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Climate Change Coming “Faster Than Expected”

by Kent M. Pitman (Tuesday, April 15, 2008)

My Personal Position on Climate Change

I believe Climate Change is real and must be dealt with now. Not later. Now.

We are already late enough that we're seeing unwanted effects we cannot undo. If we act now, we can lessen future effects, and we may be able to stop the really bad ones. If we wait, future effects will be worse and things will probably soon run so out of control that the future of mankind is threatened.

Why Faster Than Expected?

Much is written about the probabilities. Much more will be written. People wish it weren't so, and they have motivation to want to soften it in their minds. No matter how much they wish to soften it, they will only make it worse by delaying. But here's what's worse...

It's no exaggeration to say that the opposition camp is poised to outright excoriate anyone found to have sounded more dire than any particular factoid bears. The problem is that correct predicting requires sometimes overstating and sometimes understating. Predictions can't be balanced on a case-by-case basis, and showing that someone erred on the high end doesn't disprove the methodology they used to get there.

Let's look at how the effect I'm talking about plays out on a simpler issue...

Suppose I have a practice of guessing ages. Suppose I'm not great at getting it exactly right, but I'm basically right on average. Suppose I can guess 5 years one side or the other of your correct age. So you're 30 and I sometimes guess 25 or 26 or anything up to 35. When I say 25 or 26, I'm within range and you applaud me for being within the stated range. But when I say 31 or 32, let's say you accuse me of exaggerating and being mean. So I learn to guess lower. I take my best guess and I subtract 5. You'd think that would make me wrong more. And it does. Now I guess in the range 20-30 instead of 25-35. So I used to hit the mark within 5 above or below most of the time, now I often guess outside the range. You'd think that would be bad. But people like it when I'm wrong on the low end because it flatters them, favoring what they want to believe. So I might find that even though I'm wrong more, I'm forgiven for this kind of wrong. And even though I was right more before (I only said I was guessing within 5 anyway, but I was not liked for overguessing), I wasn't forgiven for being right in that case.

That's what I think is happening in the media. The populace wants to be flattered. So politicians are flattering them. Media are flattering them. Even scientists are flattering them. Not by telling falsehoods, but by pulling punches on the worst case scenarios.

So the problem is that since a great deal of it is only probably true, not provably true, it will not be written about. It will, therefore, come as a surprise later when some of it really is true because no one wants to hint at it until they can see it's really going to happen. So watch for phrases like “faster than expected” to occur more and more in news stories as these “probably” scenarios turn out to be true. It's already happening. Google it.

Some examples (many accumulated, as predicted, after April 15, 2008, when this article was originally written):

(Click to skip forward past these citations.)

This essay was written 15 April 2008. Articles below here had already been published when I came up with this theory and went checking to see if there was a pattern of such articles.

(Click to skip back past these citations.)

Lack of Understanding of Math

Too many people don't understand math and that's making a mess of things, too. I think one reason scientists are worried and other people are less worried is that scientists hear the language of math and understand its significance when applied to the real world, while many so-called “normal people” think that math and the real world are not related.

Words like “non-linear“ or “exponential” come up a lot in news stories. If you don't know what this word means, you should find a friendly mathematician and ask. But in effect the important part is that the progression is not a straight line (non-linear) and is twisted upward and upward faster and faster all the time (exponential). Like “today is bad”, “tomorrow it is worse”, and “the next day is even more worse than the previous day.”

It's like the story of what would happen if you had a penny and doubled it every day. It doesn't sound like much until you see it played out, but...


Now imagine that's not a penny doubling but a measure of the difficulty of fixing the problem by looking at cost in dollars. And let's note one other thing: we don't know if it's really doubling. It might be less. That'd be good. But it's probably not. Let's suppose we're off by even just a tiny bit. Let's say it goes up by a factor of 2.3 every time instead of a factor of 2. How does that affect things?


It seems like such a little difference. But look at the outcome after 28 days... $58,432,110.46 instead of $1,342,177.28.

The cost of fixing the problem might instead be like that. You don't even want to know what happens if the problem is tripling in cost rather than just doubling or multiplying by 2.3 do you? I didn't think so. But I'll tell you anyway. On day 28, the amount would be $76,255,974,849.87

In fact, here's a table of how much the difference in cost is if we're off by small factors in how fast thing are getting worse:

Starting with one penny...
Every day
multiplying by...
Amount After 28 Days... Or, in plain English...
2$1,342,177.28one million or so
3$76,255,974,849.87seventy-six billion or so
4$180,143,985,094,819.84one hundred and eighty trillion or so
5$74,505,805,969,238,290.00seventy-four quadrillion or so
6$10,234,903,690,774,692,000.00ten quintillion or so
7$657,123,623,635,342,900,000.00six hundred and fifty-seven quintillion
8$24,178,516,392,292,584,000,000.00twenty-four sextillion or so
9$581,497,370,030,400,600,000,000.00five hundred and eighty-one sextillion or so
10$10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.00ten septillion or so

Let me help you read that table correctly. By now you know it says that if we think we have a penny and it's doubling daily, after a month it will be $1,342,177.28. But it also says that if we're off by a factor of 5 in our understanding of how fast the rise is, so that it's really going up by a factor of 10 every day instead of a factor of 2, then the amount at the end of 28 days is not one million dollars but ten septillion dollars.

