1969 Climate Predictions Miss by a Mile

July 3, 2010 at 10:50 am

Czech physicist Lubos Motl reports on an important memo just released by the Richard Nixon library. Written by presidential advisor Daniel Moynihan in 1969 it reveals that the “carbon dioxide problem” was viewed as an environmental concern by some highly placed US government officials way back when.

This memo reads, in part:

It is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO2 content [in the atmosphere] will rise 25% by 2000. This could increase the average temperature near the earth’s surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter. [bold added]

Motl has drawn up a handy chart that demonstrates just how wide of the mark these predictions were. Rather than increasing by 81 parts per million as the “pretty clearly agreed” experts feared, CO2 rose by only 45 parts per million.

Rather than spiking by 3.9 C (7 degrees F), the actual temperature increase between 1969 and the year 2000 was a practically imperceptible 0.3 C. Which means the experts were off by 1200 percent.

Most embarrassing of all, rather than rising 305 cm (10 feet), sea level increased by a paltry 10 cm (3.9 inches). Which means the experts overestimated that particular danger by 2950 percent.

Moral of the story: no one has ever been able to predict the future. Not even highly educated, highly regarded government advisors.

We humans can tell ourselves no end of scary stories. We can exhaust our financial, institutional, and emotional resources preparing for imaginary dangers based on hypothetical scenarios. Or, as Bob Carter argues persuasively in his important, accessible-to-the-lay-person book Climate: The Counter Consenus, we can take sensible steps to protect ourselves from hazards we’re dead certain to encounter. These are the ones that have always been with us: droughts, landslides, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and so forth.

With so many very real challenges to cope with, why do we humans spend so much energy obsessing about hypothetical ones?

  • Motl’s blog post is here
  • the actual memo is here
  • read a news article about the released Nixon papers here
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Entry filed under: historical perspective, predictions that failed. Tags: , , , , , , .

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