The changes in our atmosphere and climate have been underestimated. Several reports say this. As an energy website we need to report it since the use of energy has such an outsized impact on our environment.

How can an underestimate happen? It’s a combination of the way science happens and improved technology, in my opinion. I suppose human nature should be in there, too.

This comment made a light go on in my head: “The science we learn in grade school is a collection of certainties about the natural world. …Only when you start to learn the practice of science do you realize that each of these ‘facts’ was hard-won through a succession of logical inferences based on many observations and experiments. The process of science is less about collecting pieces of knowledge than it is reducing the uncertainties in what we know.” That is from a new book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by Steven Koonin. (CNBC did an interview with the author, image above)

Science is a practice to constantly reducing error in theses. That seems to be happening as technology gives us a better look at our climate.

Satellite measurements of troposphere temperatures (lowest region of the atmosphere) may have underestimated global warming over 40 years. One of the physical processes that LLL looked at was tropical water vapor like shown in this NASA image.

A team at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory analyzed data in multiple scientific dimensions versus single dimensions, to say it in a basic way. So instead of just looking at satellite images, for instance, they add other variables like water vapor or temperatures at different levels of the atmosphere, for instance. They looked at a more complex system.

The result was that there can be “a systematic low bias in satellite tropospheric temperature trends,” for instance. (Source) Climate changes would be more in real life than in what was previously thought.

Enter human nature. “How does this lead to underestimation? Consider a case in which most scientists think that the correct answer to a question is in the range 1–10, but some believe that it could be as high as 100. In such a case, everyone will agree that it is at least 1–10, but not everyone will agree that it could be as high as 100. Therefore, the area of agreement is 1–10, and this is reported as the consensus view,” says a Scientific American column.

Where can people see eye-to-eye? That seems to be the question, and consensus can be off-the-mark when new data comes into the picture. “The push toward agreement may also be driven by a mental model that sees facts as matters about which all reasonable people should be able to agree versus differences of opinion or judgment that are potentially irresolvable.”

Errors from consensus are examined in a book, Discerning Experts: The Practices of Scientific Assessment for Environmental Policy. It looks at how experts discuss and decide on facts about challenges like climate change, and what that means to policy.

Here’s a fact – global temperatures are accelerating toward 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming says a United Nations report. There is a 44% chance that the average annual temperature on Earth will temporarily hit a critical 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming in the next five years.

What happens at 1.5? “Scientists warn that humans must keep the average annual global temperature from lingering at or above 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the most catastrophic and long-term effects of climate change. Those include massive flooding, severe drought and runaway ocean warming that fuels tropical storms and drives mass die-offs of marine species.” (Source)

Climate Action Must Progress Far Faster to Achieve 1.5 C Goal is the headline from the World Resources Institute. WRI lists six areas for improvement.

  • Power Sector: Increase renewables 6 times faster and phase out unabated coal 5 times faster than current rates by 2030. (WRI power industry graphs at the end of this blog.)
  • Building Sector: Accelerate the renovation of existing buildings and construct new buildings at much higher efficiency standards.
  • Industry Sector: Significantly reduce emissions intensity of steel and cement by 2050.
  • Transport Sector: Adopt electric vehicles 12 times faster than current sales rate by 2030.
  • Forests: Drastically slow deforestation and increase tree cover gain five times faster by 2030.
  • Agriculture Sector: Accelerate productivity gains and shift consumption patterns to feed a growing population while preserving forests.

Seems huge. It is. Readers of our Energy Consumers website can communicate with their utility about getting out of coal, watching its increases in natural gas (hey, New York, you shut down carbon-free nuclear to add gas), and encouraging installations of electric vehicle chargers. Homeowners can make residences more energy efficient. All of us – conserve energy as much as possible.