It should come as no surprise to most readers that the science denial crowd have been lying about climate models. We’ve known this all along, but it’s always worth checking for the thousandth time. As Gavin Schmidt says:
“Uncertainty is important to understand because we know that in the real world we don’t know everything perfectly. All science is based on knowing the limitations of the numbers that you come up with, and those uncertainties can determine whether what you’re seeing is a shift or a change that is actually important.”
Most of the time when scientists run computer models on something, they run them with a variety of inputs, to test a variety of scenarios. What happens to the climate if we accelerate emissions? What happens if we slow them down? What happens if we have an unusual amount of volcanic activity? What happens if fires increase? Every time climate models are published, they show multiple scenarios, just as hurricane forecasts show multiple possible paths.
When science deniers talk about models, they generally take one of two approaches. The less common one is to focus on the best-case scenarios, to say that there’s nothing to worry about. The more common one is to focus on the worst-case scenarios, attack them as catastrophism, and then crow about scientific dishonesty when the climate follows the “most likely” paths instead.
It’s a useful rhetorical trick when your audience, quite understandably, doesn’t have the time or resources to read and understand every paper that’s published, and it has been effective in swaying public opinion and understanding.
In this new study, NASA scientists analyzed the GISTEMP data to see if past predictions of rising temperatures were accurate. They needed to know that any uncertainty within their data was correctly accounted for. The goal was to make sure that the models they use are robust enough to rely on in the future. The answer: Yes they are. Within 1/20th a degree Celsius. Kudos.
Kudos indeed. The entire planet is changing, and it’s changing fast. Compared to the time frame major temperature shifts usually happen on, this is happening blindingly fast. If this past century’s warming had happened over a thousand years, as Svante Arrhenius expected back in the 1890s, there would be more change in natural ecosystems than we’re seeing now, simply because those systems would have had time to change. What we’re seeing instead is the planet’s biosphere playing catch-up. Unfortunately, I think that includes us as well. Our food and water supplies are, for much of the world, dependent on the same climate and weather patterns as the rest of life on this planet. We can use technology to cushion ourselves against those changes, but there’s a limit to how far that goes if we don’t make big changes ourselves. Changes informed by what the science says is headed our way.
The movement to fight climate change has, for all of my life, been focused on preventing the destabilization that has now occurred. All of the “we have 10 years left” warnings were more or less correct. The time frame adjusted as the world responded to the warnings in tiny ways, but we didn’t change enough, and we missed the deadline. Now the fight is about adaptation, and about mitigation – trying not to make the problem worse than it has to be. When it comes to adaptation, there are two ways to do it. The best option, for those who care about the future of humanity, and want everyone to be able to live as full a life as possible, is to change before the climate forces us to. Changing how and where we grow food, where we live, and how our cities are built will all take time and money. We are going to make mistakes as we do it. We’re going to try things that will fail. Some of those failures will cost money, some will cost life, and all will cost time.
Thanks to the work of thousands of scientists, all over the planet, we have models that can give us a good idea of what’s coming. That means we have the ability to make those mistakes before they all become matters of life and death. Preparing a coastal city to withstand higher seas now gives us a chance to test it against smaller events. Superstorm Sandy may have seemed like a huge disaster when it hit New York, but the same storm, in 50 years, will do far, far more damage. Rising sea levels put a timer on coastal adaptation. The longer we leave it, the more death we’ll see, and the more of our resources will have to go to housing refugees, and rescuing storm victims, and salvaging resources from hazardous, flooded areas.
It’s too late to prevent the need for change, but it’s not too late to prepare for changes that are coming. To do that, however, we need to overcome the forces who seem to view death, disaster, and deprivation as opportunities to grab more wealth and power for themselves. Those forces prefer the second approach to adaptation – let cities fall, and populations starve, and the people who have hoarded the world’s resources will have even more power over the survivors. This is unacceptable, and I fear it’s the path we’re currently on. The people running companies like Nestle, for example, will see their wealth and power increase as access to safe water dwindles away for more and more of the population, unless we reject their efforts to enclose and privatize access to water. As I’ve said before, they’re taking the entire planet away from the majority of humanity. It’s past time to take it back.