How you look at numbers makes all the difference in the world

This morning I was presented with an image that I think is one of the finest pieces of science communication regarding climate change I think I’ve ever seen:

Chart comparing mean global temperature changes due to AGW

Suddenly not so trivial after all...

I would urge you to stop and examine that image for a few seconds to fully appreciate what it says.

Note in particular the words lurking over there on the right: “At the last ice age, it was around here.” The difference from there up to the mean global average (~14°C) is only about 5°C. Such a change can happen in a single year, as the BBC’s Climate Wars points out happened at the end of the last ice age.

In retrospect, it’s blindingly obvious that the problem all along, the reason why we haven’t shouted louder for action, has been that the numbers have been misinterpreted by far too many as ‘trivially small’ when in fact they are ‘hugely significant’.

We naturally internalise temperature changes in terms of our own experiences from day to day in the outside world. But this isn’t weather we’re talking about, it’s climate. The numbers here are only an average (and if you don’t appreciate what an ‘average’ is, that’s a horse of an entirely different kettle of fish, and I can only recommend that you spend some time at Khan Academy).

Even though I’ve been looking into the issue of anthropogenic global warming myself for years now, it wasn’t until I saw the image above that the point was fully driven home to me. For the last ten thousand years, humanity has been coddled by a stable climate, and we’re paying it back by poking it with a sharp stick.

There are two other things that I think that even those expert in the field talking about the issue don’t seem to appreciate.

  • One is the fairly obvious point that when someone says something like “it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to keep global warming below 2 degrees”, they often leave out the crucial word ‘celcius’, which makes the number seem less important to a great many to whom it matters most (Americans, who think in Fahrenheit).
  • The second point is that when they talk about the globe warming by, say, 2°C, the implication is that that’s the upper limit of the change we can expect — when that is far from the truth. Whatever change we are likely to see in our lifetimes is only the beginning of humanity’s legacy.

Moth over on New Anthropocene — from where I stole the above image (thanks, Moth) — makes the point well: That’s No Small Change in the Temperature Anomaly!

About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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4 Responses to How you look at numbers makes all the difference in the world

  1. Gail says:

    Nice graph! The other mistake is to predict changes in the 2100 timeframe, which seems to have been pretty standard. Nobody cares about 90 years from now! Just about anyone who can read that will be dead by then, and their grandchildren who would be alive then aren’t even born yet.

    Scientists are finally starting to talk about the dangerous destabilization that is happening right now, and in the near future.


    • pendantry says:

      That’s what I was trying to say in the second bullet point, Gail; referring only to the changes we can expect within the next century sidesteps the point that the changes we have set in motion will continue hundreds of years into the future.

      Yes, it’s good that these messages are finally surfacing within the popular press; but it’s too late if the stance of the governments of the US and UK are anything to go by: proposing further inaction until 2020 is an indication of how truly insane ‘normality’ is.


  2. Ed Bilal says:

    Greetings! Very helpful advice on this article! It is the little changes that make the biggest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!


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