BAD THING WILL HAPPEN, say scientists

Annual Global Temperature anomalies compared with 1950 to 1980 base line. The data are colour coded with red indicating an El nino event. We can characterise these events, but we can't predict them.

Annual Global Temperature anomalies compared with 1950 to 1980 base line. The data are colour coded with red indicating an El nino event. We can characterise these events, but we can’t predict them. Graph from Wikipedia

I worry a lot. It’s deep rooted, and I can’t help it. But there you have it, I worry.

And reading about  the things that climate change “is going to cause” worries me a great deal. Not because I am worried about the things in the themselves. Bad as they are, we will face them when they happen – as we have done with events throughout history. What worries me is the consequences of them not happening.

For example today the Guardian reports that


And last week I read that


Please understand, I don’t want either of these things to happen – I am against mass starvation. But these stories worry me for another reason.

  • Firstly, they fit the general formula which media of all kinds love. They are a chance to use the headline BAD THING WILL HAPPEN, say scientists. The ‘say scientists’ tag absolves the reporting organ from editorial responsibility. And from their perspective, the bigger and badder the ‘bad thing’ the better.
  • Secondly, they are both based on models of Earth’s climate. And impressive as these models are, Climate Models cannot yet predict some very basic features of our climate – such as the timing of an El Nino event. An El Nino event is a periodic oscillation linking ocean and atmospheric circulation across the Pacific Ocean, and affecting climate world-wide – see the graph at the head of the page – El Nino years are globally hotter. To the best of my knowledge, we simply do not know if Climate Change will cause more of these events, or less, or none, or something else. But whether an El Nino event happens or doesn’t happen will affect the details of almost any climate prediction.
  • Thirdly both of these predictions are about the future. Human beings are spectacularly bad at predicting the future. And when a particular prediction doesn’t come true then the credibility of all predictions is affected.

So together these three features worry me. I am worried that people will just grow weary of hearing about bad its going to be. And this will cause them to take the fundamental issue less seriously. And if specific prediction X doesn’t happen this will only be reinforced.

The actual message is so much simpler. Putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will inevitably warm the Earth’s surface for really simple reasons.  And as a result, ice will melt, sea levels will rise, some places will get wetter and some will get drier. There is no doubt about any of these predictions. And none of super Climate Models actually predict anything very different.

What the models do is attempt to say how quickly things will change, which places will get wetter, and by how much. And these details are – in honesty – still uncertain. Like a weather forecast they will often be right – but also commonly wrong. And like a weather forecast, climate models are useful – but never certain.

These are worrying times.


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: