Exactly. This means that the data is bad and you can't change that. Period.
By the prudent norms of science, this is an excellent first approximation. For the first hundred years, the satellite data will support at most modest convictions. Our accumulated climate record will really hit its stride two centuries from now. And actually, from nearly every perspective of human progress, this represents a tremendous leap over what was known previously. Why should the earth's climate prove easier to decode than Mendel's peas? We finally found the actual genes and we're still pretty sketchy about how they really work. Complicated little buggers they are.
That said, the satellite data isn't actually bad, it just falls way short of historical norms of scientific prudence. We're stuck wandering around in the uncanny valley between one sigma and five sigma.
This doesn't mean society can't choose to draw a tentative, intermediate conclusion and act on that basis. However, the consequences of human political resolve are even murkier than the climate science itself, and the scientists can't help up sort this out, unless they have a giant boner for N=1. We have no control planet. Any choice we made can only be compared to counterfactual outcomes grounded in a proto-science itself still slowly gaining clearance from the null hypothesis on its major claim and with error bars a mile wide on the magnitude and immediacy and severity of the presumed effect.
I think we should be paying plenty of attention to the impacts of climate variability whether or not the cause is anthropogenic. Let's just not put the knee-jerk "all change is bad" types in charge who once decided that forests should never burn. Blockading change is change, too. One of the consequences of embarking upon a global economy is that you soon reach the situation where there's no such thing as somebody else's problem, whether the root cause is anthropogenic or not.
I have severe reservations about whether it's a good idea to instigate novel political initiatives on a global scale (e.g. abandonment of the hydrocarbon economy) against a back-drop of alarmist proto-facts. Much of the time our best, well-cured, time-proven facts barely suffice to move the political dial in any coordinated way. That's going to radically change over the twenty years? I highly doubt it. Of course, change has to begin somewhere, however bleak the early returns.
I was reading about some dude yesterday knowingly infected with HIV who had sex with 300 partners, none of whom he informed, and many he lied to. The ultimate self-gratifying scumbag. But what if he only worried he had HIV and never got himself tested? Would he still be a scumbag? Yes, I think so. Even if his worry is only 1.5 sigma? Yes, I think so.
But if Exxon has only 1.5 sigma belief that carbon emissions could prove disastrous, it's business as usual. "We didn't know!" Not with scientific certainty, anyway, which is unfortunately true. Any certainty worth having is late to the party. This is, however, entirely the wrong standard of prudence and concern. While 1.5 sigma is merely a proto-fact, not yet conclusively proven, it nevertheless demands proper consideration. Facthood in the moment is way too high a standard (and harlot to corporate convenience).
In retrospect, we will know the difference. Just as we do now about the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer. Whatever doubt remained about this in 1970 is now totally busted. We could confiscate their profits in retrospect. That would make them think twice about not knowing in the first place. I understand that it's bad form to suddenly shout "New rule!" so we could instead begin by suggesting that existing companies take out insurance against future confiscation of profit derived from embarking upon unproven, potentially destructive lines of business—as soberly judged by a future generation with a vastly superior knowledge base (subject to the same horrific political winds deflated by one percent, but as I said, however bleak the early returns, change must begin somewhere).
The corporations will complain about the difficulty of tying the incentives of their existing management to these adverse consequences far into the future (and so will the corporations refusing to insure them at sane rates while this problem remains).
That is a big problem. It's the big unsolved problem of the recent banking fiasco: the smart people who drove the economy over a cliff mostly walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars. I think that the people responsible for taking these risks should have their skin at stake until we know with high confidence, perhaps years later, they didn't actually sink the ship they were so well compensated to navigate safely.
I have a vaguely formed idea in my head that the amount of leverage a financial firm is permitted to take on should be tied to the length of time executive bonuses are held in public escrow against future financial calamities. If the firm subsequently mutters "too big to fail" while pointing at itself within that term, cancel all escrowed bonus payments for each and every bonehead recently in charge. The devil is in the details and there are myriads of problems with this, but it certainly rights the worst term in the equation as things presently stand, and that term proved to be on the order of a trillion dollars, so I fail to see how a serious implementation of this could lead us to being worse off (though no doubt we'll be told we ended up worse off with counterfactual vigour of owning the most expensive suit).
The governance of self-serving corporations in the public interest does seem to need a viable level of fact halfway between wild-ass-guess and scientifically proven against which to impeach their greed. The other solution, which seems to hold sway among climate scientists, is that we deflate historical norms of scientific certainty to serve this purpose in the delicate meanwhile. Proto-facts are the new king. Everyone line up to call the other side dunderheads for not bowing to your side's self-evident truths. Then complain when the public dials out with their hands over their ears.
I personally think that deflating historical norms of scientific certainty in exchange for a political outcome that won't transpire is badly judged. Do you need to discover the Higgs boson to believe in the standard model? Not really. Is turning every last stone decade after decade what makes science great? Absolutely. Science is like gravity: the weakest of all possible forces, until substance accumulates in due course.
Due course has no concern whatsoever about whether we need or wish to act promptly. Passing off proto-facts as real facts is weak-sauce science.
My preference is that we get busy strengthening our social institutions (rather than deflated them) so that we're better prepared to cope if/when climate change actually rocks the blue marble. This is the real work of the human species. Nearly every indicator of the best places to live are tied to the strength of a country's social institutions (e.g. adherence to and respect for the rule of law).
It's that old problem about awareness. The more you improve, the greater your perception of the problems as yet unsolved. For this reason, every generation runs around petrified that the whole process is about to switch gears and run backwards. But today's fear is bigger than ever before!
True enough. It's always possible that a black swan has photographed your generation's license plate. Just like the many Christians who believe in the second coming who expect it will happen in their own lifetime. It rather puts the long view out of mind.