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It’s Time To Test Climate Models Against Reality

Larry Kummer, Fabius Maximus

Summary: This is the last of my series about ways to resolve the public policy debate about climate change. It puts my proposal to test the models in a wider context of science norms and the climate science literature. My experience shows that neither side of the climate wars has much interest in a fair test; both sides want to win through politics. Resolving the climate policy wars through science will require action by us, the American public.

Ending the climate policy debate the right way

Do you trust the predictions of climate models? That is, do they provide an adequate basis on which to make major public policy decisions about issues with massive social, economic and environmental effects? In response to my posts on several high-profile websites, I’ve had discussions about this with hundreds of people. Some say “yes”; some say “no”. The responses are alike in that both sides have sublime confidence in their answers; the discussions are alike in they quickly become a cacophony.

The natural result: while a slim majority of the public says they “worry” about climate change — they consistently rank it near or at the bottom of their policy concerns. Accordingly, the US public policy machinery has gridlocked on this issue.

Yet the issue continues to burn, absorbing policy makers’ attention and scarce public funds. Worst of all, the paralysis prevents efforts to prepare even for the almost certain repeat of past climate events — as Tropical Storm Sandy showed NYC and several studies have shown for Houston — and distracts attention from other serious environmental problems (e.g., destruction of ocean ecosystems).

How can we resolve this policy deadlock?  Eventually, either the weather or science will answer our questions, albeit perhaps at great cost. We could just vote, abandoning the pretense there is any rational basis for US public policy (fyi, neither Kansas nor Alabama voted that Pi = 3).

We can do better. The government can focus the institutions of science on questions of public policy importance. We didn’t wait for the normal course of research to produce an atomic bomb or send men to the moon. We’re paying for it, so the government can set standards for research, as is routinely done for the military and health care industries (e.g., FDA drug approval regulations).

The policy debate turns on the reliability of the predictions of climate models. These can be tested to give “good enough” answers for policy decision-makers so that they can either proceed or require more research. I proposed one way to do this in Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate & win: test the models! — with includes a long list of cites (with links) to the literature about this topic. This post shows that such a test is in accord with both the norms of science and the work of climate scientists.

We can resolve this policy debate.  So far America lacks only the will to do so. That will have to come from us, the American public.

The goal: providing a sound basis for public policy

“Thus an extraordinary claim requires “extraordinary” (meaning stronger than usual) proof.”
— By Marcello Truzzi in “Zetetic Ruminations on Skepticism and Anomalies in Science“, Zetetic Scholar, August 1987. See the full text here.

“For such a model there is no need to ask the question ‘Is the model true?’. If ‘truth’ is to be the ‘whole truth’ the answer must be ‘No’. The only question of interest is ‘Is the model illuminating and useful?’”
— G.E.P. Box in “Robustness in the strategy of scientific model building” (1978). He also said “All models are wrong; some are useful.”

Measures to fix climate change range from massive (e.g., carbon taxes and new regulations) to changing the nature of our economic system (as urged by Pope Francis and Naomi Klein). Such actions requires stronger proof than usual in science (academic disputes are so vicious because the stakes are so small). On the other hand, politics is not geometry; it’s “the art of the possible” (Bismarck, 1867). Perfect proof is not needed. The norms of science can guide us in constructing useful tests.

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