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Probability Problems

Welcome to 2024, probably the coolest year of the rest of your life

WELCOME TO 2024, probably the hottest year of your life.

Data show that 2023 already broke that scorching record. In June, a global mean temperature rise of 1.55°C above the pre-industrial average was documented. In other words, we crossed the 1.5°C mark that – according to the Paris Agreement – we’re aiming never to cross. But that was just a single event, which doesn’t qualify as an average just yet.

Now, several institutions, such as NASA, predict that 2024 will be warmer than its predecessor. The El Niño weather pattern is in full swing and the uncertainties over its duration don’t alleviate the sweltering scenario. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said there’s a 66 per cent chance that the average temperature anomaly of 1.5°C will be crossed by 2027, and maybe this very year.

Climatologists talk in terms of statistical probabilities – it’s what science requires them to do. For instance, the huge pool of scientists contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, better known as the IPCC, have always maintained a probabilistic approach in compiling their periodic assessment reports, the latest being the sixth edition, published in instalments between 2021 and 2023. Its summary reads: ’There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.’ The statement is annotated with a ‘very high confidence’ mark, which translates, in IPCC parlance, to a probability range of between 90 and 100 per cent.

Despite its cautious approach, almost since its inception as a UN body, the IPCC has repeatedly been accused of scaremongering. A quick search on the Web is enough to find plenty of critics, mostly on US sites linked to the fossil fuel lobby or to conservative groups – as if chemistry and physics were political. They lament mistakes (a couple of which were acknowledged and corrected) or, worse, spread deliberate lies about the state of the planet. The trouble is that the contrary may be true.

Hundreds of scientists and contributing authors worked on the sixth assessment report, browsing through  more than 66,000 peer-reviewed papers. The ‘panel’ is still ‘intergovernmental’, which means that governments have their final say on the reports. But it also implies that there may be an undue, subtle pressure on the global endeavour of climate research. ‘Scientists tended toward lower projections because they did not want to be accused of making dramatic and exaggerated claims,’ writes Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor who raised the issue more than ten years ago.

 Whatever the case, it isn’t just the IPCC – many forecasts have proved to be too conservative. The scientific community was reportedly shocked last year when the world witnessed a string of unpredicted and anomalous climate events. Alongside the record atmospheric and oceanic temperature readings, the state of the poles is especially worrisome. ‘We risk losing the race to save our glaciers and to rein in sea-level rise,’ WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said at COP28 in Dubai.

No climatologist predicted – say, 20 years ago – either the current, accelerating rate of melting in Greenland’s ice sheet, or the precarious state of West Antarctica’s ice shelves (not the eastern side, however). Together, they could make the old forecast of one metre of sea-level rise by 2100 a dramatic undestimation. At the same time, no meteorologist foresaw the behaviour of a hurricane such as Otis, which last October devastated Acapulco after jumping five steps – from tropical storm to Category 5 – in less than 24 hours.

At the beginning of the year, it would be nice to proclaim some optimism. However, with CO2 and methane concentrations in the atmosphere still rising after decades of warnings, how can we? We may hope that 2024 will turn into the year when emissions finally peak. But, since we’re talking about probabilities, emissions probably won’t peak just yet. Scientists say that they must – by next year at the latest. They’re almost probably right in taking that view.

Welcome to 2024, probably the coolest year of the rest of your life.

Published on Geographical Magazine, January 2024


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