Term Paper: Analyzing 2 Viewpoints

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Science and Skepticism: Climate Change Modeling

It has become apparent, since the release of the IPCC report on Climate Change, that there is a growing consensus in the scientific community that the effects of global warming are real and that there is a significantly high degree of certainty that those effects can be traced back to anthropogenic causes. Yet despite this massing consensus, there are still very vocal critics of global warming science, so called climate change skeptics. Derided by environmentalists as shills for corporate interests and Big Oil, the skeptics are nonetheless well organized and well informed. Their arguments are placed side-by-side with those of noted climate change scientists by the media, usually on a one-to-one basis, giving the public the impression that the scientific community is literally split down the middle on the issue of climate change and its causes.

While it is certainly not my intention to feed into this erroneous assumption that denies the growing scientific consensus on climate change, it is important that we at least consider the arguments and positions of climate change skeptics. After all, science is not run by consensus or by vote. If that were the case, many of the greatest discoveries in the history of science would never have occurred because mainstream science denied their claims. At the same time, we must be careful not to give too much credence to the scientific underdog just because he is the underdog. Science moves forward on the basis of falsifiable hypotheses. This is the measure by which we must judge scientists and their theories -- both those who conclude anthropogenic climate change is real and those who are skeptical of such conclusions.

The purpose of this work, then, is to analyze the positions of two researchers who are opposed on their views of climate change. Specifically, I will consider their positions in light of several significant differences the two have, primarily on the issue of computer modeling. The first S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist at George Mason University. On global warming, he argues that "the scenarios are alarmist, computer models reflect real gaps in climate knowledge, and future warming will inconsequential or modest at most" (Singer). On the other side of the fence is Tom Wigley, a climatologist and senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who commands a wide array of evidence to support his claims regarding climate change. I will consider the position of each on the issues of computer modeling and the potential impact of climate change, drawing on outside research to demonstrate which position has the greater likelihood of being correct.

The first issue to consider is computer modeling, which most climate change scientists must regularly rely on in order to make useful sense of the potential long-term impacts of recent changes in the Earth's climate system. Wigley points out that climate models are not unlike weather models, only that they operate on much longer time scales. In other words, the models won't tell you what will happen for certain, but rather what is the most probable outcome based on all of the available data (Wigley). This is why weather forecasters say that there will be a 40% chance of snow tomorrow afternoon, rather than saying it is an absolute certainty that exactly 2.3" of snow will fall from the sky between 2:30pm and 3:15pm.

The issue is that when we are dealing with models that work on systemic averages, there is a certain degree of uncertainty and ambiguity built into the model itself. Climate change skeptics like Singer immediately prey upon this uncertainty. He argues that the models are too ambiguous and seemingly contradictory to warrant our support. Different models produced by different scientists to account for different data sets cannot even necessarily agree on the same things, therefore the models cannot be trusted. Singer even goes so far as to imply that we cannot trust the scientists who construct these models because they could tweak the models to produce the results they want, seemingly in order to impress their climate change colleagues and ensure funding for other projects (Singer). Of course, such a claim borders on slanderous and cannot be rightfully considered a mark in favor of Singer's position. Wigley responds generally, "Cooking the books would be a concern if that was what scientists were apt to do. But I don't think scientists generally behave that way" (Wigley). In fact, if we accept that scientists will do anything to ensure their next paycheck, then the integrity of the scientific process is lost and claims by all scientists -- Singer included -- cannot be trusted.

Singer does, however, place specific emphasis on the apparent inability of the climate models to account for the data that has already been amassed, most notably from weather satellites, in which Singer places greater faith. For example, the global climate seems to have warmed from 1900 to 1940, cooled from then until 1975, warmed from 1975 to 1979, and then cooled again to at least the end of the twentieth century (Singer). Superficially, this pattern seems inconsistent with the models' basic premise that human activity has been fueling climate change. If that were the case, shouldn't increased human activity in the last century have caused relatively linear increases in global temperatures? To that Wigley has a direct response. He notes that even that variability can be consistent with the climate models, especially when we consider the nature of human activity over that period. He contends that modeling climate change is much more complex than expecting a one-to-one ratio based on a single causative factor, as Singer implies. Instead, even human activity produces elements that will both exasperate and counter any warming trend.

In particular the combination of carbon dioxide and sulfate aerosols is an important case in point. Carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas, tends to have the effect of increasing global temperatures in greater concentrations. But sulfate aerosols, when released into the atmosphere can actually block incoming solar radiation and produce a cooling trend (Wigley). Thus, from 1900 to 1945, carbon dioxide levels increased without an increase in sulfate aerosols, resulting in warming. As aerosols became more common, their influence was felt in the next cooling trend. By the mid-1970s, though, sulfate aerosols like CFCs were being phased out, which could account for the spike in global temperatures. Then, by the 1980s, we saw increases in development in countries like India and China, which would have increased the use of these aerosols and potentially produced a mild cooling trend (Wigley).

Singer, of course, falls back on his argument that the climate models currently in use are simply not sophisticated enough to produce results that can be trusted. To some degree, he has a point. A new study that tested the integrity of climate models went back to the 1970s to attempt to model climate and wildlife patterns in 1991. The results were not encouraging. The ability of any of the sixteen models used to singly predict correctly was very poor ("First Test"). Though it is of significance that the researchers discovered a solution: by creating a consensus model of alternative model comparisons, they were able to produce predictions that were accurate 75% of the time. Despite this, Singer's cautions about placing too much trust in climate models is well-stated:

And the models very clearly show that the climate right now should be warming at about the rate of one degree Fahrenheit per decade, in the middle troposphere, that is, above the surface. But that's not what the observations show. So until the observations and the models agree, or until one or the other is resolved it's very difficult [...] to believe in the predictive power of the current models. (Singer)

Notably, however, three recent studies have taken Singer up on his challenge and demonstrated that the warming that the models have been predicting is happening, at least in the troposphere above the tropics. The single dataset from weather satellites that had shown atmospheric cooling where it should have been warming has now been challenged and incorporated into the models. These three studies illustrate that the observations are now consistent with the most up-to-date climate models, a fact that takes some of the edge off of Singer's concerns.

Finally, we must consider the division that exists over the matter of how much of an issue climate change actually is. The skeptics contend that if it is occurring, it won't be nearly as much as a threat as we are made to believe. Quoting a University of Maryland study and one from NASA Goddard Institute, Ronald Bailey suggests that the impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gases may not be responsible for the majority of the temperature increase of the last century and therefore may not be as much of a threat as we would otherwise assume (Bailey 10-12). Singer tends to agree. He states, "The fact that climate changes is not in itself a threat, because, obviously, in the past human… [END OF PREVIEW]

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