Uncertainty

Part 5 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

Scientists can never say that something is 100% certain, but they can come pretty close. After a while, a theory becomes so strong that the academic community accepts it and moves on to more interesting problems. Replicating an experiment for the thousandth time just isn’t a good use of scientific resources. For example, conducting a medical trial to confirm that smoking increases one’s risk of cancer is no longer very useful; we covered that decades ago. Instead, a medical trial to test the effectiveness of different strategies to help people quit smoking will lead to much greater scientific and societal benefit.

In the same manner, scientists have known since the 1970s that human emissions of greenhouse gases are exerting a warming force on the climate. More recently, the warming started to show up, in certain patterns that confirm it is caused by our activities. These facts are no longer controversial in the scientific community (the opinion pages of newspapers are another story, though). While they will always have a tiny bit of uncertainty, it’s time to move on to more interesting problems. So where are the real uncertainties? What are the new frontiers of climate science?

First of all, projections of climate change depend on what the world decides to do about climate change – a metric that is more uncertain than any of the physics underlying our understanding of the problem. If we collectively step up and reduce our emissions, both quickly and significantly, the world won’t warm too much. If we ignore the problem and do nothing, it will warm a great deal. At this point, our actions could go either way.

Additionally, even though we know the world is going to warm, we don’t know exactly how much, even given a particular emission scenario. We don’t know exactly how sensitive the climate system is, because it’s quite a complex beast. However, using climate models and historical data, we can get an idea. Here is a probability density function for climate sensitivity: the greater the area under the curve at a specific point on the x-axis, the greater the probability that the climate sensitivity is equal to that value of x (IPCC, 2007):

This curve shows us that climate sensitivity is most likely around 3 degrees Celsius for every doubling of atmospheric carbon dixoide, since that’s where the area peaks. There’s a small chance that it’s less than that, so the world might warm a little less. But there’s a greater chance that climate sensitivity is greater than 3 degrees so the world will warm more. So this graph tells us something kind of scary: if we’re wrong about climate sensitivity being about 3 degrees, we’re probably wrong in the direction we don’t want – that is, the problem being worse than we expect. This metric has a lot to do with positive feedbacks (“vicious cycles” of warming) in the climate system.

Another area of uncertainty is precipitation. Temperature is a lot easier to forecast than precipitation, both regionally and globally. With global warming, the extra thermal energy in the climate system will lead to more water in the air, so there will be more precipitation overall – but the extra energy also drives evaporation of surface water to increase. Some areas will experience flooding, and some will experience drought; many areas will experience some of each, depending on the time of year. In summary, we will have more of each extreme when it comes to precipitation, but the when and where is highly uncertain.

Scientists are also unsure about the rate and extent of future sea level rise. Warming causes the sea to rise for two different reasons:

  1. Water expands as it warms, which is easy to model;
  2. Glaciers and ice sheets melt and fall into the ocean, which is very difficult to model.

If we cause the Earth to warm indefinitely, all the ice in the world will turn into water, but we won’t get that far (hopefully). So how much ice will melt, and how fast will it go? This depends on feedbacks in the climate system, glacial dynamics, and many other phenomena that are quantitatively poorly understood.

These examples of uncertainty in climate science, just a few of many, don’t give us an excuse to do nothing about the problem. As Brian, a Master’s student from Canada, wrote, “You don’t have to have the seventh decimal place filled in to see that the number isn’t looking good.”. We know that there is a problem, and it might be somewhat better or somewhat worse than scientists are currently predicting, but it won’t go away. As we noted above, in many cases it’s more likely to be worse than it is to be better. Even a shallow understanding of the implications of “worse” should be enough for anyone to see the necessity of action.

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A Conversation with Gavin Schmidt

Cross-posted from NextGenJournal

Dr. Gavin Schmidt is a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, as well as the editor at RealClimate. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Schmidt, one of the top scientists in his field, on what we can expect from the climate in the coming decades. Here is the entirety of the interview we completed for my article Climate Change and Young People.

Kate: In a business-as-usual scenario, what range of warming can we expect within the lifetimes of today’s young people – so to about 2070 or 2080?

Gavin: Well, we don’t have a perfect crystal ball for exactly what “business-as-usual” means, but the kind of projections that people have been looking at – which involve quite high increases in population and minimal changes in technology – you are talking about global temperature changes, by about 2070, of somewhere between two, three, five degrees Celsius, depending a little bit on the scenario, and a little bit on how sensitive the climate actually is.

That metric is a bit abstract to most people, so how will that amount of warming actually impact people’s lives?

That’s a very good question, because most people don’t live in the global mean temperature, or the global mean anything. Those kinds of numbers translate to larger changes, between four and six degrees of warming, over the land. As you go towards the poles it becomes larger as well, because of the amplifying feedbacks of ice albedo changes and reductions in snow cover.

Right now the range between a cold summer and a warm summer, in most mid-latitude places, is on the order of a couple of degrees. You’ll be looking at summers then – the normal summer then – will be warmer than the warmest summers that you have now, and significantly warmer than the coldest summers. The same will be true in winter time and other seasons.

How will that impact metrics such as agriculture, food prices, the economy…?

It’s easy enough to say that there are going to be some impacts – obviously agriculture depends on the climate that exists. People will adapt to that, they’ll plant earlier, but crops are very sensitive to peak summer temperatures. So you’ll see losses in the fatally sensitive crops. But then you’ll see movement north of crops that were grown further south. You have to deal with the other changes – in nutrient balances, water availability, soil quality. We’re not talking about just moving the subtropics further toward the poles.

