Editor’s note: Climate change predictions have repeatedly demonstrated to be estimating disasters much later than they arrive. In spite of that, climate scientists still continue to make similar predictions. In this piece, the author – a psychologist – explores the technical and psychological reasons behind this.
One of the clichés of climate change reporting is climate scientists claiming to be ‘surprised’, ‘shocked’ or ‘baffled’ by extreme events happening so much faster than predicted by their models and research studies.
These consistent underestimations are often explained by their ‘cautious’ approach which sounds reasonable, until you realise this has led the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — whose role is to advise humanity on the seriousness of the climate crisis — to get their advice consistently wrong.
COP27 reinforced this problem when, as ever, the IPCC based their warnings exclusively on a synthesis of climate scientist’s reports that, they knew, underdetermined both what’s already happening and the speed of catastrophic future change.
This means most people, including those in power and in the media, genuinely don’t know how desperate things already are. Even many directly engaged with the subject, in NGOs and protest groups, don’t realise concepts like limiting warming to a ‘safe’ 1.5C global average are now meaningless — because scientists won’t tell them.
People know it’s bad but not how bad. This gap in understanding remains wide enough for denialists and minimisers to legitimise inadequate action under the camouflage of empty eco-jargon and false optimism. This gap allows nations, corporations and individuals to remain distracted by short-term crises, which, however serious, pale into insignificance compared with the unprecedented threat of climate change.
Alongside those vested interests who minimise climate change assessments, underestimates by scientists have potentially devastating consequences for humanity’s efforts to react to this threat to our survival. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that misjudging the seriousness of a situation compromises any response.
This article explains why traditional climate science methods cannot keep up with rapid change. It provides an analysis of the psychological defences that prevent most climate scientists from admitting this in public when, unofficially, they all do and say they are afraid. In conclusion, we consider how scientists can overcome this irrational position, for the good of us all
How wrong are climate scientists?
The list of new climate phenomena and related extreme events that ‘surprise’ climate scientists is endless, because it literally grows by the day.
This statement of fact is not ‘doomist’ or disputed by anyone serious, including scientists themselves. Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s environment and energy correspondent, recently confessed he is ‘scared’ — because he has listened for years to scientists telling him things were far worse than they could say officially and this is evident in today’s climate extremes.
The unprecedented 40C-plus temperatures of 2022’s UK and French heatwaves that provoked Harrabin’s disclosure, were forecast in 2019 to occur sometime after 2050 by the modelling of their national meteorological organisations. Multiple UK locations then saw 40C in 2022, while elsewhere in Europe they got closer to 50C. This led Professor Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading to admit, “Even as a climate scientist… this is scary.”
More, unusually public, panicked-sounding comments from scientists followed because these unprecedented extremes in Europe, undoubtedly caused they knew by humanity’s impact on the climate, were also experienced across the entire Northern Hemisphere, not least China which suffered ‘the worst drought in human history’ and vast areas of western USA.
These, plus epic and terrible related events like extremes of drought in the Horn of Africa, floods in Pakistan (covering an area the size of the UK), Australia and Niger, heatwaves in India and Argentina, and many others — were not anticipated anything like this soon by climate science models.
Worse, this was nothing new, recent history records an accelerating number of similar phenomena including:
· The 2021 ‘heatdomes’ in British Columbia and elsewhere — predicted to occur only every 10 years after average global temperature increased by 2C i.e. again, sometime after 2050. These led Michael E. Mann, a ‘go-to’ climate scientist/commentator, to state the climate models were wrong.
· The mega Australian wildfires of 2019 — predicted to occur by 2050 by only one climate scientist who, when he said so in 2007, was ridiculed by his peers for being alarmist.
So, the answer to the question, ‘how wrong are climate scientists?’ is — disastrously. The fact is, no mainstream research paper or climate model predicted where we are now.
Why don’t the methods work?
