The climate models were accurate.


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.”

Image is map of the Earth, colored to show temperature difference from 2008-2012. With blue being a drop in temperature, and red being an increase in temperature, the entire map is shades of red and orange, with blue areas in the Pacific, and in Antarctica. The darkest red - showing the most warming - is in the arctic

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.

Universe Today covers a recent report from NASA on how current global temperatures compare to what past models predicted:

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.

Comments

  1. StevoR says

    It’ll get much worse. Very much worse.

    And I wish I wasn’t seriously saying this.

    And I really, really wish we were actually doing a hell of a lot more to at least flippin’ mitigate it.

    But we’re not.

    We’re boned.

  2. StevoR says

    PS. Definitley NOT saying we should give up. Anything we can do to slow the disaster that’s coming to make it less bad is better than nothing. And the more we do, the better.

    Fatalism is certainly NOT the answer and only makes things worse.

  3. says

    Yep. We need to find ways to keep motivated in a world that’s likely to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Not easy to do :-/

  4. says

    It looks like we’re going to blow right through +4C.
    Right on schedule, the methane is coming out of the ground. What’s worse is that fracking exacerbates it. We are so fucked.

  5. says

    I retain my belief that we have the capacity to build a society that can thrive despite the unstable/inhospitable climate.

    I just don’t think that’s compatible with the existence of billionaires, because it would take a lot of resources to make the conversion, and we would need to have those resources easily available going forward. In that version of the future, there will be a lot of cities in places that, without things like air conditioning, would not be survivable, either for us, or for our (probably indoor) crops. Repairing quickly after disasters, and having shelter while repairs are being made will be a must.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    Around two months ago, I saw an article in the Washington Post that basically said that a large part of the crisis on our southern border was caused by climate change. It said that up to half of the refugees weren’t there due to crime — they were farmers whose crops couldn’t grow any more due to heat and precipitation challenges. If the US wanted to cut down on refugees showing up, the best way would be to spend resources, not by giving them to various militaries to fight crime, but rather to teach farmers how to grow drought-resistant crops.

    I’ve seen almost no picking up on this narrative from any other media. Even left-leaning organizations don’t seem to have taken this message to heart. Any of the rest of you heard anything about this?

  7. says

    brucegee1962@#7:
    I’ve seen almost no picking up on this narrative from any other media. Even left-leaning organizations don’t seem to have taken this message to heart. Any of the rest of you heard anything about this?

    It’s complicated by US government economic and covert interference in central America, so it’s hard to say for sure what’s the effect of CIA-trained death squads versus global warming. Because either way nobody in Washington is going to give a shit.

  8. says

    Abe Drayton@#6:
    I just don’t think that’s compatible with the existence of billionaires

    Once I was sitting around with a bunch of historians and an economist, eating some bbq, and I asked “at what point was human civilization last ‘sustainable’?”
    The answer most of us/them converged on was before the rise of the Roman Empire. Rome got so big and powerful that to maintain it, it became damagingly extractive.

    If we went back to 2000BC level technology, with the awareness of virology and bacteria, and what we have learned from some parts of public health, we could probably have a sustainable population once it dropped down to the new carrying capacity. Mankind could live forever – until an asteroid hits us – at that rate, fishing and hunting and growing a few crops and eating Epicurus’ olives and cheese and bread. But not much more than that.

  9. says

    There are times when I wish that some of my friends who are focused on social justice issues, or nuclear disarmament, or whatever, would bring their talents and passion to the climate change battle — since as others have said here, and Wallace-Wells has dramatized, we are right now on the worst likely trajectory….
    But as Abe points out, corporate greed and the bizarre attitude towards the commons that our society has, can be questioned and combatted, since they are only making things worse (often knowingly so), and economic and racial injustices are other sides of the same coin (or the multisided die that we are rolling to plot our future).
    We just need to connect the dots, over and over, and see each other as allies on behalf of the best obtainable future.

  10. Dunc says

    Once I was sitting around with a bunch of historians and an economist, eating some bbq, and I asked “at what point was human civilization last ‘sustainable’?”
    The answer most of us/them converged on was before the rise of the Roman Empire.