That's the dilemma we face. Of course, we can't really cost it out. So no one is reporting the cost. But that doesn't mean there is no cost. It just means the cost might be anything. All we know is that the rate of increase in the cost is not constant, so it will be getting worse and worse, just like in that example. So we'd better start fixing it now, while it's cheap. The longer we wait, the more likely it is to cost us a million dollars to fix... or maybe ten septillion. I won't really scare you with the numbers that happen if we're off by more than a factor of five, but it should scare you. And it should scare you to think that at some point there won't be enough money in all the world to do what is needed.

No, it's probably not increasing by the day like that. But the point is that even if it's by the month or by the year, the rate at which things are going faster appears to be increasing. That's called acceleration. Acceleration is bad in situations like this. How bad is open to question, but it's bad almost any way you cut it. We need to be putting on the brakes (decelerating) not leaning harder on the gas (if you'll pardon the pun).

The Nature of Optimism

The public doesn't want to live just in fear. There's an appetite for stories that give hope and suggest we can move apace without fear. And we do need hope. But, I claim, we're getting more than our share of that.

I'm not anti-optimism, by the way. But the optimism, if there is any to be had, comes in this situation when people confront the truth. The more avoidance, the less there is to be optimistic about. Hope gives us a reason to live. But fear gives us a reason to move quickly. When being chased by an enemy, it can be more optimistic to be running scared than sitting unafraid. Optimism isn't a synonym for “without fear.”

The Risk of Inaction

Some people think it's just as important not to do the wrong thing. It is important not to do the wrong thing. We have to be as right as we can. It would be nice if we could just wait until we were sure we were right. But it's not clear that it's safe to wait. Some guessing may be required.

In decision making, especially in situations where people are acting politically, the status quo is often presented as a sort of neutral choice, where the risk is associated with doing something and there's no risk to the status quo. That's silly, of course. If you're at the bottom of a hill exposed to an oncoming avalanche, the status quo (sitting still) can be quite risky. A decision is a decision, and it needs to be seen that way. We're making decisions all the time by inaction on the environment. We're not waiting to decide whether to do something risky; we're doing something known to be risky and we're wondering if we should do something different.

And at some point, even if we don't know what the right or wrong fix is, we need to admit that the cost of inaction is so high that we need to just go with our best guess and cross our collective fingers in hope. Because we know that sitting still and doing nothing while crossing our collective fingers is not going to get the job done.

Bush on Climate

Bush's record has been terrible on these issues. He has worked against the Kyoto treaty. He has worked to suppress critical data about climate change. He has in general delayed action in ways that have been extraordinarily hurtful.

Now, probably worried about his pathetic place in history, he is trying to talk about climate change. He's giving a speech tomorrow on climate change. It's said he'll be finally urging all nations to establish national goals of cutting emissions.

If it's true, it's something he should have done earlier. But this issue is too important for partisan politics. Yes, it's hard to support people who one thinks might be working toward cynical ends. I'm not saying re-elect him. But if he finally comes out and sets explicit, aggressive goals for greenhouse gas emissions, and insists that other nations do likewise, we should support him and applaud him.

It matters to have good standards—no matter who puts them in place. It matters to do it sooner rather than later. It doesn't matter whose name is in the history books. It matters that there are history books. If the cost is writing his name into the books, and the effect is that we get what we need, then let's rev up the printing presses and get to it.

Update (17 Apr 2008): Well, he gave his speech, and the proposal was both inadequately aggressive in its goals and not explicit in various critical details. Alas. Well, let's hope he gets a clue soon. Hopefully everyone will still retain an open mind if he does.

Update (18 Apr 2008): Underscoring this ongoing pattern of non-commitment further, according to an Associated Press article published at, talks in Paris among the 16 countries (including the US) that produce about 80 percent of the world's carbon emissions concluded without agreement today (Friday, April 18, 2008). Two follow-up meetings are scheduled for May and June. Quoting the article: “The EU has pledged to cut its emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, while the United States has not committed to any fixed emissions cuts. Speaking in Washington on Wednesday, President Bush said only that the U.S. should stop the rise in its emissions by 2025.”

