This article is co-authored by Tammy Gan and Kylie Flanagan. Kylie (she/her) is a climate change mitigation and resilience strategist, educator, and writer. Based on unceded Coast Miwok lands in so-called California, United States, Kylie helps to run a small, Bay Area-based foundation and is currently working on a book of interviews with women and gender-expansive folks building climate resilience in their communities. She has a Masters in Sustainability Solutions and hopes that her work can help folks to navigate their role in the climate movement and better care for themselves and their communities amidst a changing climate.
The climate crisis is undeniably here. In fact, it’s been the case for countries of the Global South for years now. It’s just been cruelly underreported. But what was once envisioned as a catastrophic future for the Global North, is now a reality for these so-called “free rider” countries. We’re seeing fires ravage Greece and Turkey. Deadly heatwaves in the US and Canada which were “virtually impossible” without climate change. And unforgettable visuals of floods in Germany…
Now, everyone, including the Global North, are finally paying attention. And yet, instead of responding to this with an urgent desire to speed up climate change mitigation and support from the Global North to the most vulnerable communities, we’ve seen disturbing claims from both the media and people that doubt the climate science. So let’s get this out of the way. We shouldn’t be doubting the climate science—here’s why.
Has the science been accurate?
What is the science saying?
For this, we have to turn to the most recent IPCC Synthesis Report, Report 5, released in 2014. The IPCC is the most authoritative body on climate science presently. It produces a Synthesis Report every few years. And there have since been five. Each of these Synthesis Reports is meant to present an overview of the state of knowledge on the science of climate change. Additionally, it seeks to provide governments with scientific information to develop climate policies.
The reports use Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), which are different scenarios based on different levels of mitigation action, to make projections. Synthesis Report 5 reads: “Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise.”
“Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development”.
So all given this, are the responses warranted? The doomsday headlines about the extreme weather events? Does the science match up to what we’re seeing?
What are the scientists saying?
Amidst major climate disasters, we’ve been seeing headlines like “Are extreme events worse than climate science projected?” “Disasters everywhere. Did scientists see them coming?” “In a summer of apocalyptic weather, concerns emerge over climate science blind spot”. Problematic clickbait media headlines aside, there really isn’t a consensus among climate scientists about what they’re seeing, and on whether it matches up to the original predictions.
Some have said that it’s a matter of the failure to predict intensity, in part because of technical limitations. “[T]op climate scientists have admitted they failed to predict the intensity… they say their computers are not powerful enough to accurately project the severity of [climatic] extremes” (BBC). Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University told Axios that “this last string of disasters has really shaken my confidence in the models’ predictions of regional extremes.”
Still, other scientists have suggested that we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss the science. UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain remarked: “I think it’s important to differentiate between “the climate system is careening out of control faster than we thought that it would” versus “actually, even this amount of warming is a lot more problematic than we thought it was.” And I tend to think that it’s more the latter than the former.”
In effect, what he’s saying is that it’s not exactly that the science and scientists were wrong. He’s not saying that scientists didn’t see this coming either. But, rather, he’s saying that the impacts were a lot greater than they anticipated. (We’ll get into why later on.) The key here is that science does tend to err on the side of caution. So the question that follows is: why is the science presented the way it is?
Why is the science presented the way it is?
Reports like the IPCC are conservative and consensus-based
There are scientists that criticise the approach of reports like the IPCC. As Professor Bill McGuire, geophysical and climate hazards professor at University College London shared: “The IPCC’s reports tend to be both conservative and consensus. They’re conservative, because insufficient attention has been given to the importance of tipping points, feedback loops and outlier predictions; consensus, because more extreme scenarios have tended to be marginalised. Plenty of peer-reviewed papers not addressed in IPCC documentation present far more pessimistic scenarios. There is no reason why a consensus viewpoint should be right”.
But there are also scientists saying that this consensus-based approach has resulted in the opposite. Of over-estimating the impacts of climate change. Professors Roger Pielke Jr. and Justin Richie have highlighted that specifically, RCP8.5, the most commonly used Representative Concentration Pathway scenario to represent a world without enacted climate policies, represents an “implausible future”.
One of the reasons why this is so is that the “RCP8.5 projects to 2100 a six-fold growth in global coal consumption per capita, while the International Energy Agency and other energy forecasting groups collectively agree that coal consumption has already or will soon peak.” This scenario used in the climate science (as in, IPCC reports), thus, doesn’t take into account the “profound changes in the world’s mix of energy resources and technologies in the past three decades”.
