Conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh dismissed climate change as the work of agenda-driven computer models spitting out threats that loom just beyond the horizon, where scientists can elude accountability for their dubious predictions.
"Climate change is nothing but a bunch of computer models that attempt to tell us what's going to happen in 50 years or 30," Limbaugh said on Fox News Sunday. "Notice the predictions are never for next year or the next ten years. They're always for way, way, way, way out there, when none of us are going to be around or alive to know whether or not they were true."
What's not true, in this case, is what Limbaugh said. We'll explain why with the help of scientists.
The first problem with Limbaugh’s claim is this: Climate change is already happening. Its impact is seen around the world.
Here’s the topline: The broad scientific consensus is that human factors are the main contributor to global warming, with carbon dioxide emissions primarily driving up the earth’s temperature, which are now at record levels.
"Utter nonsense," is how climate scientist Kevin Trenberth characterized Limbaugh’s claim.
"We can simply look at the actual climate record," said Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "The Earth is now hotter than it has ever been on record."
The last four years were the hottest on record, according to an analysis by the World Meteorological Organization of five leading international datasets. In 2018, the oceans as a whole — which contain most of the earth’s energy — were the hottest on record, according to an international panel of scientists who track the data.
What’s more, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate change has concluded with high confidence that "impacts on natural and human systems from global warming have already been observed."
Last summer, the Arctic ice cover in the Svalbard area of Norway was found to be 40 percent below average for that time of year, according to the Norwegian Ice Service, which tracks data going back to 1981.
Scientists also point to an uptick in extreme weather. Trenberth noted that rainfalls are heavier in most places around the world, and that 2015 was the most active hurricane year globally on record.
"It’s not just ‘a bunch of computer models,’ " said Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "Climate change is visible in hundreds of independent observational data sets of land, ice, ocean, ecosystems."
Limbaugh said climate predictions are always pegged to some distant future, "when none of us are going to be around or alive to know whether or not they were true."
But what about predictions from decades past?
According to Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist with Berkeley Earth, these older projections have largely been borne out.
"Broadly speaking, climate models have been quite skillful over the past 30 years in predicting warming in the years after they were published," said Hausfather, who assessed previous climate change models in an analysis for the website Carbon Brief.
He cited the example of Columbia University scientist Wally Broecker, who in 1975 predicted global temperatures would rise due to increased CO2 emissions.
"Broecker predicted by 2010 the world would have warmed by around 0.74C," Hausfather said. "In reality, it warmed by 0.62C, which is pretty good for a very rudimentary climate model in the 1970s."
Scientists often focus on longer-term projections because a warming trend, relative to natural variability, can be seen more clearly from this timeframe, said John Reilly, a climate scientist at MIT.
However, many climate models begin their simulations around 1850, and can project forward through the present day, and up to the year 2100.
"So there are projections for the present and next few years," Reilly said.
Limbaugh said, "Climate change is nothing but a bunch of computer models that attempt to tell us what's going to happen in 50 years or 30. Notice the predictions are never for next year or the next ten years. They're always for way, way, way, way out there, when none of us are going to be around or alive to know whether or not they were true."
First, global warming is already happening. Earth is the hottest it has ever been, and the impact is observable.
Second, climate change predictions from decades past have largely been borne out.
Third, models project further out because it helps show warming trends more clearly, relative to natural variability. But scientists also have near-term projections available.
We rate this False.
We updated this article on March 5, 2019, to make clear that the Earth is now hotter than it has ever been based on the record of the planet's measured climate.
Fox News Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019
World Meteorological Organization, "WMO confirms past 4 years were warmest on record," Feb. 6, 2019
Advances In Atmospheric Sciences, "2018 Continues Record Global Ocean Warming," March 2019
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Special Report: Global warming of 1.5°C," Oct. 8, 2018
Zeke Hausfather in Carbon Brief, "Analysis: How well have climate models projected global warming?" May 10, 2017
Email interview with Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist with Berkeley Earth, Feb. 18, 2019
Email interview with Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Feb. 18, 2019
Email interview with Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Feb. 18, 2019
Email interview with John Reilly, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Feb. 19, 2019
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