Lots of other things are going to change as well. Pests travel much faster with climate than do other kinds of species: invasive species tend to increase faster, because they’re moving into an empty niche, than species that are already well established. There’s going to be changes to rainfall regimes, whether it snows or rains, how heavily it rains – a lot of those things will tax infrastructure.

You’ve got changes for people living on the coast related to sea level rise. That will lead to changes in the damaging effects of storm surges when any particular storm comes through. We’re also looking at more subtle changes to the storms themselves, which could even amplify that effect.

How much of this warming, and these impacts, are now inevitable? Do we have the ability to prevent most of it, and what would that take?

Some further changes are inevitable. The system has so much inertia, and it hasn’t even caught up with what we’ve put into the atmosphere so far. As it continues to catch up, even if we don’t do anything else to the atmosphere from now on, we’ll still see further warming and further changes to the climate. But we do have a choice as to whether we try and minimize these changes in the future, or we allow the maximum change to occur. And the maximum changes really are very large. It’s been said that if we allow that to happen, we’ll end up living on a different planet, and I think there’s some certain truth to that.

I hear you talking a lot about uncertainty, and that’s something a lot of people are paralyzed by: they don’t want us to take these actions because they think everything might be fine on its own. What’s your response to that attitude?

Any decision that you’re making now that has to do with the future is uncertain. We make decisions all the time: where to invest money, whether to buy a house – these things aren’t certain, and we still have to make decisions. The issue with climate is that no action is a decision in and of itself. That one is actually laden with far more uncertainty than if we actually try and produce energy more efficiently, try and use more renewables, adjust the way we live so that we have a more sustainable future. The uncertainty comes with what would happen if we don’t make a decision, and I find that to be the dominant uncertainty. But climate change is not unique in having to deal with decision making under uncertainty. All decisions are like that. It’s nothing special about climate change in that there’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the future. Any time we decide to do anything, there’s uncertainty about the future, yet we still manage to get out of bed in the morning.

Probably in response to this attitude, climate science has got a lot of bad press in the past couple years. What have your experiences been – what sort of reactions have there been to your research?

There are a lot of people, particularly in the US, who perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests. To my mind, knowing what’s going on in the planet and trying to understand why should just be information, it shouldn’t be a threat. But other people see it as a threat, and instead of dealing with either their perceptions or what the science actually means, they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists. Basically, you just have people adopting a “shoot the messenger” strategy, which plays well in the media. It doesn’t get us very far in terms of better understanding what’s going on. But it does add a sort of smokescreen to divert people’s attention from what the real issues are. That’s regrettable, but I don’t think it’s at all surprising.

And finally, are you at all optimistic about the future?

It depends on the day.

Uncertain Science….Uncertain World

Several months ago, I wrote a generally favourable review of geophysicist Dr. Henry Pollack’s newest book, A World Without Ice. So when I came across his earlier book, which was about the nature of the scientific process  – something that fascinates me – I couldn’t wait to read it.

Uncertain Science, Uncertain World is about uncertainty in science, as you may have guessed from the title, and it is absolutely fantastic. If you’re pressed for time, just read the first three chapters – they’re the best. They discuss how the public’s tendency to “equate science with certainty, rather than uncertainty” has been fed by the American school system and the mass media, and what the consequences are.

He talks about how everyone is born a scientist, how children observe the world around them with a fierce curiosity, instinctively exploring and experimenting. Then they go to school, and decide that science is boring. In elementary school, and to some extent in high school, science is presented as a memorization of facts and theories, rather than an exploration of the boundaries of and barriers to our knowledge, which is what scientists actually study. “Science is presented as answers rather than questions,” Pollack writes.

I couldn’t agree more. I wasn’t always the self-professed science addict that I am now. Until I reached high school, I thought that science was dry and boring, and until I started researching climate change, I didn’t see the creativity and problem-solving in it. In science class you memorize facts and do calculations, so it’s very hard for students to realize how cool it is to discover facts and derive calculations, rather than just repeating what someone else did before you. Intelligence is defined as how many facts you can stuff into your head, not how good you are at figuring things out for yourself.

The media doesn’t help, either. Pollack explores the well-known ails of science journalism, and the stigma against public communication in the scientific community. He shares a great example of how the media turned an amateur earthquake prediction, with no support from geologists, into a national frenzy that led to evacuations and the closure of schools. Mainstream journalists, in general, are not good at assessing credibility for scientific issues, but their influence on the public is so great that frequent mistakes by journalists lead to worldwide misconceptions.

This public illusion of certainty, in a field that actually thrives on uncertainty, can be easily exploited by vested interests. “When scientists acknowledge that they do not know everything about a complex natural phenomenon,” writes Pollack, “the public sometimes translates that to mean that scientists do not know anything about the subject,” and, for issues such as climate change, there are many people actively encouraging this jump in logic.

After the stellar beginning, the rest of the book is somewhat more mediocre, albeit still enjoyable. Pollack uses a series of examples and metaphors to explain irreducible measurement error, confidence expressed as statistical probability, conceptual and numerical models, experimentation, and forecasting vs hindcasting. As Pollack is currently studying how rocks retain heat and provide a record of past temperatures that can be used as proxy paleo data, facets of climate science are used as examples in nearly every chapter, and the last chapter of the book is devoted to climate change. However, he also uses examples from economics, plate tectonics, election polling, and the legal system. It is truly a multidisciplinary approach that will appeal to scientists and science enthusiasts from every field. Highly recommended to all.