The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Will Progress in Climatology Affect Mitigation Policy?

Will progress in climatology affect mitigation policy? Not very much, no.

"Steven Chu, the new secretary of energy, said Wednesday that solving the world’s energy and environment problems would require Nobel-level breakthroughs in three areas: electric batteries, solar power and the development of new crops that can be turned into fuel."
according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Note what he doesn't mention: supercomputing, climate modeling, earth system modeling frameworks. Dr. Chu is putting his attention in the right places.

It can be argued that climatology is not an important input into climate change related policy. It is premature to take climatological input into account in adaptation strategy, while on the other hand as far as mitigation goes (i.e., on the global scale) the picture has pretty much stayed about the same for some substantial time.

Many readers will find this peculiar. Certain sorts of denialists are arguing that the tide has turned against the IPCC consensus over the last couple of years. With regard to that, nothing has changed; they have been making similar statements for twenty years. Certain sorts of alarmists meanwhile are emphasizing how things have gotten so much worse, but again these sorts of claims are nothing new. The fact is that things are pretty much about as bad as we have thought for a long time, except on the sea level rise front, where relatively new insights into ice sheet dynamics and new data about sudden postglacial sea level rise in the past raise the possibility of rapid changes in sea level.

It's not outside the realm of possibility that ice sheet modeling will make sufficient progress to constrain the behavior of ice sheets effectively. It is certainly worth a try.

On the other hand, consider this. Carefully targeted expenditures on science can be effective, but you cannot hire nine women to make a baby in a month. Intellectual progress can reach some maximum rate but then it reaches a point where more manpower and more funding is just redundant.

Some problems in earth science are undecidable. We may never understand the ocean circulation of the Eocene, much though we might want to.

My guess is that the most likely outcome is that there will be several viable scenarios for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet until one of them occurs. Maybe Greenland will turn out to be a tad less capricious, but we don't know that for sure yet either.

As for aerosols, (and as for clouds, and so on) yes improvements can perhaps narrow the uncertainty of climate prediction a bit, and I'm happy to be helping out in that regard, but the chances of the first order picture changing very much are slim.

The real issues are environmental, agricultural and civil engineering problems, and the response issues are in the social, political, economic and geopolitical realms.

Climatology is a worthy pursuit in itself as a pure science. As far as application goes, if geoengineering is necessary you will need to rely on huge advancement in the field. Possibly we can improve our abilities for local and regional predictions, which would add a lot of value to adaptation startegies. So by all means support climatology, but don't look to us for input into what needs doing now on the mitigation front.

We have said our piece and it is unlikely to change, not because we are stubborn, but because there are some things we understand pretty well. And certainly not because we are in it for the gold. The big money is not heading our way, nor should it.

PS from the same article:
Dr. Chu said he was still adjusting to his surroundings and title after most of a career spent as an academic scientist. Asked whether he preferred to be called “Dr. Chu” or “Mr. Secretary,” he answered, “Steve is fine.”

6 comments:

thingsbreak said...

As far as application goes, if geoengineering is necessary you will need to rely on huge advancement in the field.

I started writing and deleted a comment several times about a seeming lack of recognition of this aspect in your previous post, but inevitably abandoned it as I didn't think you could have seriously overlooked it.

I'll just say that as far as it goes, I hope that's something that's a problem no one has to worry about.

As policy firms up and the "PR" battles subside, 'climatology' will no doubt diffuse somewhat back into the 'parent' sciences that it is largely drawing from at the moment. I can't imagine a future in which huge branches of oceanography, geology, biochemistry, etc. don't more prominently feature aspects of climatology from a carbon cycle/energy budget standpoint.

I do think that The fact is that things are pretty much about as bad as we have thought for a long time, except on the sea level rise front, where relatively new insights into ice sheet dynamics and new data about sudden postglacial sea level rise might not be a fair picture.

There is something to be said for the 'Lonnie Thompson/David Archer/countless others' stance that the relatively steady increased forcing of climate is unrealistic from a paleo perspective and not just because of ice sheet dynamics. Perhaps the warnings of rapid climate flickers/pendulum swings/see-sawing have been maximized for policy effect- I'd like to think they haven't.

It's hard for me to look back and view the relatively steady modeling progression of climate change as realistic. I'd like to think that there is still a vital role to play for paleo.

Marion Delgado said...

"Some problems in earth science are undecidable. We may never understand the ocean circulation of the Eocene, much though we might want to."

In our lifetimes, possibly not.

But it was a combination of our lack of knowledge of the details, full mechanism, and extent of ocean circulation and the degree to which it interacted with insolation mainly due to Milankovic cycles, that led Jeff Severinghaus in his SCIENTIFICALLY excellent analysis of the issue of temperature change preceding CO2 change in the geological record to say that deglaciation starts for an "unknown reason" but then you have to model T, insolatation, albedo, C02 greenhouse etc. together to match what happens. And let's face it, he meant the precise process and precise degree of causation. He knows better than anyone what that unknown reason is.

The predictable response was oh-so-annoying "see, the Real Climate people depend on unknown causes!"

I still wish he'd said, with an uncertain contribution from the regular changes in insolation and possibly idiosyncratic changes in ocean circulation, which might be due to causes that aren't part of the record, a deglaciation starts, but after a while the main factors are both solar forcing and greenhouse effects and they are a positive feedback loop. Or something.

Aaron said...

The "Physical Climatology Shop" has not been selling good product. If you are not getting good product for the money, you do not go back to the shop.

Today, physical climatology puts out a product that is no better than what Environmental Toxicology Shop was putting out when CERCLA was passed in 1980. In the 1990s the toxicity numbers were so bad that we had to apply huge safety factors.

Until physical climatology gets their act together and gives us better numbers, we can apply (huge)safety factors to their numbers and do our planning and engineering accordingly.

If we take current numbers and put a safety factor of 100 on them, then is rational to pass a law saying that anybody that wants to mine or sell coal or oil must prove that it is safe. The next day, every big engineering firm will have a physical climatology department. Current shops (NCAR, GISS) will be under strong competition to improve the quality of their product or go bust.

We need to move physical climatology from saying, "This is what we can prove" to saying, “this is what you had better plan and design for!" It is time for physical climatologists to think like engineers and planners, (or at least work hand in hand with engineers and planners). Then and only then, will climatolgy affect policy.

Dano said...

I disagree with Aaron for many of the reasons mt gives, in that more precision isn't going to get us any better at doing the are environmental, agricultural and civil engineering problems, and the response issues are in the social, political, economic and geopolitical realms.

That is: we are so much farther away in the societal response realm than we are in the climatology realm. What are the chances that climatology will improve the understanding 10% more precisely before wholesale changes in societies will happen as a response?

Thought so.

Best,

D

Dan Satterfield said...

Exc post Dr. Tobis.

It is good that the issues of mitigation are beginning to get much more scientific, and political attention. No withstanding the claims by some of the more vitriolic denialists.

The media in general is doing a much better job of covering climate issues, and especially the Science. With a few glaring exceptions by outlets that aim for the "dumb as I want to be" crowd..

EliRabett said...

Essentially this is a judgment about whether climatology over long periods can be downscaled to regional coverage.