There is an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Steven Koonin, a physicist and undersecretary for science in the Energy Department during President Obama’s first term. He is not a Climate Change denier, yet he notes that much is unknown about Climate Change and that climate models are riddled with assumptions and guesswork, and not based simply on observations and physical laws.
While some parts of the models rely on well-tested physical laws, other parts involve technically informed estimation. Computer modeling of complex systems is as much an art as a science.
For instance, the latest IPCC report uses 55 different climate models. To say they aren’t on the same page is an understatement. They have a margin of error in describing the global average surface temperature of over 3 times the warming actually observed over the last century. Similar margins of error exist in the estimation of other basic climate features such as rainfall, feedbacks, climate sensitivity, the oceans, etc.
As a result, the models give widely varying descriptions of the climate’s inner workings. Since they disagree so markedly, no more than one of them can be right.
And let’s not forget the natural variability of climate. The models and modelers aren’t even close to untangling human influence and natural variability, and human influence is much smaller than natural variability. This explains the current 16 year observed pause in warming that none of the models predicted.
The IPCC Report versus the “Summary for Policy Makers”
Yet these doubts and concerns in the IPCC report are not contained in the political document, the “Summary for Policy Makers,” which animates the press and the left in their calls for punitive carbon taxes and other austerity measures. Such austerity measures resemble a penance for humanity, rather than a reasonable and exhaustive search for a cost-effective solution.
What Should We Do Now?
Still, Koonin doesn’t believe this is an excuse for inaction.
Society’s choices in the years ahead will necessarily be based on uncertain knowledge of future climates. That uncertainty need not be an excuse for inaction. There is well-justified prudence in accelerating the development of low-emissions technologies and in cost-effective energy-efficiency measures.
But climate strategies beyond such ‘no regrets’ efforts carry costs, risks and questions of effectiveness, so nonscientific factors inevitably enter the decision. These include our tolerance for risk and the priorities that we assign to economic development, poverty reduction, environmental quality, and intergenerational and geographical equity.
This gibes with my view that we should take reasonable steps, such as investing in technology to improve the efficiency of solar power, that will be beneficial in any case. Approaching the problem by investing in a technological Manhattan Project should allow us to solve the problem out of abundance, instead of the costly and punitive prescriptions for austerity through carbon taxes and such.
Post Climategate, Let’s Have an Honest Re-Opening of the Debate
This is where cost-benefit analysis, consideration of tradeoffs, and an honest political debate should enter the picture. So much of the scientific community seems to have discredited itself through Climategate, with their admitted attempts to “hide the decline” and with claims that “the science is settled,” that it will be difficult for them to backtrack.
They have compounded that error with Stalinist smears of any scientist that deviates from the orthodoxy. Whatever your views of the Climate Change issue, such witch-hunting and smears of those who disagree are hardly indicative of a scientific cast of mind.
We need other, more honest voices in the scientific community to rise and admit what science knows and what it doesn’t know. Then it should be left to the electorate to make priorities and decide what should be done as the science hopefully advances over the next decades.
In any case, the idea of scientists as some “high, priestly caste” (in Peter Robinson’s phrase) that should rule over the rest of us is deeply flawed. They have no expertise in economics, cost/benefit analysis, or determining societal priorities. The people should be educated honestly and trusted to decide their own fate. This, after all, is the way of democracy.
Despite the statements of numerous scientific societies, the scientific community cannot claim any special expertise in addressing issues related to humanity’s deepest goals and values. The political and diplomatic spheres are best suited to debating and resolving such questions, and misrepresenting the current state of climate science does nothing to advance that effort.