There’s a famous warning about making predictions, especially about the future. And also Abraham Lincoln’s famous warning about believing online attributions, because we owe the prediction maxim to physicist Niels Bohr, baseball legends Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel and media mogul Samuel Goldwyn. But our concern here is with news reports about the future, such as the Daily Star predicting “sizzling” and “scorching” weather for Britain under the headline “UK to roast in 1,000-mile heatwave ‘hotter than Morocco’ this week”. They didn’t wait for it to happen because um it didn’t, and then you couldn’t do your “gotcha” global warming story.
It got worse, with another piece on Sunday May 18 saying “Weather forecasters pinpoint exactly when UK temperatures will soon ‘break 30C’”. Which isn’t even grammatical. And nor did the story say what the exact date was when it would soon happen. (It did show attractive young women in bikinis enjoying warmth, which seems to be cross-scripting, although the caption “Temperatures could rise into the mid 20s next week” suggests that British women possess considerable fortitude when it comes to basking conditions and the actual picture was a stock image almost certainly not of Britain at all.)
The whole story was a damp squib, hyping that “The Met Office has forecast 22C on Monday, 23C by Wednesday and 24C on Saturday in parts of the country including London.” Which again isn’t hot at all; the fact that Morocco was forecast to be cooler than Britain at a chilly 21C would have been a more accurate story although the main point is that news really should concern what did happen not what someone implausibly predicted. As forecaster Joe Bastardi complained on Thursday May 22, “So much for pinpointing the exact days of the ‘heatwave’ No day in London above 22C”.
Another classic example is The Verge howling that:
“The next five years are almost guaranteed to be sweltering, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned today. Climate change has already raised baseline temperatures for the planet. Now, a weather pattern known as El Niño is going to make things even hotter when it develops later this year.”
And make no mistake; we are going to have died:
“There’s a 98 percent chance that one of the following five years will be the warmest on record, according to a WMO report released today. There’s also a 98 percent likelihood that the average temperature for the entire five-year period will be hotter than the previous five years. The planet is already running a fever. The last eight years have been the eight hottest on the books, the WMO reported in January. In the past few years alone, we’ve witnessed the jaw-dropping damage that extreme temperatures can bring.”
The last point, of course, isn’t a prediction. And it’s wrong. The world has seen a precipitous drop in deaths from extreme weather in the last century and, once you account for population and economic growth, in property damage too. But if you think they’re going to apologize five years from now if we don’t get these supposedly shattering records, you haven’t been paying attention to the long history of failed climate predictions that didn’t damage anyone’s reputation.
So it’s all fun and games to prove there’s a climate catastrophe by pointing to things that haven’t yet happened and it won’t matter if they don’t. Thus the New York Times “Climate Forward” piled in, complete with that stupid fever analogy:
“The global average is already around 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, higher than it was 150 years ago. Imagine if your body temperature was always 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher. You wouldn’t feel very well.”
Yeah, and if you weighed 5.972 times 10 to the power of 24 and had a 24,000 kilometer waistline you’d be overweight. So what? Undaunted, they plow on with:
“There’s another thing coming: a natural weather pattern known as El Niño. Global surface temperatures tend to be hotter during El Niño years. Its cool sibling is La Niña. Global surface temperatures tend to be cooler in its presence. We’ve been rolling with La Niña for the last three years. Lucky us.”
So it’s a natural cycle? Heck no:
“The last record hot year, 2016, was an El Niño year. Scientists project the return of El Niño conditions later this summer. That, plus human-induced global warming, will most likely drive global temperatures to record highs over the next five years, the World Meteorological Organization concluded last week. Unprepared us.”
Unless it doesn’t, in which case they’ll have galloped off in pursuit of some other news phantom.
Perhaps those famous climate refugees. The Guardian saw this sweltering disaster and raised it a migrant apocalypse with:
“Global heating will push billions outside ‘human climate niche’/ World is on track for 2.7C and ‘phenomenal’ human suffering, scientists warn”
And if so, here comes the Third World:
“Up to 1 billion people could choose to migrate to cooler places, the scientists said, although those areas remaining within the climate niche would still experience more frequent heatwaves and droughts. However, urgent action to lower carbon emissions and keep global temperature rise to 1.5C would cut the number of people pushed outside the climate niche by 80%, to 400 million.”
If you think they’re having trouble with their math, the point is that a billion people would flee and another billion would just sit there outside the niche under the first scenario if scapulimancy worked. Under the latter, presumably, a mere 200 million would flee. (As for this “climate niche” it’s apparently anywhere the average annual temperature is under 29C, a figure chosen for polemical effect not scientific value.)
As for phenomenal human suffering, we should note that history is regrettably a long and discouraging tale of it. Hegel called it a “butcher’s block” while Herbert Spencer said “history is little more than the Newgate calendar of nations”. But in those unsophisticated times people didn’t blame carbon dioxide.
Our view here is also unsophisticated and possibly naïve. It’s that weather reports should describe what is happening, with modest and prudent guesses about what might be about to, without polemics, while news stories should describe the present and reference the past, while leaving future history to future historians, horoscopes and tea-leaf readers.
P.S. As far as can be determined, the one about making predictions is actually an old Danish proverb. But we predict that someone will say otherwise.