A climate change forecast…and by analogy, yet.

In meteorology, a sure prescription for trouble is to stick your head above the foxhole and venture a climate change forecast. That none-but-the-brave idea normally observed for the military? It should apply to climate forecasters as well. There’s hardly any good outcome you can expect. The rosy scenario is you bring out the boo-birds. Much worse can await.

But I’m going to double down…not only making a climate-change forecast, but using a technique known as forecast-by-analogy. Those familiar with this technique know that it has a terrible reputation…and furthermore, they know that its disreputable standing is justly deserved.

In forecasting-by-analogy, the basic idea is to make a weather forecast by poring over all previous weather maps looking for a year/day/time when global conditions came close to matching in broad aspects (and preferably down to some level of detail…the more, the better) those prevailing at the moment. This initial pattern recognition/matching is the hard part. The next part is easy. Having found the closest match, all the forecaster need do is predict that future events will subsequently unfold pretty much as they did back in that former day, the day of the past analog.

Well, it turns out that “hard part” is also easy. Folks who’ve studied this make the unsurprising finding that historically, the closest match to today’s weather is yesterday’s. And this brings us back to an old saw from weather forecasting to the effect that persistence is the best forecast.

Except when it isn’t.

And those exceptions matter…a lot.

There’s a brief Wikipedia entry on this, which hints at the technique’s use back in the day for El Nino forecasts, and other meteorological purposes. It’s been tried in other fields as well. For example, economists have also given forecasting-by-analogy a try. Google a bit, and you’ll find plenty of information, especially on why this approach doesn’t work, regardless of the application.

With this preamble, what on earth could be the benefit of pressing on? Please bear with me…

The forecast that follows is not a forecast of how the climate itself will actually change, but rather a forecast of how the public will converge from its currently divided and contentious posture (as discussed in the previous post), with everyone choosing sides, toward some end state of (nearly) universal agreement.

There are many historical precedents we might choose from. Some are well-known. The health risks of tobacco. Whether the world was flat or round…and the size of that world. Whether the Earth was/is the center of the universe. Some are more arcane. The theory of continental drift. The explanation for the atmospheric tides (a tip of the hat to Richard Lindzen here). Some controversies are ongoing: evolution versus intelligent design. The nutritional benefits of XXX (fill in your current favorite).

The analogy we’ll choose here is:


Some fifty years ago, on June 17, 1972, five men broke into and entered the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC. The next two years would see a series of progressive revelations: That this was the second break-in in two months. That the purpose of the break-ins was to install, and then adjust, wiretaps on the phones of the Democratic leadership. That those responsible had received funds from an individual high-up in the Republican Party. That the go-ahead seemed to have come from John Mitchell himself, at a time when he was attorney general of the United States. That a few people, in the innermost circle of the White House, attempted a major cover-up. That relevant conversations in the Oval Office had been secretly taped. That the potentially most-damaging tapes had gone mysteriously missing. Eventually the investigations led to the indictment, conviction and incarceration of some 40 or more officials, and to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Note that these criminal actions were not representative of the Republican party as a whole, but rather a rogue handful…the forty who were eventually tried and punished. Early on the Republican party as such began to distance itself from the goings-on. The Congressional hearings and impeachment actions were less a partisan proceeding than they were a non-partisan effort (Republican and Democrat) to identify and correct wrongdoing with due process, and without turning the country into a banana republic where governments could be overturned on a whim.

My generation experienced the media coverage of Watergate firsthand. The events and the daily twists and turns received far more coverage than has climate change to date. And that coverage included polls…just as climate change does today. People were asked, did they believe a political party had been behind the break-ins? Did they believe the president when he claimed to know nothing about what was going on, either before the break-ins or during the cover-up? The battle for public opinion was hard fought. Over the two years, the polls showed uncertainty and variability, much as polls on climate change do today.  Initially, only the most politically-partisan jumped to the conclusion that Nixon was responsible, well before any real data were available. Over time, fewer and fewer people believed him and his inner circle to be innocent. At the end, those who had remained loyal the longest felt the most betrayed.

So…the assertion is, that something like Watergate and similar controversies is underway in climate change. That however tempestuous the media coverage may appear, behind the scenes scientists, policymakers, and many others are working through the IPCC, but not only through the IPCC, in myriad ways as individuals and institutions to identify what’s worrisome about climate variability and change and what can be safely ignored, and to move forward without allowing the loudest, most strident voices to rule unchecked. Events won’t unfold so rapidly as Watergate (from start to finish in something like 2-4 years), but…

…they’re headed down an analogous path toward consensus and action.

In closing? I’ve tried to steer clear of jumping to a conclusion about which side of the climate change discussion is on which side of the Watergate analogy. If you leapt to one or the other inference, then view this analogy as a Rohrshach test.

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