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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Science Really is Unsettled

Roger L. Simon has written a piece about Obama's war on science by politicizing it. (Reminiscent of another leftist, Adolf Hitler, who used a bunch of pseudo-science to justify the Holocaust). Simon links to an article by Australian  atmospheric physicist Garth Paltridge, who writes about the fundamental uncertainties of climate science:
The World Meteorological Organisation of the United Nations took its first steps towards establishing the World Climate Program in the early 1970s. Among other things it held a conference in Stockholm to define the main scientific problems to be solved before reliable climate forecasting could be possible. The conference defined quite a number, but focused on just two.

The first concerned an inability to simulate the amount and character of clouds in the atmosphere. Clouds are important because they govern the balance between solar heating and infrared cooling of the planet, and thereby are a control of Earth’s temperature. The second concerned an inability to forecast the behaviour of oceans. Oceans are important because they are the main reservoirs of heat in the climate system. They have internal, more-or-less random, fluctuations on all sorts of time-scales ranging from years through to centuries. These fluctuations cause changes in ocean surface temperature that in turn affect Earth’s overall climate.

The situation hasn’t changed much in the decades since. Many of the problems of simulating the behaviour of clouds and oceans are still there (along with lots of other problems of lesser moment) and for many of the same reasons.
He goes on to describe some of the issues in detail, noting that climate scientists can only model climate at discrete points which, because of the courseness of the model, are larger than clouds or eddies. Thus, they have to guess on what averages between these data points will be. It would be like punching pin holes spaced say, half an inch apart, on a sheet of paper, overlaying a painting, then using the bit of color or shade you can use through the pin hole to tell you what the painting portrays. This is compounded by the model then using that initial set of data points to then extrapolate into the future. Small errors compound themselves.

Paltridge goes on:
In the light of all this, we have at least to consider the possibility that the scientific establishment behind the global warming issue has been drawn into the trap of seriously overstating the climate problem—or, what is much the same thing, of seriously understating the uncertainties associated with the climate problem—in its effort to promote the cause. It is a particularly nasty trap in the context of science, because it risks destroying, perhaps for centuries to come, the unique and hard-won reputation for honesty which is the basis of society’s respect for scientific endeavour. Trading reputational capital for short-term political gain isn’t the most sensible way of going about things.

The trap was set in the late 1970s or thereabouts when the environmental movement first realised that doing something about global warming would play to quite a number of its social agendas. ...

The scientists in environmental research laboratories, since they are not normally linked to any particular private industry, were forced to seek funds from other government departments. In turn this forced them to accept the need for advocacy and for the manipulation of public opinion. ...

The trap was partially sprung in climate research when a number of the relevant scientists began to enjoy the advocacy business. ...

Somewhere along the line it came to be believed by many of the public, and indeed by many of the scientists themselves, that climate researchers were the equivalent of knights on white steeds fighting a great battle against the forces of evil—evil, that is, in the shape of “big oil” and its supposedly unlimited money. The delusion was more than a little attractive.

The trap was fully sprung when many of the world’s major national academies of science (such as the Royal Society in the UK, the National Academy of Sciences in the USA and the Australian Academy of Science) persuaded themselves to issue reports giving support to the conclusions of the IPCC. ...

Since that time three or four years ago, there has been no comfortable way for the scientific community to raise the spectre of serious uncertainty about the forecasts of climatic disaster. It can no longer use the environmental movement as a scapegoat if it should turn out that the threat of global warming has no real substance. It can no longer escape prime responsibility if it should turn out in the end that doing something in the name of mitigation of global warming is the costliest scientific mistake ever visited on humanity. The current redirection of global funds in the name of climate change is of the order of a billion dollars a day. And in the future, to quote US Senator Everett Dirksen, “a billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon we’ll be talking about real money”.

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