These ‘peer-reviewed’ methods cannot keep up in a time of rapid climate change because they…
1. take years from proposal to publication — so are always out-of-date
2. must limit themselves to the consideration of fragments of the climate system, to satisfy the high statistical standards of ‘certainty’ required
3. don’t include known variables, such as methane, when measurement is problematic — these are allocated zero values which works for the maths but not for real-life
4. cannot make provision for variables they know must be significant but cannot say so ‘scientifically’ yet, including many ‘feedback loops’
5. cannot co-ordinate well with other, equally-limited studies
6. cannot consider the whole planetary system or, usually, even major system components
7. were designed for the study of nature’s usual, long-term (thousands/millions of years) pace of climate change, not the unprecedented speed of anthropogenic change.
The IPCC rely exclusively on data they ‘synthesise’ from scientific papers and models complying with these methods to tell humanity what is happening, though they know these are flawed for this purpose.
They will not consider better data until a scientist has referred to this using the same process.
In addition, they use a ‘consensus’ filter — this disregards ‘outlier’ results, so those few studies that sound more realistic alarms are discounted.
All this is compounded by the IPCC’s mind-bogglingly complicated 7-year review and reporting structure. Though designed to be thorough, this has no chance of keeping up.
This modus operandi was established at their inception in 1988 but, as Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard science historian says, the IPCC ‘set the bar of proof too high’ for their vital advisory role.
For clarity, this is the bar set by the IPCC for their synthesis of scientific evidence, not for their summaries issued to policymakers. These summaries are built on the foundation of this understated evidence but are further watered-down, under external pressures, by dubious factors such as the estimated impact of unproven technologies.
The Arctic Circle
This is where these methods get it most wrong.
Significant, unambiguous new observational evidence emerged in the summer of 2022, from Svalbard and the Barents Sea, to reveal an increase of 10C there in the past 30 years alone. Accounts of Alaskan and Northern Russian land masses recording even higher temperature anomalies have been routine for decades; in this context the Siberian wildfires of 2020 surpassed in area the rest of the world’s fires put together.
We now know the temperature across the entire Arctic Circle has increased by between 4C and 10C in four decades i.e. way above the current ‘global average’ of 1.2C, and the now-unachievable ‘safe’ limit of 1.5C. The drastic climatic consequences of these astonishingly fast increases include already altering the path and speed of the jet streams, 50–100 years faster than expected.
These increases were not built into climate models prior to 2022, one of the major reasons all bar one of the IPCC’s current ‘trajectories’ for future change have already been surpassed. Additional incorrect assumptions are regularly highlighted — a December 2022 study indicates the rate of melt of Greenland’s glacier fronts has been significantly underestimated in the models due to erroneous comparisons with events in Antartica.
The effect on leaders’ and the public’s (mis)understanding is significant. At the time of writing, on the back of the summer temperature extremes of 2022, 2/3 of the landmass of the USA is in the grip of a vast winter storm, while much of Europe experiences an unprecedented winter heatwave. Any climate scientist, informally, will say these events must be related to climate change caused by human activity. But they won’t say so publicly, because their methods cannot show this yet, so the media report the cause is subject to ‘scientific debate’ — creating a false impression of uncertainty and reducing warranted alarm.
We see similar misguided misreporting in relation to changes in other major climate elements including ocean temperatures, deep ocean currents, Antarctica, glacier retreat and biodiversity loss.
Another cliché of climate reporting is the surprise expressed at so many extreme events happening at ‘only’ 1.2C but given what’s actually happened in the Arctic Circle and elsewhere — as opposed to what the models predicted — it’s no surprise at all.
They do know – So why can’t climate scientists tell us?
This is where psychology comes into it. Climate scientists are extremely clever people but they are as human, and as vulnerable to sub-conscious needs and fears, as the rest of us.
They do know
It is worth reiterating that these highly-educated professionals do know everything outlined above to be true — they know EVERY new live observation and better-quality study or model shows this.
And it isn’t only Roger Harrabin, with his significant sample size, who says so.
The problem is also well-illustrated by the fiasco of the 1.5C average ‘limit’ which at COP27, using their methodology, the IPCC still declared realistic in spite of the fact that in 2022:
· the UN’s own Environment Program declared there was no credible path to limiting warming to 1.5C
· the journal Nature broadly surveyed climate scientists and ecologists on the average global temperature rise by 2100; 96% said it would be higher than 1.5C and 60% said it would be 3C or more
· an event at the University of East Anglia asked 60 climate scientists whether 1.5C was ‘still alive’? — 100% said no.
