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

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 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 11,086 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 9,719 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
Gil Scott-Heron Deconstructs Colonialism and Black History in His Own Unique Style
3 min · 5,052 views today · His-Story: I was wondering about our yesterdays, and starting searching through the rubble and to say the very least, somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 4,225 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,312 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 1,833 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...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 1,651 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 1,596 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
Mark Corske's Engines of Domination (2014)
60 min · 1,420 views today · Political power -- armed central authority, with states and war -- is it part of human nature? Is it necessary for human communities? Or is it a tool that ruling elites use to...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,355 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 1,320 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 1,159 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 959 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...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 754 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 722 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
Lessons in the Calais Jungle: Teaching Life Stories and Learning About Humanity
Aura Lounasmaa · 646 views today · I am part of a team of academics teaching a course to residents in the Calais Jungle, a camp for migrants and refugees outside the French city. Life Stories in the Jungle has...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 399 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...
Eckhart Tolle: Your Facebook Ego, That's Not Who You Are
2 min · 359 views today · “Identification with thoughts and the emotions that go with those thoughts creates a false mind-made sense of self, conditioned by the past: the "little me" and its story. This...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 351 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
The Untold History of Palestine & Israel
22 min · 349 views today · Previewing Abby Martin’s on-the-ground investigation in Palestine, The Empire Files looks at the long history of Zionist colonization, expansion and expulsion of Palestine’s...
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