Update (12 Jul 2008): At this point, I think he's just trying to hide the damage his administration has caused, and which he must surely know he has caused, in some vain attempt to maximize the number of good words he's used and to minimize the number of brave actions he will take. This week's reports on White House suppression of EPA findings are just the latest examples, as discussed in a story in the Los Angeles Times, excerpted here:

The Bush administration Friday rejected its own experts' conclusion that global warming poses a threat to the public welfare, launching a comment period that will delay action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least until the next president takes office.
Bill Kovacs, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president, said the EPA staff's proposals were “an unprecedented power grab by unelected officials who want to stretch the application of the Clean Air Act into regulation of the entire economy.”
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said in a written statement that the EPA staff proposal would have given the agency “unprecedented power affecting anyone who uses or produces energy -- from stores and manufacturing facilities to power plants, farmers, even schools, hospitals and apartment buildings.” She said the EPA would have functioned “like a local planning and zoning board, with potentially devastating effects on our economy.”
EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said he would receive comments for 120 days on how the government should regulate greenhouse gases, a step that Joan Claybrook, president of the public-interest lobbying group Public Citizen, said would guarantee that “the issue will not be dealt with until a new administration comes to town.”
In a draft of the document completed in May, EPA staff members concluded that regulations reducing greenhouse gas emissions could save $2 trillion through lowered gasoline costs and other benefits over 30 years. In the final document, that figure was slashed more than 50%, to $830 billion. The lower figure is based largely on an estimate that gasoline will cost $2 a gallon over the next three decades, less than half the current price.

It's almost as if he's betting there will be a Democratic administration to follow, and that they can “take the heat” for what must necessarily be done. The saddest thing of all is that he does not understand the hurt caused by simply delaying. To him, it's the same problem whether we start now or start in January. But really the problem is every day worse, and delaying is not just putting this onto someone else's watch, but in fact is accepting additional certain cost to the world through willful delay. The best case scenario he can hope for, at this point, is that history will remember him badly. The worst case is that there will be no one left to write nor later read any such history.

It was heartening recently to see Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson team up to make a commercial encouraging people to care about this matter. Let's have more of that. Politicians may disagree on some things. But this shouldn't be one of them.

About the 2008 Presidential Race

I've been quite worried that none of the likely candidates is taking Climate Change adequately seriously. I think Obama is looking at it most seriously. Repeated statements like this are encouraging:

“I will make a commitment that Al Gore will be at the table and play a central part in us figuring out how we solve this problem. He's somebody I talk to on a regular basis. I'm already consulting with him in terms of these issues, but climate change is real. It is something we have to deal with now, not 10 years from now, not 20 years from now.”
Source: The Washington Post (2-Apr-2008)

Remarks like these are important, too:

“All of us are going to have to change our habits. We are a wasteful culture,” he said.

It takes great political courage to tell people what they don't want to hear. But the problem can't be fixed by electing the leader most willing to lie to us.

Ask Your Candidates Hard Questions

If you’re a US citizen, please participate in the 2008 election process and make sure to communicate to your candidate of choice the importance of the climate change issue. I can’t tell you who to vote for. We each have to think very hard on that matter. What I’d ask you to do is to get involved in making sure your chosen candidate knows this issue matters.

Here are some remarks that I posted at Universe Today in January 2008:

Everyone should ask their preferred presidential candidate:

If you believe the Earth is getting warmer at an alarming rate, why is this not the most important thing on your presidential agenda?

If you believe the recent unusually warm readings are not something to worry about, upon what scientific evidence do you base your sense of relaxed comfort?

If you are not sure whether to be alarmed at recently observed warm temperatures or not, what are some examples of specific signs you're looking for that, if they were seen, would cause you to think "maybe I should take this more seriously." If you delay strong action now, and later find that it had been essential to act earlier, how shall we judge your degree of personal responsibility for that mistake?

And, finally, if it turns out that there is global warming but it's not man-made, do you think that makes the situation better or worse? If this situation could magically be known to NOT be man-made, would you then ignore the problem and just assume nature cares about us enough to correct things on its own? What is your plan for this eventuality?


The population as a whole doesn't seem to trust what it cannot see. That's very sad, because Science is all about how to overcome that. The population really needs to trust Science on this one.

No, you don't have to blindly trust it if you don't want to. Go out and learn some Science and look at the data critically yourself. Science is not just one more form of mysticism asking you to trust it without any understanding. It is all about measuring and testing and reproducing things.

But measuring and testing and reproducing only goes so far. At some point you have to put all that you've learned about prediction to the test. If the only way to work up a fear about the end of the world is to experience it, that's bad. We need to see the waterfall on the horizon and have Science turn the boat now while the steering is still even partly working.

The public is in denial. But that doesn't mean the problem is not happening. Will it happen with certainty? No one can say. But will it probably happen? Yes. And it will probably happen “faster than expected”.

For More Information

I keep my Climate Change page updated regularly. Bookmark it, and go there frequently for pointers to up-to-date information. If you see things you think I'm missing, send me suggestions.

Copyright © 2009 by Kent M Pitman. All Rights Reserved.

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