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
Related
Load Comments
Trending Today
Republicans Welcomed Bernie Sanders to Wisconsin By Calling Him an Extremist. His Response? Perfect.
5 min · 7,556 views today · This was just awesome. No wonder so many people love Sander's message. The opening minutes of the July 1st rally was a classic #FeelTheBern moment, delivered to a 10,000...
Brilliant Comic of Banksy's Call To Arms Against Advertisers
Gavin Aung Than · 4,867 views today · Banksy is an anoynomous English street artist and activist who has become a cult hero for his anti-establishment and rebellious artwork.
The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy
3 min · 4,019 views today · What is the best way to ease someone's pain and suffering? In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic...
How Stress Affects Your Brain
4 min · 2,967 views today · Stress isn’t always a bad thing; it can be handy for a burst of extra energy and focus, like when you’re playing a competitive sport or have to speak in public. But when it’s...
This Video Dispels Every "Nature VS Nurture" Myth You've Ever Heard. The Implications are Profound.
31 min · 2,908 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 Great Forgetting: You Probably Haven't Heard about It But It Completely Affects Your Life
Deep Ecology Hub · 2,481 views today · This article summarizes the ideas of Daniel Quinn, first written about in The Story of B, which was a sequel to Ishmael. The longer, original essay can be read here, and comes...
I Wish for You... Jeremy Irons is a Grandfather With A Beautiful Message for His Granddaughter
5 min · 2,429 views today · 'War Horse' author Michael Morpurgo and actors Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake have joined forces to make a powerful new 5 minute film especially for you. Please watch and...
Free Trade Explained In An Excellent Comic
Michael Goodwin, Illustrated by Dan E. Burr · 2,216 views today · The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are the latest in a long line of international free trade agreements. But why are...
9 Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible
Kai Cheng Thom · 1,984 views today · In my first year of college, I stopped calling myself an activist. It took attending just a few meetings of the campus queer group for me to realize that I didn’t fit in with...
F*ck That: A Guided Meditation for the Realities of Today's World
2 min · 1,971 views today · Just acknowledge that all that sh*t is f*cking b*llshit — you're here now, in this place, with your inner stillness. Take in a deep breath ... now breathe out. Just feel the...
Who Are You? This Breathtaking Video Might Change Your Life
2 min · 1,871 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...
Have You Heard of The Great Forgetting? It Happened 10,000 Years Ago & Completely Affects Your Life
Daniel Quinn · 1,796 views today · (Excerpted from the book, The Story of B) With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,704 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...
What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?
Katherine Reynolds Lewis · 1,650 views today · Negative consequences, timeouts, and punishment just make bad behavior worse. But a new approach really works.
10 Compelling Reasons You Can Never Trust The Mainstream Media
Sophie McAdam · 1,561 views today · A poll in 2012 showed that trust in the mainstream media is increasing, which should worry all of us who value truth, integrity and press freedom. However, a recently released...
Carl Gustav Jung - the Three Births of the Human Spirit
Frank M. Wanderer Ph.D · 1,485 views today · C. G. Jung believes that we need to go through three births in our lifetime. The first is our physical birth, then the birth of our Ego, and spiritual birth of Consciousness...
Forest Man
16 min · 1,441 views today · Since the 1970's Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into A Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,225 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
"Desert Goddess" Remembers Arizona's Glen Canyon
7 min · 1,164 views today · In this excerpt from the award-winning documentary DamNation, filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel interview the "desert goddess," Katie Lee. When the Glen Canyon Dam was...
The Shocking Reason Why the Rich Are Getting Richer Explained Beautifully in 3 Minutes
3 min · 1,151 views today · 1. The current money system distributes money from the bottom 90% to the top 10% Because 97% of the money in the UK is created by banks, someone must pay interest on...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?