How Accurate were Climate Skeptic Predictions? (Hint: Not Very)
Climate change is real.
I can almost hear the tired response to that first sentence.
"Yes, of course, climate change is real. The climate is changing and always has been. Duh!"
Okay, true, but not true enough. Not even close.
Why is it changing now?
Climate change is a deep topic for a layman to wade into, so I'll keep it simple.
I'm going to take a look at a few alternatives to anthropogenic climate change that you may have heard from some parts of the media.
They goes something like this: Climate change isn't happening because of higher levels of human-produced CO2. No, it's happening due to the Sun or simply natural variations. The Earth warms, and the Earth cools. It's been warming a little but will soon be cooling again, just like it always has. No big deal, and nothing we can do about it, anyway. It's all nature.
In that spirit of keeping it simple, I'm going to take a few past predictions made by some prominent climate change skeptics and see how they panned out. That's relatively easy to do since so many of them have made bold predictions over the years.
Also, to avoid straw-manning the arguments of the climate skeptics, I'll source the predictions from self-described experts in the field. This term "expert" is itself controversial, and a topic worthy of further examination elsewhere, but it's only fair to look at these skeptical arguments from the most "credible" sources, rather than some tweet by a celebrity or politician. I could also do an entirely separate post about all the dumb things pundits, talking heads, and (mostly) conservative pontificators have said poo-pooing human-caused climate change.
But that's no more valid than what climate change doubters do when they trot out some equally idiotic statement by non-scientific believers in climate change. No, to the best of my ability, I want to see what the so-called experts from the other side of the debate are saying, not the recycled versions I get for public consumption on Fox News and Breitbart.
It turns out there are many folks out there with PhDs willing to debunk climate change. Sadly, many, if not most, of these people have expertise at best indirectly related to climate science, and often not related at all. I find that problematic. That lack of expertise shows when you start digging into the research and start seeing the same few names and the same few arguments, over and over, year after year.
Okay, let's start back a few years, and then look at how those predictions turned out.
It's the Sun!
"It may well be that human activity is indeed changing the climate, at least in part, but there is an increasing body of science that says that the sun may have a greater role. If it does have, then global warming is likely to stop, as it appears to have done since 1998, and if the current sunspot cycle fails to ignite, then cooling, possibly rapid and severe cooling, may eventuate. The next five years will tell us a great deal. In these circumstances, we should wait and see." Professor Geoffrey Kearsley, Geographer - 2008
“Many peer-reviewed scientific papers are now looking at the real possibility that the Sun may play the main role in climate variation here on earth." Meteorologist Dave Dahl - 2008
"I suspect influence from the varying radiation of the Sun as the major factor." Retired USAF Meteorologist William “Bill” Lyons - 2009
"The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] continues to undervalue the overwhelming evidence that, on decadal and century-long time scales, the Sun and associated atmospheric cloud effects are responsible for much of past climate change. It is therefore highly likely that the Sun is also a major cause of twentieth-century warming, with anthropogenic GHG making only a minor contribution." Fred Singer - 2009 Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) published by the Heartland Institute
“The Sun may have contributed as much as 66% of the observed twentieth-century warming, and perhaps more” — going on to suggest that global cooling may lie ahead, due to the “recently quiet Sun and extrapolation of solar cycle patterns into the future.” Solar Forcing of Climate, Willie Soon & Sebastian Luning
Are these claims true?
Is the Sun the main driver for the warming we see now?
What does NASA say?
"No. The Sun can influence the Earth’s climate, but it isn’t responsible for the warming trend we’ve seen over the past few decades." NASA
It turns out NASA has been measuring the Sun's output over the last 40 years, so we can compare the data from that research with corresponding temperature measurements taken during the same period. The gentlemen quoted above had access to all of that data back when they made their bold predictions.
What does that data tell us about the Sun's activity over the last forty years?
The amount of sunshine we received has remained relatively constant, while temperatures have steadily risen. Of course, the Sun plays an essential role in our climate. It always has. That said, the Sun's recent activity does not explain the current warming trend. On the contrary.
Okay, it's not the Sun, but it doesn't end there. A related and sometimes overlapping argument claimed that the Earth was facing an imminent cooling period because of variations in solar activity.
As I will show, using the science of NASA and NOAA, this turned out to be utter nonsense.
First, let's see what these climate "experts" said.