This is not to say that, as the professors note, we should question the legitimacy of climate science. But, rather, to say that science does need to continually strive to have integrity in correcting its own mistakes. And not be afraid to break with past ways of doing things. Doing so will mean that the climate deniers have nothing legitimate to hold against climate science.
Science has to be “neutral” and “objective”
Speaking of breaking with past ways of doing things… let’s talk about the issue of (climate) science striving to be as neutral and objective as possible. Should scientists stay in their lane, or should they be doing more than just science? Should there be a greater focus on using the data that we already have? And should scientists be playing a larger role in climate activism?
Some scientists argue that it’s important that they stay neutral to remain trustworthy. Others say they’ve been loud as activists and nobody has listened. Case in point? In 2019, over 1500 scientists signed a declaration in support of Extinction Rebellion. The declaration read: “The scientific community has already tried all conventional methods to draw attention to the crisis. We believe that continued governmental inaction over the climate and ecological crisis now justifies peaceful and nonviolent protest and direct action, even if this goes beyond the bounds of the current law.” The same year, more than 11,000 scientists signed a declaration in the journal BioScience stating “clearly and unequivocally that humans could endure untold suffering if massive changes aren’t made to the biosphere.”
And still, others remain that it shouldn’t be their job. That they don’t have the bandwidth or talent for unpaid labour on top of 60-70 hours of research each week. That they can’t risk losing their job, etc. (Fair enough.)
In a better world, policymakers including presidents would respond to the science in a rational way, so I wouldn't feel compelled to pour a huge amount of energy into activism.
Policymakers: Extremely dangerous global heating is hitting us all over the head. Please do your jobs.
— Peter Kalmus (@ClimateHuman) July 31, 2021
But sometimes, climate science moves away from that
But science has made some attempts at moving away from that. The IPCC 2018 Special Report, perhaps, is a compromise, showing exactly how fine the line between climate science and “science activism” is. But also, it shows that scientists have done their part in terms of sounding the alarm—echoing the XR declaration here. It’s just that governments haven’t acted. The fact that they even pushed out a Special Report outside of their Assessment Cycles is perhaps worth noting in itself. It was a Special Report that essentially said: “the 0.5°C difference matters, we need to act to keep global warming to 1.5°C”.
In fact, the Special Report reads: “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems”. That’s science-speak, to policymakers everywhere, for: change everything now.
(It’s worth noting, by the way, that in the latest IPCC report—more on that towards the end—that was out this week, the language is pretty strong.)
And science faces real limitations, too…
Another issue with the climate science is also that there’s still a lot of systems that scientists don’t fully understand, or have the technology to predict. Ecological systems are incredibly complex. And nearly all of them are changing at once. This ends up creating complex interactions that are difficult to predict.
As 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben explained, “It’s hard to build computer models powerful enough to calculate the rise in temperature, but infinitely harder to predict the resulting havoc, because that’s a function of many things that we can’t really measure.” For instance, until recently, few scientists believed that the jet stream could fundamentally shift its behaviour. But as the Arctic melts and reduces the temperature difference between the equator and the North Pole, the jet stream seems to be slowing down and becoming more erratic, possibly catalysing events like the recent devastating floods across Europe.
There are many dynamic systems around the planet that are “now in chaotic flux”. And without a firm understanding of how they will evolve, interact with one another, and reach their respective tipping points? It’s impossible to predict how exactly climate-related events will manifest.
As Peter Kalmus reflected after watching fatal heat waves unfold across the US, about a decade before he expected that type of extreme heat: “The scientific community has done a really good job projecting when we would get to 1.2 degrees Celsius, which is about where we are now. The community hasn’t done as good of a job projecting how bad climate impacts would be at 1.2 degrees Celsius.”
Science cannot do everything
More powerful computer models could help scientists to better predict when and how climate-related disasters will manifest. But there will always be barriers to perfectly accurate predictions.
The IPCC 2018 Special Report, too, recognises its limits. Not just the technological limits that prevent them from being able to make the most accurate predictions. But also the limits that exist because science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Outcomes depend also on the social context. For example, the Special Report reads: “Climate-related risks for natural and human systems are higher for global warming of 1.5°C than at present but lower than at 2°C. These risks depend on the magnitude and rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development and vulnerability, and on the choices and implementation of adaptation and mitigation options.”
