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Should We Be More Scared Of Climate Change?

The reality of climate change is serious enough that it doesn't need to be exaggerated in order to be taken seriously.


A recent article in Grist proposes that we aren't sufficiently afraid of climate change. The writer bases his claim on a paper in Nature Geoscience, which reports that global climate models do a lousy job of simulating abrupt climatic shifts, favoring slow-moving changes that they can more easily wrap their silicon-chip brains around. Because of this bias, the models have supposedly been misleading us into a false sense of complacency when we should instead be "way more terrified" of what may lie ahead. But speaking as a paleoclimatologist, this isn't really news, and I don't think we should freak out about it.

Paul Valdes, author of the aforementioned Nature Geoscience article, cites four examples from the deep past to illustrate what happens when a climate trend passes a "tipping point" that sets larger and faster changes in motion (and how badly most models handle it). He describes a super-greenhouse episode that toasted the world 56 million years ago, which I've written about previously, the rapid birth of the Sahara 5,500 years ago, gigantic gushes of icebergs into the North Atlantic ("Heinrich events") that messed with ice age ocean currents, and sudden jags in paleotemperature curves called Dansgaard-Oeschger events which are as yet unexplained.

Valdes concludes: "If the models are to be used for the prediction of potential future events of abrupt change, their ability to simulate such events needs to be firmly established—science is about evidence, not belief systems."

This isn't news. People like me, who reconstruct climatic history from lake sediments, ice cores, and such, have long bemoaned the inability of models to simulate certain aspects of climate properly. There's even some mild rivalry between our disciplines because of it. In fact, some of us recently published a critique of several models in Science because they failed to simulate an ancient drought precisely. But any such rivalry is strictly professional and mostly good-natured, and I've mingled with modelers over beers often enough to learn that they sometimes trash-talk my own group, too, calling us rock-jocks and technophobes.

Valdes, on the other hand, straddles both camps, routinely balancing models against climate history. His comments therefore carry extra weight, and I came away from his paper saying "right on!"

Sure, maybe his description of the Sahara desiccating in the blink of an eye is questionable. It's mainly based on the sudden appearance of fine desert grit in sediments off the coast of Africa, but other Saharan sites suggest a more gradual transition. And the primordial super-greenhouse probably developed over many centuries, hardly an instantaneous leap.

But the central point of Valdes' paper is sound. If you want to know as much as possible about what lies ahead, don't put all of your trust in one single information source. We paleo nerds can tell you a lot about what real climates have been like on a real Earth, but we can't manipulate history to address some important "what if" questions. Modelers hold that ground more firmly, though their simulations operate in artificial worlds; that's why we call them "models," as in model airplanes. Together, though, our strengths and weakness mesh well, and our combined efforts have long pointed to the possibility of abrupt climatic shifts heading our way.

And should our inability to know exactly what's coming at us make us weep and wail? That depends on who you are. One famous scientist told me that he exaggerated the dangers of climate change in his lectures because "if people aren't scared, they won't pay attention." This strategy has apparently worked well enough that one in three school kids surveyed back in 2009 were afraid that the Earth won't exist when they grow up, and half thought that the entire planet will soon become an unpleasant wasteland.

But most of the scientists I know favor truth over fiction, and most of my college students are refreshingly well-informed, hopeful, and eager to save the world. We think that the reality of climate change is serious enough that it doesn't need to be exaggerated in order to be taken seriously. The regrettable polarization of public discourse over our effects on climate largely reflects agendas other than the pursuit of good science, and obvious fear-mongering merely deepens that divide.

When faced with a crisis, some of us freeze in terror while others shift into high gear. "Sit and tremble" may be a good strategy for a camouflaged critter waiting in the underbrush for a predator to go away, but there's no place to hide when the whole planet is involved, and the threats posed by our carbon emissions won't go away for tens of thousands of years. For me, uncertainty about some details of future climate change is just one more reason to pay close attention to what's going on while also preparing for the unexpected. This is no time to freeze up and give up; there's so much at stake, and we've got so much work to do.

[Image: Flickr user mtsrs]

Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist with a Ph.D. in biology and geology from Duke University. His new book is DEEP FUTURE: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (St. Martin's Press, March 2011).


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  • Andrew Krause

    There is a fundamental flaw in the logic that says that because we can't computationally model the climate that things must be worse than we thought.

    I think we need to challenge the global doomsday scenario. If warming were to occur, it would undoubtedly benefit mankind and most species on the planet by providing more fresh water, more arable land and longer growing seasons.

    If there's something to panic about, then it would be that there has been no statistically significant warming since the late 1990's. If we slip into another ice age, we are well and truly in dutch.

