Despite a frenzy of articles in the conservative press, climate change is as real as ever. Without critical intervention the global temperature is likely to increase by at least 2℃ , and this warming will have serious consequences.
Climate change is a big problem, and it’s not an easy one to understand. Experts spend years building complex models of our planet and its atmosphere. This helps predict what average temperatures are going to be years or decades from now. Those models have been incredibly accurate in the past, and the picture they paint of the future is pretty grim.
What spurred the conservative media?
That might be why a recent study published in the Nature Geosciences journal caught the eye of many right-wing tabloids. According to those tabloids, this new study upends those models that experts have spent years building, and instead suggests that the planet is warming much more slowly than previously thought.
“Fear of global warming is exaggerated,” said the Daily Mail. “Climate alarmists have finally admitted that they’ve got it wrong on global warming,” said Breitbart, calling it an “inescapable conclusion.”
There’s only one problem: Not only is that conclusion is not even close to correct. Breitbart is—to put it mildly—not an authority on climate change, or science in general.
Global warming models and research
The study in question examined the differences between temperature observations and temperatures predicted by some climate models. Examining how well models have predicted past temperatures can tell us how accurate those models are likely to be in the future, so this is a valuable exercise.
In this case, the researchers found that the models they examined predicted more warming than actually happened. This is the fact that those tabloid authors jumped on when claiming that climate change was exaggerated; if climate models are already shown to be wrong then surely climate change won’t be as bad as the experts say, right?
And in some respects, that’s true. The study’s authors found that we might have a bit longer to meet deadlines like in the Paris climate agreement, which tries to keep global warming below 1.5℃. Instead of only a decade or less to completely eliminate fossil fuels, this study suggests we might have 40 years or more.
The interpretation and the truth
That’s great news, assuming the study’s findings are accurate. Other climate experts, such as Carbon Brief’s Zeke Hausfather, suggest that this difference disappears when looking at different combinations of climate models and temperature data sets. Chances are, this study only highlights the inherent uncertainty involved in trying to predict the future, which is much less of a condemnation of climate science than Breitbart and the Daily Mail want it to be.
Or, as the study authors themselves put it, “debating the current level of human-induced warming and how it relates to the 1.5℃ goal feels a bit like discussing how best to steer a spacecraft into orbit around Saturn while [Breitbart] and [the Daily Mail] are urging their readers to question whether the Earth goes round the Sun.”