In the Wall Street Journal, scientists condemn “spectacularly wrong” climate forecasting
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“The truth, and this is frustrating for policy-makers,” declared John Christy in Nature four years ago, “is that scientists’ ignorance of the climate system is enormous.” Now he and fellow climate scientist Richard McNider have argued in the Wall Street Journal that widespread, perverse disregard of gross climate-modeling deficiencies is leading to acceptance of huge overestimates of warming, to needless regulation, to social harm, and to a clear need to invert common belief about climate-science legitimacy.
Their lengthy 20 February op-ed “Why Kerry is flat wrong on climate change” includes a graph and occupies most of the top half of a page. Its call-out line amounts to a scientific-legitimacy challenge: “It was the scientific skeptics who bucked the ‘consensus’ and said the Earth was round.”
Both authors are fellows of the American Meteorological Society. Both rank as distinguished professors at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In December 2013 congressional testimony, Christy introduced himself also as Alabama’s state climatologist, director of his university’s Earth System Science Center, a former lead author, contributing author and reviewer of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments, and a holder of NASA’s Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement.
McNider and Christy don’t doubt climate change. They doubt “catastrophic climate change.” They stipulate that contrary to simplistic views of climate skepticism, they do embrace the “two fundamental facts . . . that carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased due to the burning of fossil fuels” and that “carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas, trapping heat before it can escape into space.”
But they not only deny, they forcefully confront, high-visibility assertions Kerry made on 16 February in Indonesia. It’s been widely reported that he likened climate-change skepticism to “Flat Earth Society” membership and railed against “shoddy scientists” and “extreme ideologues.” Seeking to invert such common characterizations of climate-science legitimacy, the coauthors ask:
But who are the Flat Earthers, and who is ignoring the scientific facts? In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, and it was only a minority who dared question this belief. We are among today’s scientists who are skeptical about the so-called consensus on climate change. Does that make us modern-day Flat Earthers, as Mr. Kerry suggests, or are we among those who defy the prevailing wisdom to declare that the world is round?
Here’s the round world that they see, and that—citing their graph—they contrast with the world that they allege is falsely called flat in the prevailing scientific consensus:
What is not a known fact is by how much the Earth’s atmosphere will warm in response to this added carbon dioxide. The warming numbers most commonly advanced are created by climate computer models built almost entirely by scientists who believe in catastrophic global warming. The rate of warming forecast by these models depends on many assumptions and engineering to replicate a complex world in tractable terms, such as how water vapor and clouds will react to the direct heat added by carbon dioxide or the rate of heat uptake, or absorption, by the oceans.
We might forgive these modelers if their forecasts had not been so consistently and spectacularly wrong. From the beginning of climate modeling in the 1980s, these forecasts have, on average, always overstated the degree to which the Earth is warming compared with what we see in the real climate.
With three lines, their graph—“Warming predictions vs. the real world”—plots temperature rise over the past third of a century. One “real world” line represents satellite datasets, another balloon datasets. The third line represents the average of 102 model runs. That “prediction” line’s separation from the two measurement-based lines begins as slight in 1980, but widens to half a degree Celsius after 2010, then continues to rise.
The coauthors press their charge that models grossly overestimate temperature rise:
The climate-change-consensus community points to such indirect evidence of warming as glaciers melting, coral being bleached, more droughts and stronger storms. Yet observations show that the warming of the deep atmosphere (the fundamental sign of carbon-dioxide-caused climate change, which is supposedly behind these natural phenomena) is not occurring at an alarming rate: Instruments aboard NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association satellites put the Mid-Tropospheric warming rate since late 1978 at about 0.7 degrees Celsius, or 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit, per 100 years. For the same period, the models on average give 2.1 degrees Celsius, or 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit, per 100 years (see graph).
And they press their charge of widespread, perverse disregard of these claimed modeling deficiencies:
[I]t is disturbing that “consensus science” will not acknowledge that such discrepancies are major problems. From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s beginning, that largely self-selected panel of scientists has embraced the notion that consensus on climate change is the necessary path to taking action and reducing man-made carbon emissions around the world. The consensus community uses this to push the view that “the science is settled” and hold up skeptics to ridicule, as John Kerry did on Sunday.
McNider and Christy close by adding a second historical analogy to their “flat Earth” suggestion that they, not the holders of the prevailing scientific consensus, actually speak for science. They summarize British authorities’ perverse 50-year failure in the 18th century to accept “that fresh vegetables and citrus cured scurvy” in sailors at sea. Then they close by tying it all together:
“Consensus” science that ignores reality can have tragic consequences if cures are ignored or promising research is abandoned. The climate-change consensus is not endangering lives, but the way it imperils economic growth and warps government policy making has made the future considerably bleaker. The recent Obama administration announcement that it would not provide aid for fossil-fuel energy in developing countries, thereby consigning millions of people to energy poverty, is all too reminiscent of the Sick and Health Board denying fresh fruit to dying British sailors.
We should not have a climate-science research program that searches only for ways to confirm prevailing theories, and we should not honor government leaders, such as Secretary Kerry, who attack others for their inconvenient, fact-based views.
“It is unfortunate, in my opinion,” said Christy in testimony to that congressional committee in December, “that recent policy has been made based on the projections of these faulty models. Climate science has a long way to go.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.