A look at the cutting edge of the climate sciences, & the lessons we can learn.

Summary: The climate science debate not only holds answers vital to our future, but allows us to learn from this demonstration of science in motion. Unfortunately activists on both Left and Right have gained control of the public debate, neither interested in the science except to advance their political goals. Here we look at the exciting developments on the cutting edge of the climate sciences.

Science
Understanding uncertainty make it science

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The essence of science is trial and error, as described by biologist Lewis Thomas in his wonderful essay “To Err is Human”. Scientists form theories and make conjectures. True or false, science either way.  That’s what provides much of its excitement. We see this today in the climate sciences, although journalists too often conceal it from us, preferring the myth of “the science is settled” (now shown to be absurd).

The pause in surface temperature warming has sparked a new phase of research in the climate sciences. Among other effects, it invalidated several high profile forecasts. Some were informal predictions, such as this by Dr David Viner of the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, quoted in The Independent, 20 March 2000:

{W}ithin a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event”. “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is.”

Or this, more formal, from the NASA press release “Arctic Meltdown“, 27 February 2001:

… in 10 years’ time, if melting patterns change as predicted, the North-West Passage could be open to ordinary shipping for a month each summer. These predictions come in a recently declassified report of a meeting of American, British and Canadian Arctic and naval experts in April last year, organised by Dennis Conlon of the US Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia. Entitled “Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic” …

Peter Wadhams of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge agrees that the Arctic could soon open up. “Within a decade we can expect regular summer trade there,” he predicts.

Some projections are both formal and important. The flattish trend of global surface temperatures during the pause has fallen below the lower bound of the projections used by the IPCC (strictly speaking, not predictions).  See the below updated version of Figure 10.1 from the IPCCC’s AR5 WGI from “Contribution of natural decadal variability to global warming acceleration and hiatus“, Masahiro Watanabe et al, Nature Climate Change, in press. The grey shaded area shows projections from CMIP5 (a set of model outputs from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5, used in the IPCC’s AR5). The black line is actual global surface temperature (from the UK’s HadCRUT data).

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Watanabe, Nature Climate Change, 2014
Watanabe et al, Nature Climate Change, 2014

It’s a small gap, but might grow to become serious if the pause lasts for years — or even decades (as some forecast). The pause gives us some time to prepare for future climate change — and take measures to reduce it. But we might squander this gift of time. Much depends on the possible political effects of the pause in global warming,

Other effects of the pause

Events prove some scientists right, and some wrong. Sometimes the right ones were in the minority. For example the eminent climate scientist Roger Pielke Sr (see Wikipedia) has long said that the focus on the surface air temperature was inappropriate. For example:

“The spatial pattern of ocean heat content change is the appropriate metric to assess climate system heat changes including global warming.” (source)

For this he was smeared and called a denier by activists. Such as those at Skeptical Science (more accurately called “skeptical of science”). See this page calling him a “climate misinformer” (note that all of Pielke’s quotes shown there now appear correct). See this note for more detail and references to his work.

Now the oceans’ role have become a central focus of current research and is one of the leading explanations for the pause (see section 7 here). This rise and fall of reputations is part of the drama of science, concealed by activists who choose their heroes and villains by their political utility.

"Science" by sqbr
“Science” by sqbr at deiantART

What’s next for the climate sciences?

The first round of debate was about the existence of the pause. Has there been a statistically significant change to the short-term warming trend? See the statements of scientists and some of their research here. That round has ended.

The second round was debate about the causes of the pause. It’s still running strong, with 11 broad causes identified. As yet there is no consensus on their interrelationships and relative importance. See some of the research here.

The third round has barely begun, giving estimates of the pause’s duration. This might prove to be the key question. See some of the research here.

Behind all of these is a larger debate about the reliability of the current generation of climate models (e.g. see this and this). That’s a question only time can answer.

These are high stakes debates, often petty or even vituperative (neither unusual in academia). Massive research funding, career success, public policy decisions, and perhaps the fate of the world depend on the results. As laypeople, we can just watch and learn. Let’s not treat it as a baseball game, cheering for “our” team.

For More Information

Truth Will Make You Free

(a)  Reference Pages about climate on the FM sites:

  1. About the warming pause
  2. The important things to know about global warming
  3. My posts
  4. Studies & reports, by subject
  5. The history of climate fears

(b)  Other posts about the cutting edge in climate science:

  1. When did we start global warming? See the surprising answer., 18 October 2012
  2. Still good news: global temperatures remain stable, at least for now., 14 October 2012
  3. Scientists explore causes of the pause in warming, perhaps the most important research of the decade, 17 January 2014
  4. One of the most important questions we face: when will the pause in global warming end?, 25 August 2013
  5. Four views of exciting new climate research. See the difference., 12 February 2014
  6. Climate scientists speak to us. What is their consensus opinion?, 19 February 2014
  7. Worst case scenarios versus fat tails: a discussion about climate change, 23 April 2014
  8. The core of the climate debate: how much of the past warming did we cause?, 25 August 2014

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42 thoughts on “A look at the cutting edge of the climate sciences, & the lessons we can learn.

