The risks of communicating extreme climate forecasts


For decades, climate change researchers and activists have used dramatic forecasts to attempt to influence public perception of the problem and as a call to action on climate change. These forecasts have frequently been for events that might be called “apocalyptic,” because they predict cataclysmic events resulting from climate change.

In a new paper published in the International Journal of Global Warming, Carnegie Mellon University’s David Rode and Paul Fischbeck argue that making such forecasts can be counterproductive. “Truly apocalyptic forecasts can only ever be observed in their failure–that is the world did not end as predicted,” says Rode, adjunct research faculty with the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, “and observing a string of repeated apocalyptic forecast failures can undermine the public’s trust in the underlying science.”

Rode and Fischbeck, professor of Social & Decision Sciences and Engineering & Public Policy, collected 79 predictions of climate-caused apocalypse going back to the first Earth Day in 1970. With the passage of time, many of these forecasts have since expired; the dates have come and gone uneventfully. In fact, 48 (61%) of the predictions have already expired as of the end of 2020.

Fischbeck noted, “from a forecasting perspective, the ‘problem’ is not only that all of the expired forecasts were wrong, but also that so many of them never admitted to any uncertainty about the date. About 43% of the forecasts in our dataset made no mention of uncertainty.”