Scientists Record of Conservative Predictions on Climate Should Give Us Pause

May 14, 2014

Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker:

The most recent analysis by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts a global sea-level rise for this century of somewhere between one and three feet; the new findings, according to Rignot, will require these figures to be revised upward.

Of the many inane arguments that are made against taking action on climate change, perhaps the most fatuous is that the projections climate models offer about the future are too uncertain to justify taking steps that might inconvenience us in the present. The implicit assumption here is that the problem will turn out to be less serious than the models predict; thus, any carbon we have chosen to leave in the ground out of fear for the consequences of global warming will have gone uncombusted for nothing.

But the unfortunate fact about uncertainty is that the error bars always go in both directions. While it is possible that the problem could turn out to be less serious than the consensus forecast, it is equally likely to turn out to be more serious. In fact, it increasingly appears that, if there is any systemic bias in the climate models, it’s that they understate the gravity of the situation. In an interesting paper that appeared in the journal Global Environmental Change, a group of scholars, including Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard, and Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton, note that so-called climate skeptics frequently accuse climate scientists of “alarmism” and “overreacting to evidence of human impacts on the climate system.” But, when you actually measure the predictions that climate scientists have made against observations of how the climate has already changed, you find the exact opposite: a pattern “of under- rather than over-prediction” emerges. The scholars attribute this bias to the norms of scientific discourse: “The scientific values of rationality, dispassion, and self-restraint tend to lead scientists to demand greater levels of evidence in support of surprising, dramatic, or alarming conclusions.” They call this tendency “erring on the side of least drama,” or E.S.L.D. for short.

Unfortunately, we live in dramatic times. Yesterday’s news about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is just the latest reminder of this; there will, almost certainly, be much more “surprising” and “alarming” news to follow. Which is why counting on uncertainty is such a dangerous idea.


35 Responses to “Scientists Record of Conservative Predictions on Climate Should Give Us Pause”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    E.S.L.D. is a great term and a great acronym. I also like the idea of the error bars being misleading, in that the results seem to come out worse each time we look at a phenomenon, and the bottoms are therefor losing meaning..

    I am reminded of Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon, where “….all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average”, except that in this context the climate scientists are always talking the real “average” down because of ESLD

    I think we need a new rule—-climate scientists should be allowed to lie, exaggerate, and mislead by some percentage of what the deniers do (say 33.3%), and we should put error bars on statements to reflect that.

    • ubrew12 Says:

      What worries me about E.S.L.D. is that it invites ‘drama’ to the table. You know who does drama? Rush Limbaugh, Shawn Hannity, Heartland Institute, etc. Indeed, the less actual Science you can bring to the ‘debate’, the more actual Drama you HAVE to bring: “Climate Change is a hoax because I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to Take it Anymore!” So, E.S.L.D. is definitely something not to be encouraged. It’s, basically, giving in to bullies.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Agreed. I said it was a great term and acronym only in admiration of the idea it expressed—-I enjoy well-crafted words. I didn’t think it was a GOOD term in that it represents the kind of super-conservative science that is hurting the cause—-hence my suggestion that climate scientists be allowed to BS and throw some horsepucky around like the deniers do.

        I don’t think “inviting drama to the table” on the climate scientists side is a bad thing. All the S**T-Heads like Hannity and Limbaugh and Beck are nothing BUT drama—-they have nothing else in their tool box, and Bill Nye the Science Guy in his bow tie going “…but the SCIENCE says…” doesn’t counter that very well.

        My inclination would be to tell them and anyone who’s watching that they are ignorant POS who are FOS and explain why (if you can get the trashmouths to shut up). Slap their ignorance down and bully THEM with SCIENCE. Maybe it’s my old infantry training kicking in, but no one ever took a hill by diddling around—in fact, the more “drama” you expend in the form of pure raw force and firepower, the faster you get to the top and the fewer casualties you take. OOH-Rah, AGW guys! (Sorry, got a bit pumped there).

        • ubrew12 Says:

          “no one ever took a hill by diddling around” LOL. Tru dat.

        • rayduray Says:

          John Oliver did a brilliant job at refuting the denialist “crowd(sic)” in this skit visualizing the fact that 97% of climate scientists agree that we’re in deep doo doo land:

          Years ago I had to give full throttle assent and kudos to Joe Romm. This was the era when Al Gore was guarding the fence by sitting on it and reporting about “An Inconvenient Truth”. Not one to give up on the joy of burning hairshirts instead of bras, Romm’s written reply was “Hell and High Water”. After reading Joe’s book, I realized just how many punches Al Gore had pulled in order to placate some theoretical silent majority in need of a nudge.

