Apocalypse Never Book Club: I. Scientific Hubris and the Satellite Gaze

My intent with book club is to discuss a chapter each week. People are welcome to comment on any topic in the chapter that strikes your interest anytime during the week.
MS (Michael Schellenberger) visits a great many diverse topics in each chapter. I picked the one below as there are sociology of science questions that I’d like to draw out from his text.

For the purposes of these posts, I’m going to assume that MS conveyed these statements accurately. At this point in the book (p. 12), MS is trying to get at the scientific basis for the “billions will die” claim.

To get to the bottom of the “billions will die” claim, I interviewed Rockström by phone. He said The Guardian reporter had misunderstood him. What he had actually said, he told me, was this: “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate eight billion people or even half of that,” not “a billion people.” Rockström said he had not seen the misquote until I emailed him and that he had requested a correction, which The Guardian made in late November 2019. Even so, Rockström was predicting four billion deaths.

“I don’t see scientific evidence that a four degree Celsius planet can host eight billion people,” he said. “This is, in my assessment, a scientifically justified statement, as we don’t have evidence that we can provide freshwater or feed or shelter today’s world population of eight billion in a four degree world. My expert judgment, furthermore, is that it may even be doubtful if we can host half of that, meaning four billion.

But is there IPCC science showing that food production would actually decline? “As far as I know they don’t say anything about potential population that can be fed at different degrees of warming,” he said.

MS goes on to point out some studies. What I thought was interesting is the casual throwing around of large, scary figures with a claim of “science.” Or rather a “scientifically justified statement” or perhaps simply “expert judgment.” I guess we are talking “educated guesses” then, to be more correct, but how educated, really? How far can scientists make claims out beyond any possible headlights? Is there any accountability for making those kinds of statements? And can we understand why scientists choose to do this?

Let’s take a look at some of the unknowns. For one thing, we don’t know how many billion people there will be to start with in the future. We can’t even predict how many people will wear masks for Covid- even if it’s required by law. We don’t know (anything, really, about) what will happen in a four degree world, since that’s an average, and no plant or animal perceives a global average. We simply don’t know what the environment would be like on a particular place on the planet’s surface. As I’ve said many times, we don’t know how much adaptability is in the genome of different plants, how we will be messing with it (technology, who could have foreseen CRISPR thirty years ago?) by then, nor how hard it would be for farmers to switch out with other species, based on unknown future eating habits and markets around the world. No one can possibly know that, either way. It’s also interesting that Rockstrom said that “there’s no evidence that we can support those many people.” There’s no evidence that we can’t, either.

From my perspective, as a scientist whose career is in what we might call the “adaptation” fields, I have to wonder “who is judged to be an expert when it comes to adaptation, and on what basis?” Let’s look at Rockström’s expertise.

Before focusing on the planetary scale, Rockström’s research aimed to address building resilience in water scarce regions, and is an expert on water resources. After completing a PhD at Stockholm University’s Systems Ecology Department in 1997, he spent nearly two decades working on applied water research in tropical regions. He has also published research on with agriculture systems, land use, and ecosystem services.

He moved from working on applied water research to the “planetary scale”, in other words, what we might call the Satellite Gaze, the idea that you can understand the world without understanding parts of the world and how they work. I have concerns with The Satellite Gaze- especially the role of local people and institutions, natural resource practitioners, managers of dams, farmers, and so on. To say that they are disempowered is not strong enough; they are practically invisible; and certainly do not participate in the discussion. Can you imagine giving say Kansas State University $5 million to ask all the researchers and extension folks to check back after they’ve figured out what the regional down-scaled models would say about future Kansas climate, and how farmers and ranchers might adapt? Sure, it would cost more than running some models and publishing a paper, but at the end of the day it might be a great deal more realistic and useful. But if there is no $ for research, then there is no “science” to compete with the Satellite Gaze, and the ones who get the research $ get to claim that authority, and get media attention for their expertise-and the rest of us become even more invisible.

I’ll go back to another sentence that MS uses after his discussion about fires in California.

“The bottom line is that other human activities have a greater impact on the frequency and severity of forest fires than the emission of greenhouse gases. And that’s great news, because it gives Australia, California, and Brazil far greater control over their future than the apocalyptic news media suggested.”

