Some catching up: Climate science
April 7, 2010, 6:58 am
Filed under: Global change, Published stuff

There’s been a range of climate stuff in The Economist recently. Biggest was Clouds of Uncertainty, an overview look at climate science and its uncertainties. Here’s the set up

Increased antsiness about action on climate change can also be traced to the recession, the unedifying spectacle of last December’s climate-change summit in Copenhagen, the political realities of the American Senate and an abnormally cold winter in much of the northern hemisphere. The new doubts about the science, though, are clearly also a part of that story. Should they be?

In any complex scientific picture of the world there will be gaps, misperceptions and mistakes. Whether your impression is dominated by the whole or the holes will depend on your attitude to the project at hand. You might say that some see a jigsaw where others see a house of cards. Jigsaw types have in mind an overall picture and are open to bits being taken out, moved around or abandoned should they not fit. Those who see houses of cards think that if any piece is removed, the whole lot falls down. When it comes to climate, academic scientists are jigsaw types, dissenters from their view house-of-cards-ists.

The defenders of the consensus tend to stress the general consilience of their efforts—the way that data, theory and modelling back each other up. Doubters see this as a thoroughgoing version of “confirmation bias”, the tendency people have to select the evidence that agrees with their original outlook. But although there is undoubtedly some degree of that (the errors in the IPCC, such as they are, all make the problem look worse, not better) there is still genuine power to the way different arguments and datasets in climate science tend to reinforce each other.

It ends up like this

Adding the uncertainties about sensitivity to uncertainties about how much greenhouse gas will be emitted, the IPCC expects the temperature to have increased by 1.1ºC to 6.4ºC over the course of the 21st century. That low figure would sit fairly well with the sort of picture that doubters think science is ignoring or covering up. In this account, the climate has natural fluctuations larger in scale and longer in duration (such as that of the medieval warm period) than climate science normally allows, and the Earth’s recent warming is caused mostly by such a fluctuation, the effects of which have been exaggerated by a contaminated surface-temperature record. Greenhouse warming has been comparatively minor, this argument would continue, because the Earth’s sensitivity to increased levels of carbon dioxide is lower than that seen in models, which have an inbuilt bias towards high sensitivities. As a result subsequent warming, even if emissions continue full bore, will be muted too.

It seems unlikely that the errors, misprisions and sloppiness in a number of different types of climate science might all favour such a minimised effect. That said, the doubters tend to assume that climate scientists are not acting in good faith, and so are happy to believe exactly that. Climategate and the IPCC’s problems have reinforced this position.

Using the IPCC’s assessment of probabilities, the sensitivity to a doubling of carbon dioxide of less than 1.5ºC in such a scenario has perhaps one chance in ten of being correct. But if the IPCC were underestimating things by a factor of five or so, that would still leave only a 50:50 chance of such a desirable outcome. The fact that the uncertainties allow you to construct a relatively benign future does not allow you to ignore futures in which climate change is large, and in some of which it is very dangerous indeed. The doubters are right that uncertainties are rife in climate science. They are wrong when they present that as a reason for inaction.

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