    It’s very debatable – once you include the effects of soil erosion / desertification caused by most forms of agriculture, there’s a pretty strong argument that human civilisation has never been (indefinitely) sustainable. It’s just that soil erosion isn’t that high on most people’s radars.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    Also, as soon as we learned to hunt, we started other making species of mammals extinct. I guess it depends on what “sustainability” means, but at least for the wooly mammoth, we were pretty bad news.

  12. says

    The claim about history I find dubious. We’re in unexplored territory, and it’s entirely likely that by the time we dismantled modern society (assuming we could even get people to go along with it), the climate of the planet would not allow for the survival of low-tech societies, particularly when you include the myriad pollutants that now permeate the landscape across most of the planet.

    It might not be possible. It’s hard to know for sure, as we’re in unexplored territory right now. What we DO know is that we can do better than we’re doing now, so at minimum we should start there, and then see what’s on the other side of that hill.

  13. Dunc says

    The question of when human civilisation was last sustainable, or if indeed it ever was, is really the wrong way of looking at things. I very much doubt that we can make large populations sustainable with any previous technological suite, because we’ve eroded the carrying capacity of our environment quite severely – even if (e.g.) European Iron Age society was sustainable then, it almost certainly wouldn’t be now, because the ecological resources underpinning that society are gone.

    The real question is how (or indeed if) can we make human civilisation sustainable, given current circumstances and knowledge. For my money, the #1 problem we face is devising some system of sustainable agriculture – by which I mean one which operates entirely on renewable resources, at sustainable rates, and does not degrade any of the underlying ecological systems which make it viable. We’re nowhere near being able to do that right now. Our current agricultural systems depend on both massive inputs of non-renewable resources and the exploitation of technically renewable resources at vastly beyond their replenishment rates, and results in the continual degradation of the ecosystems on which it relies. The fact that we haven’t hit a hard limit yet doesn’t mean those hard limits aren’t out there, and they’re getting closer.

  14. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    It pains me so much to hear a person say that were past tipping points with zero acknowledgement that they have been part of the movement primarily responsible for us being in this position in the first place because of their obstinate irrational apocalyptic resistance to nuclear power. Even now, I doubt you’d admit your failings and blame the deniers, when it’s the Greens who have consistently shut down nuclear plants and replace them with coal and natural gas every time that they have come to political power.

  15. says

    The environmentalist opposition to nuclear power has had nowhere NEAR the same influence on climate action as the huge misinformation campaigns waged by the fossil fuel industry.

  16. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Several leading climate scientists disagree.

    James Hanson gives partial agreement here. Please read the whole thing for caveats and explanations.
    http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2011/20110729_BabyLauren.pdf

    A facile explanation would focus on the ‘merchants of doubt’ who have managed to confuse the public about the reality of human-made climate change. The merchants play a role, to be sure, a sordid one, but they are not the main obstacle to solution of human-made climate change.The bigger problem is that people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work

    Kerry Emanuel says it more strongly
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/10/29/top-climate-scientists-warn-governments-of-blatant-anti-nuclear-bias-in-latest-ipcc-climate-report/

    The anti-nuclear bias of this latest IPCC release is rather blatant, and reflects the ideology of the environmental movement. History may record that this was more of an impediment to decarbonization than climate denial.

    There’s also the several open letters from leading climate scientists in favor of nuclear power.

    https://www.cnn.com/2013/11/03/world/nuclear-energy-climate-change-scientists-letter/index.html

    http://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2018/10/25/open-letter-to-heads-of-state-of-the-g-20-from-scientists-and-scholars-on-nuclear-for-climate-change

    Again, most of the world is not the USA. Most of the western world has been following the Green playbook of shutting down nuclear power to replace it with coal and natural gas.

    You are the problem.

  17. KG says

    Contrary to GerrardOfTitanServer’s scenario of evil moustache-twirling Greenies, the actual reason nuclear power has failed to expand as its proponents expected is the industry’s record of corner-cutting on safety (as seen once more at Fukushima), and failure to deliver projects on time and within budget (as seen once more at Oikiluoto in Finland and Hinkley Point in the UK). The claim that proliferation risks are negligible is highly questionable: the materials, skills and technologies needed for civil nuclear power have a huge overlap with those needed to develop nuclear weapons – hence the concern over Iran’s nuclear industry.

