Fix the mistakes that killed the climate change campaign!

Summary: Let’s trace the misrepresentation and misuse of RCP8.5 from a new paper back to its earliest days. This shows how a big mistake and a small one combined to put much of climate science on a dead-end road. And how climate scientists’ refusal to recognize these mistakes has kept it on this road. Understanding the past can help climate science become more useful.

Forecasting with models

After three decades, the campaign for public policy action to fight climate change has failed to produce substantial results in the US. With vast investments of work and money, plus support of many powerful institutions, it ranks among the biggest such failures in US history. Let’s trace one reason for its failure, starting with a new paper and looking back through time to the original error. Remember, it is never too late to learn and change course.

William Nordhaus is a professor of economics at Yale and creator of the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy model (DICE), one of the most widely cited integrated assessment models providing guidance to policy makers about climate change. His latest paper goes to the heart of climate policy debate.

Global Melting? The Economics of Disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet

NBER working paper by William D. Nordhaus, May 2018.

The key message of the paper; red emphasis added.

“Concerns about the impact on large-scale earth systems have taken center stage in the scientific and economic analysis of climate change. The present study analyzes the economic impact of a potential disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS). The method is to combine a small geophysical model of the GIS with the DICE integrated assessment model. The result shows that the GIS is likely to disappear over the next millennium or so without climate policy, but an active climate policy may prevent the GIS from crossing the threshold of irreversibility. …” {Opening of the abstract.}

This is a well-constructed paper. It shares two typical characteristics of its genre. One is fun, the other has had awful effects.

Predictions over absurdly long horizons

“The ice-sheet decline is slow, with a GIS half-life of approximately eight centuries in the baseline path …” {ibid.}

What was high tech 800 years in the past? The wheelbarrow, rudder, and windmill were new inventions. The chimney would soon be invented. The hourglass and paper were a century away. Tech progress was slow. It accelerated in the 12th century, sped up again roughly 300 years ago, and reached incredible rates of progress in the late 19th century. Guessing what will possible even one century in the future is wild speculation.

Also, multi-century predictions of climate change should not be taken seriously. They are far beyond the state of the art.

Misrepresenting the future

“The arrow is the range of model estimates for a high warming scenario (RCP 8.5) from IPCC (2013) p. 1191, and has comparable forcings as the DICE-GIS baseline run.” {ibid.}

RCP8.5 is not just a “high warming scenario” but the worst-case scenario of the four used in AR5, aka IPCC 2013 (details here). As a worst-case scenario should, it assumes ugly changes in important long-term trends – such as tech (from progress to stagnation) and fertility (slow or stopping the decline in emerging nations). Each is unlikely; the combination is very unlikely.

Also, researchers have long questioned if the world has sufficient economically recoverable coal to fuel the 21st century – as RCP8.5 assumes. See two recent papers here (ungated copy here) and here.

If DICE-GIS has similar forcings, it must have similarly improbable assumptions. Therefore, it provides no basis for Nordhaus’ statement that “GIS is likely to disappear over the next millennium or so without climate policy.” He should have said that “under severe but unlikely circumstances, the GIS is likely to disappear over the next millennium.” But what’s the fun in that?

Climate scientists love to write about RCP8.5, from Bloomberg.

Papers using each RCP

Unfortunately, many of these papers misrepresent RCP8.5. Activists trumpet these as predicting certain disaster unless we change our ways. This was the most recent act in the three decades-long campaign using doomster predictions to make the public support policy changes

Two things made this happen. The first was probably a small mistake. The second was a fateful decision by the climate science community.

Climate nightmares

A “business as usual scenario”

One of the earliest papers about RCP8.5 was “RCP 8.5 – A scenario of comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions” by Keywan Riahi (2011). They describe it as…

“The RCP8.5 combines assumptions about high population and relatively slow income growth with modest rates of technological change and energy intensity improvements, leading in the long term to high energy demand and GHG emissions in absence of climate change policies.”

In the text they gave an additional description.

“RCP8.5 depicts thus a relatively conservative business as usual case …”

This is, of course, correct. It is conservative from a risk management perspective – assuming the worst outcome. It is “business as usual” in the sense of assuming no change in climate-related public policy. It does not assume continuation of our world as it is; it assumes radical changes. The authors use these two terms in complementary fashion: trends change but public policy does not. An awful but unlikely scenario.

But many climate scientists interpreted these terms in the opposite way: that RCP8.5 assumes continuation of current trends (business as usual) but no change in policy. That makes the awful results of RCP8.5 quite terrifying. In a variant of Gresham’s Law, the papers misrepresenting RCP8.5 – with their vivid if exaggerated warnings – drove out the more sedate ones that correctly described it.

