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.
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 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.
Spelling It Out
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 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.
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 rematches. Φ
David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at twitter.com/drgrist.