Modern climate science is old enough for many of its early predictions to be checked against evidence—the overall global warming trend; specific patterns like nighttime warming exceeding daytime warming; or the cooling of the stratosphere. Even with all that new evidence, the estimated amount of warming you get for a given amount of greenhouse gas emissions hasn’t really changed since 1979.
The flip side to this is also true. Those who have opposed climate science’s conclusions—they’re a broad menagerie, including scientists in different fields, politics-obsessed bloggers, and think-tank employees—have also been squawking long enough for its predictions to be tested. Despite their alternate-reality insistence that climate science never predicted anything, these contrarians don't spend much time showing off their own predictions’ track record.
The reason for that is that the track record is very, very bad. Like the cringeworthy poetry you wrote in high school, they probably hope that everyone will just forget about it.
Before we turn on the scoreboard, it’s worth reviewing some commonalities of these predictions. Most of them appeal to cycles—particularly solar cycles. This lets them place any alarming upward trend in the comforting blanket of a downward trend that is just around the corner.
The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity, which has been apparent for a very long time from records of sunspots. The length of the cycle is quite consistent, driven by an oscillation of the Sun’s magnetic field. The magnitude of change over each cycle does vary, though, including famous “minimum” periods where sunspots were nearly absent across multiple cycles.
While this cycle does produce a measurable variation in solar radiation, the effect on Earth’s climate is quite small. Scientists who study our atmosphere, weather, and climate know this. Some scientists who study the Sun, however, have managed to escape awareness of this fact and attempted to explain (or predict) every wiggle in Earth’s climate based on the timing of solar cycles.
Beyond the Sun, this mathematical but physics-free approach has led to many confident but false predictions. In any data with variance, one can find signals of cycles of various lengths. Some will be meaningful—like annual cycles in temperature or oscillations of El Niño and La Niña conditions in the Pacific—while others will simply be coincidental.
If you look hard enough, you can find a specific data set and specific time period where a particular cycle length shows up. Make up a good story to go with the curve you fit to that spurious cycle, and you can write a persuasive blog post about what will happen next. Of course, reality doesn’t read your blog and is famously difficult to persuade.
For comparison with past predictions, we’ll use NASA’s global surface temperature data set—though any of the major data sets would do. In the reality that is tracked by this data set, each year from 2015 through 2020 turned out to be warmer than any year previous to 2015.
The specific predictions we dug up were made between 2005 and 2013. To be accurate, these predictions would have to account for the long-term warming trend of the preceding decades. But accounting for warming would undermine the whole endeavor of labeling climate change a “hoax,” so none of these predictions did.
2008, Don Easterbrook (source): “global climates can be expected to cool over the next 25-30 years[...] The real danger in spending trillions of dollars trying to reduce atmospheric CO2 is that little will be left to deal with the very real problems engendered by global cooling.”
Easterbrook, a retired professor of geology, makes this claim based on the appearance of roughly 30-year fluctuations in a Greenland ice core. Inappropriately extrapolating this local record to the entire globe, he declared that warming between 1977-1998 was entirely due to this unidentified cycle. That would mean 30 years of cooling was next—physics of the greenhouse effect be damned.
He repeated this claim over a number of years, starting in 1998, when he predicted that temperatures would start dropping in the first decade of the 2000s. They did not.
2009, Henrik Svensmark (source): “In fact global warming has stopped and a cooling is beginning[...] Everything indicates that the Sun is going into some kind of hibernation[...]”
Svensmark is a Danish physicist who long pushed a hypothesis that climate should fluctuate with solar and orbital cycles because incoming galactic cosmic rays—which are less common when the Sun’s magnetic field deflects more of them—controlled the production of condensation nuclei for clouds.
An experiment at CERN was actually built to test this mechanism, which didn’t pan out. It’s no surprise, then, that the predictions of imminent cooling (including those in his 2007 book titled The Chilling Stars: A New Theory of Climate Change) didn’t pan out, either.
2010, Anastasios Tsonis (source): “We have such a change now [of ocean oscillations] and can therefore expect 20 or 30 years of cooler temperatures[...] Perhaps we will see talk of an ice age again by the early 2030s, just as the [ocean oscillations] shift once more and temperatures begin to rise.”