But climate scientists made a far larger mistake when designing the RCPs. They designed no RCP representing a “business as usual” scenario: the future if current trends (the exogenous variables, such as tech and population fertility) continue on their long-term path. That would provide the logical starting point for analysis by policy makers and the public, bracketed by more and less optimistic scenarios. This failure has distorted the climate policy debate since 2011, and does so to this day.

The worst mistake

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
— From Narcotics Anonymous (1981).

Mistakes and oversights become visible in hindsight. That is life, especially on the intellectual frontiers. History is shaped by how people respond after they become visible. During the past four years, many people pointed out the misrepresentations of RCP8.5 and the lack of a realistic “business as usual” scenario. They were ignored by the climate science community. Instead they have churned out scores, perhaps hundreds, of papers describing the terrifying future of RCP8.5. Many misrepresent the scenario; few put it in its actual context (examples here).

This seemed to work. Journalists loved these exciting papers. Climate scientists describing the most cataclysmic future had career success and fame (even if just their 15 minutes) before the prediction of doom arrived).

Activists took these papers and exaggerated them. Climate scientists, so active in fighting “deniers” (rightly so for the real deniers), seldom spoke out against activists misusing their work. The line between the two groups blurred, as they formed a marriage of convenience.

But since the 1960s, the American public has been bombarded with predictions of doom by activists seeking policy actions. The Boomers grew up amidst these. We have lived to see most proven wrong. They have become entertainment, scary headlines that do not affect behavior.

The bottom line

“Not long after civilization fails — and certainly by mid-2026 — the planet will harbor no humans.”
— From a post by Guy McPherson (Prof Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology, U AZ), February 2017. He is the author of Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind (2014). He predicted in 2017 that our species will be extinct by 2026.

What impact has three decades of doomster predictions about climate change had on the US public? In March 2018 the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication asked registered voters about their beliefs concerning climate change. See the full report, and especially the section asking about global warming and their intentions for the 2018 election. Only 38% of registered voters (38%) said it will be very important to their vote. Among liberal Democrats, 69% said global warming will be a very important issue.

Even more important is how voters ranked the many issues. Registered voters ranged global warming as 15th in importance among the 28 issues listed. It was only the ninth most important for all Democrats. Even for liberal Democrats it was only the fourth most important issue – probably “below the fold” (i.e., not affecting their vote).

The Future

Success requires learning from past mistakes. Failure is the usual result of political movements because people are seldom willing to do so. As Max Planck, the great physicist said…

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Other posts in this series

  1. Focusing on worst case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work.
  2. Fix the mistakes that killed the climate change campaign!
  3. Lessons from the failure of the climate change crusade.
  4. Climate activists show us why they lose.
  5. Simple steps to prepare for climate change.

For More Information

For more useful information than Nordhaus’ speculation, see “The effect of a Holocene climatic optimum on the evolution of the Greenland ice sheet during the last 10 kyr” by Lisbeth Nielsen et al. in the Journal of Glaciology, in press. You might be surprised at the news. Hat tip to Anthony Watts.

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, all posts about coalabout the RCPs, and especially these …

  1. About RCP8.5Is our certain fate a coal-burning climate apocalypse? No!
  2. Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions.
  3. Good news for the New Year! Salon explains that the global climate emergency is over.
  4. Good news! Coal bankruptcies point to a better future for our climate.
  5. Good news from America about climate change, leading the way to success.
  6. Stratfor gives us good news, showing when renewables will replace fossil fuels.
  7. Updating the RCPsThe IPCC gives us good news about climate change, but we don’t listen.
  8. Roger Pielke Jr.: the politics of unlikely climate scenarios.

26 thoughts on “Fix the mistakes that killed the climate change campaign!”

  1. I feel like some of this is psychological but the idea is rather embryonic. But I think for a lot of people the sense of fighting a battle they can’t win is satisfying on some visceral level, and so they take steps in that direction. This is not a unique disease of the Left, either.

    You would think there would be more celebration but that just does not seem to be the mood of the press. Renewable prices are still dropping through the floor, coal demand is collapsing so fast that a Republican president is trying to institute a mandatory market for it, most of the major bugs are getting ironed out… but it’s never a triumph, at most a bitterly-held holding action that has slowed the total apocalypse.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “Coal demand is not collapsing”

        First, your graph shows data thru 2011. Lots has happened since then. Coal use has peaked in much of the world.

