The perils of passion

In this age of intense cultural polarization, one of the topics invoking the greatest amount of hot air is climate change. I’ll be up front in that I’ve always thought the idea of “global warming” was a farce but that we are likely to instead see climatic shifts as a result of our industrialization. The stakes are high and those who prophesy the coming change can resort to scare tactics that seem necessary in our over-informed, busy world.

The latest ‘More or Less: Behind the Stats’ features a story about what happens when such predictions fall flat. Norman Myers created a map in the mid-90s that showed regions of the world that would see a mass exodus as a result of climate change. His method of prediction was quite simple: he predicted areas hardest hit and then simply used their total census data. He then attached to it the year 2010.

On the face of it, this “study” isn’t more than a worse-case, alarming scenario that I would hope is presented to policy makers, among other more-realistic options. What made the map and prediction come to light was a blogger’s critique of it…and its hosting on the UN Environment Programme’s website and inclusion in IPCC literature. It turns out the very regions expecting emigration have seen steady increases in population.

After the critique, the UNEP quickly removed the map, but Dr Myers isn’t helping his case by refusing to retreat from his number or timeline, explaining that it’s difficult to count local migration that did not necessarily cross borders. And of course with his anecdotal reporting from refugee camps that his critics just weren’t passionate enough to visit as often.

The environmental movement is reaching the end of its adolescence, and for the first time a number of predictions from serious, respected figures can be compared to the actual outcomes. The fact that most stories on climate change simply quote the latest predictions without offering a perspective on what those experts previously forecast is disappointing. It’s like getting investment advice from the same guy who got burned in the tech bubble.

Failed predictions don’t necessarily mean the current batch are wrong, researchers have presumably spent the intervening time perfecting their models, collecting more thorough data, and exploring new ideas. Instead, journalist should take the time to cull extreme exaggerators of their pet experts. Michael Lewis does a superb job of providing sobering economic predictions in The Big Short by profiling the investors that made unholy amounts of wealth off of predicting the financial crisis, but then there’s no disputing whether that crisis occurred.

Media type: Podcast
From: BBC’s More or Less: Behind the Stats
Title: “More or Less looks at child poverty, climate refugees and Sir Henry Cooper’s left hook”
Ponder at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010xykh