Tsonis—a retired professor of atmospheric science—was a temporary star of the climate contrarian movement for his repeated assurances of a cooling trend. Like Easterbrook, this was based on natural oscillations around 30 years long. Specifically, Tsonis appealed to known ocean oscillations in the Pacific and Atlantic.
This fed off the meme that warming had stopped in 1998—a cherry-picked year that was anomalously warm—and thus the cycle had already turned downward. As late as 2013, Tsonis was on Fox News saying that “I would assume something like another 15 years of leveling off or cooling.” Unlike global temperatures, that prediction isn’t looking so hot.
2011, Nicola Scafetta (source): “The climate will likely stay steady until 2030/2040 and may warm by about 0.3-1.2° C by 2100.”
Scafetta—a physicist who loves to publish papers on topics outside of physics—was the king of fitting wiggly cycles to temperature data and then extrapolating into the future. In this instance, Scafetta claimed that a pile of astronomical cycles with varying lengths was controlling Earth’s climate. Running this mathematical model forward predicted about three decades of small ups and downs followed by a much smaller warming trend than what we see in climate models.
2012, David Archibald (source): “Sea level has a few more mm of rise to the maximum of Solar Cycle 24 in 2013 and then will fall 40 mm to 2040 taking us back to levels of the early 1990s.”
Lest you think this is limited to temperatures, let’s take a quick detour to sea level. Archibald’s profile on the website of the Heartland Institute (a climate contrarian “think tank”) describes him as “a scientist operating in the fields of cancer research, climate science, and oil exploration”. Here he seized on a temporary dip in sea level rise caused by strong La Niña rains that transported water onto continents around the Pacific.
Despite this extremely obvious cause, some contrarian commentators declared that sea level rise had ended. Archibald declared that 30 years of sea level fall had begun in 2011. But in reality, it resumed apace the following year and has continued rising.
Archibald, again (source): “The total temperature shift will be 4.9° C for the major agricultural belt that stretches from New England to the Rockies straddling the US-Canadian border.”
Yep, he went there! At the same time Archibald assumed solar cycles would somehow turn sea level around, he predicted a drastic cooling trend. He used a favored method of focusing on individual locations (whichever ones fit the narrative best!) rather than the global record, but his cooling prediction applied around the world. (And no, his prediction for Hanover didn’t work, either.)
2012, Fritz Vahrenholt (source): “But the Sun has been getting weaker since 2005, and it will continue to do so in the next few decades. Consequently, we can only expect cooling from the Sun for now.”
Vahrenholt co-authored a book titled Die Kalte Sonne (The Cold Sun), on which the chart below is based. It speaks for itself.
2013, Judith Curry and Marcia Wyatt (source): “the current pause in global warming could extend into the 2030s.”
Curry was a professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech before retiring to start a consulting business. Through her blog, Curry lent a veneer of seriousness to all manners of low-effort contrarian nonsense while proclaiming herself persecuted by the rest of the scientific community. Her central theme was that natural climate variability was larger than everyone thought, with any clarity about human-caused climate change swallowed up by what she called the “uncertainty monster.”
For several years around the time of this paper, Curry pushed a “stadium wave” explanation for recent temperatures. The idea was that the (cherry-picked) flatter temperature trend of the 2000s was evidence of a confluence of natural cycles that would continue to cancel out human-caused global warming for several decades. But instead, the run of La Niña years that was actually causing it soon gave way—as everyone else knew it would—and the long-term warming trend plodded onward.
2013, Habibullo Abdussamatov (source): “Now we witness the transitional period from warming to deep cooling characterized by unstable climate changes when the global temperature will oscillate (approximately until 2014) around the maximum achieved in 1998.”
We’re back to solar cycles. The prediction here, by a Russian astrophysicist, was that cooling into a new “Little Ice Age” would commence around 2014. The comparison to the Little Ice Age of the late 1600s to early 1800s was a common one among climate contrarians, but low solar activity is actually thought to have had relatively little to do with it. In the present, with increased greenhouse gases trapping more heat, even a major solar lull would be overwhelmed—not that one has actually happened.
2005, the $10,000 bet (source): “James Annan, who is based at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokohama, has agreed a US$10,000 bet with Galina Mashnich and Vladimir Bashkirtsev, two solar physicists who argue that global temperatures are driven by changes in the Sun’s activity and will fall over the next decade.”
