That doesn't mean his climate prediction was forgotten in pop culture. Sir David Attenborough suggests the 2016 catastrophe inflection point actually happened. Europe's favorite science documentary narrator informed the United Nations Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland that, "If we don't take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon."
Looking around, that clearly isn't true. In California, there are fires and then mudslides, no different than any other year, the northeast has blizzards and heat waves, the south has hurricanes and tornadoes. Even the numerical projections about the future are the same as in the past, they are just farther out now. There are some crazy ones, a 7 degree temperature rise a short while ago, just like Mr. Gore posited a 20 foot high ocean rise at a conference I attended (and after criticism starting with me, retracted a few weeks later).
But climate creeps so maybe Attenborough will turn out to be right, the same way some people claim Nostradamus predicted everything - by being vague.
Climate has changed throughout the history of earth. Great places to live became uninhabitable as nature wandered. Once we gained the ability to fly in the early 20th century, pilots making a run between Cairo and Baghdad saw something that should have been impossible. In the middle of the black desolate desert so inhospitable the Bedouins called it Bilad esh-Shaytan - the Land of Satan - was an outline of walls for what was eventually named the lost city of Jawa. Excavators found its ruins contained solid floors, canals, artwork, ceramic jars, surrounded by walls.
Not today you won't. Credit: Rome "La Sapienza" University, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Italian Ministry for University and Scientific Research
The artwork showed cattle, the walls were likely to keep in domesticated animals. In a city of that 20 acre size, thousands of people could have lived there, and their animals also. Clearly no one moved to the terrible place it is now.
It's not temperature, it's climate
Later analyses of paleoclimate data found that the temperature in the region had stayed around the same since the end of the last Ice Age but it was much wetter in 3,000 B.C. This matched climate change in other areas. Even the Dead Sea was not always dead.
When it changed, people likely stuck it out for a while, assuming it was just weather, but eventually it was abandoned as the desert that exists now came into being.
That is why it was a mistake for Vice-President to promote the term "global warming." The data were not available to be certain it was really globally warmer in modern years (that it is warmer than the beginning of the Industrial Revolution isn't a debate) but climate change has always happened. If it hadn't, Jawa might be the world's New York City. But we're also no longer superstitious. We recognize now (well, most of us do) that nature is not a sentient cosmic being lashing out at us for having cars and flatscreen TVs, nature is just fickle. We will never again see 500,000,000 people die from Smallpox even though nature made that happen. We used to have mass famine in cycles but thanks to science the boom and bust of food production has flattened out. If the rest of the world were as pro-science as America, famine would disappear entirely.
If climate change could not kill us 5,000 years ago, it certainly won't now, so Attenborough's intonation sounds vaguely primitive, especially for someone associated with science. He's an actor and believes in making a difference, so perhaps he is leveraging his voice while he can, nothing wrong with that, but to do so in a publicity stunt (he used a "People's Seat" at the U.N. meeting even though he is a celebrity) and to blame California wildfires on climate change, as he did, is just irresponsible, and it promotes doubt about the neutrality of science in other areas.
We can't be surprised that Californians don't accept GMOs and vaccines at alarming levels when we tell them the wildfires they experience every year are caused by CO2 emissions rather than poor land management (we couldn't even replace an endangered trout required by law due to another law preventing a gas generator on public land) and too little water for people who live in areas where it is naturally desolate. Because agriculture is so huge in California, most Americans don't realize that the bulk of the state would naturally be deserted. It gets so little water it can't support large numbers of people. That creates a tinderbox.
Instead, we are told greedy Americans who want fresh produce out of season and have it shipped in on emissions-belching trucks cause fires to sprout up.
Why should Californians, or anyone, trust any science if we engage in scaremongering about hot-button issues? CO2 emissions have dropped in the last 20 years, we have some of the cleanest air in the world. The air is so clean that a few years ago EPA even defined air quality down and began promoting tiny particulate matter - so small it takes an electron microscope to detect it - as being the same hazard as actual pollution. No one believes it but California meteorologists dutifully put up the scary maps they get from California air quality boards, who only have jobs as long as there is a new crisis to prevent.
Telling people to be afraid of particulate ghosts is feeding into superstitious beliefs about the natural world. Telling them we are doomed to a 7 degree Fahrenheit temperature rise, based on a numerical methodology so prone to error it would get people fired from any private sector engineering company, is not constructive. It is instead making people think climate researchers are the science equivalent of shock jocks out to get attention with ever more bombastic stunts. And that distrust bleeds over into medicine and energy and food and chemicals. There is no reason the supplements industry should be $25 billion or Dr. Oz should be on television except people have learned it's too much work to know who is engaged in public good and who is just raising money for their non-profit by getting attention in the New York Times prophesizing doom.
The age of CO2 is almost over, even if nothing has replaced the energy density of gasoline just yet. Activists are already looking for new targets; they seem to be so concerned about America's drop in CO2 from energy (the private sector dropped emissions 8 years ahead of the abandoned Clean Power Plan) that they have attacked the methane that has replaced it - they have declared war on fracking, the natural gas they used to endorse.
Enabling them because we dislike corporations or want to promote the belief that corporate science is not real science is not helping anyone. Every time we let a celebrity or an environmentalist make an unscientific claim because we support the underlying science they manipulated, an anti-vaxxer is born. And there is no one to blame but us.