By Kenneth P. Green, Frontier Centre
In a recent article about climate change, Seth Borenstein, a science writer with the Associated Press, gave us a master class on how to sell the results of a computer model as if it represents reality.
In the Borenstein world, a group of scientists can take a short-term heatwave, crank it through an “ensemble” of theoretical mathematical climate models and ta-da! They can ascertain that this heatwave was “virtually impossible” unless caused by human-induced global warming. Further, they can predict that the climate-change-driven heat wave will incontrovertibly kill people in the range of hundreds to thousands in the weeks to come.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a “climate denier.” I think climate change is as real as gravity, or mass or momentum, or Newton’s laws of motion or Einstein’s general relativity. However, the computer models that have been offered to the public as portraying the reality of the global climate (and humanity’s influence upon it) are massively oversold: they are computer simulations slightly more elaborate and refined, but substantively little different than any other environmental simulation you would find in your favourite video-game.
With all due respect to our friends in the climate-science community, we do not live on Planet ClimateModel (TM) and climate simulation models are not the reality, nor are they science. They do not illuminate reality; they do not produce evidence; they are not measurements of the physical; and they can neither predict the future accurately, nor characterize the past. Climate models can not be validated by comparison to a genuine “control,” of climate past or future; nor can they be disproven in the sense that normal science has to be disproven. Their range of possible outputs, driven by arbitrary assumptions about how the climate works, covers virtually all potential eventuality and can always claim to have been correct in hindsight.
How oversold is this idea that models are reality? Borenstein states that “A study, not yet peer-reviewed, said that before the industrial era, the region’s late June triple-digit heat was the type that would not have happened in human civilization.” Considering that the record of measured “global” temperatures only starts in 1850 (and it was extremely sketchy until the 1970s), that’s quite an extreme claim. “In human civilization?” “Would not have happened?” Would any reputable scientist support the idea that their model is capable of proving these claims? I rather doubt it.
Further, we’re told by one of the scientists quoted, “This type of extreme heat ‘would go from essentially virtually impossible to relatively commonplace.’” What is that based on? Comparing models of climates past and future to…other models of climates past and future.
Think I’m exaggerating? “The team of scientists…logged observations of what happened and fed them into 21 computer models and ran numerous simulations. They then simulated a world without greenhouse gases from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas. The difference between the two scenarios is the climate change portion.”
“Without climate change this event would not have happened,” said author Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford. Would. Not. Have. Happened. An absolute statement, from an abstract thought exercise.
But not to worry, six other scientists cited (but not all quoted) in the Borenstein piece tell us that the study “made sense,” and if anything, underestimated the situation. How exactly can one say in the same breath that something “makes sense” and yet is known to be an underestimation in several different dimensions and has yet to be explained. But the same is true of all models, which, every year, we are assured, are so much better than previous models, which were all wrong (oddly, always wrong in the same direction of underestimating risk). Even though, at the time, those models, too, were portrayed as the Truth, with a capital T.
So, before you get too worked up about the heatwave on Planet ClimateModel, and buy into government techno-schemes like, banning new gas-powered car sales by 2035, or mandating net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, or “let’s jack up the carbon tax,” take a deep breath and remember that climate models are no more real than concept car models, architectural models, economic forecast models, government budget models, perpetual-motion models or lingerie-clad Instagram influencer models. Actually, the latter might be more real than the former.
Kenneth P. Green is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.