  1. I agree, one can learn a lot about the sausage making of science by seeing the climate change trainwreck go from one blunder to another. It is also clear why progress is made indeed on the base of funerals.

    Now, if only this would not affect billions of people already with massive failed investments in scam ‘clean energy’ developments and deployments, we could all laugh.

    1. Omnologos,

      The alt-energy boom has some characteristics of an investment bubble (although it’s not one). That’s good news, in some ways.

      Investment bubbles are inherent aspects of free-market systems. They’re wasteful, if compared to how these things are done in Heaven. Much of the investment is malinvestment. But they’re normal economic evolution on steriods, and the excess investment crashes prices in that sector — which further speeds up progress (fueled by the burning of the original investors’ money).

      The grand-dad of investment bubbles was the 1840s British railroad bubble, which gave Britain the finest transportation system in the world. Cheap transport, since the new owners bought them for a song — and so didn’t have to charge high fares to recover their investment. Some large part of Britain’s late 19thC boom resulted from this.

      My guess is that we’ll look back at this and laugh at the wind investments, but marvel at the rapid tech progress of solar — and its rapid adoption.

      Capitalism is messy.

    2. Editor, great point!
      Booms and busts may technically be inefficient allocations of resources, but so is much of life to varying degrees.
      After each bubble bursts, it leaves lots of useful pieces in the form of infrastructure, knowledge, and human capital.
      NASA’s Apollo Program can easily be considered a waste of resources, seeing as how there’s nothing particularly interesting up there on the moon itself. But we didn’t do it because it was easy, we did it because it was hard. Just like training for a marathon, sometimes the adversity of a challenge makes us better and stronger, even if we never actually benefit from the act of crossing the finish line. Maybe we’ll look back and see it was the same for development of ‘green’ technology.

  2. None of the happy talk about “Green” Technology will alter its immoral nature as crony statism because it is funded by the immoral expropriation of taxes from citizens and the redistribution of that tax money into the pockets of “Green” energy companies through government legislated subsidies. This is NOT capitalism which does not permit government subsidies of any company. Subsidies redistributed to “Green” technology companies are immoral crony statism.

    1. Paul,

      Everyone in America is entitled to their own opinion. However, this public-private model of infrastructure development has been successfully used in America for two centuries. For example, in construction of the transcontinental railroad. And the manufacturing base that helped win WW2. And much of the pharmaceutical industry (based on govt-funded R&D).

      So despite your objections, I suspect the rest of us will continue with proven successful tactics of economic development.

    2. “Solar” is so “Economic” that it costs 50 to 100X conventional. It won’t be competitive in my lifetime. Maybe during your children’s. But not yours, either.

      If you imagine that people will “marvel” at this progress, then you must have a different definition of the term in mind than I do.

    3. Olson,

      “If you imagine that people will “marvel” at this progress”

      The progress is amazing, considering the cost when effective solar systems were first developed in the early 1960s.

      “It won’t be competitive in my lifetime. Maybe during your children’s.”

      There are experts in the field who disagree with you. Since this is largely semiconductor engineering, we have long experience with rapid and sustained price declines. In my lifetime (I’m an early boomer), the most common kinds of predictions about tech were to overestimate short term evolution (i.e., over years) — and underestimate long-term progress (i.e., over decades). My guess is that’s what we’ll see here.

      BTW, a quibble: solar is already competitive for off-grid applications in many regions, even without subsidies.

  3. Without the predictive element, I’m not sure “science” is being done. More a naturalism of the 19th century, a descriptive style that was just at the observational stage, the gathering of data and musing.

    Without predictions, there is no way to determine correctness of thoughts on causality. Recently there have been papers that are explicit in saying the cooling will continue. This is a start. But they are new changes to the style of not being definitive: the “may”, “could”, “might”, “should” terms IMO de not show science at work in the sense that scientists or the public understand.

    1. Doug,

      You touch upon an interesting and important subject I have wanted to write about: the role of predictions in science, their impact on pros and the public. The pause is the elephant in the room, carefully ignored — for example in surveys to discover why so few people are panicking over predictions of catastrophic climate change for the next few generations.

      On the other hand, I suggest more respect for the patient data gathering of the 19th century — mostly done by amateurs. Their work laid the foundation for the theoretical advances of the following generations of scientists.

