Eight Botched Environmental Forecasts
By Maxim Lott
Published December 30, 2010
A new year is around the corner, and some climate scientists and environmental activists say that means we’re one step closer to a climate Armageddon. But are we really?
Predicting the weather — especially a decade or more in advance — is unbelievably challenging. What’s the track record of those most worried about global warming? Decades ago, what did prominent scientists think the environment would be like in 2010? FoxNews.com has compiled eight of the most egregiously mistaken predictions, and asked the predictors to reflect on what really happened.
1. Within a few years “children just aren’t going to know what snow is.” Snowfall will be “a very rare and exciting event.” Dr. David Viner, senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, interviewed by the UK Independent, March 20, 2000.
Ten years later, in December 2009, London was hit by the heaviest snowfall seen in 20 years. And just last week, a snowstorm forced Heathrow airport to shut down, stranding thousands of Christmas travelers.
A spokesman for the government-funded British Council, where Viner now works as the lead climate change expert, told FoxNews.com that climate science had improved since the prediction was made.
“Over the past decade, climate science has moved on considerably and there is now more understanding about the impact climate change will have on weather patterns in the coming years,” British Council spokesman Mark Herbert said. “However, Dr Viner believes that his general predictions are still relevant.”
Herbert also pointed to another prediction from Viner in the same article, in which Viner predicted that “heavy snow would return occasionally” and that it would “probably cause chaos in 20 years time.” Other scientists said “a few years” was simply too short a time frame for kids to forget what snow was.
“I’d say at some point, say 50 years from now, it might be right. If he said a few years, that was an unwise prediction,” said Michael Oppenheimer, director of Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy.
Of course, Oppenheimer himself is known for controversial global warming scenarios.
2. “[By] 1995, the greenhouse effect would be desolating the heartlands of North America and Eurasia with horrific drought, causing crop failures and food riots…[By 1996] The Platte River of Nebraska would be dry, while a continent-wide black blizzard of prairie topsoil will stop traffic on interstates, strip paint from houses and shut down computers.” Michael Oppenheimer, published in “Dead Heat,” St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Oppenheimer told FoxNews.com that he was trying to illustrate one possible outcome of failing to curb emissions, not making a specific prediction. He added that the gist of his story had in fact come true, even if the events had not occurred in the U.S.
“On the whole I would stand by these predictions — not predictions, sorry, scenarios — as having at least in a general way actually come true,” he said. “There’s been extensive drought, devastating drought, in significant parts of the world. The fraction of the world that’s in drought has increased over that period.”
That may be in doubt, however. Data from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center shows that precipitation — rain and snow — has increased slightly over the century.
3. “Arctic specialist Bernt Balchen says a general warming trend over the North Pole is melting the polar ice cap and may produce an ice-free Arctic Ocean by the year 2000.” Christian Science Monitor, June 8, 1972.
Ice coverage has fallen, though as of last month, the Arctic Ocean had 3.82 million square miles of ice cover — an area larger than the continental United States — according to The National Snow and Ice Data Center.
4. “Using computer models, researchers concluded that global warming would raise average annual temperatures nationwide two degrees by 2010.” Associated Press, May 15, 1989.
Status of prediction: According to NASA, global temperature has increased by about 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1989. And U.S. temperature has increased even less over the same period.
The group that did the study, Atmospheric and Environmental Research Inc., said it could not comment in time for this story due to the holidays.
But Oppenheimer said that the difference between an increase of nearly one degree and an increase of two degrees was “definitely within the margin of error… I would think the scientists themselves would be happy with that prediction.”
Many scientists, especially in the 1970s, made an error in the other direction by predicting global freezing:
5. “By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” Life magazine, January 1970.
Life Magazine also noted that some people disagree, “but scientists have solid experimental and historical evidence to support each of the following predictions.”
Air quality has actually improved since 1970. Studies find that sunlight reaching the Earth fell by somewhere between 3 and 5 percent over the period in question.
6. “If present trends continue, the world will be … eleven degrees colder by the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us in an ice age.” Kenneth E.F. Watt, in “Earth Day,” 1970.
According to NASA, global temperature has increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit since 1970.
How could scientists have made such off-base claims? Dr. Paul Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb” and president of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, told FoxNews.com that ideas about climate science changed a great deal in the the ’70s and ’80s.
“Present trends didn’t continue,” Ehrlich said of Watt’s prediction. “There was considerable debate in the climatological community in the ’60s about whether there would be cooling or warming … Discoveries in the ’70s and ’80s showed that the warming was going to be the overwhelming force.”
Ehrlich told FoxNews.com that the consequences of future warming could be dire.
The proverbial excrement is “a lot closer to the fan than it was in 1968,” he said. “And every single colleague I have agrees with that.”
He added, “Scientists don’t live by the opinion of Rush Limbaugh and Palin and George W. They live by the support of their colleagues, and I’ve had full support of my colleagues continuously.”
But Ehrlich admits that several of his own past environmental predictions have not come true:
7. “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Ehrlich, Speech at British Institute For Biology, September 1971.
Ehrlich’s prediction was taken seriously when he made it, and New Scientist magazine underscored his speech in an editorial titled “In Praise of Prophets.”
“When you predict the future, you get things wrong,” Ehrlich admitted, but “how wrong is another question. I would have lost if I had had taken the bet. However, if you look closely at England, what can I tell you? They’re having all kinds of problems, just like everybody else.”
8. “In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” Ehrlich, speech during Earth Day, 1970
“Certainly the first part of that was very largely true — only off in time,” Ehrlich FoxNews.com. “The second part is, well — the fish haven’t washed up, but there are very large dead zones around the world, and they frequently produce considerable stench.”
“Again, not totally accurate, but I never claimed to predict the future with full accuracy,” he said.