One More Lesson from the Presidential Election: Ignoring Rigorous Number Crunchers Is a Bad Idea


It is a dangerous thing to ignore very smart people who are using rigorous methods of analyzing data. This is true when discussing elections, it is even more true when it comes to thinking about the earth’s climate.

Consider the case of Nate Silver, whose computer forecasting tools have been making spookily accurate predictions about the outcome of elections over the last five years. Silver’s models, which uses public opinion polls, with adjustments for various effects, over the last year showed a presidential election that was very stable with a consistent reality of the incumbent President maintaining a small but clear lead on the national level and a slightly larger but even more consistent lead in key “swing states.” The bottom line prediction of the model was a moderate (60%) to high (92%) probability that the outcome would be the re-election of Barack Obama. He was, of course, impressively accurate.

And yet, leading up the election, Silver’s work was reviled by many – principally those who saw this quantitative approach as undermining their business of dispensing qualitative analysis of elections and, even more vehemently, by those simply could not accept the results of the modeling because they just couldn’t accept the re-election of the President as a potential likely outcome. This phenomenon of folks in denial projecting their own warping of science and analysis on to analysts and scientists who they disagree with is very familiar in the climate context.

For a very long time those who find the truth of global warming to be inconvenient have claimed, amongst other things, that climate science is skewed and political, accusing scientists of suffering from confirmation bias and leaning towards evidence and models that confirmed their political beliefs. Dark, and totally unsubstantiated, accusations are made about how it is “convenient” that the scientist are reaching conclusions that line up with expectations of agencies providing funding. But, of course, these same climate change deniers are the greatest case study of confirmation bias that one could ever find.

So who is the climate equivalent of Nate Silver? Who is a clearly disinterested and objective outside observer coming in from a different world, like Nate Silver came to politics from sports forecasting, and employing sophisticated analytical tools imported from another context?

I would suggest the prudent accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) are making a very strong audition for that role given their Carbon Disclosure Project and very specifically with the issuance just last week of a sobering analysis: PwC Low Carbon Economy Index 2012: Too late for two degrees?

That analysis makes it very clear that drastic action, both in terms of emissions reduction and in reshaping our infrastructure and society, is needed if we are going to avert total disaster. As a partner at PwC said in a press release about the report, “This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths. We’re heading into uncharted territory for the scale of transformation and technical innovations required. Whatever the scenario, or the response, business as usual is not an option.” Indeed, the levels of global warming pollution that PwC tells us will flow from “business as usual” matches up with the levels that scientists tell us will make the land on which half of humanity resides uninhabitable.

PwC is not alone in delivering this message of cold, sober quantitative analysis delivering hard (and frankly terrifying) conclusions about our climate trajectory.  Lord Nicholas Stern has delivered a similar and powerful message, most famously as an adviser to the British Government. In that role, in 2006, he authored a very influential report starkly demonstrating that the cost of failing to address global warming far outstrips the cost of acting to reducing the emissions that are the source of so much of the problem.

The good news (and it yes, I am following apocalyptic statements with good news) is that here in New England the message of these number crunchers is being heard, and bits of action, designed to respond to this threat, are being seen.  The Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act provides a binding legal mandate that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts address the causes and effects of global warming pollution.  And, the changes in the complexion of state legislatures across the region (detailed on this blog by the CLF state office directors) suggest that we may be able to make more progress on this front across New England. Finally, the rise of clean energy champions in our congressional delegation (notably the election of former wind energy developer Angus King as a Senator from Maine) means that our representatives will continue to rise up as voices of sanity on energy and climate on the national stage – and sanity is what is needed if we are going to heed the message our number crunchers are sending us.

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