Thursday, February 3, 2011

I take exception

A recent article appeared on Foxnews.com that I found noteworthy.

I wish to challenge the notion that anyone, with any certainty, can use any recent weather event no matter how large as a sign of or lack of global climate change. Climate as we all should know is about statistics. It will take a decade or longer to know how epic this latest blizzard was.

What Al Gore got correct was the scientific evidence. He correctly stated that under global warming scenarios it has been shown that variability increases. And even during a warming trend, globally, there can be dips, significant dips (even negative anomalies) regionally. This evidence suggests that this CAN be part of global warming scenarios. Of course we don't know the reverse because I am not sure that anyone has done a global cooling experiment. Please enlighten me if such a study has been done.

The second issue I wish to be picky about is the notion of predictions associated with climate. We are assuming a CO2 increase in what can only be described as complex models, but models that do not represent the full coupled climate system. This is necessary because building complex models requires a solid foundation upon which to add complexity. And unfortunately by building complex models we can not say that a model error at this point is actually wrong because all the processes we observe in the real world are not present in the model. It is an interesting problem to say the least. One that is being tackled on the weather side as well.

What we do know is that as model resolution improves we get better, but not perfect solutions. That is good news for weather and climate. But long term climate prediction is still not an initial value problem. Though some argue this point feverishly. It is a true scientific issue and debate will continue in the scientific arena, not in the media.

Speaking of media:
            "If it all seems confusing and contradictory, other experts say, the real blame lies not with the     climate, or with science, or even scientists or former politicians, but with the incompetent media for failing to provide critical context for readers. "

Indeed. In this very article! Examine it closely. The first half of the article presents one side and then trails off into the other side and only by the late middle does context begin to appear. And then just as context settles in, they bring in the 1970's cooling argument. This argument was created and propagated by press reports which misrepresented the science. Which makes it irrelevant in the current discussion.

And then they close by stating that science changes! Of course science changes. It does so because we update our theories based on new evidence, new data, new analysis. And yes even scientists can be wrong. They go where the science leads them and not every avenue leads somewhere or even leads to the correct somewhere. Thats why we attempt to make results reproducible.

We call it climate change because we know way more about the weather and climate and can state with confidence that change is the best way to describe it. Some regions will warm, others may cool. Some will get more precipitation, others less. It is an important scientific distinction. It is not changing the message, however. 

Climate change is not contentious because the science is weak. It is contentious because the science is young. It is further complicated because of the economic impact any action on carbon emissions might have. Scientists still have the duty to warn about impending climate fluctuations or even climate change. And the climate scientists have spoken, in consensus, to warn us about the effects of increasing CO2. They do so with uncertainty; the range of possible warming scenarios. They do so with caution. What our policymakers should be doing is deciding how to act responsibly not deciding which science is correct. The science updates all on its own. 

What is not easily updated is how well scientific communication occurs between scientists and policymakers, scientists and the public, and policymakers and the public.