Watt about the failure of the climate models?

There is an interesting news item in Nature about how an attempt to do short-term climate modelling has been largely unsuccessful. The article says

In preparation for the IPCC report, the first part of which is due out in September, some 16 teams ran an intensive series of decadal forecasting experiments with climate models. Over the past two years, a number of papers based on these exercises have been published, and they generally predict less warming than standard models over the near term.

Unsurprisingly, Watts Up With That (WUWT) has a post called Quote of the week – Nature on the failure of climate models in which they make a big deal of this Nature news item.

One issue, though, is that the “failure” of these models is no big surprise. Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard’s Institute for Space Studies – who declined to participate in this study – is quoted as saying

Although I have nothing against this endeavour as a research opportunity, the papers so far have mostly served as a ‘disproof of concept’.

So, from the article, it’s clear that there is a reasonable amount of disagreement about the merits of such a study. This is perfectly natural part of science. Would be rather dull if everyone agreed. Also, noone quoted in the article seems to think that the “failure” of these models has any real significance with respect to global warming.

There is, however, clearly some confusion as to why surface temperatures have not risen as fast as models predicted and it was the discussion of this that I thought – at times – was quite poor in the article. The author of one of the teams is quoted as saying

“It’s fair to say that the real world warmed even less than our forecast suggested,” Smith says. “We don’t really understand at the moment why that is.”

In addition to the quote I included at the beginning of this post, the article also says

Yet with the stalled warming now approaching its 15th year, researchers are seeking some deeper explanation.

The problem I have is that, overall, there is evidence that the warming hasn’t stalled. The ocean heat content has continued to rise. The volume of arctic ice is decreasing rapidly. Strictly speaking, the world hasn’t really warmed more slowly than expected. What has happened is that global surface temperatures have risen more slowly than expected. In some parts of the article they do make this very clear and if one reads the article carefully, it’s quite clear what is being discussed.

The problem is that many who are skeptical of global warming/climate change regularly claim that the slowdown in the rise of global surface temperatures proves that global warming has stopped, or that global warming theory has failed. When you try to point out that global warming is about increasing energy in the climate system and that surface temperatures are only associated with a few percent of this excess energy, they point to articles like this and cherry pick comments that associate the slowdown in the rise of surface temperatures with a slowdown in warming. In context, it’s fine, but we’re dealing with people who, by and large, don’t want to understand the context.

In an ideal world, the Nature news article would be perfectly fine. It’s fairly clear what the article is about and anyone who is confused could simply ask for clarification. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where people want the slower than expected rise in surface temperatures to be proof that global warming has stopped. Given this, it seems that we should be very clear about how we describe the relationship between surface temperatures and global warming and should, in my opinion, try not to associate the slowdown in the rise in surface temperatures with a slowdown in global warming (unless that is what the science is telling us).

In truth, I’m not really all that critical of the author of the article or the people quoted. The real problem is those who don’t wish to understand the science of global warming. Given the existence of such people though does make it important that those who discuss global warming do their best to do so in a manner that cannot then be used to ultimately contradict what they were trying to say in the first place. Of course, I can’t claim to not have made some mistakes like this myself.

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14 Responses to Watt about the failure of the climate models?

  1. The Pacific Oscillation has been strongly La Nina based. The fact that we’ve still had warming despite this should be cause for concern, not wonderment. The atmospheric warming will come back in a huge jump once the Oscillation switches back to El Nino. In any case, the next El Nino year is likely to be the hottest on record.

  2. uknowispeaksense says:

    You have hit the nail on the head. Deniers like watts and his bootlickers make a choice to reject the evidence and quote mine reports like this. It is deliberate dishonesty.

  3. Rachel says:

    Yes, I think scientists by and large need to improve their communication with the media. People are very quick to conclude that when scientists refer to a temperature hiatus, this is somehow proof that global warming is wrong and not happening. It would be much better to point out that a slowdown in the rise of global temperatures is not indicative of an end to global warming and that there’s much more to climate change than just temperature change.

    The World Meteorological Organisation released a report very recently and if you look at the first graph on this page – http://www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/pr_976_en.html – it really does not support the idea that warming has stopped.

  4. Exactly, it seems that it will soon be very obvious that the concerns about global warming are very real. Those who don’t want to believe that will, however, still find some reason to undermine what the science is saying.

  5. I think you’re right that scientists do need to improve their communication, especially in this area. Easier said than done though. Climate science is in a rather unique position in terms of the level of public dialogue and the clear attempt by some to undermine what the scientists are trying to say. I suspect that even if they were incredibly careful about how they described their science, some would still find something to criticise.

  6. Also, they go on about how we should base our views on the science but if you attempt to correct their understanding of the science they point at some cherry-picked statement in an article or document as evidence that your correction is wrong.

  7. Lars Karlsson says:

    On top of that, the TSI has been far below normal values for a solar minimum since 2006, and is only recently starting to recover.

  8. Exactly, there’s a very good Lockwood paper that makes this case very clearly.

  9. True. Low solar activity plus persistent la Nina, in normal conditions, would make for a colder climate. And we’re still warming, albeit much more slowly.

  10. We’re already experiencing a drastic increase in the instances of extreme weather. More and more people are paying attention. That’s why the deniers have become so shrill.

  11. It certainly seems that way and I suspect that it will get worse before it gets better.

  12. t_p_hamilton says:

    If scientists understood the short term fluctuations, they could either make short term forecasts, or know the reasons why such is a pipe dream.

  13. I suspect they understand the short-term fluctuations better than you realise. In a sense the reason why many were reluctant to get involved in this particular study was because they knew that it was going to be difficult to produce accurate short-term forecasts. One can know how something works without knowing precisely how to include it in a complicated global circulation model.

  14. Tom Curtis says:

    The more sensible scientists (eg, Schmidt) know why it is a pipe dream. At scales less than a decade, global surface temperature is dominated by ENSO, and ENSO states can only be predicted with any skill less than one year in advance. There are also other relevant factors (rate of volcanic activity, solar activity) which are also not yet effectively predictable. These factors are all effectively stable in the long term over recent geological history (the last few million years) and so can be assumed to have minor effect on long term predictions, but not on short term predictions.

    This does not mean there is not a sensible reason for these experiments, but it is not long term weather forecasting.

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