Let’s go back to 2005 to round out this list. This cooling prediction by Mashnich and Bashkirtsev was similarly based on a predicted decline in solar activity for several decades. The spicy bet they agreed to certainly elevates this prediction above the rest of this list, though.
Obviously, James Annan won this bet (among others!), but it may not surprise you to learn that the losers never paid up.
It’s true that climate trend predictions should generally be judged over longer timescales to minimize the influence of short-term variability. You won’t catch actual climate scientists making definitive statements about what will happen in the next couple years because they understand that variability dominates in brief periods. The predictions evaluated here, however, represented confident claims of an imminent and persistent reversal of the warming trend—which has not manifested in the slightest.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it is representative of the constant drumbeat of the contrarian blogosphere and partisan media. After all, there’s no more eye-catching way to reject human-caused warming than to assert that “Well actually... it’s cooling!” Any such claim, no matter how preposterous or thinly supported, would get promoted without inspection across these sites.
On the other hand, the products of climate science—including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports—have performed admirably over this time period. Climate-model projections (which are contingent on scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions) match well with reality. Physics, it turns out, is a good thing to include in your model.
A new IPCC report is due out soon, providing the latest summary of what we know along with a new set of model projections. One very safe prediction is that it will be much more useful than this collection of errant cooling forecasts. If anyone still doubts that, you need only point to the scoreboard.
After decades of hype, it’s only natural for your eyes to skate over corporate mission-statements without stopping to take note of them, but when it comes to ending your relationship with them, tech giants’ stated goals take on a sinister cast.
Whether it’s “bringing the world closer together” (Facebook), “organizing the world’s information” (Google), to be a market “where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online” (Amazon) or “to make personal computing accessible to each and every individual” (Apple), the founding missions of tech giants reveal a desire to become indispensable to our digital lives.
They’ve succeeded. We’ve entrusted these companies with our sensitive data, from family photos to finances to correspondence. We’ve let them take over our communities, from medical and bereavement support groups to little league and service organization forums. We’ve bought trillions of dollars’ worth of media from them, locked in proprietary formats that can’t be played back without their ongoing cooperation.
These services often work great...but they fail very, very badly. Tech giants can run servers to support hundreds of millions or billions of users - but they either can’t or won’t create equally user-centric procedures for suspending or terminating those users.
But as bad as tech giants’ content removal and account termination policies are, they’re paragons of sense and transparency when compared to their appeals processes. Many who try to appeal a tech company’s judgment quickly find themselves mired in a Kafkaesque maze of automated emails (to which you often can’t reply), requests for documents that either don’t exist or have already been furnished on multiple occasions, and high-handed, terse “final judgments” with no explanations or appeal.
The tech giants argue that they are entitled to run their businesses largely as they see fit: if you don’t like the house rules, just take your business elsewhere. These house rules are pretty arbitrary: platforms’ public-facing moderation policies are vaguely worded and subject to arbitrary interpretation, and their account termination policies are even more opaque.
All of that would be bad enough, but when it is combined with the tech companies’ desire to dominate your digital life and become indispensable to your daily existence, it gets much worse.
Losing your cloud account can cost you decades of your family photos. Losing access to your media account can cost you access to thousands of dollars’ worth of music, movies, audiobooks and ebooks. Losing your IoT account can render your whole home uninhabitable, freezing the door locks while bricking your thermostat, burglar alarm and security cameras.
But really, it’s worse than that: you will incur multiple losses if you get kicked off just one service. Losing your account with Amazon, Google or Apple can cost you access to your home automation and security, your mobile devices, your purchased ebooks/audiobooks/movies/music, and your photos. Losing your Apple or Google account can cost you decades’ worth of personal correspondence - from the last email sent by a long-dead friend to that file-attachment from your bookkeeper that you need for your tax audit. These services are designed to act as your backup - your offsite cloud, your central repository - and few people understand or know how to make a local copy of all the data that is so seamlessly whisked from their devices onto big companies’ servers.
In other words, the tech companies set out to make us dependent on them for every aspect of our online lives, and they succeeded - but when it comes to kicking you off their platforms, they still act like you’re just a bar patron at last call, not someone whose life would be shattered if they cut you off.