But, because most climate scientists will not say so in public, they enable COP27, virtually all media outlets and influential figures like Sir David Attenborough to keep misrepresenting reality.
All while, everyone agrees, every fraction of a degree beyond 1.5C of warming represents exponentially-worse consequences for humanity — and more than 3C could be unsurvivable.
The psychological reasons
Scientists nonetheless repress the fact all this points to an urgent need to change their behaviours to allow them to report ‘live’ – what they know is actually happening.
This repression process is automatic — it is a sub-conscious, psychological defence mechanism activated in response to the perceived threat that changing their ways of working represents.
The superficial element of this threat is to their basic needs; climate scientists in general are not motivated by material gain but they still need to eat. All of them, from the most junior to those contributing work to the IPCC, simply cannot vary from these prescribed ‘scientific’ methods in their activities — if they do, their work will not be accepted.
More significant for climate scientists, however, is the profound psychological importance to them of their professional standing, this is fundamental to their sense of themselves — we might say their egos ‘identify’ with this. The threat to this status that the possibility of abandoning these methods represents is experienced as a kind of mortal danger, a killing of themselves.
This ego-identification of scientists with their special status is not a new concept; it’s widely accepted as a kind of anodyne, hard-earned, superiority complex that’s generally beneficial in its consequences for society. Historically this was often seen in popular culture as an inferiority complex, producing the malevolent ‘mad scientist’, but in the era of advanced technology the isolated ‘nerd’ archetype has emerged from this shadow to enjoy elevated status and influence. The tendency towards social awkwardness of many in this group is also affectionately portrayed in shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory’.
But most scientists still feel psychologically different. They grew up apart because they were more intellectually capable than those around them. Even if surrounded by good-intentions, childhood inevitably featured isolation, in the absence of many who could connect with them at their level. Worse, a significant subset of this population experience bullying for their exceptional abilities.
Academia provides a psychological refuge among a social group of their peers, but they also discover here a competitive environment with rigid and complex rules of behaviour. These rules, to which these research methods are fundamental, are reinforced over years. They are the code they must abide by to confirm and retain their membership of the group.
It follows that any threat to this membership, as breaking these rules represents, is deeply psychologically painful. The defences and complexes activated, linked to early maturational experiences, are the most difficult to shift. They provoke sub-conscious, primitive fears. Rational argument, normally the goal of scientists, becomes difficult to engage.
These fears are reinforced by the absence of an alternative group to join if they leave — outcast, back in the ‘real’ world they would find no safe community.
Thus, ongoing repression and ‘business as usual’; thousands of limited studies and inaccurate models still flow from academia, and on to the IPCC — in spite of the desperate, wider consequences.
This is an example of collective cognitive dissonance, a behaviour which denies reality, often seen in human groups where individuals place high value on their membership.
Another crucial barrier to these scientists changing their behaviours is the near absence of any external pressure to do so — indeed the opposite is the case. Efforts to dilute climate warnings continue but even those who acknowledge the problem, enmeshed in their own obligations and related defences, don’t want to hear things are worse than scientists are already saying.
The psychology of the IPCC
The continued insistence of the IPCC on basing their advice on evidence produced by methods they know under-estimate the problem, is an extension of this collective cognitive dissonance.
Their behaviour makes no sense in the context of humanity’s failure to respond to catastrophic threat. IPCC lead scientists are not pathologically-inclined to cause harm — but they too feel unable to abandon the constraints of methods within which they are psychologically secure.
It is also likely the IPCC reinforces their emphasis on these flawed in-group methods, as a primitive defence against those non-scientific vested interests who challenge and ‘bully’ them, including in the production of their summaries for policymakers.
There is, nonetheless, one psychological factor that could shift these ‘ego-identified’ complexes and that is peer pressure, especially if this comes from senior leaders across the climate science community.
The truth is ‘unscientific’
Roger Harrabin reports scientists saying they can’t tell the truth because to do so would be ‘unscientific’. This apparent insanity, given the consequences, can be understood psychologically.
But scientists are not the only ones who need urgent analysis in this incredible context. Prioritising survival in their roles at the expense of rational behaviour is accepted, even expected, among corporate leaders and politicians, both as individuals and the collective.
