Can't Face the Math: On Climate Science, We're All Karl Rove on the Night of the Election
By David Roberts / grist.org

Throughout this long, crazy campaign, there’s been a tension simmering between empiricists like Nate Silver and Sam Wang, who cited poll data showing Obama with a small but durable lead, and pundits who trusted their “guts” and the “narrative,” both of which indicated that Romney had all the momentum after the first debate.

In the face of model projections like Silver’s, Jonah Goldberg said that “the soul … is not so easily number-crunched.” David Brooks warnedthat “experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.” Joe Scarborough said “anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue.” Peggy Noonan said that “the vibrations are right” for a Romney win. All sorts of conservative pundits were convinced the Romney campaign just feltlike a winner.

You know how that turned out. Jon Stewart put it way better than I could:

Empiricism won. It didn’t win because it’s a truer faith or a superior ideology. It won because it works. It is the best way humans have figured out to set aside their prejudices, their perceptual limitations, their cognitive shortcomings, and get a clear view of what’s to come.

As it happens, there’s another issue in American politics where empiricists are forecasting the future and being ignored. Here’s what the Nate Silvers of climate science are up to:

Looking back at 10 years of atmospheric humidity data from NASA satellites, [John Fasullo and Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research] examined two dozen of the world’s most sophisticated climate simulations. They found the simulations that most closely matched actual humidity measurements were also the ones that predicted the most extreme global warming.

In other words, by using real data, the scientists picked simulation winners and losers.

“The models at the higher end of temperature predictions uniformly did a better job,” Fasullo said. The simulations that fared worse — the ones predicting smaller temperature rises — “should be outright discounted,” he added.

The Washington Post spells out what that means:

That means the world could be in for a devastating increase of about eight degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, resulting in drastically higher seas, disappearing coastlines and more severe droughts, floods and other destructive weather.

Such an increase would substantially overshoot what the world’s leaders have identified as the threshold for triggering catastrophic consequences. In 2009, heads of state agreed to try to limit warming to 3.6 degrees, and many countries want a tighter limit.

This is in keeping with a recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers [PDF], which showed that, to hold warming to that 3.6 degree target (2 degree Celsius), global average carbon intensity would have to decline by 5.1 percent a year, on average, between now and 2050. That rate of decarbonization has never been achieved, ever, for as long as we have records. It is, the report notes dryly, “highly unrealistic.” Even to limit warming to 7.2 degrees (4 degrees Celsius) would require nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonization. And at our current rate rate of decarbonization (1.6 percent) we are on track for a temperature rise of 10.8 degrees (6 degrees Celsius) by 2100.

Let’s be clear about this. Scientists consider 3.6 degrees catastrophic. There are serious scientists who doubt that human civilization can endure at all in the face of 7.2 degrees. And we are headed for 10.8.

In short, the Nate Silvers of climate science are forecasting a landslide — that is, humanity under a landslide of drought, floods, disease, and dislocation. They’re telling us that unless we change our campaign strategy, i.e., undertake rapid, large-scale efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, our chances of surviving and prospering are dim and getting dimmer.

We simply haven’t come to terms with what empirical science is telling us. The mainstream media hasn’t come to terms with it. Most public intellectuals have not come to terms with it. And almost no politicians have come to terms with it. (Republicans deny it, most centrists ignore it, and Dems mouth platitudes about it.)

We all sound like pundits, going with our “guts.” The science feels too scary, too abrasive, too implausible. The hippies out there protesting over climate change feel “unserious.” The notion that energy prices might have to rise or lifestyles change feels “alarmist.” We talk about climate, if we talk about it at all, in terms of these time-worn prejudices and outdated folk theories. We all sound like Peggy Noonan with her vibrations.

It’s our own version of “math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better.” Call it math you do as an American to make yourself feel better.

This election is being hailed in many quarters as a triumph for Nate Silver and forces of empiricism. But on the biggest, most pressing risk facing the country, those involved in U.S. politics might as well be witch doctors. Or worse, Karl Rove.

It’s not a wise approach, because in the climate race, losses are permanent and irreversible. There will be no recount.

4.3 ·
2
What's Next
Trending Today
The Reviews Are In: Conservatives Say the DNC Was 'Disaster' for the GOP
Katherine Krueger · 39,258 views today · Something strange happened on the last night of the Democratic National Convention. After the GOP nominee lambasted the Democrats on Twitter for displaying what he viewed as...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 30,512 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 25,101 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
This is One of the Most Powerful Music Videos Ever Made
5 min · 19,839 views today · Official video for Ahmed by Lowkey ft. Mai Khalil contains devastating truths about war, migration and the underlying systemic issues that surround them.
Nina Turner's Timeless Message to the Democratic Establishment
2 min · 16,804 views today · "We are not going anywhere. We are here for the long term for ourselves and for generations yet unborn. We're going to stand up and make sure that not only is that platform...
Jane Sanders: Why Bernie Voters Shouldn't Get Over It
Tessa Stuart · 11,515 views today · Bernie's wife discusses her proudest and most difficult campaign moments, the DNC email leak and the future of his revolution
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 5,792 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Meet Some Sanders Delegates Who Plan to Turn Anger Into Positive Action
Isaiah Poole · 5,717 views today · Luz Sosa came to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as a disappointed Bernie Sanders delegate. But she is leaving fired up to take on big political fights in...
Up to 28 Civilians Reportedly Killed in US-Led Strike in Syria
Andrea Germanos · 5,547 views today · Fresh strike took place in same area where US is said to have killed scores in airstrikes last week
This Video Dispels Every "Nature VS Nurture" Myth You've Ever Heard. The Implications are Profound.
31 min · 3,715 views today · If everyone watched this it could radically transform the world. This is a segment from Moving Forward (2011). Watch the full documentary online here.
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 3,473 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Capitalism and Mental Health: How the Market Makes Us Sick
22 min · 3,025 views today · Far from being a far-fetched pipe dream that human beings could never live under, pockets of anarchistic self-activity are what keep us sane in a profoundly insane world. This...
"Don't Owe. Won't Pay." Everything You've Been Told About Debt Is Wrong
Charles Eisenstein · 2,795 views today · With the nation’s household debt burden at $11.85 trillion, even the most modest challenges to its legitimacy have revolutionary implications.
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 2,667 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Comic: How Big Media Drowned Out the Rest of Us
Symbolia and YES! Magazine · 2,471 views today · Today, six corporations own most of our media—but we could be poised to take it back.  
Law Professor's Epic Response to Black Lives Matter Shirt Complaint
Social Design Notes · 2,085 views today · A first year law school student wrote a complaint about her professor having worn a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during class. The professor’s response is priceless. Scans of...
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 1,937 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
42 Ways to Build a Liberated Society Beyond Capitalism
James Herod · 1,812 views today · It is time to try to describe, at first abstractly and later concretely, a strategy for destroying capitalism. At its most basic, this strategy calls for pulling time, energy...
50+ Films About Women That Will Inspire You, Anger You, and Make You Want to Change the World
Films For Action · 1,746 views today · Here are 50 documentaries, short films and other videos that focus on women's issues, perspectives and struggles. We're hoping to expand this list over time so feel free to...
Don't Let Bernie Endorsing Hillary Distract You From What Matters
Tim Hjersted · 1,473 views today · There's been quite a lot of anger, disappointment and attention on Bernie's decision to endorse Clinton the last couple weeks. But I've started to believe this attention on...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Can't Face the Math: On Climate Science, We're All Karl Rove on the Night of the Election