And so all the talk about limitations to the science aside? Perhaps there’s a bigger question here. What are we expecting the science to do? We need to talk about how we can utilise the science we have better. And we need to talk about how we (as in, non-scientists) can engage in the conversation and how we can ground the science in local contexts… in order to close the (real and perceived, controllable and uncontrollable) gap between climate science and reality.
How should we be utilising the science?
Let’s zoom out a little and talk about where we’re at right now. Where are we in terms of the dialogue around and about climate science? There are two notable, opposing points here. For one: heightened critique and conversation around the accuracy of climate science isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
More conversation about climate science may be emblematic of a spike in the public’s interest and overall engagement in the climate crisis. While the core conversation around IPCC reports (and other climate reports) used to revolve primarily around whether or not the climate crisis was real or human-caused, the dialogue has shifted. It’s shifted to just how accurate the science is in predicting climate impacts. In some ways, this is certainly progress. There are more and more people looking to engage in the climate conversation and grapple with where we go from here and how we plan for the future. But…
But critiquing climate science can be harmful
On the other hand, however, critique of climate science, when it’s not nuanced, when it’s simply assuming that the science is predicting everything wrongly? This critique is harmful. Because, firstly, it’s sometimes just plain wrong. And it makes people disbelieve in science in an unhelpful way. Cambridge Professor Mike Hulme shared: “I think it is dangerous if people start trying to undermine IPCC reports before they are even published. Yes, there are weather extremes and some of them – like heatwaves and some hurricane intensities – are getting more extreme, but this is all predictable according to IPCC models.”
“I think it is dangerous to start banging the drum for more and more emergency talk. We have seen the damage emergencies can do with the pandemic, fuelled by the psychology of fear through the social amplification of risk. It’s a politically dangerous game to start playing.”
This is also harmful because it’s a strategic shift in blame. It can, at best, end up distracting from urgent action. And at worst, allowing the fossil fuel industry to evade accountability, and letting key decision-makers off the hook for not taking action earlier.
This emerging narrative which claims science failed to "predict" what is happening is a form of *disaster denialism* and it needs to be stopped in its tracks — it's not true and it gives a whole lot of powerful people an out for not having acted when they should have. https://t.co/dxoF3UxKNx
— Dr. Samantha Montano (@SamLMontano) July 17, 2021
In fact, by the way, a recent comprehensive climate change timeline has shown 200 years of growing scientific evidence of the risks of fossil fuels, with decades of policy lagging behind. In other words—science has told us the risks for years.
The creator of the timeline, Sharon Tisher, an economics lecturer at the University of Maine, has shared that “what’s striking about the timeline is it shows science advancing through the decades, but national and international policy lagging behind, or even moving backward, despite the increasing knowledge about the causes and dire effects of climate change.”
Science is one tool
Further, the wider conversation that we need to be having here is also acknowledging that climate science is (but) one tool that we should utilise while crafting mitigation, adaptation, and care strategies. It’s critical that we acknowledge its limitations.
The first of these being the fact that the tech isn’t exactly the best. Computers that scientists currently have access to have limited modelling capacity. And they’re meant to capture global trends rather than highly detailed, local impacts. And it’s not like science has ever been the only answer. (Neither is developing super high-tech computers going to fix everything.)
The second is that western science is but one type of science. We need to honour Indigenous wisdom and traditional ecological knowledge too. To this end, a collaborative approach may look like, in the case of managing wildfires in the US, for example: revitalising Indigenous fire stewardship practices and integrating that with science-based adaptive management strategies. Beyond climate disasters, honouring Indigenous knowledge also looks like listening to Indigenous groups who might have age-old traditions that can revitalise ecosystems, alongside pursuing science-based solutions.
Climate impacts don’t occur in a vacuum
A final thing to acknowledge here is that climate impacts do not occur in a vacuum. And that we must assess these impacts alongside their various compounding factors. We must understand the climate crisis as one that is constantly interacting with complex ecological dynamics and slowly simmering social crises instigated by capitalism, colonialism, and other systems of oppression.
