Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Human extinction? Not so much.

The case against going extinct soon due to extreme climate change & human impacts. Science journalist Scott K. Johnson and counter-culture podcaster KMO. Radio Ecoshock 140917

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Last week, Dr. Guy McPherson predicted humans will go extinct by 2030. Now science journalist Scott K Johnson and counter-culture podcaster KMO explain why they disagree. It's bad, but not that bad.


In last week's Radio Ecoshock show, Dr. Guy McPherson explained his scientific reasons why he thinks humans will become extinct before the year 2040. He outlined a combined ecological collapse, already on-going in the extinction of other species, a dying ocean, the prospect of abandoned or failing nuclear plants, and the over-riding shift of Earth's climate.

McPherson is a Professer Emeritus in natural science from the University of Arizona. He has collected masses of scientific papers, news articles, and statements to show the worst of all worlds developing.

Our next guest says Guy McPherson is wrong. Scott K. Johnson describes himself as "a geoscience educator, hydrologist, and freelance science writer contributing at Ars Technica." His personal blog is at An article there has become a focal point for people questioning McPherson and the whole idea of near-term human extinction. It's title is "How Guy McPherson gets it wrong".

Scott K. Johnson

I begin by clearing on thing up. Some supporters of McPherson seem to think that anyone who disagrees with him is a climate denier. Scott Johnson is not. He thinks climate change is a clear and present danger to us all.

Although not strictly speaking a scientist, Johnson has plenty of academic training, with a specialty in hydrology. He is a teacher, and as he says, a science journalist.

But Johnson does see a strange parallel between Guy McPherson's approach to facts, and the way climate deniers tend to use them. Scott says it involves cherry-picking some parts of a paper or report, without consider the rest of it, or even the conclusions reached by the author(s). Johnson notes that McPherson is caught in a double-bind. On the one hand, he presents his array of reasons why we will go extinct as based on science. On the other, he dismisses scientists who don't agree with his bleak prognosis as being too afraid to talk about the awful truth they know.

I point out to Scott that I have talked with scientists, often after an interview, who will say privately they are more worried than they admit publicly. That does happen. But that doesn't mean that all scientists are afraid. We have plenty of outspoken scientists, and I haven't found any that publish peer-reviewed papers who say we will become extinct in the next 25 years.

We discuss the central role played in Guy's dating scheme, the time of our extinction, by a single "paper" (which turns out to be just a blog post) by Malcolm Light of the Arctic News. I've written extensively about the unreliable nature of Malcolm Light's pretty wild prediction, including the very month and year all humans will be gone from the Northern Hemisphere.

In what looks like a scientific paper, complete with complex graphs and charts, we find this stunning announcement: "The absolute mean extinction time for the northern hemisphere is 2031.8 and for the southern hemisphere 2047.6 with a final mean extinction time for 3/4 of the earth's surface of 2039.6."

Well that's pretty precise isn't it? In August 2031, say goodbye for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. There is a lot in this article. I won't call it a scientific "paper" until I can find evidence it was peer-reviewed or published in an official journal.

This reminds me more of religion than science. If you haven't already read that piece, please check it out here. I won't go over all that again, except to say it's a very weak spot in Guy argument, and he's sticking to it.

One thing alarmed me talking with Scott. He's had emails from spouses or relatives of people who made major life changes - quit their jobs, their relationships, or sold off their possessions. They seem fixated only on everything about our up-coming demise as a species. It seems like a kind of parallel to religious conversion, or maybe the most extreme preppers.

Guy is also aware of the mental health risks of considering our extinction. He told us last week it's been hard on him personally. His blog "Nature's Bat's Last" has had a warning, right on top, "Contemplating Suicide? Please Read This". As I say to KMO, I sometimes worry about the negative impacts of Radio Ecoshock as well. I try to balance the really bad news, at least a little, with some more positive lifestyle changes that can help us personally, and help the planet too. As you will know by the end of this program, I am not ready to grieve for the future, and in fact, I will never give up.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with Scott K. Johnson in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


Another key part of Guy McPherson's case for our near-term extinction is the long list of positive feed-back loops (37 by his last count). I've said to Guy and to others, I think he's performing a service to us all by repeatedly bringing these to our attention. Guy also points out these feed-back loops can interact with each other, making climate change worse and faster. True enough, I think.