It’s notable all these people come from a similar demographic— mostly white, male, middle-aged, privileged — or, if not, they are obliged to conform with the culture and social norms established by this group. It may be easier for scientists though, given the importance to them of objectivity, to break through their defences and change their behaviours.
The same but different – Divergence among climate scientists
The climate science community, like the science itself, is many-faceted and includes specialists in atmospheric sciences, fluid dynamics, meteorology, geo-science and others, as well as climatologists. More than one hundred thousand work in research, corporations, environment/habitat management, public administration, NGOs etc. Most have no direct connection to the IPCC or the media.
Only their leaders have these connections and it is no surprise, in this extreme situation, that this instinctively-conservative community is fragmenting. They currently fall into 5 main groups.
1. More of the same
In classic defence-mechanism style many scientists double-down on their existing flawed methods in response to their fears. Disappearing down the rabbit-hole of another 5-year study or designing another complex model is psychologically comfortable. Most research papers still end with the recommendation ‘more study is required…’, which rationalises this defensive behaviour but diminishes the impact of conclusions and plays into the hands of minimisers.
Ineffectual attempts have been made to change things up like, ‘attribution studies’. These calculate (using a questionable comparison to an imaginary world where human influence had not occurred) the probability of anthropogenic causation as opposed to ‘weather’ variations. Their findings are published faster than standard studies but still cause delays of many months and even then are not conclusive. Thus the summer 2022 droughts were reported in January 2023 to have been ‘calculated’ by the UK Met Office as ‘160 times more likely’ to have been caused by climate change, when any scientist would have said, informally, when they were happening, there was no chance it was anything else. Others produce ludicrous individual event estimates like ‘1000 times more…’
Anything to avoid a declaration of certainty at the time of the event, because this is not allowed by scientific method. Such convoluted compromises only make sense within the climate science community where adherence to the rules is sacrosanct — even though they know these will still cause delay in communication and misunderstanding elsewhere.
2. More of the same — but magically better
Senior climate scientist and Oxford Professor Tim Palmer told Roger Harrabin: “It’s impossible to say how much of an emergency we are in because we don’t have the tools to answer the question.’’
Former Met Office chief scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo told BBC News in 2021: “We should be alarmed because the IPCC (climate computer) models are just not good enough.’’ She went on, “(We need) an international centre… like that at Cern… with expensive new mega-computers — to deliver the quantum leap to climate models that capture the fundamental physics that drive extremes”. Such computers — everyone knows — would take years to develop, time humanity does not have, and could anyway never be ‘mega’ enough to keep up.
It is difficult to imagine clearer cases of bad workmen blaming their tools, not least as they design the tools themselves — but it’s not that a Professor Dame and an Oxford Professor can’t see the wood for the trees, it is that they are the trees.
Most climate scientists still live deep in this area of a forest of their own creation. Their irrational obsession with improving ‘scientific’ methods as a response to this problem, clearly links to their subconsciously-driven resistance to saying anything in public without reference to these; they are looking for justification (within the rules of their community) to speak out, as they know they should. Off the record, Tim and Julia and the rest will say it is 100% certain humanity caused this unprecedented climate mayhem and — using their powerful brains instead of their limited models — can give accurate ideas of what’s coming next.
3. Ongoing denial
A small group of hardliners still refuse to look beyond conclusions derived within the limited parameters of individual studies and models. They disregard the fact these, and the big picture the IPCC obtains by considering them together, cannot tell us what’s actually going on. For them if something can’t be ‘proved’ yet by their methods — it’s not happening.
Thus many refused to accept jet streams had (inevitably) shifted because of the relative speed of Arctic warming — because their models could not yet demonstrate this. Their peer-reviewed work was published in credible journals, even when other scientists like Jennifer Francis pointed out obvious flaws, such as their inability to include the impact of the warming of land masses across the Arctic Circle. This purist group were quietened by the observations and events of 2022 but they remain influential.
Crucially, the IPCC itself belongs here — as they continue to reference only data from studies and models which they know cannot reflect reality.
