Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Prediction Failed Miserably? Just Make a New One

The Sierra Club blogger who wrongly predicted that this winter would be “less wintery” & snowy than last now says Arctic sea ice won’t “survive this summer.”

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Paul Beckwith is a mature PhD student and part-time climatology professor at the University of Ottawa. He also writes a blog for Sierra Club Canada. Yesterday he posted the following melodramatic message on Facebook:

For the record; I do not think that any sea ice will survive this summer. An event unprecedented in human history is today, this very moment, transpiring in the Arctic Ocean…This is abrupt climate change in real-time. Humans have benefitted [sic] greatly from a stable climate for the last 11,000 years or roughly 400 generations. Not any more. We now face an angry climate. One that we have poked in the eye with our fossil fuel stick and awakened. And now we must deal with the consequences. We must set aside our differences and prepare for what we can no longer avoid. And that is massive disruption to our civilizations. [bold added; click here for screencap]

Beckwith looks like an interesting chap. According to his CV, he has a background in physics and spent four years as a professional chess player. As an admirably engaged, hands-on father of three boys, aged eight to 12, you’d think his daily life would be sufficiently demanding, exciting, and rewarding. But Beckwith is certain he’s bearing lonely witness to something “unprecedented in human history.”

Why am I having a difficult time taking him seriously? Because he doesn’t sound at all like a scientist.

The language he uses isn’t the sort I expect a careful, precise, rigorous mind to employ. It is, instead, the language of an activist and a storyteller.

Science doesn’t produce emotive phrases like “angry climate.” That’s hyperbole. It’s poetry. It’s marketing-speak. And the blog Beckwith writes for the perpetually outraged Sierra Club is full of it.

Here are some phrases from his most recent post, Arctic icecap cracking up:

  • “the situation is frightening”
  • “we need action now”
  • “unless we act soon the future is certainly grim”

On other occasions, he has said that:

Beckwith believes extreme measures will be required to combat climate change, such as the US president assuming wartime-like powers by assembling

all the CEOs of car manufacturers together in a room and telling them they will produce no cars for 3 years, only wind turbines, geothermal heat exchangers, and solar panels. [bold added]

I guess he hasn’t heard about the glut in low-priced solar panels – or the view that it would be a blessing if hundreds of currently existing solar companies went bankrupt. As an article in MIT’s Technology Review puts it, that might “help bring the supply of solar panels back in line with demand.”

Full of bravado, Beckwith insists that he himself knows how to “calm the climate.” All he needs, he says, is “a plane, pilot, nozzle, and sulfur.”

But another Beckwith prediction hasn’t worked out so well. Certain that he understands what’s happening with the weather better than the meteorologists presently employed by Environment Canada, last November Beckwith wrote:

What’s my prediction for this winter? Following basic metrics…I predict that this winter will be even weirder and less “wintery” than last. In fact, do not be surprised if it only gets cold from mid-January until mid-February, again with very little snow. I certainly will not be signing a driveway snow removal contract this winter. [backed up here]

It’s true that last winter was unusually warm in much of Canada. But this year has emphatically not been less wintry than last. Quite the opposite. Just before Christmas, the Ottawa Sun ran the headline: Welcome to winter, Ottawa: Major storm packs wallop.

Six days later it ran another: Snow swamps Ottawa region. In early January, the headline was: Lots of snow, lots of roof problems.

In early February, a CBC news headline read: Snow storm causes slew of crashes in Ottawa. A few weeks later, a magazine reporter asked:

How hard was the nation’s capital hit by Wednesday’s snowstorm? Let’s just say the [public transit system] buses had some delays—and people were tweeting pictures of it all day.

Two days ago, CBC ran another headline: Another 10 to 20 cm of snow coming to Ottawa. Yesterday, an Ottawa Sun headline griped: Winter won’t go away.

Four months ago, Beckwith felt certain that this winter would be less wintry than last year. He was dead wrong. In fact, the area in which he lives received twice as much snow as last year. Ditto Winnipeg. Boston received four times as much snow this year as last. And in late December, 18 inches (46 cm) of snow fell in Montreal in a single day – breaking an accumulation record set in 1969.

Beckwith’s prediction wasn’t even close. But those hours he and his sons spent shoveling the driveway this winter were apparently insufficiently arduous to instill in him the teensiest bit of humility.

Now he’s confidently predicting that Arctic sea ice won’t “survive this summer.” People on Facebook are passing around this prediction. Some of them may be taking his talk of “massive disruption to our civilizations” to heart.

And the Sierra Club is knee-deep in all of the above.

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