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Climate models: useful, but not for policymakers

Andrew Montford, Deputy Director

Compared to the situation five years ago,  much of the heat has gone out of the climate debate. This often happens between assessment reports, but it’s also true that most of the arguments have been had and few have been settled. Only more data will change that.

However, the lack of heat in the debate while we are all waiting does have an upside: papers that might have been seen as impossibly sceptical a few years back now get to see the light of day. I guess with less attention on the field there is less likelihood of a backlash if you say something vaguely heretical. This at least was my thought when I read the paper by Carslaw et al. on the Eos website. It feels like vindication to me. For example, what sceptic wouldn’t agree with this, the paper’s standfirst?

Model simulations of many climate phenomena remain highly uncertain despite scientific advances and huge amounts of data.

Or, more potently, this sentence, just a few lines further on:

Without…reductions in uncertainty, the science we do will not, by itself, be sufficient to provide robust information for governments, policy makers, and the public at large.

Appearing on the radio a few months ago, I was badmouthed by a former chief scientist for Scotland, for my temerity in suggesting just this: I was not apparently worth paying any attention to. Yet here are a group of mainstream (and to the best of my knowledge, non-sceptic) scientists saying quite clearly exactly the same thing: that climate models do not currently provide robust information for the political process.

I think you would get a lot of agreement across the climate debate that climate models are interesting and perhaps even useful scientific tools. If we can get agreement across the trenches that they are not useful policy tools then we are getting somewhere.