Reality Check

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    This season, dramatic scenes keep flooding the newsreels just like those torrential rains in Germany and China, turning whole cities into a muddy mess. No extra effects are needed to add flamboyance to forests ablaze with wildfires from California to Turkey. And this is just the menacing trailer to a blockbuster horror movie featuring Climate Change. Coming soon to a theatre near you, scientists tell us.

    Or do they? To make the suspense a bit more real, I need to tell you that the actual scientific take on the subject is just about to be unveiled. The latest findings (Part 1) of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), widely considered the most authoritative review of climate research, will be published on Monday next week. A year delayed (by the pandemics, of course), this will be the first major assessment of human-caused global warming since 2013.

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    The IPCC report is more than just another scientific paper. “This is not an ivory tower type of exercise,” Jean-François Lamarque, the lead climate modeller at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), tells Science magazine. The results of years of intense work by the world’s most prominent climate modelling centres, formulated as a set of scenarios for the future, spread faster than a wildfire. They will be the new point of reference for other scientists who use them to assess the impacts of climate change, insurance companies and financial institutions forecasting effects on economies and infrastructure, and economists who calculate the actual cost of carbon emissions.

    Given the impact of the IPCC report, it is somewhat discomforting to hear these same scientists doubting their models and assumptions. Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a climate researcher at the Dutch national weather service, tells the FT that this summer’s record North American heat has “shaken the confidence of a lot of climate researchers.” “It means that the assumption that we had about how heatwaves react to a gradual increase in global warming may not be correct,” he adds.

    Past models, surprise, surprise, were flawed. And so will probably be the new ones. Some scientists seem to fall easily for the ESLD[1] bias, opting for overly conservative projections of the impact of climate change. But there are also concerns at the other end of the scale. Alarmism is on the rise, too, and some scientific reports are being accused of blatant fearmongering.

    It is rather reassuring then that the IPCC team is expected to use reality – the actual warming of the world over the past few decades – to calibrate their results this time around. This reality check could reduce the uncertainty of the model projections by half and lower their most extreme outcomes, research shows.

    While waiting for the big reveal and trying to guess whether it will sway the needle of public opinion towards optimism or despair, those dramatic news updates keep flashing by. They are a constant reminder that the less fortunate among us might already be experiencing the climate change horror movie in 3D, enacting one of IPCC’s worst-case scenarios. How is that for a reality check?

    Image by NOAA on Unsplash

    [1] ESLD stands for Erring on the Side of Least Drama, the title of an acclaimed scientific report from 2013 on climate change prediction by Keynyn Brysse, Naomi Oreskes, Jessica O’Reilly and Michael Oppenheimer.

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