Friday, November 30, 2012

The Nate Silver of Climate Change

Greetings Peaksters

      Is there anything we can learn from the election?   Well yes.
It turns out that  voter models actually work!    So, what about those
Climate Models?   Turns out they work too!   ( Unfortunately the ones
that work best are the most pessimistic.)

Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove
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
warned that “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 felt like 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 perceptual limitations and cognitive
shortcomings, to get a clear view of what’s happening and what’s to

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 folk wisdom and time-worn prejudices. We 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

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.

The Romney campaign’s refusal to grapple with inconvenient facts left
them “shellshocked” by their loss. But all they lost was an election,
and there will always be another election. In the climate race, losses
are permanent and irreversible. There will be no recounts or

This post is part of our November 2012 theme: Post-election hangover —
whither the climate?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home