But a retired research scientist from the University of Texas has looked at all these positive feed-back loops, and say they cannot possibly amount to human extinction in the 2030's. They are bad, but not that bad.

Michael Tobis blogs at He's active in the Global Warming Fact of the Day Facebook group. His detailed examination of the extinction-level possibilities of feedback loops is found here.

First of all, once again, Tobis is not a person who downplays the developing impact of climate change. He's obviously deeply worried about it, and follows the science closely. It's just that he sees nothing scientific in the claim that positive feed-back loops add up to our extinction, much less our extinction in the next few decades.

One place I'm not sure about Tobis' argument is the way he seems to discount the interaction between feedback loops. He says they are "additive" rather than "multiplicative" the way McPherson claims, and makes a big deal about that. Maybe. But if one feedback loop, like Arctic fires, feeds another, like darkening snow on Greenland, I don't have much trouble seeing the result could be larger than the sum of it's parts. You need to check this out for yourself.

One thing for sure, as I point out in this radio interview: Guy McPherson does not give us the whole picture when he fails to tell us about negative feedback loops. These are the "brakes" in the natural system which can limit runaway climate change (so far). I've run into one recently, which you'll hear about in an upcoming show. That is the way Boreal forests, once burned, are less likely to burn again within a few decades, even if they regrow. There is a limiting factor at work, a negative feedback loop. Our picture of science is not complete without these, and we need to hunt for them as hard as we do positive feedback loops. Otherwise we are just in the business of frightening ourselves.


I've just realized I said Malcolm Light's essay about flaming death and our extinction is posted on the web site of AMEG the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. Actually it is found on the Arctic News blog. Bloggers Sam Carana and Malcolm Light were part of AMEG, but left over a year ago. AMEG and Arctic News are separate.

I was also puzzled last week to hear Guy McPherson say University of Ottawa climate scientist Paul Beckwith predicts we will see warming by as much as 16 degrees Centigrade in the next couple of decades.

The exact quote from Guy McPherson on the Radio Ecoshock show last week:

"The likes of Paul Beckwith, for example, that we are headed for the abyss. Although Paul would not use those words, and perhaps doesn't even believe that we are headed for our own extinction, even though he predicts up to 16 C temperature rise within a couple of decades, and that prediction was made more than year ago.... "

I checked this out with Paul Beckwith, and here is what he told me in an email, quote:

"During the past, around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago the Earth periodically cycled between cold glacial conditions and much warmer temperatures in so-called Dansgaard-Oeschger Oscillations (DO oscillations). Typically the temperature rise was 5 to 6 degrees C over one or two decades. The temperature would stay high for a century to millennia and then drop down again. However there was one case where the temperature rise was 16 degrees C over a few decades. This data was obtained from the Greenland Ice core records. Thus, the climate of the Earth has undergone very rapid temperature swings in the past, and is therefore capable of such changes again. I have also said that I think we are presently in early stages of abrupt climate change, and could see temperature rises of 5 to 6 degrees in a decade or two."

That the end of a quote from scientist Paul Beckwith. You can see the difference from what Guy McPherson told us. Guy was careful to say UP to 16 degrees, but we are left thinking Paul predict that WILL happen. He says it has happened in the geological record, and we are on the brink of some kind of jump in global mean temperatures, perhaps 5 or 6 degrees in a decade or two. That's far more than most scientists are willing to suggest, but I think Guy took some liberties to say Beckwith absolutely "predicts" anything like 16 degrees will happen. The picture we get is different from what the original scientists said in full, leaving us with in incorrect impression. That's why we have to be careful with Guy's communication of what the science says.

In a post on this Radio Ecoshock blog for last week's show, Guy then wrote this:

"Beckwith incorrectly believes (1) the U.S. will employ its military to cool the Arctic when the situation becomes obviously severe, and (2) humans will survive a 16 C rise in temperature. Believe his fantasies if you like. I prefer reality."