This has been brewing for a long time. YouTubers and other creative laborers have long suffered under a system where the accounts on which they rely to make their livings could be demonetized, suspended or deleted without warning or appeal. But today, we’re all one bad moderation call away from having our lives turned upside-down.
The tech giants’ conquest of our digital lives is just getting started. Tech companies want to manage our health, dispense our medication, take us to the polls on election day, televise our political debates and teach our kids. Each of these product offerings comes with grandiose pretensions to total dominance - it’s not enough for Amazon Pharmacy to be popular, it will be the most popular, leveraging Amazon’s existing business to cut off your corner druggist’s market oxygen (Uber’s IPO included a plan to replace all the world’s public transit and taxi vehicles with rideshares).
If the tech companies deliver on their promises to their shareholders, then being locked out of your account might mean being locked out of whole swathes of essential services, from buying medicine to getting to work.
How did the vibrant electronic frontier become a monoculture of “five websites, each consisting of screenshots of text from the other four?”
It wasn’t an accident. Tech, copyright, contract and competition policy helped engineer this outcome, as did VCs and entrepreneurs who decided that online businesses were only worth backing if they could grow to world-dominating scale.
Take laws like Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a broadly worded prohibition on tampering with or removing DRM, even for lawful purposes. When Congress passed the DMCA in 1998, they were warned that protecting DRM - even when no copyright infringement took place - would leave technology users at the mercy of corporations. You may have bought your textbooks or the music you practice piano to, but if it’s got DRM and the company that sold it to you cuts you off, the DMCA does not let you remove that DRM (say goodbye to your media).
Companies immediately capitalized upon this dangerously broad law: they sold you media that would only play back on the devices they authorized. That locked you into their platform and kept you from defecting to a rival, because you couldn’t take your media with you.
But even as DRM formats proliferated, the companies that relied on them continued to act like kicking you off their platforms was like the corner store telling you to buy your magazines somewhere else - not like a vast corporate empire of corner stores sending goons to your house to take back every newspaper, magazine and paperback you ever bought there, with no appeal.
It’s easy to see how the DMCA and DRM give big companies far-reaching control over your purchases, but other laws have had a similar effect. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), another broadly worded mess of a law, is so badly drafted that tech companies were able to claim for decades that simply violating their terms of service could be a crime - a chilling claim that was only put to rest by the Supreme Court this summer.
From the start, tech lawyers and the companies they worked for set things up so that most of the time, our digital activities are bound by contractual arrangements, not ownership. These are usually mass contracts, with one-sided terms of service. They’re end user license agreements that ensure that the company has a simple process for termination without any actual due process, much less strong remedies if you lose your data or the use of your devices.
CFAA, DMCA, and other rules allowing easy termination and limiting how users and competitors could reconfigure existing technology created a world where doing things that displeased a company’s shareholders could literally be turned into a crime - a kind of “felony contempt of business-model.”
These kinds of shady business practices wouldn’t have been quite so bad if there were a wide variety of small firms that allowed us to shop around for a better deal.
Unfortunately, the modern tech industry was born at the same moment as American antitrust law was being dismantled - literally. The Apple ][+ appeared on shelves the same year Ronald Reagan hit the campaign trail. After winning office, Reagan inaugurated a 40-year, bipartisan project to neuter antitrust law, allowing incumbents to buy and crush small companies before they could grow to be threats; letting giant companies merge with their direct competitors, and looking the other way while companies established “vertical monopolies” that controlled their whole supply chains.
Without any brakes, the runaway merger train went barrelling along, picking up speed. Today’s tech giants buy companies more often than you buy groceries, and it has turned the tech industry into a “kill-zone” where innovative ideas go to die.
How is it that you can wake up one day and discover you’ve lost your Amazon account, and get no explanation? How is that this can cost you the server you run your small business on, a decade of family photos, the use of your ebook reader and mobile phone, and access to your entire library of ebooks, movies and audiobooks?
Amazon is in so many parts of your life because it was allowed to merge with small competitors, create vertical monopolies, wrap its media with DRM - and never take on any obligations to be fair or decent to customers it suspected of some unspecified wrongdoing.
Not just Amazon, either - every tech giant has an arc that looks like Amazon’s, from the concerted effort to make you dependent on its products, to the indifferent, opaque system of corporate “justice” governing account termination and content removal.