        Second, I suspect SF is following the practice on the FM website of referring to the US unless stated otherwise. Convenient, if parochial. Coal use is collapsing in the US. Down 8.4% in 2016 (most recent data available). Preliminary info suggests a large decline in 2017. The shift in new generating capacity “locks in” usage for a decade or more.

        Another indicator of collapsing demand: bankruptcy of coal companies. See articles about 2016, an example from 2017, and from 2018.

        Coal use has peaked in almost every region, with China being the exception. Data for China is unreliable, but there are indications that it is beginning to peak there as well — driven by their efforts to reduce their intolerable levels of air pollution AND slowing economic growth (so they don’t need the quick capacity that building coal gen provides).

        The graph you cite ends in 2011! A lot has happened since then.

    1. Yeah I was thinking of the US and China. I know the peak has not come everywhere but it is probably a lot closer than any of the RCPs project, except maybe the 2.6 one – going off memory right now. I should have been more precise.

      As for the cost effectiveness of renewables they seem to be getting there awful fast. There are many criticisms and I personally doubt that we will run everything off of wind/solar, but I could certainly see 50 or 60 percent backed by gas and nuclear, and that’s making the extremely stupid assumption that we will not do more than somewhat refine the exact mix of technologies we have right now.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        The Right fumes and denies it (for the usual inexplicable reasons, they love coal), but the world is moving away from coal. North American use peaked in 2005; Europe peaked in 2007; Africa peaked in 2008, and Asia in 2011.

        I doubt that total intermittent sources (including wind and solar) will reach 50% in any visible time horizon. There is no research showing that to be feasible, except in some rare regions. But natural gas has a great fuel, a bridge energy source until new clean sources become commercially available.

    2. I think their love of coal makes perfect sense: Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are the “swing states” around which national government control, in large part, pivots. If the pivotal area was New Jersey and Maryland they would probably subsidize the shellfish industry and praise it as the most real American thing possible.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        That makes sense, I guess, for the GOP leaders. But conservatives in general seldom think in such party and vote centered terms. Read their effusive articles about coal. It’s as it they are describing ambrosia, not an energy sources a few steps above cow dung in its environmental impacts.

    3. “….I think for a lot of people the sense of fighting a battle they can’t win is satisfying on some visceral level….”

      Yes, but not just visceral. If your objective is change, then what you want is to advocate measures which you can implement, and to take steps to obtain the power to do them. This requires realism, detailed policy work, conventional electioneering.

      If you want to radicalize, then what you want is demands which will not be met, which you probably do not believe in one way or the other, because you’ve picked them on quite other grounds. You positively do not want to come to power and do them, because then you’ll be accountable.

      What you want is to get enough people radicalized on enough issues that you come to power on a wave of radical change for its own sake with no well defined policy mandate. At which point you declare this to have been the last of the corrupt elections (or maybe it was a coup of some sort), and we will have no more of that.

      There have been a couple of comments on Watts suggesting none of the climate warriors actually believe in global warming. And there is a real case for this. They suggest measures which are ineffective in their own terns, often ones which increase emissions. They refuse to advocate measures nationally which their agenda would require were they serious (changes to transport, agriculture, living patterns, shopping and working). They keep refusing to acknowlege and address who the biggest global emitters are, and resist all calls for them to reduce.

      This is not the behavior of people who are rightly or wrongly concerned about the effect of emissions on the planet. This is the behavior of people who want to use the issue of global warming to radicalize for purely domestic goals. Its finding bad reasons for policies they advocate on instinct.

      Your final point that renewable costs are falling? Yes they are, but nothing like enough. The problem is the costs of intermittency. Its not all that important how much a turbine costs. What matters is the total cost of using them in a grid. Add those back in to compare like with like, and both wind and solar are totally uncompetitive. The only way anyone gets to claim parity is to leave out half the costs of using them to deliver a reliable supply.

    4. @Larry: I’d always assumed it was at least partly mendacious, but it is true that the coal industry has a lot less money than the oil/gas industry. Maybe it is the simplicity and relatively ancient heritage of coal mining? It’s all speculation.

      On the topic of natural gas, I saw this the other day: “That natural gas power plant with no carbon emissions or air pollution? It works.” – seemed it might be relevant. The article IS Vox, but the material behind it seems to be legitimate.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        It’s VOX, so – as you note – it should be believed unless closely examined. This article is little more than a press release. For thirty years I’ve read press releases about tech that never flew. The error is in the headline: “It works.” Carbon capture tech has worked for 20 years. It does not become commercial until people are willing to pay for it – or forced to pay for it. There was a similar rush of enthusiastic “articles” 10 years ago about clean coal. It too “worked.” But it never went commercial.

