Is Climate Change Making You Wobbly in the Head?

By Keith Kloor | April 25, 2014 2:20 pm

In the latest report issued last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a chapter on human security that caught the media’s attention. I thought Seth Borenstein’s AP piece did a nice job distilling the chapter’s essence:

Top scientists are saying that climate change will complicate and worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars, strife between nations and refugees.

They’re not saying it will cause violence, but will be an added factor making things even more dangerous.

No argument there. Of course, many headlines were sensational (including this one by the New York Post slapped on the AP article) and over the top. No surprise there.

Around this time (early April), Joshua Busby, an international relations scholar at the University of Texas, cautioned in a post at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog: “…the care that the [IPCC] authors took in describing the state of scientific knowledge about violence and conflict may get lost. As scientific claims go public, they often lose their nuances.”

It didn’t take long for that to happen with the climate change = war narrative. Here’s a curious claim in an otherwise nuanced Climatewire article (my emphasis)

But researchers who work in the [environmental/climate security] field say the IPCC’s scientific caution about the still-nascent field of academic study masks a growing certainty in security circles that climate change is dramatically destabilizing already-vulnerable communities.

The rest of the piece actually says there is no such certainty, a point underscored by this passage:

“It’s ambiguous. It’s complex. It’s not going to be this simple ‘climate causes conflict’ narrative, but rather climate impacts things we know are connected to conflict. It’s still very contested,” said one person close to the [IPCC] report.

Now let’s jump ahead to an article by Eric Holthaus that appeared last week at Slate. His takeaway from the chapter on human security and climate change in the latest IPCC report:

Climate change is already destabilizing nations and leading to wars.

Next, he writes:

That finding was highlighted in this week’s premiere of Showtime’s new star-studded climate change docu-drama Years of Living Dangerously.

I recently explored the strained logic behind the Syria civil war/climate change connection. [UPDATE: For a richly informed perspective on the larger climate-conflict debate, see this related post by Tim Kovach.] Nonetheless, what we’re starting to see is the conflation take shape: Climate change is already triggering civil wars like the one in Syria. Grist has cross-posted the Slate piece with this headline:

“Climate change war” is not a metaphor

The intended message: Climate change fueled war is real and it’s happening now.

It makes for an intoxicating storyline.

If the simplicity of it makes you dizzy, then you should read the recent Slate article by Daniel Sarewitz. It’ll go down like black coffee. He writes that,

with climate change being blamed for almost everything these days, the one phenomenon that seems to have escaped the notice of scientists, environmentalists and the media alike is that, perhaps above all, climate change is making us stupid.

That might be a little too strong. But it should sober you up.

  • J M

    When is the NRA going to recognize the potential here? If climate change destabilizes societies and increases violence (I think some US social scientist linked increasing temperatures to increase in rapes?), how should you prepare?
    Plant a tree, ride a bicycle or buy a gun?

  • Steve Crook

    “climate change being blamed for almost everything these days”

    It’s not just these days. That’s what it was like 10 years or more ago. It was the blanket and unthinking attribution of anything and everything to climate change that started me on a more sceptical path.

    I started to look at some of the journalistic reports and try and do some basic fact checking and found that they were, mainly, shallow and poorly researched. So eventually, I was sceptical about media reports.

    Still think climate change is happening and that we’re largely responsible, but when it comes to the longer term effects and policies I’ve become deeply distrustful of what I’m being told.

    The political shenanigans over the SPMs (particularly the last one) have done nothing to change my opinion that it’s getting increasingly difficult to discern where the science stops and politics and ideology begin.

    As for “Years Of Living Dangerously”, what the world needs are jet set multi home owning high rollers telling how we’re damaging the planet. It looks like it’s pretty much dead on it’s feet and good riddance.

  • realheadline

    The slipshod science and multi-layered fraud known as ‘climate change’ has moved from the fad du jour to the dustbin of history for good reason. Legitimate scientist wishing to retain their integrity and credibility are backpedaling faster than a three-legged monkey on a tricycle.
    http://www.robertstavinsblog.org/2014/04/25/is-the-ipcc-government-approval-process-broken-2/

  • Tom Scharf

    I think most here know where I stand on this claim climate change causes war meme.

    There is one important semantic difference in sentence construction that does make a difference:

    1. “climate sometimes making conflicts worse or more likely”
    2. “climate CHANGE sometimes making conflicts worse or more likely”

    I really don’t have a big problem with an argument that sometimes conflicts can arise out of battles over water rights, or drought stricken communities are a bit more tense and prone to riots.

    It’s a totally different thing to state that the recent rise in CO2 and 0.4C temperature rise over the past 50 years is somehow “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. Especially in light of the scant evidence that climate has materially gotten “worse”.

    This is an extraordinary claim and requires some extraordinary connecting of the dots in a clear and convincing manner.

    This appears to be yet another idea that is born out of perceived political necessity. It seems desperate, and it sure seems like a bad idea on the level of claiming global warming causes really cold winters and other counter intuitive statements that are just begging for ridicule. This is not the way to build up the authority and credibility of climate science. Is this not obvious?

    A skeptic’s delight.

  • JH

    Nice piece, Keith.

  • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

    I agree that some have overplayed their hand here, but I think that’s to be expected to a certain extent. When so many earn their living writing on the topic of climate change, a few (whether through malice or ignorance) are likely to connect the dots in a way that gives them a scary headline, regardless of the facts. I’m not condoning this, I’m just suggesting that with any big announcement you’re going to have at least a few folks chasing clicks by any means necessary. That scab will always be available to you for the picking, but does it reflect a general consensus or is it a marginal take? This reminds me of Nafeez Ahmed’s overreach with the “NASA study.” That was a piece which was rightly skewered. This stuff I see more as, “Meh.” With every big announcement, we’ll get more sky is falling takes. The world is full of Chicken Littles. Good luck trying to change that.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      I get your point, which is why I tend to wait and see whether something gets picked up more widely. The Guardian NASA story is a good example. When I initially read it, I thought, oh, this is really lop-sided and sensationalistic. But I would never have written about it had it not gone viral.

      The same can be said for the climate change = war storyline. It’s gotten additional traction courtesy of the Showtime segment, the recent IPCC report, and so on, despite the complex causal chain (which the IPCC authors made sure to emphasize). So rather than mindlessly jump on the bandwagon, I thought it would be good to show that the actual debate is much more nuanced than some would lead you to believe.

  • David Skurnick

    The formula is simple: Take any field that conceivably could be affected by climate change, no matter how tenuously. Assume a pessimistic climate change scenario. Apply that scenario to your chosen field, based on pessimistic guesses. Make sure your study projects that climate change will make your area worse. Voila! You get funding, you get published, and you get media coverage.

    However, suppose we look at what actually happened so far. World food production substantially increased since 1970. Higher levels of atmospheric CO2 undoubtedly contributed to the increase in food. Also, moderately higher average temperatures probably contributed to the increase in food.
    With the same amount of rigor (or lack thereof) a scientist could equally well predict that climate change will make war less likely, because food will becomes more available. Of course, you’re not going to see that study put out by the IPCC.

  • Ray

    Per IPCC Lead Author Professor Robert Stavins of Harvard, the ratio of Scientists to Politicos formulating the final draft was 2 to 45 (or 50) . What ever the IPCC report is, it isn’t science.

    • JH

      Stavins was referring only to the Summary for Policy Makers.

  • Bart Burroughs

    no, being an idiot is making you wobbly in the head. climate change is just making you cold (or hot depending on whom you believe) as well as wobbly in the head.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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