More Work Required to Study “Settled” Climate Science – Watts Up With That?


Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Last Halloween, Naomi Oreskes unsettled the climate community by suggesting the work of WG1 scientists is done, and that they should move on to other fields. Climate scientist have now published a response in Scientific American detailing the big gaps in their understanding, and a detailed explanation of why they still need money.

Seeking Certainty on Climate Change: How Much Is Enough?

Two physicists object to a Scientific American essay calling for an end to one climate report. A science historian counters that the report has done its job

Sabine Hossenfelder is a physicist and research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany. She is author of the book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astrayand creator of the YouTube channel Science without the Gobbledygook. Credit: Nick Higgins

Tim Palmer is a Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics at the University of Oxford.

In a recent column in Scientific American, Naomi Oreskes argues that we understand the physics of climate change well enough now. She writes that the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Working Group 1 (WG1)—the ones tasked with assessing the physical science basis of climate change—should “declare their job done.” According to Oreskes, we should instead now deal with the problem by focusing on adaptation and mitigation.

It is true that the scientific basis of global long-term trends is settled. We know that sea levels are rising, average temperatures are increasing, and glaciers are dying. We know that business as usual will put our and future generations at risk of great suffering. But we do not have a good understanding of the regional impacts of climate change, and uncertainties in the long-term predictions currently span a range that could mean anything from a serious but manageable inconvenience to an existential threat.

Indeed, Oreskes has previously been critical of WG1’s reports: a February 2013 paper she co-authored in Global Environmental Change argued that the IPCC reports have consistently underpredicted ”at least some of the key attributes of global warming from increased atmospheric greenhouse gases.” But why is that? It’s because the job of climate scientists is not done.

A key reason for the underestimates that Oreskes and her colleagues belabored is that current-generation climate models are crude representations of the complex dynamical system that is our climate. For example, current global climate models can’t represent cloud systems using the laws of physics because the grid spacing is too coarse (a hundred kilometers or more). In the models, therefore, clouds are represented by highly simplified empirical formulas that describe the clouds’ true properties in a relatively crude way.

The consequence of our inability to model essential climate processes very accurately is that we cannot correctly simulate extreme weather and climate events. The horrendous weather events of 2021—the near-50-degree-Celsius heat in British Columbia and the devastating flooding in the Eifel region in Germany, China’s province of Henan and New York City—are completely outside the range of what current-generation climate models can simulate.

Read more: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/seeking-certainty-on-climate-change-how-much-is-enough/

It is fascinating they mention clouds, because in 2019 when our Dr. Pat Frank pointed to gaps in our understanding of clouds as a major reason climate models have no predictive skill, he provoked a vigorous response from the climate community.

Yet as soon as someone like Oreskes suggests their work is done, suddenly the science of modelling clouds seems very unsettled indeed.

Note Dr. Roy Spencer also criticised Pat’s work. But Dr. Spencer wrote a paper in 2007 in support of Dr. Richard Lindzen’s Iris hypothesis, the theory that surface warming triggers net negative feedback changes in cloudiness which oppose the surface warming. Pat Frank’s response to Dr. Spencer’s criticism is available here.

Whatever your views on Dr. Spencer and Dr. Frank’s position, and anyone else involved in the climate model cloud debate, everyone seems to more or less agree clouds are a problem. Understanding clouds seems pretty fundamental to being able to model the global climate in detail. Modelling of clouds in current generation climate models is deeply flawed.

So I think we can safely conclude that Naomi Oreskes is wrong about the science being settled.

The following is a lecture by Dr. Pat Frank explaining his concerns about climate models and clouds.


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