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Can we trust climate models?

Posted by on June 10, 2013

Climate change. Photo by Nick Russill, Flickr Creative Commons.By Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology

On Friday I attended an extremely interesting discussion at the Cheltenham Science Festival on ‘can we trust climate models?’.

Our climate is influenced by a vast number of inputs and feedback loops, from ocean currents to changes in albedo. Based on these complex factors, climate models have to make predictions about air temperature, sea levels, ice cover and more. That’s before we even introduce the uncertainty of how humans will change greenhouse gas concentrations.

Tamsin Edwards (climate scientist and blogger at All Models are Wrong) and Jonathan Jones (physicist at the University of Oxford) debated whether, even as climate models improve, we should trust them to predict the future. Tamsin remained confident, while Jonathan was sceptical.

Unsurprisingly, some kind of stale mate was soon reached, with the answer of “we’ll have to wait and see”. It’s true, we don’t know whether our predictions will play out. However, “I’ll tell you in 10-20 years’ time” isn’t of much use to policy makers.

Claire Craig from Government Office for Science explained that she can’t discuss the graph of changing global temperature every time a policy decision is needed, and she can’t wait for models to be perfect.

We started with the question of how well models and reality align, and were left with the question of how well reality, models and policy align.

The discussion with the audience was fascinating, and I would be very interested to hear your views.

Based on the level of uncertainty within our models, do you think our level of response to climate change is appropriate? Many of the vocal members in the audience felt that as we can’t be sure how climate change will affect us, we shouldn’t do anything which will, as they put it, harm us now.

If we act now based on our current predictions, we need to constantly review the evidence as new data comes available and models improve. Scientists and policy makers have to be ready to change their views.

Do you think scientists are too reluctant to change their minds? And does that go for everyone? Politicians included?

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