RCP 8.5: World’s Stupidest Debate Makes Jump From Denialsphere To Mainstream

  • Published on February 4th, 2020
Before we get started, an apology. We’re sorry we have to do this to you. Today’s Roundup covers a topic that many of you have likely spent too long arguing about on Twitter. If you have “RCP8.5” muted, you can be excused from reading further.
IPCC models for business as usual
By Climate Denier Roundup

It’s likely our readers are already aware of the conspiracy theory that claims scientists, media and activists focus on the worst-case climate scenarios where the world burns fossil fuels unrestrained, known as RCP8.5, in order to generate grants, drive clicks, or to scare the public into supporting climate action. When the Trump administration tried to downplay the terrifying possibilities laid out in the National Climate Assessment, for example, it (falsely) blamed the report’s focus on RCP8.5 as being alarmist. (And as Myron Ebell explained at the end of a story about Will Happer’s time in the Trump admin, undercutting the NCA with this argument was the precursor to an attempt undo the Endangerment finding, revealing the strategic purpose of their pursuit of this line of pseudoscientific attack.)

Now, the Breakthrough Institute has successfully cleaned this narrative of its most obvious tinfoil-hat elements, and elevated this from the depths of the denialsphere, Twitter and the Daily Caller to the opinion pages of the WSJ, and now with an opinion piece in Nature.

This has, in turn spurred some unfortunate coverage in the BBC, with better and more nuanced takes in the Washington PostEarther, and E&E/Scientific American, with more likely to come.


But as one climate scientist pointed out on Twitter, this is sort of a redux of Climategate, where “deniers & lukewarmers wouldn’t shut up about how big it was” when  it actually “turned out to be nothing” because “the science was solid.” (That’s all you really need to know, so again, permission to stop reading here if you want.)

The claim made by critics is that the most extreme and pessimistic scenario, known as RCP8.5, is misleadingly described by scientists and the media as “business as usual,” when in reality the energy industry does not appear to be headed down the “burn all the coal possible and then some” pathway. Which is good news!

But unfortunately, it would only take a couple of unlucky rolls of the dice to get us to that level of warming without all that coal. As Climate Nexus explained last time this came up, continued feedback loops that turn carbon-absorbing forests into sources of carbon emissions, for example, or if the climate sensitivity is on the high end of the scale, then we could still see RCP8.5 levels of warming without continued coal burning.

Which means, as Dr. Mann posted in response to all this, the claim that the worst-case scenario is “misleading,” as the now-corrected BBC headline proclaimed, is itself misleading.

This could all be solved, as NASA’s Gavin Schmidt pointed out, if instead of calling RCP8.5 the “business-as-usual” scenario, it was called the “‘high end scenario’/’Burn it all’/’worst case scenario.’” It might’ve been business as usual when the scenarios were created, but now coal isn’t as economically appealing as gas or renewables, so our business as usual is slightly less dirty.

So if all that’s needed is a slight tweak to how these study results are described, why all the fuss? Why the endless Twitter threads, and op-eds upon op-eds, but not peer-reviewed studies?

For that, we’d like to direct you to science communicator Aaron Huertas, who put together a comprehensive history of this discussion prior to the latest Nature piece, describing the largely Twitter-based discourse as an “ego-driven, toxic bro-fest,” driven by “detractors of climate science” who “will always find something to complain about… since their criticisms are largely driven by political ideology, not a desire for improved communication.” (To be clear, those words describe the tone of the Twitter discussion, not the Nature op-ed, which as we noted doesn’t include the most obviously conspiratorial and toxic elements of this debate.)

Though Huertas’s post is long, it’s well worth reading, if for no other reasons than to truly understand and enjoy some of the spicy climate memes summarizing the discourse.

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