      “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”

      Sherlock Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet”

    2. “About” is a subjective term.

      The subject of the post is what it says it is: the “cutting edge” of climate science. Less colorfully, it is about one frontier of climate-related research — driven by new data — and how scientists are responding.

    3. I seem to have miscommunicated, as I often do. My comment re this article being about comparing predictions to reality was directed to the previous poster who was taking issue with climatology because he felt it did not make predictions, but was merely descriptive. That seemed (and still seems) an odd comment to an article which was about the accuracy of such predictions

    4. gzuckier,

      Comments would be more clear if people responded to quotes. After answering 30 thousand comments, my guess is that something like half of all comments respond to something that was not said — or that the commenter misunderstood. Including the name of the person to whom you’re responding also helps.

  4. But the paper you reference concludes that the “missing” warming is attributable to normal decadal variation, also visible on the graph; that warming continues over this background, that as a natural mathematical result this means that the percentage of temperature change coming from this normal variation is diminishing with time (47%, 38% and 27% of  the change during the 80s, 90s, and 00s, respectively), indicating that the variation, and therefore the maximum “undershoot” of actual temp vs model will be insignificant another decade in the future.

    Granted, there is no guarantee that things might not change, but given that their calculations are based on comparing predictions of the model vs actual values over time, it’s a bit premature to decide that this is the end of global warming as we know it. After all, every prospectus assures us that past performance is no guarantee of future results, but we go ahead and buy stocks anyway.

    So, it may be valid to speculate about how long the current “pause” may last, but for the sake of a complete picture, one should not omit the point that there is as yet no evidence to indicate that it will last long enough to give us more than the few years of breathing room we have already had. Importantly, this point seems to be lost on the “skeptics” relying here.

    1. Gzuckier,

      I must confess that your comment makes no sense whatsoever as a reply to this post.

      “But the paper you reference concludes that the “missing” warming is attributable to normal decadal variation, also visible on the graph;”

      Why the “but”? You write as if you are giving a rebuttal, but you don’t say to what. Makes no sense.

      “Granted, there is no guarantee that things might not change, but given that their calculations are based on comparing predictions of the model vs actual values ”

      As I said, there are many theories about the causes and nature of the pause. I link to a post that fives abstracts of and links to the major ones. I don’t see what point you are attempting to make.

      “it’s a bit premature to decide that this is the end of global warming as we know it.”

      So you don’t know the meaning of “pause”?

      “After all, every prospectus assures us that past performance is no guarantee of future results, but we go ahead and buy stocks anyway.”

      That makes no sense whatsoever. Climate is a physical system running on natural laws, which makes forecasting possible (although we might not yet have the data and understanding necessary to do so reliably yet). It’s not clear that stock prices are such a system, or that anything but Hari Seldon’s psychohistory allows reliable forecasting.

      To illustrate the daft nature of your analogy, the climate doesn’t change if we accurately forecast it. How would the stock work if could know tomorrow’s prices?

      “It may be valid to speculate about how long the current “pause” may last”

      The many climate scientists working on this question are happy to have your permission.

      ” but for the sake of a complete picture, one should not omit the point that there is as yet no evidence to indicate that it will last long enough to give us more than the few years of breathing room we have already had.”

      Again you as if giving a rebuttal, but don’t say to what. At the end I say almost exactly that.

      Also, you must have not seen the links to posts about “duration” and “effects” of the pause — which discuss those topics in detail. They’re not the point here.

      So you give rebuttals to things not discussed here, and ignore the point of the post. Perhaps this is just a reading FAIL?

      “Importantly, this point seems to be lost on the “skeptics” relying here.”

      Even more vague than the rest of your comment. If you disagree with a comment, give a reply to it.

    2. Your points seem pretty well taken, in retrospect. I can only presume that I was fascinated by the bright shiny and colorful graph, to the point that the rest of the article passed me by when I wasn’tt looking..

  5. Haven’t met your site before (pointed here from Judith Curry’s). Very impressed with the rationality and civic sensibility of your approach.

  6. For this endeavor to be scientific it must be falsifiable. If it is falsifiable, it was falsified by falling outside the 95% confidence interval.

    The first IPCC report was offered in 1990. If the entire field can’t put together a workable consensus model by 2014 to accurately project temperatures, there is no reason to put any stock in their long-run projections.

    There is nothing catastrophic in the instrumental record. Not for temperatures, not for sea level, not for storms. This field of research and the worldwide policy impacts from attempts to “adapt” now have a burn rate of over $1 billion per day. It’s time to slam the brakes on this wrongheaded push to remake society based on flawed, falsified models.