4. Underestimation to ‘avoid panic’
Some scientists attempt to rationalise underestimation by claiming this avoids the paralysis the resultant panic would provoke. This, psychologically-speaking, is nonsense; history tells us the mass ‘freeze response’ they allude to will not be provoked by credible experts telling the truth. Not telling people, however, does risk confusion, paralysis and no meaningful action — which is what has played out.
These scientists collude with the ‘stubborn optimists’ in public life, people like the UN’s Cristiana Figueres who advocate maintaining a belief in things getting better, even when they look bleak — which sounds okay but, has led to magical thinking such as faith in non-viable techno-solutions and the untenable insistence on ‘keeping 1.5C alive’.
This group includes public-facing scientists like Katherine Hayhoe and Michael E Mann, popular because they say what people want to hear. Mann now acknowledges there has been no meaningful action. He still insists ‘progress’ made on ‘policy’ is ‘hopeful’, however, which is like praising the driver of a runaway train for jamming down the accelerator, before going back to talk with passengers about slowing down. So, he hasn’t found his way out of this group yet.
5. Going public
Some scientists are breaking ranks to tell it much more like it is. They include some whose reputations are established, like Sir David King, or are retired/emeritus professors like Peter Wadhams, or they are the more confident and the boldest, people like James Hansen, Makifo Sato, Jennifer Francis, Ye Tao, Bill McGuire, Peter Carter, Kevin Anderson, Tim Lenton, Jason Box, David Spratt, James Dyke and Peter Kalmus. They are not rooted so deeply within the forest and have in common the psychological trait that the existential fear in them provoked by this situation, has become stronger than any psychological threat.
Some are organising in groups such as Scientist Rebellion, The Climate Crisis Advisory Group, Scientists Warning, and Scholars Warning. Some of the youngest are breathing fire — Capstick et al in 2022 in the journal Nature Climate Change, argue that all climate scientists must get involved in civil disobedience to provoke action. Others focus on practical suggestions — but do so in silos which receive minimal attention, such as the Centre for Climate Repair.
Other academics are also realistically engaged including Jem Bendell, professor of Sustainable Leadership and Rupert Read, Associate Professor of Philosophy.
Though in touch with reality themselves, and connecting with probably several million others now across the globe, none of these or others like them have had a meaningful impact on the behaviour of governments, corporations and most individuals, nor on humanity’s omnicidal trajectory.
Scientists, collectively, telling the unvarnished truth about the desperate seriousness of the situation, right now, is something that could have this impact.
How can climate scientists allow themselves to tell the truth?
1. Admit the problem
Climate scientists must admit they are still the only ones who know the extent of the climate iceberg below the surface.
They must accept, in the face of this unprecedented threat, their primary professional responsibility now is to provide up-to-date information to humanity — about what’s really happening to our climate and to our essential habitat. This is the single most important task any group of scientists has ever faced.
They have to admit that rigid adherence to their academic methods, in this astonishingly rapid context, leads directly to their failure to communicate the truth.
They have to acknowledge the confusion this failure has provoked facilitates inadequate action, empty pledges, fantasy techno-solutions, and false-optimism.
Scientists must concede humanity urgently needs them to find new ways to communicate what they already know, not only what their methods, or some future super-computer, will allow.
2. Unite and co-ordinate
Pointing to accelerating climate-extreme events happening ahead of their predictions — and the failure of humanity to respond linked, in part, to these underestimations — senior scientists must build a new ‘permanent-emergency’ coalition of IPCC and climate science leaders from all disciplines.
This strong new coalition must overcome their psychological resistances to agree an urgent new direction for the climate science community, finding a way through the politics to co-ordinate this.
The attraction of civil disobedience as a potential catalyst is understandable — and the climate science community should support members who get involved.
Accurate information communicated effectively, however, has the best chance of provoking meaningful action, in the form of impulses to radically change originating from within governments and corporations, including fossil fuel companies.
The new coalition must collectively acknowledge it is climate scientists themselves who need to lead in these communications and ensure they are effective. To do this they will need to engage with psychological and comms experts to break through the defences of leaders in all spheres of human activity, as well as the wider population.
3. Plan and Act
This coalition must initiate a plan of action that could look something like this.
