Summary: The climate policy debate has raged for 30 years, consisting mostly of propaganda and political games, with few results. Let’s try science, instead. Here is a first step to transforming the debate.
“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
– The basic text of Narcotics Anonymous. They know all about dysfunctionality.
The movement for public policy action to fight climate change hit the big time when climate scientist James Hansen testified before the Senate on 23 June 1988 (transcript). He stated the problem, the supporting evidence, and concluded with this.
“Finally, I would like to stress that there is a need for improving these global climate models, and there is a need for global observations if we’re going to obtain a full understanding of these phenomena.”
Unfortunately, his advice was not taken seriously. More money was spent on research, and the IPCC dutifully collected the results. But it was uncoordinated, with scientists focusing (rationally) on career-enhancing findings. For example, countless studies focused on headline-grabbing forecasts about the likely consequences of the RCP8.5 scenario (the worst case used in the IPCC’s AR5). It is either improbable or impossible (see here and here), but its propaganda value is high.
Research was not focused on systematically providing the answers desperately needed by policy-makers, in contrast to the Manhattan Project’s focus on a clear goal.
Worse, each year the propaganda campaign grew larger. Much of this was directed by people seeking to use climate change as a means to gain power and achieve large-scale social change. At some point, it overshadowed the science, and much of the news became misrepresentations and exaggerations of the science – or outright fiction. Critics were often met with personal invective.
Now the climate change campaign has gone full ClownWorld: Greta Thunberg is TIME’s Person of the Year. A 16-year-old who parrots what she has been told. Parliaments pretend to take her seriously. Climate activists believe we should learn from her.
I and others have documented the rising tide of climate propaganda. Here are a few examples.
- A look at the workings of Climate Propaganda Inc.
- See how climate science becomes alarmist propaganda.
- Scary but fake news about the National Climate Assessment.
- Did the IPCC predict a climate apocalypse? No.
- Another climate scientist speaks out against the hysteria.
- Is climate change an existential threat to humanity?
What has three decades of playing politics accomplished in the US? Little policy action. Gallup puts a positive spin on the lack of change in public opinion with “Global Warming Concern Steady” and “Americans as Concerned as Ever About Global Warming.” We can continue the same tactics for another 3 decades and fail again. Or we try something different. Let’s try science!
Karl Popper looks at the climate policy debate.
How might science break the policy gridlock?
“First, science places the burden of proof on the claimant. Second, the proof for a claim must in some sense be commensurate with the character of the claim. Thus, an extraordinary claim requires ‘extraordinary’ (meaning stronger than usual) proof.”
— Marcello Truzzi in Zetetic Scholar, August 1987 (text here).
Imagine if climate scientists followed James Hansen’s recommendation by proposing a directed research program to produce evidence that would meet critics’ objections? Because any proposal to radically change the world economy – even society (go vegetarian!) – will meet fierce questioning. Rightly so. Obtaining funding for that would have been an attainable goal for climate scientists. The cost would have been pocket lint to the Federal government – and even less if other nations participated in the project. The cost of this research would have been microscopic compared to the stakes at risk for the world should the high-end impact forecasts prove correct.
There are some lines of research which might have had massive effects if done long ago – and might have big effects if done now. My guess as to the top priority: strongly validating the climate models whose predictions produce the warnings about climate change. So far models have been tested mostly by backtesting. This is a weak form of model validation. Tests should be made using data not used when building the model. This has been well-understood for generations, but ignored by climate scientists.
“To avoid confusion, it should perhaps be noted explicitly that the “predictions” by which the validity of a hypothesis is tested need not be about phenomena that have not yet occurred, that is, need not be forecasts of future events; they may be about phenomena that have occurred but observations on which have not yet been made or are not known to the person making the prediction.”
In a WaPo op-ed on 6 Sept 2016, Lawrence Summers discussed how models can help public policy decisions better manage the economy.
“There is an important methodological point here: Distrust conclusions reached primarily on the basis of model results. Models are estimated or parameterized on the basis of historical data. They can be expected to go wrong whenever the world changes in important ways.”
From “Assessment of the first consensus prediction on climate change“ by David J. Frame and Dáithí A. Stone in Nature Climate Change, April 2013.
“However, the passage of time helps with this problem: the scientific community has now been working on the climate change topic for a period comparable to the prediction and the timescales over which the climate is expected to respond to these types of external forcing (from now on simply referred to as the response). This provides the opportunity to start evaluating past predictions of long-term climate change: even though we are only halfway through the period explicitly referred to in some predictions, we think it is reasonable to start evaluating their performance…
“One of the main problems faced by predictions of long-term climate change is that they are difficult to evaluate. …Trying to use present predictions of past climate change across historical periods as a verification tool is open to the allegation of tuning, because those predictions have been made with the benefit of hindsight and are not demonstrably independent of the data that they are trying to predict.”
“A practical philosophy of complex climate modeling” by Gavin A. Schmidt and Steven Sherwood in European Journal for Philosophy of Science, May 2015 (ungated copy).
“…results that are predicted “out-of-sample” demonstrate more useful skill than results that are tuned for (or accommodated).”
We can run the models as they were originally run for the IPCC in the Second Assessment Report (1995), the Third Assessment Report (2001), and the Fourth Assessment Report (2007) – using as inputs observations of actual forcings after they were created (instead of scenarios). Then compare the models’ forecasts of temperature with observations since then. If accurate, it would provide a robust validation. For more about this, see …
- Daniel Davies’ insights about predictions can unlock the climate change debate.
- Karl Popper explains how to open the deadlocked climate policy debate.
- Milton Friedman’s advice about restarting the climate policy debate.
These older models were considered skillful when published, so a determination of their skill will help us decide if we now have sufficiently strong evidence to take large-scale policy action on climate change. As Karl Popper said, successful predictions are the gold standard of science. Success can have a transformative effect on the public policy debate. See more about this proposal …
- Climate scientists can restart the climate policy debate & win: test the models!
- We can end the climate policy wars: demand a test of the models.
There are other promising lines of climate research. They require only money to set them in motion, and the will to make that happen. Let’s not continue our political bickering for another 30 years, then wonder what we could have done differently.