  • medbob

    The economic impacts of the current proposals are certainly big and negative.  We don't yet have our arms around the problem because of the political smoke in the room.  When error is introduced in the raw data to support a desired outcome, the process is poisoned.  Given the data there are no conclusions that can be drawn (other than the direct correlation of global temps with solar output).
    Science must be unbiased to be valid.  This whole field of study has been tainted with bias.

  • Nik From NYC

    I vastly prefer Inc. magazine to the Maxim-like FastCompany since Inc. is about real people talking about the +/- details of their experience, whereas FC is about a fantasy version of working for yourself. This article itself is profoundly anti-business.

    The LA Times featured cold fusion in '89 before its debunking. Greens were aghast!

    like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.” – Paul Ehrlich (mentor of
    John Cook of the SkepticalScience blog, author of "Climate Change

    “Clean-burning, non-polluting, hydrogen-using bulldozers
    still could knock down trees or build housing developments on farmland.”
    – Paul Ciotti (LA Times)

    “It gives some people the false hope that
    there are no limits to growth and no environmental price to be paid by
    having unlimited sources of energy.” – Jeremy Rifkin (NY Times)

    people assume that cheaper, more abundant energy will mean that mankind
    is better off, but there is no evidence for that.” – Laura Nader
    (sister of Ralph)

    CLIMATEGATE 101: "For your eyes only...Don't
    leave stuff lying around on ftp sites - you never know who is trawling
    them. The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If
    they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I
    think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone....Tom Wigley has
    sent me a worried email when he heard about it - thought people could
    ask him for his model code. He has retired officially from UEA so he can
    hide behind that." - Phil "Hide The Decline" Jones to Michael "Hockey
    Stick" Mann

    Here I present A Global Warming Digest:












    -=NikFromNYC=- Ph.D. in Carbon Chemistry (Columbia/Harvard)

  • Guest

    No one makes good decisions out of fear. Progress is the answer. We will solve this by innovating and inventing, not by sitting in the dark.

  • atimoshenko

    Medbob, if we can't predict it, but it might be big and negative, prudence dictates that we should err on the side of caution.

  • medbob

    " and obvious fear-mongering merely deepens that divide."
    Given that in the '70s the scientific theory of the day was Global Cooling, and yesterday it was "Global Warming", and now due to popular considerations the term has been de-specified down to "Climate Change", and given the gerrymandering of data that has been documented;  I'm not convinced that this "crisis" is anything mere than fear-mongering itself.  (Sorry for the run-on sentence, but this situation is a run-on itself!)
    There is insufficient evidence to conclude WHAT our activity does to climate, as there are only theories and models that do not reflect reality.
    It is a plausible theory that; control of energy resources could be a great power temptation for  unscrupulous men to use for their own means.  Now THAT I would believe.

  • Wize Adz

    You may not be aware, but the 70s were 40 years ago.  A lot of things have changed since the 70s, and a lot of scientific progress has been made.  Generational change has occurred, since I work in science -- and since I wasn't even born during the time you were referencing.

    If you want people to not change their minds when better information comes along, then you must be nuts. Scientists, most anyway, change their minds when they get their facts straight, and get on with life -- which is exactly what happened with global cooling.  I wish our politicians had the integrity and courage to change their
    minds when new information is presented -- but our politicians dig in to positions that don't reflect reality, and then they brag
    about how ignorant they are.  It's lunacy.

  • Andrew Krause

    We get this archetype of the scientist as a wizened sage from the Carl Sagans or the Richard Feynmans, but in reality most scientists are just as fallable, rigid and error prone as anyone else. (And this is before grant money comes into play. Then they're positively schizophrenic.) And rarely do they actually change their mind in the face of new data. Usually, they tear the data apart, scrutinize the methods and challenge the conclusions. (Any scientist who doesn't is just as much a fool as any lay person.)

    The most laughable part of this 'cargo-cult-of-science' is that the lead is being taken by people alien to the field. Here we have a biologist and geologist who is commenting on an issue of atmospheric chemistry and physics. Even at the PhD level, I would prefer a physicist and chemist to have leadership here. Rationally speaking, would you want a orthopedic surgeon performing your heart transplant?

    Also, there has been no "generational change" in science since the 1970's. We're still working out the discoveries in physics, chemistry and mathematics that were posited in the first half of the 20th century. When something as exciting as quantum mechanics or the discovery of the DNA helix arises, we can talk about generational change. Otherwise, things like the Pioneer Anomoly, the Proteome and solving the Poincare conjecture are clever little puzzles that we've managed to crack incrementally.