Companies should be better. Moderation decisions should be transparent, rules-based, and follow basic due process principles. All of this - and more - has been articulated in detail by an international group of experts from industry, the academy, and human rights activism, in an extraordinary document called The Santa Clara Principles. Tech companies should follow these rules when moderating content, because even if they are free to set their own house rules, the public has the right to tell them when those rules suck and to suggest better ones.
If a company does kick you off its platform - or if you decide to leave - they shouldn’t be allowed to hang onto your data (or just delete it). It’s your data, not theirs. The concept of a “fiduciary” - someone with a duty to “act in good faith” towards you - is well-established. If you fire your lawyer (or if they fire you as a client), they have to give you your files. Ditto your doctor or your mental health professional.
Many legal scholars have proposed creating “information fiduciary” rules that create similar duties for firms that hold your data. This would impose a “duty of loyalty” (to act in the best interests of their customers, without regard to the interests of the business), and a “duty of care” (to act in the manner expected by a reasonable customer under the circumstances).
Not only would this go a long way to resolving the privacy abuses that plague our online interactions - it would also guarantee you the right to take your data with you when you left a service, whether that departure was your idea or not.
Information fiduciary isn’t the only way to get companies to be responsible. Direct consumer protection laws -- such as requiring companies to make your content readily available to you in the event of termination -- could too (there are other approaches as well). How these rules would apply would depend on the content they host as well as the size of the business you’re dealing with - small companies would struggle to meet the standards we’d expect of giant companies. But every online service should have some duties to you - if the company that just kicked you off its servers and took your wedding photos hostage is a two-person operation, you still want your pictures back!
Improving corporate behavior is always a laudable goal, but the real problem with giant companies that are entwined in your life in ways you can’t avoid isn’t that those companies wield their incredible power unwisely. It’s that they have that power in the first place.
To give power to internet users, we have to take it away from giant internet companies. The FTC - under new leadership - has pledged that it will end decades of waving through anticompetitive mergers. That’s just for openers, though. Competition scholars and activists have made the case for the harder task of breaking up the giants, literally cutting them down to size.
But there’s more. Congress is considering the ACCESS Act, landmark legislation that would force the largest companies to interoperate with privacy-respecting new rivals, who’d be banned from exploiting user data. If the ACCESS Act passes, it will dramatically lower the high switching costs that keep us locked into big platforms even though we don’t like the way they operate. It also protects folks who want to develop tools to make it easier for you to take your data when you leave, whether voluntarily or because your account is terminated.
That’s how we’ll turn the internet back into an ecosystem of companies, co-ops and nonprofits of every size that can take receipt of your data, and offer you an online base of operations from which you can communicate with friends, communities and customers regardless of whether they’re on the indieweb or inside a Big Tech silo.
That still won’t be enough, though. The fact that terms of service, DRM, and other technologies and laws can prevent third parties from supplying software for your phone, playing back the media you’ve bought, and running the games you own still gives big companies too much leverage over your digital life.
That’s why we need to restore the right to interoperate, in all its guises: competitive compatibility (the right to plug new products and services into existing ones, with or without permission from their manufacturers), bypassing DRM (we’re suing to make this happen!), the right to repair (a fight we’re winning!) and an end to abusive terms of service (the Supreme Court got this one right).
When we joined this fight, 30 long years ago, very few people got it. Our critics jeered at the very idea of “digital rights” - as if the nerdfights over Star Trek forums could somehow be compared to history’s great struggles for self-determination and justice! Even a decade ago, the idea of digital rights was greeted with jeers and skepticism.
But we didn’t get into this to fight for “digital rights” - we’re here to defend human rights. The merger of the “real world” and the “virtual world” could be argued over in the 1990s, but not today, not after a lockdown where the internet became the nervous system for the planet, a single wire we depended on for free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, romance, family, parenting, faith, education, employment, civics and politics.
Today, everything we do involves the internet. Tomorrow, everything will require it. We can’t afford to let our digital citizenship be reduced to a heavy-handed mess of unreadable terms of service and broken appeals processes.
We have the right to a better digital future - a future where the ambitions of would-be monopolists and their shareholders take a back-seat to fairness, equity, and your right to self-determination.