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.

Load Comments
You Might Be Interested In
2 min · Winner of both the Edward R. Murrow Award and the Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism, 'Boogie Man' tells the story of the king of trash politics. Lee Atwater, the brilliant and ruthless Republican political consultant and strategist who eventually became chairman of the...
54 min · IF YOU'RE EXPERIENCING PROBLEMS WITH THE VIDEO ABOVE, YOU CAN WATCH THE FILM AT THE OFFICIAL PBS FRONTLINE WEBSITE. If you think Mitt Romney’s recent threats against PBS were actually about budgets or Big Bird, think again. The reason the right hates PBS is that sometimes it...
177 min · Episode 1 – The Battle Begins In the 1970s the world seemed to be falling apart. From acid rain to overpopulation, ecological concerns were at the fore. And it was at this time that climate change first became a hot political issue. But it wasn’t global warming that...
11 min · 350 is the most important number in the world--it's what scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Two years ago, after leading climatologists observed rapid ice melt in the Arctic and other frightening signs of climate change, they issued...
9 min · A short film about climate change, energy and nuclear power. If you're confused about whether we need nuclear power to stop climate change, take nine minutes of your time to watch this new film from Green Peace UK. It doesn't just explain why nuclear power can't stop climate...
3 min · Climate change is taking place. Will we have the wisdom to survive? The film features thought leaders and activists in the realms of science, economics and spirituality. The focus: how we can live creatively and even joyfully in the face of this catastrophe, and how can we...
7 min · Do climate change scientists sit comfortably in the same camp as Ted Kaczynski, The Unabomber, and other despisables? Are climate change thinkers secretly communist sympathizers? The Heartland Institute thinks so. In this video, the narrator visits Chicago for the Heartland's...
2 min · Jon Shenk’s The Island President is the story of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a man confronting a problem greater than any other world leader has ever faced—the literal survival of his country and everyone in it. After bringing democracy to the Maldives after...
60 min · BBC2 24 January 2011Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse examines why science appears to be under attack, and why public trust in key scientific theories has been eroded - from the theory that man-made climate change is warming our planet, to the safety of GM food, or that HIV...
5 min · Visit OurFuture.org to stand up to the conservative minority burying progress in Congress. In this political spoof on Harry Potter, Karl Rove discussus their devilish plan to undermine the efforts of Harry Reid and the democratic party. Featuring Jason Alexander, the short...
10 min · Many climate deniers still seem to think global warming was invented by Al Gore, in 2006.  As this recently uncovered recording from 1956 shows, the outlines of climate change science have been clear for many decades.
78 min · In the spring of 2005, Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, found himself in a dream riding on horseback across the great plains of South Dakota. Just before he awoke, he arrived at a riverbank in Minnesota and saw 38 of his Dakota ancestors hanged. At...
Bill McKibben · Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is  If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June...
Derek Wall · When Professor Elinor Ostrom became the first women to win a Nobel Prize for economics in 2009, or to be precise, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences that she shared with Richard Williamson, most economists probably sighed with surprise and said something along...
Alberto · Sandy has blown climate change back on the agenda – and many believe the White House was wrong when it decided in 2009 that climate change was not a winning political message [as opposed to the opportunity of the clean energy economy]. Barack Obama: a 2009...
Tara Lohan · Based on what we know from the most recent climate science, Obama’s "all-of-the-above" energy policy is actually suicidal.   Are there any self-respecting environmental organizations out there that are still behind President Obama? After his State of the Union on Tuesday...
Adbusters · The leaked Heartland Institute documents proved what most people know to be true anyway – that mainstream climate deniers are secretly funded by industry and will stoop to any level to fight science with spin – even brainwashing children through the k-12 curriculum. As one...
Tom McKay · Young people across the United States are suing the federal government en masse for destroying their futures. They're claiming the feds' bungling of a crucial issue is a violation of their constitutional rights. The issue? Look at these stunning images of California, where...
Chuck Collins · Imagine six months from now a social movement that no longer waits for elected politicians to lead and engages in direct action against the fossil fuel industry and their lobbying power. ~ By Chuck Collins It is time to form affinity groups. We need to come together to form...
Films For Action · 350.org is an international campaign that's building a movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis—the solutions that science and justice demand. Our mission is to inspire the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis—to create a new sense...
Like us on Facebook?