Computer Climate Models — A Masochist’s Best Friend

A new paper out of Duke, Stanford, and the Environmental Defense Fund, promises that California will have a hard time fulfilling its carbon sequestration targets if climate keeps changing at the terrifying pace it has of late. Using computer models to prove its claims, if not its logic (since it has none), the paper had the usual effect that such glorified press releases do on your correspondent.

Leaving aside the fact that carbon sequestration is a bad idea, in response to questionable science, the idea that newspaper space is occupied by model-driven climate analyses day in and day out is, I admit, hard to take. Why, you ask? Well, I happen to have addressed that very question in my spiffy new book. And, if you’re very, very nice, or even if you just keep reading, you’ll see why.

Let’s start with a picture!

Computer models have come to replace reality in the public debate about climate. NASA’s “Columbia” supercomputer, Mountain View, California, 2006.

That’s a big boy! Must have something interesting to say about climate change! You bet he does! As I write in Don’t Sell Your Coat:

Using the most powerful supercomputers in existence, modelers strain to generate even faintly accurate climate forecasts, simply for lack of computing power. The ocean-atmosphere system is that complicated. Among the items that the models must attempt to compute: highly complex, poorly understood deep-sea currents; the effects of aerosols (fine pollution particles) on cloud formation; the effect of black carbon pollution on the melt rate of snow and ice, especially in the Arctic; solar radiation (via an effect known as solar dimming); volcanic eruptions; the effect of air masses of different pressure on either side of mountains (a process known as mountain torque); variations in wind patterns, particularly of trade winds that lead to El Niños and La Niñas; variations in albedo, which is the extent to which the Earth’s surface and atmosphere (ice sheets, clouds, oceans, forests, deserts, cities, farms, rivers, and lakes) reflect radiation back to space; and, finally, solar variation, including a controversial secondary effect of the Sun’s shifting phases on cloud formation in our atmosphere. Every one of these variable quantities is being debated in the scientific literature…

Meanwhile, computers this size slurp up electricity at staggering rates. The supercomputer dedicated to climate used by the United Kingdom Met Office is the single largest consumer of electricity in the UK! Every last one of the giant computers churns out pronouncements that regular people, ones like you and me, need to shrink our carbon footprints. This isn’t just hypocrisy, it’s super-hypocrisy, on a level the world has rarely, if ever, seen before.

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About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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5 Responses to Computer Climate Models — A Masochist’s Best Friend

  1. Jack Savage says:

    It is comforting to have a little confirmation of something I pretty much worked out for myself. Bookmarked for future use whenever I am faced with someone defending these remarkable artifacts. There is every reason to try and build them…but no reason (as yet) to base far-reaching political and social policy on them!

  2. Alex says:

    There is much less chaos and uncertainties in predicitng the future values of shares than in predicting climate variability. However nobody ever developed computer models upon which one would risk investing his life savings. So why should I believe computer models that predict cartastrophic climate change? I’d rather believe that the past is a good indicator of the future. Coolings followed by warmings followed by coolings and so on an so forth………

  3. Your percentages are wrong – using your area figures, Texas is 7.59% of the area of the USA, and is 0.136% of the area of the Earth. The USA (again, on your figures) is 13.17 times the size of Texas – is this where the 13.2 came from? Having said that, I agree with your argument 100%. (verified using a supercomputer – my brain).

    • Harold Ambler says:

      You’ve done me a huge favor. Thank you. Texas does occupy slightly less than half a percentage point of Earth’s surface area, but the book showed the wrong figure for the entire planet, which I evidently miscopied, and I have used this opportunity to tidy up the entire paragraph a bit. Thus, revisions of the book will be much improved, and so thank you again!

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