NYT, Eugene Linden: How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong, subtitled, “Few thought it would arrive so quickly. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.”
Because, despite the cynicism of the anti-science crowd, scientists as a group are pretty cautious. They’re also human, and have trouble recognizing how dramatic change can be within an ordinary lifetime.
(Meanwhile, anti-science religious loonies point to rainbows as ‘proof’ God would not allow the world to be destroyed (again). Such people may lead us all to doom, and if we let them, we deserve it.)
For decades, most scientists saw climate change as a distant prospect. We now know that thinking was wrong. This summer, for instance, a heat wave in Europe penetrated the Arctic, pushing temperatures into the 80s across much of the Far North and, according to the Belgian climate scientist Xavier Fettweis, melting some 40 billion tons of Greenland’s ice sheet.
Had a scientist in the early 1990s suggested that within 25 years a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels, at an estimated two one-hundredths of an inch, bake the Arctic and produce Sahara-like temperatures in Paris and Berlin, the prediction would have been dismissed as alarmist. But many worst-case scenarios from that time are now realities.
Science is a process of discovery. It can move slowly as the pieces of a puzzle fall together and scientists refine their investigative tools. But in the case of climate, this deliberation has been accompanied by inertia born of bureaucratic caution and politics. A recent essay in Scientific American argued that scientists “tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold” and said one of the reasons was “the perceived need for consensus.” This has had severe consequences, diluting what should have been a sense of urgency and vastly understating the looming costs of adaptation and dislocation as the planet continues to warm.
The realization that the global climate can swing between warm and cold periods in a matter of decades or even less came as a profound shock to scientists who thought those shifts took hundreds if not thousands of years.
The Trump administration, of course, is making everything worse. It will go down as an evil force of history. If there is a history.
If the Trump administration has its way, even the revised worst-case scenarios may turn out to be too rosy. In late August, the administration announced a plan to roll back regulations intended to limit methane emissions resulting from oil and gas exploration, despite opposition from some of the largest companies subject to those regulations. More recently, its actions approached the surreal as the Justice Department opened an antitrust investigation into those auto companies that have agreed in principle to abide by higher gas mileage standards required by California. The administration also formally revoked a waiver allowing California to set stricter limits on tailpipe emissions than the federal government.
Even if scientists end up having lowballed their latest assessments of the consequences of the greenhouse gases we continue to emit into the atmosphere, their predictions are dire enough. But the Trump administration has made its posture toward climate change abundantly clear: Bring it on!
It’s already here. And it is going to get worse. A lot worse.