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Don’t Trust Climate Forecasts? They’re Some Of The Most Accurate Predictions Around

Don’t believe the hype: Predictions about the future climate have been spot-on so far. And that’s reason to worry: Because the latest forecasts paint a rather dire picture.

Don’t Trust Climate Forecasts? They’re Some Of The Most Accurate Predictions Around
[Image: Hurricane via Shutterstock]

The climate forecasts coming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate-monitoring organizations have become increasingly dire over the years. The latest IPCC report is flat-out nightmarish: Continue with our current carbon emissions free-for-all, and 15 years from now climate change will be impossible to fix using technologies available today. We’ll have to develop new technologies that can grab CO2 from the air and safely store it underground.

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There are still enough nay-sayers–and people in power who mostly believe the forecasts, but don’t want to take controversial and expensive action–that a geo-engineered future of removing CO2 from the atmosphere seems like a likely outcome. But that’s also pretty scary, because no one knows what the side effects will be.

As the New York Times points out, one possible method of pulling CO2 from the air–growing biofuel-ready crops that soak up CO2, burning the fuel, and injecting emissions underground–would compete for cropland used in food production. Plus, it’s much pricier than curbing emissions now, incredible as that may seem.

Here’s the thing: Based on past accuracy, we should probably believe the IPCC’s predictions. In a report comparing climate science with economic forecasts, the New Economics Foundation points us to a graph comparing IPCC predictions from 1995 to actual climate outcomes. As you can see, the predictions are accurate enough that they can’t be entirely ignored.


This just looks at the IPCC’s predictions from one year, but the Guardian has a great article examining the accuracy of IPCC forecasts over time. They have been, with some exceptions, remarkably accurate over time.

The Guardian also notes:

It’s important to remember that weather predictions and climate predictions are very different. It’s harder to predict the weather further into the future. With climate predictions, it’s short-term variability (like unpredictable ocean cycles) that makes predictions difficult. They actually do better predicting climate changes several decades into the future, during which time the short-term fluctuations average out.

The NEF report goes on to compare IPCC predictions to economic forecasting, making the case that policymakers are willing to act on economic forecasts that have similar (and in some cases, lower) levels of accuracy compared to the IPCC reports. This is mostly irrelevant–economic forecasts have more immediate impacts than climate forecasts, and policymakers have already seen what can go wrong with poor economic policy. We are only beginning to understand what climate change looks like in the real world.

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The report is worth a look. At the very least, it’s a reminder that ignoring climate forecasts is extremely unwise.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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