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Climate scientists beat economists at predicting the future

Published on 20 March 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

‘The public is constantly told by the media that climate science can’t be trusted, the models are flawed, and action on climate change is a costly gamble. But when you compare original predictions with what actually happened, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Climate models have been getting it right for decades: they are turning out to be among the most reliable long-term models we have.’ So says Griffin Carpenter, Economic Modeller at NEF (the New Economics Foundation), a London-based think-thank that recently released a report  comparing the track records of long-term forecasts. According to its findings, climate models outstrip key economic models when it comes to accuracy.

  • Early climate models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) accurately predicted how our climate would change over the past twenty years.
  • Climate models have proven to be more reliable than many of the other kinds of long-term economic models routinely used and trusted by policymakers and the media.
  • Climate sceptics’ attempts to discredit climate models exaggerate minor errors while ignoring broader trends.


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Plotting early IPCC predictions against observed climate data from the past 20 years, NEF demonstrates that global temperature, sea level, and carbon concentration have all risen within the ranges originally forecast in 1995. If only my investment advice was as accurate. Yet this surely begs the question as to why there are still people out there who are crying NAY!

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Using the same timescale, NEF checked forecasts for oil price projection, debt/GDP and population and found that they were way off target. And NEF isn’t alone in its findings. Other studies highlight that financial experts are generally no better at making simple long-term predictions than a coin flip. So why the uncertainty around climate change? Why are the sceptics still sceptical?

According to NEF,  Uncertainty around climate science is still being blown out of proportion by the UK media, with a tendency to overplay minor imprecisions errors to make a headline and a disproportionate amount of airtime given to sceptic commentators. Exaggerating the uncertainties in this way is incredibly damaging as evidence shows uncertainty is one of the biggest factors stopping people engaging with climate change. Somehow I doubt the UK media is alone in this.

In a call for action, Aniol Esteban, Head of Environmental Economics at NEF said: ‘We often hear the argument that climate models are too uncertain to bother taking action, but this is not borne out by the facts. We can’t go on making huge policy and investment decisions based on financial advice no more reliable than a coin flip, while at the same time discrediting climate models with twenty year track record of accuracy. The double standard has to end now.’

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