“For the next 20 years, I predict global cooling of about 3/10ths of a degree Fahrenheit, as opposed to the one-degree warming predicted by the IPCC.” Professor Don Easterbrook, Professor of Geology at Western Washington University - 2000
“The current warm cycle should end soon and global temperatures should cool.” Professor of Geology at Western Washington University, Don Easterbrook - 2006
“We have to be thankful to the anthropogenic global warming proponents for one thing. If it weren't for them and their voodoo science, climate science wouldn't have attracted the attention of non-climate scientists, and we would be sleepwalking into the rather disruptive cooling that is coming next decade.” David Archibald - 2008
"The Earth is getting colder and this will accelerate." David Archibald - 2008
“In fact global warming has stopped and a cooling is beginning. No climate model has predicted a cooling of the Earth – quite the contrary. And this means that the projections of future climate are unreliable." Professor Henrik Svensmark of the Danish National Space Institute, Physicist - 2009
"However, observations of the Sun show that as for the increase in temperature, carbon dioxide is 'not guilty' and as for what lies ahead in the upcoming decades, it is not catastrophic warming, but a global, and very prolonged, temperature drop." Dr. Habibullo Abdussamatov, Astrophysicist, Space Research Sector of the Sun, Pulkovo Observatory - 2009
"Don Easterbrook, a geology professor and climate scientist, correctly predicted back in 2000 [!!!!] that the earth was entering a cooling phase." Edmond Contoski, contributor and policy adviser for the Heartland Institute - 2014
"But time continues to prove the climate alarmists are wrong. The earth has shown no warming for 17 years despite a continuous increase in carbon emissions." Edmond Contoski, member of the Heartland Institute - 2014
"The recently quiet Sun and extrapolation of solar cycle patterns into the future suggest a planetary cooling may occur over the next few decades." Solar Forcing of Climate, authored by Willie Soon & Sebastian Luning ~2015
"This is why in the 15 years prior to 2013, when humans produced 461 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—compared to only 302 billion tonnes in the preceding 15 years—there was no global warming; in fact, the earth actually cooled despite the massive increase in carbon dioxide emissions." Edmond Contoski, contributor and policy adviser for the Heartland Institute - 2016
How have these predictions panned out?
Not so well, it turns out.
Is it in fact cooling? No, it's not. On the contrary, it's getting warmer almost every year.
What do the climate scientists at NASA and NOAA have to say?
Since 2001, we've experienced 19 of the last 20 warmest years on record. Only 1998 was warmer. NASA
Ten warmest years on record (1880-2019) NOAA
8. 2005 (tied)
8. 2013 (tied)
Warmest January on record - 2020
Warmest February on record - 2016
Warmest March on record - 2016
Warmest April on record - 2016
Warmest May on record - 2019
Warmest June on record - 2019
Warmest July on record - 2019
Warmest August on record - 2016
Warmest September on record - 2015
Warmest October on record - 2015
Warmest November on record -2015
Warmest December on record - 2015
From here, I'll just carpet bomb you with some charts depicting data gathered and analyzed by NASA and NOAA.
They all point to the same thing:
1. The Earth is warming.
2. CO2 levels are rising.
3. As ice levels decrease because of higher temperatures, sea levels are rising.
4. This warming is relatively recent and at levels not seen anytime in human history.
Those charts kind of speak for themselves.
In researching this essay, I felt an increasing frustration as I read through the skeptic literature. I was shocked by the paucity of climate skeptic arguments written by actual climate scientists. I was also appalled at the shallowness of the research, which is really little more than taking real climate scientists' research and spinning it 180 degrees to reach pre-determined, agenda-driven conclusions.
Even sadder are the zombie-like "afterlives" these skeptic talking points take on long after the science has overwhelmingly debunked them. And that's what they are, talking points, rather than any honest attempt to do good science.
That's kind of the point, though, to confuse, to re-frame, and to create counter-narratives. As they have discovered, you can accomplish quite a bit with a good communications plan, even when the evidence is not on your side. I still have conversations with people who earnestly tell me that the Sun is causing climate change, or dismiss with a shrug the possibility that we may be contributing to the problem.
"Of course, the climate always changes! Nothing we can do about it."
Add to this the fact that most people, myself included, don't have a lot of time to delve deeply into the state of the debate. I'll tackle this in more depth in a later post, but I rely on the experts to deploy their expertise to produce sound (not perfect) science. I believe (yes, believe) that the thousands of climate scientists working at NASA, NOAA, the IPCC, and dozens of other respected organizations work in good faith to produce the good science. Their track record and data prove that.
Considering the complexity of the topic, they do an outstanding job. The fact that the vast majority of climate scientists across multiple climate-related sub-disciplines are coming to the same conclusions (the Earth is warming; we're the reason; and it's probably going to get worse) should be eye-opening. I have not seen anything better to explain the current trends.
After this deep dive into the skeptic world of climate science, I can't say the same thing about the other side of the debate. I sensed a dishonesty lurking just beneath a shallow layer of scientific objectivity, not to mention a repetition of the same few arguments.
At this point, I'm convinced the climate skeptics don't have the expertise, the science, or the credibility to convince me what they are doing is being done with any good faith. No, what they are doing is waging a propaganda campaign in support of certain political and economic ideologies. Yet what they lack in facts, they make up for in salesmanship.
Cranks like (Christopher Monkton), professional contrarians like (Fred Singer), and paid ideologues like (Marc Morano), work to sow doubt in order to sustain doubt in certain segments of a public already pre-disposed to buy the pseudo-science they are selling.
Like their predecessors from an earlier era who waged a similar campaign to save the tobacco industry from the attacks of a mounting scientific consensus about the dangers of smoking, doubt is the climate change denier's product and its truth-slaying weapon of choice.
So give them credit, this small band of merry bullshitters has done a masterful job at confusing the issue for the average person.
January 2020 was the Earth's hottest January on record. NOAA