        Here is the company’s claim (even VOX doesn’t state it as a fact): “But Net Power claims it can capture the carbon without a separate facility, as part of the combustion process itself, at no extra cost.” I suggest waiting for third-party confirmation before popping any corks. These systems have in the past had some combination of higher capital costs (to build it) or operating costs (to run it, including replacement when it wears out). Color me skeptical that this is the exception. More likely that “no extra cost” refers to operating costs — ignoring far higher capital costs (or vice versa).

        This sentence is, imo, misleading or wrong: “Coal and natural gas are already losing out to wind in many areas, without sequestration.” Coal, yes. Natural gas — probably not, except in a few locations ideal for wind, without access to cheap natural gas (i.e., no pipeline access), or with substantial tax subsidies for wind. That’s the kind of loose-with-facts that makes Vox unreliable.

    5. @George: The thesis you outline reminds me of the thesis that the Republicans want to institute the “Handmaid’s Tale” out of sadism rather than wanting to roll back social progress for reasons that make sense to them.

      I’d encourage you to have some coffee with some Greens if you can find some and ask friendly questions. In my view the two big contradictions in common “green” rhetoric is first, the fear of the atom (rooted in the anti-nuclear movement of the 60s and 70s) and second, a sort of valorization of living in the woods, or on the farm, or anyway not in a high-rise apartment undertaking modern industrial economic work.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        Who is “fist bumping” in triumph? To say that the doomster predictions are false does not mean we don’t face perils. The world has aways faced perils.

        As for that clickbait Business Insider story: stories about the death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are exaggerated.

        (1) Surveys have repeatedly found that corals have recovered after mass bleaching episodes (e.g., here). Also, climate change is not the only factor damaging the reef: pollution and overuse are big — and perhaps more serious — factors.

        (2) Coral reefs have died and recovered during past large-scale environmental swings of heating (and sea level rise) and cooling (and sea level falling). For a brief note see “The Great Barrier Reef has had five near-death experiences in the past 30,000 years” in Science.

        (3) More broadly, scientists have a long-standing tendency to underestimate the resilience of Nature. For example …

        (a) After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill many scientists gave dooomster predictions about the expect centuries-long sterile zone. It was among the most unforgiving environments for an oil spill. Yet after 25 years most of the area had largely recovered (even Wikipedia had to put a somewhat positive spin on it).

        (b) Many scientists went full doomster after Saddam set many of Kuwait’s oil wells on fire in 1989. No long-lasting local effects. No “nuclear winter” cooling.

        (c) The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill had nightmarish effects, some of which remain 8 years later. But, yet again, scientists at the time made outlandish predictions about massive long-lasting damage. Most of these have already been proven false.

  2. “Since the 1960s, the American public has been bombarded with predictions of doom by activists seeking policy actions. The Boomers grew up amidst these. We have lived to see most proven wrong.”

    It’s nice to see the “projections”, but we never see them compared to what has been measured.

    The IPCC’s 73 AR5 CIMP-5 Models compared to reality.

    Everyone who has taken a junior high science class knows this about the scientific method.

    Professor Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics said,

    “It does not matter who you are, or how smart you are, or what title you have, or how many of you there are, and certainly not how many papers your side has published, if your prediction is wrong then your hypothesis is wrong. Period.”

    The biggest mistake is claiming scientific credibility while willfully ignoring the scientific method.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      (1) “The IPCC’s 73 AR5 CIMP-5 Models compared to reality.”

      All that can be said is that this is chart junk of the lowest quality. It’s evidence of the dysfunctional climate debate among laypeople that this is taken seriously. Too mention a few points…

      (a) Trying draw conclusions from those spaghetti graphs is silly. It’s propaganda, not science.

      (b) More broadly, many studies have shown that people are unable to draw fine distinctions about data by looking a graphs (e.g., see the work by Meir Statman at Santa Clara U). That’s why we have tests of statistical significance.

      (c) The only date on the graph is “Roy Spencer 6/6/2013.” It says “From IPCC” but does say which report (CMIP5 was used in AR5 2014). It does not give the run date of the models, or distinguish between observed and predicted temps. Also, whatever the dates – they cover too brief a period to draw any conclusions.

      (2) “but we never see them compared to what has been measured.”

      False. For one of many counter-examples see “A climate science milestone: a successful 10-year forecast!” A more accurate — and useful — observation is that we see very few in the peer-reviewed literature.