          What we are witnessing this week in San Diego County is more like a hot poker in the eye. This is what the future looks like if we allow the likes of Murdock and Ailes to continue to bamboozle the public in their fair and balanced way.

          I retort, you decide. 🙂

    • redskylite Says:

      “climate scientists should be allowed to lie, exaggerate”

      Hold that thought DOG,

      Mr Watts’s speakpiece seems to feel free to massage the truth as it likes and seems to have attracted and convinced a fair few along the way it’s all a sinister conspiracy, an example (one of many) is his incredible reconstruction or answers to the temperature hockey stick (where the Medieval warm period is incredibly towering above today – (in fact it was globally just + .5C as opposed to today’s + .7C above pre-industry norm).

      Watts May 13th 2014 (Graph by Don Easterbrook – Geologist):

      Reality by paleo proxy. satellite, weather stations and orthodox science.

      A bit of exaggeration never hurt anyone (or did it?) Wattsupwiththat

    • ”rules” are made to be broken

    • andrewfez Says:

      Well I had a break through in communication the other day: On a particular afternoon, Germany hit a new record in renewable energy use: ~74% of their energy needs were being met with RE. There was so much RE happening that electricity prices naturally went negative. Here’s the article:

      I posted this to Facebook and wrote in the description box: ‘Here’s what true energy independence looks like. And they’re seeing a return on their investment with cheaper electricity prices: ‘With wind and solar in particular filling such a huge portion of the country’s power demand, electricity prices actually dipped into the negative for much of the afternoon, according to Renewables International.’

      The breakthrough came when one of my deeply conservative friends ‘liked’ my posting.

      • Well i “like” you comment. 🙂

        Conservative people generally change their minds when they can reap the fruits of change. Lets hope the fruits come faster by the day – well except the fruits that we can now grow in Norway due to climate change. Latest story on the news here in Norway was a small insect that will ruin some 10-15% of crops of a certain form of berries (and can develop a virus that will kill the bush). While this wasnt a problem before its become increasingly so, and one theory points to climate change as the main cause. Without cold winters the little critters get active and multiply way earlier than before. This past winter in Norway was exceptionally mild.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Not to sound unsympathetic, but your problem in Norway is not “berry” bad (sorry) compared to what is happening elsewhere, for example what the Mountain Pine Beetle is doing to the forests in North America.

          The biological impacts of AGW are mostly overlooked as we concentrate on the more obvious weather-related evidence. The Sixth Mass Extinction is nicely underway and part of it is habitats moving “out from under” populations or, as in your case and the MPB, populations moving into new habitats with the advancing warmth and wreaking havoc. It is going to get far worse, and although it’s not as exciting as weather disasters, melting arctic ice, and collapsing antarctic glaciers, we need to pay it more attention.

          • redskylite Says:

            I saw a great lecture from Steve Running of Montana U – shared by “climatebob of Climate Outcome ” that talks about the Mountain Pine Beetle towards the end. I had not realised that Climate Change had gotten so bad (and obvious) in the U.S.A (and cannot understand why you have so many deniers and so much trouble to get any action), it is far less obvious here and I no longer travel much at all.

            This is a great lecture that tributes the work of David Keeling and the first I have seen from a forest and land specialist If you have a whole hour to spare I recommend it as a gripping well delivered speech, and a warning of things to come.


          • Well the berry bushes is just a tiny indicator of change. Norway generally has “enjoyed” a cold climate that these things haven’t been a problem here before, even though it has also greatly reduced what kind of things we can grow here too ofc. So the end output of a warmer climate might even be higher production for what I know, although it brings with it the need to combat pests we previously have not had the “pleasure” of having. 🙂 – And with it naturally comes a rise in the use of pesticides, which its really sad.

        • andrewfez Says:

          Thanks John! It was a small step but nonetheless a positive one. I try to use ideas, when communicating with folks, that appeal to everyone: For example, Iowa is running lots of wind on their grid and they have cheap electricity prices and small rate hikes compared with the US average.

