MRC celebrates exposing long-established fact; producer called claims “worst case scenarios,” ”not a prediction of what will happen” 

Climate deniers have worked themselves into a self-congratulatory lather over a “Good Morning America” segment from 2008 that included some erroneous predictions about the consequences of climate change. The segment promoted a special ABC News program called “Earth 2100,” which projected a future world living with the possible consequences of unchecked global warming.

Obviously, some of the prophesies were off. Among the predictions gone wrong, by June 2015 (today! get it!?!) $12.99 per gallon of milk and gasoline at more than $9 per gallon. Both of which are almost hilariously wrong.

The ultra-conservative Media Research Center’s “Newsbusters” website is doing a giddy victory dance over those purported mistakes. Because if a TV show doesn’t hit 1.000 in making bold predictions about future consequences of climate change, obviously it means global warming is a fraud and the liberal media are in on it, right? That’s what MRC would like you to believe.

“Seven years later, the network has quietly ignored its horribly inaccurate predictions about 2015,” MRC analyst Scott Whitlock harrumphs smugly. “When it comes to global warming claims, apparently results don’t matter for ABC.”

But, no, that’s not really how it works. Not at all. It’s far more complicated, but MRC isn’t going to tell you that. Because if they acknowledged any of the many qualifiers– including the producer’s explicit public statement that not all of the predictions were expected to come true, more on which later– in the presentation and content of “Earth 2100,” they’d have to acknowledge that they’re being purposefully narrow in their “analysis,” so that they can point and laugh.

The MRC audience isn’t going to complain because they’re deniers, too, just looking for something with enough surface credibility to confirm their biases. It doesn’t have to withstand scrutiny or analysis, because they have no desire to scrutinize or analyze. Just find a fault and point it out. The internet trolls and Koch-fueled echo chamber take care of the rest.

This is the weakest form of argumentation, cherry-picking your opponent’s worst failing and condemning their entire position on that basis, without confronting their stronger and more salient points. It’s a long-recognized fallacy that often trips up the logically challenged. But a stronger debater offers the opponent’s argument the most generous reading, so that one’s argument must be stronger to overcome it. Since MRC’s case is not strong, it has to cherry-pick.

What are the stronger points that MRC doesn’t confront? Here’s one example from the Newsbuster post:

As one expert warns that in 2015 the sea level will rise quickly, a visual shows New York City being engulfed by water.

First, the visual actually shows just low-lying parts of New York under water. Perhaps a quibbling point, but when MRC holds its targets to a standard of perfection, it has no standing to expect less. Further, not entirely due to sea level rise but in part because of climate change, Superstorm Sandy did, as a matter of fact, put much of NYC under water in 2012.

new-york-sandy-flood-surge-hurricane-sandy

Google Maps analysis of storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy

LiveScience.com breaks down the damage caused by SandyAs the sea level continues to rise, and storms become more powerful and frequent, unfortunately, we can expect to see more of it.

Here’s another item MRC presents but glosses over:

The video montage includes another unidentified person predicting that “flames cover hundreds of miles.”

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, this prediction is more or less accurate. UCS reports that the number of significant wildfires has surged in the western United States over the past several years. In the 1980s, the number of wildfires of more than 1,000 acres was around 140 annually. Between 2000 and 2012, that number nearly doubled to 250 per year. The reason for that, according to UCS, is a climate-change induced drop in precipitation, and earlier snowmelt caused by higher temperatures, resulting in forests being drier longer.

Funny River fire, Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, May 2014. It burned nearly 196,000 acres, or more than 300 square miles. Photo: Rashah McChesney, Peninsula Clarion

As of the moment I’m writing this, Alaska is dealing with about three dozen wildfires, including some that threaten homes and human life. Over the past ten years, Alaska has averaged about 1.2 million acres lost to wildfire annually.

And that’s just in the U.S. Australia has suffered through massive wildfires every summer for the past several years. This Google Earth map from January 2013 shows just how much of Australia was actively burning at one point in time that summer.

Wildfires killed at least 34 people in Siberia this past April, and left thousands homeless. On April 21, after the worst of the fires were contained, Russian officials reported that nearly 400 square miles were still burning.

And another prediction pointed out by MRC that’s not really wrong:

In the special, a “storm of the century” wiped out Miami.

Mind you, the special was produced in 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and killed 1,800 people. Do we really have to explain why this prediction might not be literally accurate, but is true in the sense that a major American city was nearly obliterated by a storm?

(Just in case we have to, as Neel V. Patel reports for Wired, Miami is already coping with rising ocean levels, not just with beach erosion and increased flood risk, but saltwater intrusion on freshwater aquifers.)

MRC didn’t explain why these predictions from the special were not subjected to closer scrutiny and disproven with evidence, like the milk and gas claims were. Probably it’s because the evidence shows them to be more true than not.

Moreover, not all of the show’s predictions were meant to come to pass by 2015, obviously; the title of the program is “Earth 2100,” after all. So MRC is attacking by insinuation predictions that have not yet been proven true 85 years before their deadline. This is another bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that its audience overlooks because they like the trick.

But the most salient fact that MRC overlooks, negligently if not deliberately (though deliberately is more likely the case), is that these predictions were always intended to be worst case scenarios of what could happen if nothing were done to halt global warming. The executive producer said so at the time. His statement reads, in part:

The scenarios in Earth 2100 are not a prediction of what will happen but rather a warning about what might happen. They are based on the work of some of the world’s top scientists and experts, as well as peer-reviewed articles from publications around the world. [...]

It is important to add that not all of the scientists we interviewed would agree with each specific scenario we present, or with our exact time frame. [...]

Though there is some disagreement about the specifics, there is widespread agreement among the 50-plus experts we spoke to in the course of our 18 months working on this show that if we do not change course in the near future, the collapse of our civilization is a real possibility.

When an insurance company, or an institution like the Pentagon, prepares for future threats, they always develop a worst case scenario — a sober assessment, based on expert research, of the most serious possible risks. To avoid the worst, they believe, you must plan for it.

This program was developed to show the worst-case scenario for human civilization. Again, we are not saying that these events will happen — rather, that if we fail to seriously address the complex problems of climate change, resource depletion and overpopulation, they are much more likely to happen. [Emphasis added.]

So some of these will probably not come true, the producer wrote in a public forum available still accessible by anyone with internet access, and as anyone at MRC could’ve learned if they bothered to Google it. MRC is congratulating itself for a big scoop, exposing something the producer said publicly seven years ago. Rare indeed is the exposé that exposes less.

The absence of the worst possible results, particularly in the presence of significant remedial efforts, is not evidence that the underlying threat does not exist. The show’s errant predictions, particularly given that the producer acknowledged that they were extreme worst-case scenarios and not endorsed by the entirety of the scientific experts consulted, have no bearing on the reality of global warming.

Unless, of course, you make your living feeding half-truths and distortions to the willingly and easily duped.