Watch “Degrees of Uncertainty,” an Animated Documentary about Climate Science, Uncertainty & Knowing When to Trust the Experts

We should just trust the experts. But wait: to identify true expertise requires its own kind of even more specialized expertise. Besides, experts disagree with each other, and over time disagree with themselves as well. This makes it challenging indeed for all of us non-experts — and we’re all non-experts in the fields to which we have not dedicated our lives — to understand phenomena of any complexity. As for grasping climate change, with its enormous historical scale and countless many variables, might we as well just throw up our hands? Many have done so: Neil Halloran, creator of the short documentary Degrees of Uncertainty above, labels them “climate denialists” and “climate defeatists.”

Climate denialists choose to believe that manmade climate change isn’t happening, climate defeatists choose to believe that it’s inevitable, and both thereby let themselves off the hook. Not only do they not have to address the issue, they don’t even have to understand it — which itself can seem a fairly daunting task, given that scientists themselves express no small degree of uncertainty about climate change’s degree and trajectory. “The only way to learn how sure scientists are is to dig in a little and view their work with some healthy skepticism,” says Halloran. This entails developing an instinct not for refutation, exactly, but for examining just how the experts arrive at their conclusions and what pitfalls they encounter along the way.

Often, scientists “don’t know how close they are to the truth, and they’re prone to confirmation bias,” and as anyone professionally involved in the sciences knows full well, they work “under pressure to publish noteworthy findings.” Their publications then find their way to a media culture in which, increasingly, “trusting or distrusting scientists is becoming a matter of political identity.” As he did in his previous documentary The Fallen of World War II, Halloran uses animation and data visualization to illuminate his own path to understanding a global occurrence whose sheer proportions make it difficult to perceive.

This journey takes Halloran not just around the globe but back in time, starting in the year 19,000 B.C. and ending in projections of a future in which ring seas swallow much of Amsterdam, Miami, and New Orleans. The most important stop in the middle is the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution of the 17th through the 19th century, when science and technology rose to prominence and brought about  an unprecedented human flourishing — with climatic consequences that have begun to make themselves known, albeit not with absolute certainty. But as Halloran sees it, “uncertainty, the very thing that clouds our view, also frees us to construct possible answers.”

Related Content:

A Map Shows What Happens When Our World Gets Four Degrees Warmer: The Colorado River Dries Up, Antarctica Urbanizes, Polynesia Vanishes

Music for a String Quartet Made from Global Warming Data: Hear “Planetary Bands, Warming World”

A Century of Global Warming Visualized in a 35 Second Video

Climate Change Gets Strikingly Visualized by a Scottish Art Installation

The Prado Museum Digitally Alters Four Masterpieces to Strikingly Illustrate the Impact of Climate Change

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • ralph ellis says:

    Re: Ice Ages were modulated by ice-sheet albedo, not by CO2

    This is correct, CO2 not necessarily the primary control knob – as I have demonstrated in my peer-review paper. In reality, the feedback agent modulating ice ages is probably ice-sheet dust-albedo.

    Free download of peer-review paper available:
    Modulation of Ice Ages via Dust and Albedo.

    The first problem with ice ages is:
    When CO2 concentrations were high the world cooled, and when CO2 was low the world warmed. This counter-intuitive temperature response strongly suggests that CO2 is not the primary feedback agent.

    The second problem with ice ages is:
    Ice ages are forced by increased Milankovitch insolation in the Northern Hemisphere (NH), but never by increased insolation in the Southern Hemisphere. If CO2 were the primary feedback agent interglacials could and would be forced by increased insolation in either hemisphere, but they are not. The fact that interglacials are only ever NH events, strongly suggests that surface albedo is the primary feedback agent (the great landmasses being in the NH), rather than CO2.

    The third problem with ice ages is:
    During an ice age, many NH Milankovitch maxima produce little or temperature response. Again, this would be unlikely if CO2 was the primary feedback agent, but it is to be expected if surface albedo was the primary feedback. High albedo ice sheets covered in fresh snow can and will reject the increased insolation from a NH Milankovitch maximum, resulting in little or no temperature response.
    Unless, of course, the ice sheets are somehow covered in dust, thus reducing their albedo. Fortuitously, the northern ice sheets do indeed get covered in dust just before each and every interglacial. This is the topic of my ice age modulation paper – the counter-intuitive method of dust production, and its function as the primary feedback agent controlling interglacial warming.

    The fourth problem with ice ages is:
    The CO2 is a very weak feedback agent indeed. During an interglacial warming era, the CO2 feedback requires warming from decade to decade, to feedback-force temperatures into the next (warmer) decade. Unfortunately the CO2 feedback is only 0.007 W/m2 per decade, which is less energy than a bee requires to fly.
    Conversely, reduced albedo ice sheets can absorb an extra 200 W/m2 every single annual year, when measured regionally. Clearly the albedo feedback is far stronger than the proposed CO2 feedback, and could indeed dissipate the vast northern ice sheets in about 6,000 years.

    All of the above points strongly suggest that ice sheet albedo is the primary feedback agent modulating interglacials, rather than CO2.

    Increased dust is caused by low CO2 concentrations, because CO2 is plant-food, and the most essential gas in the atmosphere. Thus low CO2 concentrations cause the death of all C3 vegetation at high altitude, causing CO2 deserts to form across the Gobi plateau. Dust from these CO2 deserts formed the huge dust deposits of the Loess Plateau, and also covered the northern ice sheets in dust – which lowered the albedo of the ice sheets and precipitated melting.

    See peer-review paper:
    Modulation of Ice Ages via Dust and Albedo.

    Ralph Ellis

    This is the ‘money-graph’ for ice ages.
    CO2 is directly proportional to inv-log dust.
    The inference being, that CO2 concentrations control dust,
    …by modulating higher altitude vegetation.


    Sent from my iPad

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