Forbes delivers a one-two punch of viral climate garbage
Koalas aren't functionally extinct, but perhaps Forbes should be.
Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.
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HEATED is a daily, Monday through Thursday newsletter. But because it’s nearly Thanksgiving—and because I do pretty much all the cooking for my family’s meal every year—today’s issue will be the last one of the week.
When I quit my job to launch this newsletter three months ago, my biggest fear was that no one would sign up. I am thankful to all 15,432 of you who proved my panic wrong. Writing and reporting this thing every day has been the most gratifying and validating experience of my professional life. But I need a couple days to recharge and make stuffing.
I’ll be back on Monday, more ready than ever to arm you with the knowledge you need to effectively fight the climate crisis, and more ready than ever to be a jerk online. Thank you all for understanding!
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Koalas aren't functionally extinct, but perhaps Forbes should be
Here’s the thing. Sometimes, articles by Forbes contributors are good.
A piece by Forbes contributor Andy Stone last month, for example, used new research to analyze how carbon tax legislation proposed in Congress might affect low-income Americans. It’s titled “A Carbon Tax Won’t Kill the Economy.” Talk about it at your next dinner party.
There’s also the regular articles by meteorologist Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia professor and former president of the American Meteorological Society. Last week, he wrote about how the animated movie “Frozen” can be used as an effective climate lesson.
These pieces effectively informed the public about climate change. But not many people read them. Combined, they were viewed less than 4,000 times.
The two Forbes articles below, however, distorted public knowledge on climate change, and contained factual inaccuracies to the point where both headlines had to be changed. As of Monday night, they were viewed a combined 2.7 million times.
Fighting climate misinformation is essential to effectively fighting climate change. But climate misinformation seems inevitable under Forbes’ paid contributor business model, which appears to reward opinion writers financially for volume and clickiness, rather than quality of content.
It’s a wonder a one-two punch incident like this hasn’t happened sooner.
Hot garbage piece #1: Koalas “functionally extinct”
In terms of views, the koala piece was the bigger whoopsie-daisy of the two climate pieces published by Forbes contributors in the last three days. Originally titled “Koalas ‘Functionally Extinct’ After Australia Bushfires Destroy 80% Of Habitat,” the piece written by Forbes senior contributor Trevor Nace had racked up 2.5 million views as of Monday night.
Problem is, experts say koalas aren’t “functionally extinct”—and that while they’re critically threatened and could go extinct, describing them as “functionally extinct” does more harm than good.
“What is particularly frustrating about the term ‘functional extinction’ is it indicates a population that is basically past the point of no return, so it means that nothing really can be done,” Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and School of Biology and Ecology told the New York Times. “That might seem like scientists quibbling over terms or trying to argue for nerdy levels of precision, but a strong statement like that should mean something.”
At some point after its publication on Saturday, the headline was changed to “Fires May Have Killed Up To 1,000 Koalas, Fueling Concerns Over The Future Of The Species.” But damage had clearly already been done. Just anecdotally, I saw the piece with the original headline all over my social media feeds over the weekend. And on Monday night, while talking about the piece on Twitter, multiple people asked me, “So wait, are they extinct or not??”
Other journalists have done the work on this one, so I’ll just link out to their pieces. If you want to know the real deal on koalas, read the Times piece, the National Geographic piece, or the New Scientist piece.
Hot garbage piece #2: “Everything [activists] say about climate change is wrong.”
There are people who will argue that the koala extinction exaggeration was not so bad. After all, it probably got a lot of people to care about koalas, and read about the effect of climate change on bushfires and habitat.
The problem is, the koala exaggeration played directly into the hands of people and groups who falsely claim climate scientists and activists are being alarmist when they engage in frightening rhetoric about the future of civilization; and who spread misinformation downplaying the terrifying potential of climate change to threaten human life.
That is, in fact, exactly what Mike Shellenberger did yesterday in his opinion piece for Forbes, originally titled, “Why Everything They Say About Climate Change is Wrong.” As of Monday night, the piece had more than 200,000 views.
Shellenberger is the co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a quite controversial think tank among climate activists. I’ll leave it to you to read up on it; if I get into it, it’ll take up the whole newsletter. The gist is basically that they’re eco-modernists, pro-gas, and pro-nuclear.
