Data versus theory: the map is not the territory

[A]s an increasing body of research is suggesting, it may be that the climate is responding to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in ways that had not been properly understood before. This possibility, if true, could have profound significance both for climate science and for environmental and social policy.

via Climate science: A sensitive matter | The Economist.

In Science, when theory meets observation, observation wins. No matter how elegant the theory, no matter how famous and intelligent the scientists who created the theory, if the theory’s predictions do not match up with observations, it is all just pretty math. Climate Science is having to come to grips with the fact that despite the sophistication of the computer models, despite the logical soundness of the underlying assumptions, the predicted warming is not being seen in the observed temperature measurements, both in the lower atmosphere and in all but the very top layer of the ocean. Real scientists will say “hey, there is more work to be done, clearly we do not yet understand the Earth’s climate well enough to predict its behavior.”

I’m a lukewarmer. I think it is clear the Earth has been warming for more than a century now, and I have no doubt that increasing CO2 levels play a part in that warming. But. There is so much we do not yet understand about the climate and the energy flows and feedback mechanisms in it. For example, cloud cover can have a significant effect on the energy flow in the lower atmosphere–white, fluffy clouds reflect solar energy back into space before it can strike the surface, be reradiated as infrared energy, and thereby trapped due to the greenhouse effect. But who has any detailed understanding about the effect of increasing CO2 and temperature on cloud cover? Without that understanding, climate models must guess at cloud cover changes. What are the effects of increasing thunderstorm activity over the oceans? Those huge heat engines transport lots of energy from the surface up to the stratosphere where it is radiated into space, bypassing the greenhouse driven delays in the lower atmosphere. In short, there are lots of questions which remain unanswered by current climate science. The answer to those questions, of which I have mentioned just two, has a great effect in the amount of negative feedback in the Earth’s climate. Without a model that accurately reflects all the important effects, we should take model results with a grain of salt. All models are wrong, but some models are useful.

So, what to do? First, we need to know more, to understand the behavior of the Earth’s climate in greater detail. More research is clearly necessary. Second, we shouldn’t be spending those resources on various social engineering schemes before the behavior of the climate itself is understood well enough to make predictions that are validated by observation. We may have a warming problem, but we may not, and until we have a deeper understanding, it is hubris to imagine we can ‘fix’ a problem which we do not understand and which may not even exist. And perhaps most importantly, climate science must be kept separate from political and social agendas. Science is never ‘settled’; Science is a process, and there is no area of scientific knowledge that is beyond questioning.

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