    The fastest way to reduce fossil fuel consumption over the crucial next decade is energy efficiency and behaviuoral change combined with an end to fossil fuel subsidies and a sufficient level of carbon tax andor rationing. The next fastest is the growth in renewables. Hanson’s figures are a decade out of date (due to when his article was written). More up-to-date ones are available from the IEA:

    Once again, 2017 was a record year for renewable power. For the first time, renewable capacity additions of 178 gigawatts (GW) accounted for more than two-thirds of global net electricity capacity growth.

    Even if the claims made for “4th generation” nuclear plants are accurate, they simply can’t make much of a contribution over the 2020s.

  18. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To KG
    There are some simple, brute facts to deal with. If you care, I have good sources for all of these.

    Only two industrialized countries got to near zero CO2 emissions, and that was France and Sweden, and they have done it with large amounts of hydro and nuclear. For comparison, look at Germany, which is expanding coal mining and building more coal power plants. Compare the two: France has cheaper electricity, and near zero CO2 emissions from its electricity sector. Germany has very expensive electricity, and unreliable electricity (voltage fluctuations which are important for industrial equipment), and much higher CO2 emissions.

    Overnight nuclear power plant costs have been decreasing year over year in South Korea, and are approx 4x to 8x cheaper than the West.

    If you dig enough, even the IEA in their reports say that nuclear or “negative emissions technologies” are required for the kind of rapid, drastic decreases in CO2 emissions that we need. This fact is conveniently omitted by many speakers who cite the IEA.

    Nuclear is expensive because the Greens have made it expensive.

    New nuclear often takes a long time to build because of several reasons, including Greens have created an excessive regulatory environment and often needless safety standards, legal review periods, other legal delaying tactics, etc.

    Re Hinkley Point in particular. It’s a first-of-a-kind design, and so it’s no surprise that it has gone over cost. The design is also a horrible design, and it’s also no surprise that it’s so expensive. Even then, when complete, it will produce cost-competitive electricity. Even then, the electricity that it produces should be cost competitive with new renewables.

    Re weapons proliferation. Considering the alternative is the probable destruction of human civilization from global warming and ocean acidification, and given that any country can get a nuclear weapon if they’re dedicated enough (see North Korea), I think that this is a serious but manageable problem.

    The fastest way to reduce fossil fuel consumption over the crucial next decade is energy efficiency and behaviuoral change combined with an end to fossil fuel subsidies and a sufficient level of carbon tax andor rationing.

    Not if you also continue regulations that make nuclear power impossible. The brute fact is that renewables are not ready, and probably never will be ready. All you’re going to get is economic collapse, and some industrialized countries and most developing countries ignoring your taxes and continuing to use coal. The laws of physics and engineering cannot be changed by money, no matter how much money you throw at the problem. Physics says that your choices are nuclear energy, or bust.

    Having said that, I think that these are wonderful ideas in conjunction with lots of nuclear power. Give nuclear power a fair playing field, and it’ll mop the floor with renewables, especially with the very-big greenhouse gas emission taxes that we desparately need.

    Even if the claims made for “4th generation” nuclear plants are accurate, they simply can’t make much of a contribution over the 2020s.

    Only because people like you won’t let them. France converted half their electricity to nuclear in just 15 years, and they were not in a strong rush to do so. There are designs on the market now that could be in mass production by then, including many SMRs, several molten salt reactor designs like ThorCon, etc.

    However, this is mostly a distraction. We need to act now, which means doing exactly what France and South Korea and Sweden have done, which is to build the same conventional reactors that we all know and some of us love. We’ve wasted enough time on these ridiculous Green delusions and lies.

  19. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Correction: I think promising startups with next-gen designs like ThorCon should be given enough money to build their prototypes and see if it’ll work as promised and expected, but in the meantime, starting right now, we should start building a lot of conventional gen 3+ reactors too. Designs like ThorCon have the potential to be revolutionary and game-changing, but global warming is enough of a threat that we should start building now what we know how to build and what we know will work, while also setting aside some money to continue R&D into all promising approaches, including next-gen nuclear designs, but also solar, wind, batteries, etc. The difference is that the bulk of the money and effort should go into deployment of a solution that we can do in 15 years that we know will work, e.g. conventional nuclear.

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