Monday, 22 September 2014

Climate science is probably not a conspiracy for more research funding

Yesterday I ran across an interesting essay in the Wall Street Journal written by former Obama administration science official Steven Koonin, which was entitled Climate Science is Not Settled. Koonin begins his essay by acknowledging the role human activity has played in climate change:
There is little doubt in the scientific community that continually growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due largely to carbon-dioxide emissions from the conventional use of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate. There is also little doubt that the carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere for several centuries.
However, he goes on to expostulate the notion that scientists have a clear and comprehensive understanding of future climate change:
We often hear that there is a "scientific consensus" about climate change. But as far as the computer models go, there isn't a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences.
Toward the end of the essay, he stresses the need for further research:
An international commitment to a sustained global climate observation system would generate an ever-lengthening record of more precise observations. And increasingly powerful computers can allow a better understanding of the uncertainties in our models, finer model grids and more sophisticated descriptions of the processes that occur within them. The science is urgent, since we could be caught flat-footed if our understanding does not improve more rapidly than the climate itself changes. 
I have no idea whether Koonin's scepticism about climate models is representative of current scientific thinking. However, his essay got me thinking about the oft-heard claim that the only reason why some scientists have raised the alarm over climate change is to make safe their own funding. In particular, it made me realise how difficult it is to square this claim with the facts. If climate scientists were simply trying to secure more money for themselves, the rational thing for them to do would be to promote the idea that there was little scientific consensus over climate change. After all, the case for shuttling additional research dollars into climate science would be much weaker if there wasn't any argument left to settle.

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