The U.S. military may well act to cool the Arctic. They just sent troops to fight Ebola in Liberia, so it's not inconceivable that after a climate panic, the Pentagon will be called to fight climate change.

The second part of that statement, that Beckwith believes humans will survive a 16 C rise in temperature is just ridiculous. Again, I checked with Paul Beckwith. He did not say that, and does not believe that. Frankly, I find it strange that Guy McPherson makes such statements, that can easily be checked and found out. Who is believing in fantasies, and who in reality?

KMO - host of the C-Realm Podcast

In my opinion, you haven't tasted alternative media until you've tuned into the c-realm podcast. Host KMO holds in-depth conversations with an amazing roster of serious guests, some of them very well known. And by the way, "c" stands for consciousness.

Maybe it's serendipity, maybe it's a strong movement in the counter-culture. But completely independently, KMO and I were both preparing shows on the growing number of our listeners asking whether we humans are about to go extinct. That's mostly in response to presentations and speeches by Dr. Guy McPherson, formerly a Professor of natural sciences at the University of Arizona.

KMO is one of the pioneers of podcasting, starting out around the same time I did, in 2006. He's now at almost 500 podcasts. I've listened to dozens of them, as KMO goes in-depth with some really great minds. KMO was early into Peak Oil, and now into climate change as well. He's interviewed all kinds of doomers - but he thinks McPherson has gone too far. He contacted me, after reading my criticism of using Malcolm Light as a credible source. Our discussion will be jointly broadcast on Radio Ecoshock and on the C-Realm Podcast. Members of the C-Realm podcast can also hear another hour of our chat, on a wide range of topics, in the members-only "Vault".

KMO knows Guy McPherson more personally than I do. He first met Guy when McPherson was pretty certain Peak Oil was going to bring down civilization as we know it, really soon. That may have been one of the reasons McPherson chose to leave the University of Arizona and develop his self-sufficient homestead. When the oil-based civilization kept going, KMO saw Guy McPherson switch to climate change as the reason the evil empire was going to fall.

Incidentally, KMO offers some real wisdom here, when he says if you are waiting for, and expecting, the rest of the world to admit they were wrong, and you were right all along.... don't. It's never going to happen. I agree.

We have a spirited conversation about what the whole near-term extinction movement means. Does it fit within our culture, rather than being the end of all culture? How does this end-of-days group compare to others, like the early Christians, of the Seventh Day Aventists (who had to keep moving the final date forward, when it didn't happen as predicted..)?

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock interview with KMO in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


Well there you go, first a program making the case that we will go extinct, and now two voices who disagree. Of course, you will make up your own mind.

At this point, it's impossible to prove who is right. As you can tell, in my untrained opinion, which isn't worth any more than yours, our problem is not that we risk near-term extinction, but that we will have to struggle on for generations, through a terrible shift in our climate, a growing shortage of energy and materials we now take for granted, and the general degradation of the natural world, including the extinction many species. That is bad enough.

There is no way to prove Guy McPherson wrong, except waiting until 2030. It comes down to who you want to believe. And whether he is "right" or "wrong" I think Guy deserves to be heard. It is worthwhile chasing down his references, so long as you remember there are other valid points of view.

It's also my hope this debate will stick mainly with the science, rather than personal attacks, and whether we "like" Guy McPherson (or Alex Smith) or not. We are all under a lot of stress. I've heard some climate scientists act badly from time to time. So do politicians, lawyers, teachers... all humans. Let's stick to the arguments and facts, as well as we can.

I can't explain why I believe humans will continue, and even find pockets of happiness in the decades and centuries to come. Maybe I should just cite this blog entry as though it were science? (Smith, 2014)

I can't even explain why, in the face of scary news all around, I feel happy most days.

It's harvest time, and our kitchen and canning pots are flooded with food. I get to phone up some of the brightest minds in the world, and talk with them, on your behalf. Computers let me write the music I've always dreamed of. My family is doing well. Maybe I'm a simpleton?

Some people say I should be grieving, but I feel joy. Others say we should give up, and right from my core, I say "Never!"

I'm Alex Smith. Thanks for listening, and thank you for caring about our world.

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