For many years, decades really, climatologists, meteorologists, ecologists and other scientists have labored to produce hundreds of reports, studies, books that detail their own field’s view of what’s happening to the Earth’s climate. Thousands of scientists, several decades of work, googolplexes of data, unending discussion and debate – in the end, however, a rather simple consensus: Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere are rising, among them man-made CO2, and with them the Earth’s average yearly temperature is rising. It’s called, of course, global warming, and to some extent man-made (anthropocentric) global warming (AGW).
Apparently the consensus hasn’t been enough.
In a few short weeks, since the boneless conference in Copenhagen in January, it seems like the mood for doing something about climate change is turning sour. It isn’t a monumental PR flop, quite yet; but the questionable scientific behavior surrounding “e-mailGate” and “glacierGate” added to the heavily subsidized attacks on science and scientists, have made doubts and ducking responsibility almost respectable. Certainly this is true in the United States and Britain, probably less so but growing elsewhere. Besides, if you’re a policy maker, it’s obviously less expensive and safer (politically) to do nothing now. Anyway, the scientists could be wrong.
Of course the scientists could be wrong. As most people know, forecasting the weather is difficult. Forecasting climate is even more difficult. Forecasting major changes in climate in increments of decades…well, that’s really difficult. That’s why climate scientists and those whose fields are directly involved, look at the decades of data, debate and spar over details, check and recheck their assumptions and almost all of them draw the same conclusion: global warming is happening and carbon dioxide of human creation is a key component. No matter. The public is not ‘getting it.’ Soon, if they haven’t already (like the craven cave-dwellers in the U.S. Congress) the politicians will not ‘get it.’
What’s a climate scientist to do? They can’t hand the public and politicians anything like 100% certainty. They know there will always be a margin for error. There will be disagreements among scientists. There will be screw-ups, and woefully, false data. There can always be discoveries that change the whole conclusion about global warming. Heck, one not so fine morning the Sun may not come up (unforeseen dynamics in the Sun’s fusion process, and it just goes poof); but not bloody likely. So, what are climate scientists to do?
Why, double down, of course. That’s the gamblers’ expression: If you’re losing big, double your bet and go for the big win. In blackjack, you do this if the odds (from the first two cards) are in your favor. In the global warming PR game (and this part of it is a game), it means scientists should take the models they use now for predicting the course of global warming – and make them bigger, better, and more comprehensive.
Alternative futures for a warming world
An international team of climate scientists will take a new approach to modeling the Earth’s climate future, according to a paper in 11 February Nature. The next set of models will include, for the first time, tightly linked analyses of greenhouse gas emissions, projections of the Earth’s climate, impacts of climate change, and human decision-making.
This approach will influence the next international scientific assessment undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It will provide the framework for thousands of individual scientific studies on climate impacts and adaptation, climate modeling, and changes in the way societies generate and use energy.
The scientists called each of [four principal] futures a “representative concentration pathway,” or RCP. Many independent groups of scientists will use the RCPs in climate models to project changes in a range of climate conditions including temperature, precipitation and extreme events. In addition to focusing on the usual century-long time scales typical for climate studies, one set of experiments will focus intensively on the next few decades to provide better information on regional changes and extreme events, thus aiding decision-makers in planning adaptations to new, imminent conditions.
An essential aspect of the new climate analysis process is the integration of different types of computer models and studies. This is possible because of the open-ended nature of the process and a new sequence for research: rather than treat each problem one at a time, researchers will work to integrate the models at certain points in the process, using the RCPs as a framework.
Got that? Especially the part about RCPs? It means that not only will these climate models, for the first time really, include feed-back from what is actually happening in the climate, but also the effects of human decision making. The new models should not only include new types of information, but the predictions they produce should be much more fine-grained to include the impact of global warming on natural resources, human health, coastal infrastructure, ecosystems and other sectors. Finally, the new approach means that the models will provide a framework in which scientists can perform their research…(unstated) so it can have the most bang for the buck. In short, make predictions that will influence policy makers to do something.
I suppose many scientists thought that’s what they’ve been doing all along.
Is there a risk this is going to generate more scenarios for people not to believe in?
Other scientist will immediately bristle and say “We got into trouble by trying to stack the data for the best argument. This is just increasing the risk.”
More risk, more visibility, and bigger stakes: If this doesn’t all add up to doubling down on the science, what does?