Don Sanderson: Climate Change Modeling Defended


I generally find Alexander Cockburn’s prejudices agree with mine. Several of his columns recently [in the AVA] essentially hawking the fossil fuel corporations’ line on global warming, however, deserve an answer.

Mathematical modeling seems to be his pet peeve: “These quack science models are … skewed by the modelers’ doctrinaire anti-carbon passion…” driven by “dependence of their salaries on the expectations of the funding agencies.” Wow, we have a new religion, it seems.

El Niño has recently dampened the Southwest and the present sunspot cycle has cooled solar radiation, but these are temporary though may be expected to periodically and unpredictably recur. As astrophysicists have explained in detail, on the average the sun is surely warming, has been for the entire life of our planet, and the Earth will surely eventually burn up. It has been conjectured that the ice ages are the Gaia’s, that is the living Earth’s, way to stay cool. Those who have studied the periods between ice ages have noted they typically have both rapidly began and ended, but why so isn’t understood. Given the durations of earlier ones, this one likely should be ending – the so-called little ice age beginning in the fifteenth century may have portended this. But, the fossil-fueled industrial age appears to have interrupted it. Atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements have been made by various methods trailing back to the beginning of the industrial age and before; the growth of fossil fuel usage, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the rise of global temperatures over this period positively correlate, which of course doesn’t prove relationships, but ….Also, in spite of determined searching, no one has found any driver for the rapidity at which global warming is occurring other than human-generated greenhouse gasses. Two and two make four in my book, yet even the best correlations only suggest causal relationships. We need to dig deeper.

But, wait. Many thousands of pages of research articles have been published reporting what many scientists are finding by collecting data on the melting ice caps, about mostly retreating glaciers, about the warming, increasingly acidic, and expanding ocean and the effects these are having, about the melting tundra, about expanding deserts and declining forests, rain and otherwise, and so on. In laboratories, scientists are documenting in intricate detail the chemistry behind global warming. In one survey of almost a thousand articles, all that were published in major journals on this subject during a recent period, none were found to disagree with the climate warming hypothesis, though details varied. Relatively few of these were based on models.

Cockburn, do you really think all these many hundreds of scientists were all bought and have been fudging their data? By whom were they purchased? I do certainly agree that some, such as Al Gore, are attempting to scare us so that the U.S. will subsidize his “greenwashing” products, but many other corporations, particularly those involved with fossil fuels in one way or another, are poring out vastly more money in attempting to convince us otherwise, since any restraints would impact their profits. On the other hand, I fail to see what someone might have to gain by investing vast amounts of research funds through many sources in order to “prove” the relationship between fossil fuel burning and global warming. I see in Cockburn’s article an ignorance of science illustrative of that common throughout our society.

Understand, science is all about probabilities and very seldom about certainties. Mathematicians logically prove theorems. Scientists estimate likelihoods. Scientists make hypotheses about the data they are observing in order to attempt to make predictions; they then present their ideas publicly so that other scientists can explore in what ways these may be mistaken. It’s is an iterative process with hopes that hypotheses are getting closer to bull’s eye certainty, but there is little expectation they will finally arrive. The world-out-there is simply too complex and every hypothesis is necessarily a simplification.

Mathematical model building is at the heart of science and has been from its beginnings with Galileo and Newton. Engineering and economics are all about mathematical models. True, no mathematical model gives perfect predictions, but some such as those about electromagnetism are very good. At best, mathematical modeling begins by getting all the data on the table and attempting to connect all the data streams with scientifically understood interrelationships. Thus, Earth science modelers begin with all the data field scientists have collected, not only physical and chemical but also social and economic; they attempt to get as much relevant information out on the table as possible. The resulting mathematical models may be far from perfect, but without them we are blind; science would revert to the fifteenth century and abacuses. Does it not make sense to use the tools available?

There are and have been many competing climate models and nearly always they raise the same warning flags. The scientific preponderance of evidence from both data and models is that global warming is occurring and we are to blame. Cockburn is convinced that since European atmospheric scientists’ weather models couldn’t predict what would happen to the ash plume resulting from the eruption of that Icelandic volcano, global warming models are equally frail.

On a short term basis, the atmosphere is a chaotic place, it is even affected by your breathing, and even the best weather models have long been understood not to make good predictions more that a few days, maybe hours, ahead. Think of a major league hitter. The arrival of the ball and the swinging of his bat are also chaotic and what happens on any particular swing can’t be predicted. If it could be, baseball would be boring. Some days a batter and pitcher are hot and some days not. But, owners successfully bet millions of dollars on long-term averages. Indeed, business decisions in general are based on the long-term behavior of consumers, not on what they do the next time they go shopping. Similarly, the inaccuracy of short-range weather models says nothing about that of long-range climate models. Let us not mix apples and oranges.

Those whose wealth is derived from this fossil-fueled economy are quite naturally appalled with the prospects of global warming. Addicts are famous for justifying themselves, and we Americans are surely addicted to the “needs” fossil fuel usage permit us to buy. If there is nothing else we humans are famous for, it is rationalization. We will firmly, absolutely believe certifiable nonsense, even if it means the deaths of ourselves and multitudes of others. Must I give you examples?

It seems to Earth scientists that those who deny global warming and our guilt are rationalizing without any supporting scientific evidence, only picking and choosing from others’ imperfect data. By contrast, since their own conclusions are tightly reviewed and because acting without due diligence would damage their reputations and employability, scientists tend to be very conservative with their assertions – of course, even they can be bought, as the petrochemical corporations are demonstrating.

Let us suppose the concerns of Earth scientists have some validity, even if they haven’t “proved” their conclusions. How then should we act? Should we take the chance they may be right and act otherwise? Wouldn’t that be foolish? If you are old enough to remember how things once were a few decades ago, surely you must agree we’re otherwise trashing the Earth in many ways. Think only of fisheries. Do you consider that this can’t be true for the Earth’s climate? Yes, if we were to act with restraint, the economy fueled by corporate greed would suffer and we would have to explore more human- and Earth-friendly alternatives. Some of us still living remember when most of that stuff we now consider necessities didn’t exist, yet if anything people were generally happier. Would it be so dreadful if we had to give up our technical gismos and junk food and actually reacquaint ourselves with our neighbors, both human and otherwise? We might even get to liking ourselves?

Forty-five million years ago, a great global warming cataclysm occurred, with considerable evidence that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide was the trigger. Though deeply wounded, the living Earth survived and in due course again thrived. It seems likely to me this will be replayed, should we continue our flagrant ways. The question I pose, will the human species survive?