The primary purpose of Shellenberger’s piece was to decry “exaggeration” by activists, and argue that such “exaggeration” is harming the fight against climate change. This was very funny to me, because the headline literally claimed “everything” Ocasio-Cortez and climate activists like Greta Thunberg say about climate change is untrue.
Seems like it would be pretty harmful to the fight against climate change if everyone believed that headline.
Anyway, the headline was eventually changed to “Why Apocalyptic Claims About Climate Change Are Wrong.” There is no note of the change or explanation provided in the piece.
Issues beyond the headline
I encourage you to read the piece yourself, but Shellenberger’s arguments include (quotes from his piece in bold):
That climate change does not represent an existential threat to human life. “No credible scientific body has ever said climate change threatens the collapse of civilization much less the extinction of the human species.”
That climate change is not going to cause mass displacements or migration. “‘There is robust evidence of disasters displacing people worldwide,’ notes IPCC, ‘but limited evidence that climate change or sea-level rise is the direct cause.’” Also, “The majority of resultant population movements tend to occur within the borders of affected countries," says IPCC.
That humans will simply adapt to 2 feet of sea level rise. “Consider that one-third of the Netherlands is below sea level, and some areas are seven meters below sea level. You might object that Netherlands is rich while Bangladesh is poor. But the Netherlands adapted to living below sea level 400 years ago. Technology has improved a bit since then.”
That climate change isn’t killing koalas. “Climate change is playing its role here,” said Richard Thornton of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre in Australia, “but it's not the cause of these fires."
That “crop failure, famine, and mass death” are “science fiction, not science.”
I find all of these points pretty misleading. Of course no scientific body has explicitly said climate change threatens the collapse of civilization or mass human extinction. That is not a type of thing scientists are known to say. These statements are subjective interpretations of the worst-case scenarios scientists have laid out. These worst-case scenarios include mass migrations, mass displacements, mass crop losses, mass water shortages, mass feedback loops of warming, mass extinctions. Scientists assess these things individually; activists, politicians and journalists take them together to paint a picture of what the world as a whole might look like.
And just because climate change might not the “direct cause” of some of these issues—like mass displacement, or koala deaths—that doesn’t mean climate change isn’t going to make those issues exponentially worse. In fact, Marshall Shepherd wrote about this in an Actually Good Forbes contributor piece, where he said one of the biggest hoaxes around climate change is the idea that it’s an “either/or” problem.
And yes, the IPCC does says the majority of population movements tend to occur within borders. But scientists have also said that people will move outside of them, too. Some studies have predicted that by 2100, climate change could force from their homes more than 23 million people in China; 2.8 million people in Indonesia; 2.1 million people in Bangladesh; and ten million people in Vietnam. How is that not an existential crisis?
Also, this dude thinks Bangladesh will just…adapt to sea level rise, so don’t worry about it? What’s going on here?
I appreciate Shellenberger’s optimism. But in my mind, it is far more irresponsible to be optimistic about the problem and undershoot solutions, than to be over-concerned and do more than what’s necessary. Activists have every right to be apocalyptic in their rhetoric. The science supports the interpretation.
The Forbes business model is basically asking for misinformation
Last year, the Wall Street Journal wrote about how Forbes pays its opinion contributors. Basically, it says, the site wildly underpays people to provide content—and they’re only paid more only if they produce a lot of pieces, or if their pieces attract a lot of attention.
In other words, volume and clickiness are the criteria for which Forbes contributors are judged. What could go wrong?
The climate crisis is primarily a product of misinformation. For decades, the oil, gas, coal, and railroad industries paid billions to spread doubt about whether climate change was a problem was worth fighting, so they wouldn’t have to be regulated. Their disinformation campaign seeped into American politics and poisoned the Republican Party, which worked on the industries’ behalf to ensure climate policies were never enacted.
If journalists and others had recognized and fought against that disinformation campaign 30 years ago, we probably would not have delayed climate action for so long. We probably would have had 41 years to halve our emissions before dangerous warming became inevitable, not eleven.
That is why climate misinformation is so important. Because the longer it attracts more attention than the truth, the shorter we’ll have to prevent catastrophe.
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