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Despite Debate, Estimates of Humanity’s Impact on Climate Change Are Accurate

A new study reconciles observed changes to the climate and computer model predictions, showing that they are more in agreement than they seem. Climate change contrarians have used many arguments to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that the atmosphere is warming and humans are to blame. They’ve alleged that tens of thousands of scientists, working across dozens of different disciplines, have organized a vast conspiracy to manipulate data. They’ve said more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will actually be a benefit because it will boost agricultural production. And they’ve even said that global warming has stopped in recent years. But their primary tactic these days appears to be to acknowledge that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is increasing due to human causes, but suggest that the scientific community just can’t pin down what impact those emissions will have on the climate system. Trump’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt made that claim during his Senate confirmation hearing, as did former ExxonMobil CEO turned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Kyle Armour of the University of Washington, writing in Nature Climate Change, says that, actually, the scientific community has done quite well at developing accurate predictions of how sensitive the atmosphere and oceans are to carbon pollution. The debate, he says, pivots around a number called equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), which is the temperature change that scientists expect to occur with a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compared to before the Industrial Revolution. “This is the number that’s been essentially at the heart of climate change predictions for decades now,” he said. “It has a lot of policy relevance. If this number is high, we have a very sensitive Earth that will warm up a lot in response to greenhouse gases. If the number is low, we have a less sensitive climate system that would warm up a lot less.”

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