1. Announce the permanent-emergency
Getting ahead of the likely unprecedented new extremes of the 2023/2024 El Niño, issue statement to all media platforms (simultaneously from all national agencies, IPCC, NASA, NOAA, NSDIC, UK Met Office and equivalents, all university Climate Change departments, Institutes etc), declaring:
· A new state of climate ‘permanent-emergency’ is here. Comparisons with the past are now irrelevant — our climate has irrevocably changed, at a speed unprecedented in this planet’s history and will change ever faster, with devastating impacts much faster than expected.
· Traditional climate science methods could not predict this and cannot keep up — ‘live’ observation, interpretation and communication of this new climate reality will now be the priority of scientists.
· Humanity has to react without further delay. 1.5C is gone. Paris 2015 goals, COP pledges, carbon budgets etc are obsolete — radical new policies are needed.
· These must promote urgent, meaningful action in all areas of human activity, based on new ‘live’ information.
2. Initiate new Permanent-Emergency Climate Science Code of Practice
· All institutions and individual climate scientists required to adopt
· Requires all activity (teaching, funding, research, modelling, other activity) prioritises live observations, analysis and reporting.
· Requires senior climate scientists behave congruently in their professional actions — eg 40% of time allocated to external facing comms/education and personally ensuring colleagues adopt this code.
3. Co-ordinate global climate scientific resources as a permanent-emergency response
· Create new 24/7 network of climate hubs, based in existing institutions, with the primary purpose of live analysis of weather/climate events, probable future events and related parameters — all individuals and institutions to prioritise their work for these hubs.
· Ensure hubs are co-ordinated to cover and connect planet-wide climate activity.
· Task hubs with improving quality of live observations including in remote locations. Advance computer capabilities — without delaying communication of live information.
· Set up central ‘planet hub’ at the IPCC — the coalition base — operates 24/7 to co-ordinate/ integrate/synthesise work of individual hubs.
· Using psychological approaches, engage with resistance from within the climate science community and related disciplines.
· Promote emergency-first mobilisation of all academic disciplines.
· All in co-ordination with government, corporate, NGO, health, education, social care and arts etc sectors — includes delivery of rolling information programs.
4. Set up 24/7 primary communication centre at IPCC ‘Planet Hub’
· Provides rolling analysis in planet-wide report, continuously synthesises and translates technical work of individual hubs into accessible language — replaces 7-yearly reporting cycle.
· Pro-actively engages with psychological resistance in leaders and the wider public to ensure effective communications.
· Supervises parallel/reciprocal communication functions in all climate hubs.
· Engages and trains media-friendly scientists.
· Targets rolling comms/education programs at all media platforms — eradicates misconceptions, replaces with accurate narrative.
Conclusion and questions for scientists
This article is aimed primarily at climate scientists, related professions and the media, written by a psychotherapist/friend. Someone with enough post-graduate education to understand the scientific papers and the climate models, and their shortcomings, but without the professional authority to do more than hold a psychological mirror up to this group.
The aim is to encourage scientists to overcome their resistances to communicating what they know. Because if they don’t — then we all face the prospect of the end of civilised society, including academia, also much faster than expected.
It is beyond the scope of this article to argue how bad the situation is or what appropriate responses should look like. The truth is no-one knows if we have 5 years or 50 before societal collapse sets in — but there is no doubt, whatever the timeframe, the situation is desperate and there is still no sign this is properly understood.
The climate science community could have a crucial influence in closing this gap in understanding — no-one else in this arena gets close to their hard-earned authority.
From this point the author only has questions because, as we say in psychotherapy, ‘insight is half the battle’. Changing behaviours is the difficult other half. It is for scientists themselves to answer the following:
· Can climate scientists overcome the subconsciously-driven defences that prevent most of them from telling the truth in public?
· Can they re-organise themselves to take responsibility for the effective communication of the true severity of this unprecedented ‘permanent-emergency’?
· Can they lower their self-imposed ‘bar of proof’ to a rational level that allows them to competently perform, at last, this vital role — so minimisers can be negated and meaningful actions initiated?
· Can they engage with parallel psychological resistances in leaders, the media and the public to receiving this information?
· Can they play the unique part, only their expertise allows them to play, in reducing harm to billions of human beings and other species?
If they can’t, our options will be limited…
Featured image: COP15 UNFCCC Climate Change