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What Emma Thompson got right and wrong on climate change

Posted on 7 September 2015 by dana1981

Actress and Greenpeace activist Emma Thompson was interviewed on BBC Newsnight about Shell’s drilling in the Arctic and associated climate change threats. In the interview, Thompson made some inaccurate statements about the timescales associated with those climate threats. However, her concerns are generally justified.

 Emma Thompson on BBC Newsnight.

Many critics have latched onto the following inaccurate statement,

if they take out of the earth all the oil they want to take out, you look at the science – our temperature will rise 4 degrees Celsius by 2030, and that’s not sustainable.

This is incorrect. According to the latest IPCC report, by 2030, global surface temperatures probably won’t be more than 2°C hotter than pre-industrial levels. A 2010 study led by Met Office climate scientist Richard Betts called “When could global warming reach 4°C?” answered the titular question as follows,

…our best estimate is that the [fossil fuel intensive] emissions scenario would lead to a warming of 4°C relative to pre-industrial during the 2070s. If carbon-cycle feedbacks are stronger, which appears less likely but still credible, then 4°C warming could be reached by the early 2060s

So, Thompson was off by three to four decades. However, because of the lag between the time when we emit greenhouse gases and when their full warming influence in realized, the highest emissions scenario considered in the latest IPCC report suggests we would commit ourselves to 4°C warming by 2050. 

That day could arrive even earlier because as the Betts study noted, carbon-cycle feedbacks may be stronger than currently simulated in climate models. Moreover, it takes time to transition our infrastructure away from fossil fuels. If we haven’t taken major steps in that direction in the coming years, we’ll commit ourselves to a very hot planet.

Additionally, 4°C represents a potentially catastrophic scenario. At 3–4°C warming, 40–70% of global species would be at risk as we continue on the path toward the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Glacier retreats would threaten water supplies in Central Asia and South America. The possibility of significant releases of carbon dioxide and methane from ocean hydrates and permafrost could amplify global warming even further beyond our control.

Even 2°C is considered a point beyond which international negotiators have agreed we should not pass because of the potentially dangerous consequences. At 2°C warming, coastal flooding will impact millions of people, coral bleaching will be widespread (exacerbated by ocean acidification), global food crop production will decline, and up to 30% of global species will be at increasing risk for extinction.

 Denial101x climate impacts lecture by Dana Nuccitelli.

If we continue on the fossil fuel intensive pathway that Emma Thompson was talking about, we would commit the planet to 2°C warming by 2020–2030, and 3°C by 2030–2040. Hence while her numbers were wrong, the case she was making for the urgency of action is generally both correct and important.

Thompson also expressed concern about the potential of increased migration due to climate change making some areas uninhabitable for humans.

Our refugee crisis – which, let me tell you, if we allow climate change to go on as it’s going, the refugee crisis we have at the moment will look like a tea party, compared to what’s going to happen in a few years’ time. Because if we allow climate change to continue, there are going to be entire swathes of the Earth that will become uninhabitable, and where are those people going to go? Where do we think they’re going to go? We’re looking at a humanitarian disaster of proportions we simply can’t imagine.

Thompson again exaggerated the timescales by saying “in a few years’ time.” However, the concern she expresses is a valid one. Unchecked sea level rise would eventually make many low-lying island nations and coastal cities uninhabitable, for example. Intensified extreme weather events such as droughts could significantly reduce agricultural productivity in other areas, as some research has suggested happened in Syria. Too much warming could even make some regions unbearably hot, although likely not until next century.

Timing wrong, but concerns valid

Ultimately, as Richard Betts noted,

while Ms Thompson’s concerns are valid in the longer term, her timing isn’t supported by the science.

While catastrophe isn’t imminent by 2030, the coming decade will be critical in transitioning away from our current high fossil fuel, high risk scenario. It’s also worthwhile to note, as one blogger pointed out,

When someone like Emma Thompson gets something wrong, you won’t easily find people promoting it. Typically – as has happened here – people point out the errors and accept that those who speak publicly about this should make sure that they’re sufficiently informed. When someone like Booker, or Ridley, gets something wrong, it gets promoted on various denialist blogs as highlighting problems with climate science.

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Then again, everyone admits that the predictions back in 2000 were much too conservative, things are changing much faster than anyone would have believed 15 years ago. We are entering uncharted waters, and it becomes more difficult to predict these changes. There is clear and present danger, whether things get to a certain point in ten years or twenty is of course important, but some things are truly unpredictable and all predictions at this point should still be regarded as likely understated.

    Today, tomorrow, and the day after will be 15-20 degrees above normal here in New England, and the forcast is for more heat next week. This is getting very suspicious already...

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  2. Most of the 'critics' picking up on the inaccuracies in Emma's comments could easily be shown to have failed to note (deliberately since they noted Emma's), the climate mis-statements made by the likes of Senator Inhofe and most of the current Republican Wanna-be-Presidents. What's up with that?

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  3. who cares? no one is willing or interested in changing their (supposed) non-negotiable lifestyles, so just enjoy these remaining good days, because this will not end well.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Borderline sloganeering and flame bait. No more responses to this please.

  4. All shastatodd offers up is a different kind of head-in-the-sand denial.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] You might like to check the comments policy.

  5. The specific Δ°C/year is largely irrelevant as concerns the urgency of implementing appropriate and aggressive action. However, when it comes to people speaking out or writing on this urgency, the need for getting the numbers right is every bit as important: we must be purer than Cæsar’s wife. The denialist legions are always ready to shout out “tu quoque” even when we get all the detail right.

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  6. I don't think purity matters as much as you think. They don't shout 'you too' because to do so would be admitting that they get things wrong, and they shout about as loud when we get things right. Accuracy is of course very desirable, but irrelevant to dealing with denialists.

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  7. I think you've actually unfairly assessed what Emma said in the very fist instance.

    What she said wasn't well worded or explained so an article looking at it as a mistake really should ask her to explain what she really meant.

    Did she mean if they burnt everything the wanted to burn immediately??


    She is guilty of exaggeration yet her thought experiment may have relied on numbers we aren't privy too... did anyone ask her for her sources?

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