  3. Shelley Ashfield

    I wonder if some of the blame can be also laid on those who profiteered from the mergers and acquisitions of what was once a free press. In the bad old days, the financial equation was: Newspaper = cheap paper + cheap printing + real reporters + a real editor. Gannett introduced a new model: Newspaper = better paper + nicer printing + color photos! + canned news from the syndicate + a skeleton crew of editor and reporters with no editorial control.

    The Editor of any major newspaper had a wide range of knowledge, and His word was Law. Had any Editor worth their salt seen the ridiculous graphs being peddled in the scientific journals, there would have been a reporter or two assigned to doing an investigative report on why the public was being fed short time horizons, false extrapolations, bogus data from researchers working remote weather stations, as well as local urbanization. Yes, when you add a parking lot next to the meteorology wing in your university science building and fail to move the weather station, surprise, surprise, the measured temperature does indeed go up a few degrees. You may not need a meteorology expert to know this, but you do need to have an editor with balls and clout to face against well-moneyed and well-connected research schools.

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    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Thanks. I find it odd that after almost a decade of experts writing about the RCPs, someone up in the cheap seats reveals a major new point – central to this key issue.

  5. Pingback: Fix the mistakes that put climate science on a dead end path! | Watts Up With That?

  6. Meanwhile we continue to see signs that fossil fuels are running out, and prices will have to rise to satisfy the industry’s need for cash flow to make the huge investments needed just to keep crude oil and condensate production at today’s 82 mmbopd real rate (the higher rates you read about are inflated with NGL, which are increasing as natural gas production rises, as well as the refinery gains which result from hydrogenation of the refinery feed).

    I started writing about this subject in 2013, when I saw the RCP8.5 paper, and realized it had a huge mistake built into its logic because it didn’t handle the industry need for ever increasing prices to justify extracting oil, gas, and coal. For those who don’t follow industry trends, I can point out that oil prices have had to increase way beyond inflation over the last 20 years. I remember preparing a detailed budget for a business unit in 1998 which assumed the price was $14 per barrel ($25 in today’s dollars). That price constrained what we could do somewhat, but the fields we had were good enough to justify several hundred million in new investments and nearly doubling production. Today, new investments in most areas outside the Middle East require at least $50, and many are on line after being approved assuming the price would be $80.

    Although it may be hard to believe, natural gas will see the same trend, but with a delay. In 2040 natural gas prices will be a lot higher (I anticipate the first serious uptick in the USA market will take place this fall). And coal will follow.

    I also believe there are potential new technologies which allow burning natural gas and coal using variations of existing turbine technology which will allow easier CO2 capture. But I can’t visualize where all that co2 can be injected unless the requirement that it be kept sealed forever be relaxed. There’s also the fact that some areas have rocks which make injection a risky proposition because it can trigger earthquakes. And these earthquakes can be caused by density differences which make the bulk rock density change and reactivate faults (this means rate control won’t be enough, this is a highly specialized field which climatologists and most geoscientists know nothing about, therefore they haven’t even considered it).

    I guess I’ll close by writing that the RCP8.5 and siblings all share the same serious flaw, and that I realize I’m getting a bit of traction but the majority of the individuals dealing with this problem haven’t got the foggiest idea of what’s really going on, and how serious it will be if we don’t develop new technologies to soften the impact as we run out of fossil fuels.

    1. Larry, I’m pretty sure that I had read that article before. I have been in the oil and gas industry over four decades, and my experience gives me the insight to understand the flaws in cornucopian reasoning.

      We are seeing a real increase in the degree of effort and energy used to extract a barrel of oil. And we are not really seeing new technology (what we do is a rehash of things we did 30 years ago with better tools but there’s no real breakthrough). For example, most of the light oil being extracted in the Permian Basin can’t be extracted at $50 per barrel. But the price level I had to use in the 1990’s never exceeded $30.

      The same applies to deep water. Most of what we have left to explore in the Gulf of Mexico requires $100 plus price ranges. The trend is relentless, and I can see the day when oil will be $150 and poor countries will have real difficulty paying for it (I’m thinking of countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Haiti, Egypt, Bangladesh, etc).

      The problem, my friend, is that cornucopian theory is running against reality, and I’m in the trenches trying to figure out how to get us out of that jam. And thus far I don’t have an answer.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        Yes, that’s so. We won’t run out of any minerals. But the price (in real terms) will rise as good deposits are tapped (high grade, easily accessible) and we turn to ever-lower-grade and less accessible ores. This is offset by better mining tech, such as fracking, and better refining tech. This process begins once the world is fully explored and opened to development.

        Over time the real price should rise. Which forces more efficient use and development of substitutes. But we’ll never run out.

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