    1. KTM,

      I believe that is a bit harsh.

      “If it is falsifiable, it was falsified by falling outside the 95% confidence interval.”

      First, that’s not how confidence intervals work (it’s a lot more complicated). Second, that the current models don’t adequately simulate the pause doesn’t falsify the entire project.

      “There is nothing catastrophic in the instrumental record.”

      By “instrument record”, I assume you mean now (as opposed to the past). True. The IPCC has been quite clear that the primary effects seen so far are increased surface atmosphere temperatures since 1950 (over half of the increase being anthropogenic) and perhaps changes in precipitation. The alarmists’ claims get little support from Working Group I. The subject of debate among climate scientists is future effects, since the CO2 released is long-lived — and cannot easily be withdrawn if its effects are unpleasant.

    2. Arguments regarding the formal statistical validity of climate predictions, which go on to accept economic predictions of doom from the costs of alternative energy as accurate beyond all doubt, appear biased to my particular eye.
      In any event, it’s not required that the combined predictions of the models in a particular field be accurate; all that’s required is that one model be reliably accurate.
      As stated in the paper referenced, some of the models st the beginning of the period did predict the hiatus, and in the intervening years, the other models have been upgraded so that the combined predictions of the current models actually do predict the hiatus when fed the previous data.

    3. gzuckier,

      “In any event, it’s not required that the combined predictions of the models in a particular field be accurate; all that’s required is that one model be reliably accurate.”

      That’s true only if

      1. a priori we can distinguish which model is correct, and
      2. if the single “correct” model is accurate in a statistical sense.

      Nether is so today. The latter point is often ignored. The more models we run, the greater the odds that by chance the output of one will match observations. There are statistical tests for this, but there too seldom used.

      “in the intervening years, the other models have been upgraded so that the combined predictions of the current models actually do predict the hiatus when fed the previous data.”

      That’s a form of “backfitting”, tinkering with models so that they “predict” the past. It’s a form of learning, but does not provide evidence that the models have in fact improved. Only testing — either on “out of sample evidence” or future observations does that. In other words, time will tell.

  7. “Climate is a physical system running on natural laws, which makes forecasting possible (although we might not yet have the data and understanding necessary to do so reliably yet). ”
    I suggest you do more reading. Many physical systems have no predictability- fluid flow, star formation, coupled non-linear equations, and the climate system. Averages mean nothing for these non-linear, chaotic systems. At best one might be able to find attractors that represent probabiliites more-or-less stable regimes, until the system switches to another regime.

    None of the climate models can model the behavior of the climate(alternating between glacial period ~100,000 years with inter-glacials ~20,000 years, except when they are much shorter or much longer. The current climate debate is about 1000 or so years in 120,000. There simply isn’t enough data to make any sense of what has gone on in the climate because the data period is so short relative to known instabilities in the system. The paleo data reconstructions all indicate that, despite some very major random events, the earth’s climate has stayed with a very narrow range of temperatures for over 500 million years.

    1. I don’t know of any physical system that has “no predictability”. All of the examples you give have a useful degree of predictability. There are limits to their predictability, which are important to understand, but –as so often the case — statement of “none” and “always” are exaggerations.

  8. Though I must say, compared to some of these hopelessly senseless climate deniers who have said shockingly ignorant things (KTM takes the cake here I think) in this thread, you do appear quite reasonable (relatively)

  9. I’m confused… first you insult me for sucking up to climate scientists: “How charming that you approve of the work of climate scientists. They and their mothers must feel so happy now.”

    Then, out of the clear blue sky you accuse me of mocking scientists (and with hilariously palpable indignance): “Enough stupidity. Enough mocking scientists.” … wait.. What? when exactly did I mock any scientists? Talk about making no sense man..! Did you forget to take your meds?

    Clearly I was mocking your climate denier followers who have posted in this thread for getting all bent out of shape over a few subsidies for renewable energy, as I specifically noted in my comment, such as KTM (your follower) who I criticized for his ridiculous accusation that IPCC scientists of falsify their models!

    The word poignant also means “affecting or moving the emotions”, as in its touching of your to stand up for them (referring to your climate denier followers, obviously). Clearly you don’t take well to sarcasm. Or words that have different meanings depending on the context.

    And seriously dude, you need to chill. The way you just flew off the handle at poor Gzuckier for mildly suggesting that your cherry picked skeptic paper might have some issues… Come on man. Just cause someone doesn’t join in your little circle jerks palms lubed doesn’t make it alright for you to talk down to them like they’re some kind of half-baked twerp.

    1. *My bad, I admit I made a mistake. The paper you posted is clearly not a skeptic paper. I made a mistake, I apologize. Don’t disembowel me for it.

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