This last limitation is worth restating. Climate science can only go so far, and models can only do so much. The rest depends on the society that climate disasters happen in. “Society’s vulnerability to extreme events is to some extent independent of whether climate scientists are missing a new dynamic in heatwaves or heavy rain events,” wrote Andrew Freedman for Axios. Ana Raquel Nunes, a senior research fellow at Warwick medical school who studies the links between global heating and human health, has shared that “extreme weather reveals the fragility of people and places”.
How intense a climate disaster is depends on the vulnerability and fragility of our communities. Not just patterns detected by climate models and machines. For example, when communities experience extreme heat, the folks most affected are consistently the most impacted by systemic oppression. Such as incarcerated and homeless folks. Folks who don’t have access to air conditioning. And folks who have to work in the sun without health protections, etc. In order to effectively adapt to the climate crisis and keep all community members safe, we must abolish the systems of oppression that cause people to become “vulnerable”.
Taking into account compounding factors
Another way to understand the fact that climate impacts don’t occur in a vacuum is by looking at how compounding factors affect climate impacts. For instance, in many regions experiencing massive wildfires, symptoms of the climate crisis (including longer stretches of drought, earlier snowpack melt, and more frequent and intense extreme heatwave events) are amplified by decades of fire mismanagement and violent suppression of Indigenous fire management practices. The climate crisis contributes to wildfires that are more frequent and intense. But colonisation produced the kindling that has allowed wildfires to explode.
Similarly, in many regions experiencing severe drought? Erratic precipitation patterns, earlier snowpack melt, and warmer temperatures are amplified by, firstly, large dams and reservoirs that trigger the overuse of water resources. They’re also amplified by the wider, ongoing destruction of ecosystems (that regulate atmospheric and groundwater circulation). And by agricultural systems (that erode soil quality and incentivise the proliferation of water-intensive crops and livestock). The droughts being experienced across the globe are a result of the climate crisis. But they would be a lot less impactful if ecosystems weren’t already over-extracted and exploited for profit.
All of this is to say, again, that climate science and modelling can only go so far. We need to address these compounding factors too.
What does this mean for developing policy?
When crafting regional policy or developing community climate mitigation and resilience strategies, we should pair a deep understanding of the climate science with extensive conversations and collaboration with various groups. Science should not operate in silos. To be fair, there are efforts to break the silos, but collaboration with many of these groups remains insufficient.
These groups include folks who are on the ground (activists, organisers, community members, disaster management folks, etc.). Those who are close to the land (Indigenous communities, farmers, scientists researching local ecosystems, etc.). And finally, those on the frontlines of the climate crisis (disabled folks, youth, unhoused folks, poor folks, elders, etc.). It’s only through such collaboration that science can have the best understanding of the compounding factors at play that amplify climate impacts for communities.
Scientific reports are foundational to informed climate action. But lived expertise is just as crucial.
Where do we go from here?
On the one hand, we should make space for (nuanced) conversation around and critique of climate reports science. There are legitimate critiques against climate science. Yes, it could be more comprehensive. It could be bolder. It could be more willing to self-correct on its blind spots. But again, science is one tool to understand a complex issue. And there are many other tools that exist, that we should use in conjunction with mainstream climate science.
And we should also keep our eyes on the prize. We should be wary of how these conversations can allow climate deniers to hijack the narrative, and say that the climate science is wrong. We should also be wary of how these conversations may even lead to us aiming at the wrong target. Pointing the blame at scientists for “not doing enough work” and not predicting climate science accurately enough… when the blame really should be on the governments for ignoring the science for so long. For not making the serious investments needed in climate mitigation and adaptation measures. And on the fossil fuel industry and other high-emitting industries and corporations for polluting our planet.
(And we know—the fossil fuel industry is happy to point the blame on anything other than themselves, so let’s not let them take this one too.)
Above all, it’s worth noting the fact that thousands of scientists are volunteering their time—for free—to do the work of building climate science. And speaking of which… The Working Group 1 contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) was just released (a good summary of information about, responses and nuances to the report can be found here). The second and third working group reports will come out early next year.
What can you do?
Amplify the science. Hold corporations and governments, entire industries responsible, for not acting according to the science. Hold mainstream media accountable for not reporting enough about the climate crisis. Take part in on the ground, find out about and involve yourself in localised efforts. Organise, support mutual aid networks. And we can do all of these alongside supporting the science.
The science, and climate activists, Indigenous groups, marginalised folks have been sounding the alarm for decades now. It’s time the people who have power listened.