Jon Keeley,a wildfire expert at USGS, talks about more people, more ignitions, but to me, the greatest impact on acres and damage has to be the efforts of fire suppression folks. We’d need to understand how they can adapt to longer fire seasons and drier conditions before we could determine what the ultimate changes in fire acres and intensity might be. As Keeley says about fuels on page 20 “It’s the problem in some of the reports done by climatologists who understand climate but don’t necessarily understand the subleties related to fires.”

My point is that when scientists attempt to predict the future (using assumptions with a pinch of data at most) and leave out the humans that are likely to grapple with it and how they currently do their work, how can they claim to be experts on impacts? It’s puzzling, although not something MS addresses directly in the book. If we flipped to Covid considerations, it would be a bit like modeling spread without including hospitals or doctors.

One more example is one page 1. “A NASA scientist predicted simultaneous collapses of food systems on multiple continents at once. “the potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing” she told the NY Times.” Rosenzweig seems like a knowledgeable person on agriculture and climate change, but if you don’t really understand how farmers adapt, how can you understand one part of one continent (or one state, or one crop), let alone multiple continents. Again, have we lost track of “human beings and how they adapt” when the verbiage of research is modelling “collapsing food systems”?

Again, just because I singled this out for attention.. there’s lots in the chapter and anything is fair game for discussion.

7 thoughts on “Apocalypse Never Book Club: I. Scientific Hubris and the Satellite Gaze”

  1. I do have an awesome Michael Shellenberger story from over 20 years ago, but I’ll save that for another time.

    However, I couldn’t help but notice that Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State (who has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences) mentioned Michael Shellenberger on Twitter today.

    Here are the links from the tweet, if anyone is interested.

    Debunkings of Shellenberger:


    The actual scientific linkages: https://sciline.org/quick-facts/hurricanes

    • What I like about climate scientists is that they make our forest disagreements look relatively civil.

      I’d be interested in discussing actual specific claims by MS as part of Book Club, with any individual on TSW or others, not just links to articles. It would be helpful if you said “in this sentence MS says, his reference is #24. I disagree because of this experience, or these references or ….”

      FWIW Shellenberger does have responses to the Peter Gleick/ Yale Climate Connections piece here. He’s also got a whole section on “responding to critics” here.

      I was hoping in Book Club we could get away from climate scientist internecine warfare and explore some of the less-explored byways in the book.

      I have followed the hurricane literature for some time and here is my conclusion: We have no clue about a consistent bunch of changes in hurricane characteristics due to the anthropogenic part of climate change. But we do know how to protect better from their impacts. Poor people can’t afford to as well. Assuming we don’t know what the ACC % of what aspect of hurricanes is, we also don’t know if it would change back, and to what extent, if we stopped putting C02 in the atmosphere today..and we’re not.. so I don’t see the utility of 1) this kind of research nor 2) arguing about the details of this research. I’d put the $ into hurricane protection and recovery efforts in poor countries.

      • Sharon,

        Why should we trust Michael Schellenberger more on this issue than:

        Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State (who has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences) and Dr. Peter H. Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur Fellow, and winner of the 2018 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization?

        • My point is that we don’t have to “trust” anybody… we can specify a specific knowledge claim and look at competing views ourselves. Sure, we can’t dig into all the details – but I think we can glean a great deal by hearing opposing experts.

          If I believed everything Mann or Gleick says, I would be saying that if the Science Establishment puts their Mantle of High Regard on someone, everything they say is true. Having worked in one of the main temples of the Science Establishment (OSTP), I don’t have that confidence. Nor can I put my own brain and experience on hold because there are Higher Authorities.

          • RE: “I think we can glean a great deal by hearing opposing experts.”

            Sure, I also agree with that. However, in this specific case….

            Dr. Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State (who has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences) and Dr. Peter H. Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur Fellow, and winner of the 2018 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization…ARE, in fact, EXPERTS on this issue.

            Meanwhile, Michael Shellenberger is a public relations guy.

            • My point with picking this book is that MS has many things to say, about.. many different things. Mann and Gleick are experts on some aspects of some issues related to climate change. Do all other scientists agree with everything either one says? I doubt it. If only, people whom NAS elected were always correct, the world would be much simpler, and we wouldn’t need such a large federal R&D budget.

              But let’s pick a claim from either one and discuss it!

              • Are you saying that someone’s credentials on a topic are irrelevant to the time and weight we should devote to considering what they say about it? Or that how interesting what they say is should be the main consideration.


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