Since 2000, global warming has tapered off and virtually no one in the climate science community predicted that could happen.
Yet lots of people outside the climate science community - especially in the numerical modeling community - predicted it just might. Because numerical models are tricky and trying to account for all of the knobs that go into feedbacks in a climate model is extra difficult. Because nature is, and always has been, a bitch. She is not linear and she is not predictable. People who know how to build numerical models know that the more variables you have, the more difficult it is to converge on a good answer. People who insist their p-values are accurate while running the wrong model are not going to give us a right answer just because they do a Bayesian analysis over and over.
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to their credit, has never predicted temperature rises would be linear. They leave wild claims to ThinkProgress and Mother Jones and Grist to make stuff up. Instead, the IPCC recognizes that short-term trends can actually mask the long-term effects of climate change. So while the usual suspects spent 2012 insisting the Great Plains drought and superstorm Sandy were 'aggravated' by climate change (when they weren't outright insisting they were caused by it) the reality is they were just natural events. You know, nature.
Ed Hawkins of University of Reading told Graham Lloyd of The Australian that surface temperatures since 2005 are at the low end of the projections of 20 climate models and they will soon be below projections. Well, journalists are out to shake people up so the implication in that is 'maybe models were exaggerated' but it's like saying 'acid rain is down now, so it was never a problem' or 'the world did not collapse due to Y2K so it was never a problem' - of course it was a problem, and it was fixed and that should be a win. Part of the reason why that isn't stressed more is because activists like Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace make money scaring people about science, not talking about what has gone right.
Yet temperatures are still far higher than a century ago, assuming data from then are accurate. Claims that warmer temperatures will be good for plants and the planet are as suspect as any other claim. We can't risk the future on those models either.
The good news is, we have a breather, but let's not be like a cigarette smoker who goes up to 3 packs a day because they didn't get cancer this year - we can't get all crazy and convert all of our nuclear submarines back to coal because this isn't over - with climate, it is really hard to know, but we do know that if you bend something long enough, it is likely to break. Yes, activists got too crazy and declared the science settled in 2001 but, as Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, had to concede in early 2011, "Have we learned a great deal since the IPCC 2001 report? I would say yes, we have. Climate science, like any other field, is a constantly evolving field and we are always learning." Deniers also can't declare the issue settled and that global warming is not going to happen, it could come roaring back even worse than expected. What we do know is that heat-trapping water vapor models were overly pessimistic - feedbacks are hard to accurately quantify - or there are natural variations no one anticipated, in a 'we don't know what we don't know' sense. That's science, folks.
So while we won't abandon nuclear energy and natural gas and fire up the coal plants again instead, we also shouldn't get too zany and waste another $72 billion on corporate welfare for alternative energy companies just because we know we still need a clean energy future; as we have found with wind and solar, the promise of all those 'green jobs' disappears fast when the subsidy checks run out. It doesn't mean that pollution is not bad for us, it certainly is, but there is a basic research problem that needs to be solved before a technology investment should be made. The number of instances where progressive government has created an industry and the private sector took over without subsidies are still sitting at zero.
A decade ago political pundits, especially in science media, framed it as simple - you either accept global warming or you are anti-science. It was never so simple. Conservatives, reviled by the progressive super-majority in media anyway, accepted climate change but were not buying global warming, and they may have been onto something. It wasn't a good term, scientifically, and insistence that it was became the realm of fanatics in blogging, not scientists. It led to green fatigue among the public.
Basically, we caught a break and a good thing we did because there is no basic research solution coming for greener energy any time soon. Solutions are likely to come from the private sector, not government-controlled science, but the private sector is being vilified. The recent standard government methodology, that they will 'subsidize an industry so the corporations we hate will take it over and save us all' has been somewhat dopey. Exxon or BP or whoever activists hate the most due to media reports this week are not the enemy, nor are they in some vast conspiracy against the environment, they just know science in a way no one at Greenpeace or Sierra Club or Union of Concerned Scientists does. And they are skeptical banning their business will fix the problem. They have a point. Canada banned the pollutants that would supposedly fix the ozone problem and it still went up.
Yes, we have gaps in understanding and yes, it was scientifically dumb to ever claim the issue was settled and to use hate speech on anyone who disagreed with even the most flawed models, but it wasn't the bulk of the 10,000 climate scientists doing solid research who said the dumb stuff, it was five hysterical ones who get all of the media attention precisely because they were willing to be outrageous on the record.
Just because warming has not continued to climb does not mean it won't, and anyone rationalizing entrenched positions at this point is selling their politics; science can be funky but you don't have to be an earth science expert to know pollution is bad.