Friday, November 20, 2009

A climate crisis of worldwide proportions is unfolding right before our eyes, and not even the most powerful world leaders can do anything to stop it. It looks like 2009 may very well turn out to be the fourth straight year of declining global temperatures at a time when carbon dioxide levels continue to rise - the opposite of what was predicted by vaunted climate models.

Something must be done immediately to either (1) rework the temperature data so it vindicates esteemed climate visionaries, (2) come up with some scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo as to why long-term weather doesn’t conform to authoritative proclamations or (3) simply ignore or downplay the reality hoping people don’t finally catch on that they’ve been had. Perhaps it could at least be claimed that Mother Nature is giving us a reprieve to get our collective global act together before she really lowers the boom. After all, it has worked so well in the past to say that disaster is just around the corner.

Our guess is that the crafty climate chieftains will likely use a combination of the three smoke-and-mirror strategies listed (with a smattering of “denier” bashing thrown in just for fun).

But we wonder, when will ostensibly superintelligent people learn a simple fact that even a forecast is simply a guess at the future based on past and present information? Putting a lot of sincere confidence in your prognostication does not improve its predictive power.

The confidence just helps to make more people believe your forecast. More people buy into it. More people look to you for solutions, for salvation, and the whole thing takes on a life of its own. Knowing that you can in no way know the future for something as complicated as the Earth’s climate, at some point your confidence becomes inflated to the point of arrogance - it’s unavoidable. Soon you’re pushing a confidence game. And, since many in the general public and too many of the high and mighty can look with awe or advantage at the forecasts generated by sophisticated climate models, there will be no lack of sufficient players to keep the game moving. But, before we get into overtime, consider the reality of climate forecasting.

Everyone is aware of the folly of short-term weather forecasts. And, yes we know climate and weather are not the same! So, let’s consider short-term climate forecasts. A terrific example is the official U.S. prediction for the hurricane season of 2006. In May 2006, immediately preceding the onset of the Atlantic hurricane season (and again in August 2006), arguably the best hurricane forecasters on Earth couldn’t accurately predict even simply the total number of severe storm events.

The forecast was for another season of unusually numerous events (although not expected to be on par with the record-breaking 31 events of 2005, which included 15 hurricanes). But, the forecast was a bust, with only 10 events (five hurricanes and five tropical storms) recorded. Average was closer to at least 15 events … so much for forecasting climatic conditions better than the weekend’s weather.

If we can’t accurately predict occurrences in a small portion of the globe in the short range, what then are we to make of the substantially more complicated art of long-range global climate forecasting? We see that the Earth’s temperatures don’t seem to be playing the game by the climate-wizard’s rules. Should we begin to admit that we’re not really as smart as we or others think we are; that the tremendous complexity of climate, although better understood than in decades past, is still a long way from being confidently forecasted in decades future? Or would that be too honest?

For now, continuous falling temperatures are truly a global crisis, coming at a time when some very powerful people will soon be meeting in Copenhagen to remedy increasing temperatures. World leaders should stay home and enjoy the weather. Unless, of course, they’re not as concerned about changing climate as they are about redistributing wealth.

Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and co-author of “Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry” (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers, 2000). Susan T. Cammarata is an independent environmental lawyer practicing in Pittsburgh.

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