          Sorry to here about the berry crops. I’ve been trying to grow strawberries this year and have already had one aphid attack. Apparently the strawberry aphids don’t themselves harm the plant, but they carry a virus that can be destructive, probably similarly to the berry bushes. I worry about the apple trees too, which don’t like the large temperature swings we seem to be getting here and there.

          At the university I attended in my home state of WV, a professor developed a blight resistant tomato back in 1963 that’s still grown today:

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Congratulations to your friend—he must have an IQ that approaches triple digits. I am sorry to say that most of my “deeply conservative friends” and neighbors do not. How old is your DC friend? Most of mine are old white guys.

        • andrewfez Says:

          Thanks oldguy –

          He’s probably in his early 40’s, hates Obama, loves Jesus, and runs a small business that is dependent on cheap but skilled help.

  2. Under BAU, we will hit 3-10 feet. The IPCC is wrong on this as they were on sea ice.

    • ubrew12 Says:

      I REALLY suspect you are correct. What we know about Alpine snow ledges in Summer is that, thermodynamically, they belong in the Valley below. It’s just that the kinetics isn’t allowing it yet. So, you look at all this ice, just in the last 20 years making its stately way toward the ‘theater exit’. Can you ‘predict’ a stampede, without looking like a fool? Thermodynamically, it KNOWS where it belongs. The show is over, its time to leave. But HOW it gets there is anyone’s guess.

      The latest information says the ‘stampede’ won’t happen until the 22nd century. That’s kinetics. It’s like you KNOW that a mixture of H2 and O2 is going to explode. The unhappy task of kinetics is to tell you WHEN. Good luck with that. Its anyone’s guess. But inasmuch as we’re looking at a ‘worst case scenario’ so far, in every other aspect of this planetary change…

      • Three words — edge melt destabilization. Three more words — glacial outburst flood. Final four words — heavy rainfall over glaciers.

        I sincerely hope I do not have the opportunity to test my BAU theory.

    • robertscribbler, your ”predictions” must be financed by the insurance companies

      • Yes, because insurance companies want to hold huge liabilities or charge rates that customers can’t afford due to risk or cut whole regions, like the coastline, out of their market share…

    • I am thinking that ocean rise will be its own feedback loop: some ocean rise will float more ice which exposes it to more melting underneath, and that leads to more and faster melting …

  3. […] The most recent analysis by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts a global sea-level rise for this century of somewhere between one and three feet; the new findings, according to Rignot, will require these figures to be revised upward.  […]

    • Must say that I agree with the assessments of Rignot…

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Me too. PS Finally got around to looking at your website. Nice job. I recommend it to all who visit Crock.

        • Cheers, DOG. I frequent Crock regularly as Peter and the commenters here are all very insightful and informative. I’m interested to see how the next chapter of Dark Snow unfolds.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Next chapter of Dark Snow? I predict more bad news. Let’s hope there are not too many soot-producing wildfires this year and the microscopic “critters” don’t have a population explosion.

          • Heavy early season burn in Russia and flare-ups in Alaska says it’s going to be a bad year for soot production. We’ve have a very hot winter in Yakutia, a region very vulnerable to wildfires. In addition, the rising El Nino appears to have parked a giant heat dome over Western Russia and Eastern Europe.

  4. While assessments surely needs to be adjusted upwards, sea level rise will not end in 2100 under BAU so we are merely talking about the rate of inundation we will experience. The fact that our actions trigger a state of inundation of our coastal cities (and low lying islands) should really say enough. People get too hung up on whats in 2100 – while we really should be talking near term and how we seriously need to fix this problem rather than figuring out how to save up enough money to build sea walls by 2100 which is what I feel the discussion has turned into.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Things rattle around in my dumb old brain and are sometimes surfaced by unrelated stimuli. When I read your comment, the old joke about “How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb?” came to mind (answer is “How many can you afford?”). But it morphed into “How high will we need to build these sea walls?” (answer is “How high can you afford?”).

      If the worst case scenarios come to pass (as it seems they will), the better question will be where will we put all the people that will be driven out of the cities that go under. We might be able to deal with three feet , but 10 to 20 meters is “game over” on sea walls and living in most of the largest cities on earth..

  5. The lower end predictions for Sea Level Rise to 2100 are no longer plausible. And as John Lonningdal says “sea level rise will not end in 2100”

    Simple CO2 Vs Sea level suggests already we are locked into at least 10 m

  6. […] 2014/05/14: PSinclair: Scientists Record of Conservative Predictions on Climate Should Give Us Pause […]

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