Michaels that using food crops for ethanol is and was stupid. Of course, I was saying this (along with a lot of other colleagues) at author meetings of UNEP’s Fourth Global Environment Outlook in 2005. The decision to push biofuels was political, not scientific. Welcome to the party, Pat – we’ve already been here for a while, but there might still be some beer in the keg . . .
So, to summarize – Michaels has created a post that relies on false correlation, logical fallacy and misdirection to create the idea that climate change might not be a problem for agriculture, and that it might even be good for global production. But he does not cite the vast bulk of the science out there – and ignores the empirical literature (not theory, not conjecture – measured changes) to create a very deceptive picture that minimizes the slowly intensifying challenges facing people living in many parts of the Global South. I invite Dr. Michaels to look at the FEWS-NET data – not just contemporary, but historical – on the East African/Horn of Africa climate. Empirical observation (again, measured, verified observations, not projections) tells us it is drying out* . . . and has been, for some time, massively compromising both crops and livestock, the backbone of livelihoods in Southern Ethiopia, Somalia and Northeastern Kenya. As all hell breaks loose in that region, and the US Government considers using the term famine for the first time in a decade to describe the situation on the ground, it seems to me that Michaels’ efforts at misdirection rise beyond nuisance to a real question of ethics that Forbes would do well to consider before publishing such mendacious material again.
*very important note: FEWS-NET is agnostic as to the causes of the drying out – at this time, they do not care what causes it, they need to document it to better organize US Government and multilateral food aid delivery. They would have jobs even if climate change did not exist, as the weather does vary from year to year no matter what, and therefore food insecurity would vary year by year.