When environmentalists overstate the certainty of climate science, they set themselves up to look like fools when their doomsaying prophecies are proven wrong.
In an attempt to set right some popular misconceptions (it being April 1st, and all), the Gray Lady warned its readers not to be fooled by the notion that a recent pause in global warming disproves climate change. The New York Times reports:
There is, in fact, an active debate among scientists about whether the pause even happened at all. Data on global temperature appeared to show a slower comparative rise in the years following 1998, the end of the last El Niño event. But last June, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a paper in the journal Science stating that the pause probably didn’t occur at all, or was at least greatly overstated; they blamed inaccurate data for giving a misimpression of a hiatus in warming. […]
Then in February, yet another paper in the journal Nature Climate Change took the opposite view, claiming that a slowdown, at least, is real.
Feeling whipsawed yet? Don’t. This kind of disagreement among scientists happens every day, and when the subject is less politicized it can be fascinating to watch. This is how scientific inquiry moves forward: Putting hypotheses out there and testing them. Most days, it makes a lot more sense than politics does.
But in many ways this corrective misses the point. Yes, the reported pause in warming gave plenty of ammunition to climate skeptics out there, and it’s true that it also did nothing to undermine the very basic science correlating climate change with human activities—namely that industrialized societies have been emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases that trap more of the sun’s radiation and thereby raise surface temperatures. But it did throw into question green claims that climate science is “settled,” that we’ve somehow reached a complete understanding of one of the most complicated systems we have at hand to study.
The warming pause didn’t make climate change any less of a long-term threat, but it did expose how little we know about it, and how faulty our best models are. That hasn’t changed, and in fact the debate over how significant this pause really was only serves to underscore the lack of consensus within the scientific community over the specifics of the effects of climate change. Again, at a fundamental level we can understand that humanity is affecting our climate via greenhouse gas emissions, but our understanding quickly breaks down when we try to tackle the “fiddly bits.” Given the immense complexity of our planet’s climate, with its innumerable variables and their many relationships (both known and unknown), it’s not at all surprising that we can’t accurately make predictions about what comes next.
Scientists will continue to refine their models and explore new avenues of research into climate change, and as they do we’ll get a more complete picture of what’s happening.