Will Progress in Climatology Affect Mitigation Policy?

Will progress in climatology affect mitigation policy? Not very much, no.

“Steven Chu, the new secretary of energy, said Wednesday that solving the world’s energy and environment problems would require Nobel-level breakthroughs in three areas: electric batteries, solar power and the development of new crops that can be turned into fuel.”

according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Note what he doesn’t mention: supercomputing, climate modeling, earth system modeling frameworks. Dr. Chu is putting his attention in the right places.

It can be argued that climatology is not an important input into climate change related policy. It is premature to take climatological input into account in adaptation strategy, while on the other hand as far as mitigation goes (i.e., on the global scale) the picture has pretty much stayed about the same for some substantial time.

Many readers will find this peculiar. Certain sorts of denialists are arguing that the tide has turned against the IPCC consensus over the last couple of years. With regard to that, nothing has changed; they have been making similar statements for twenty years. Certain sorts of alarmists meanwhile are emphasizing how things have gotten so much worse, but again these sorts of claims are nothing new. The fact is that things are pretty much about as bad as we have thought for a long time, except on the sea level rise front, where relatively new insights into ice sheet dynamics and new data about sudden postglacial sea level rise in the past raise the possibility of rapid changes in sea level.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that ice sheet modeling will make sufficient progress to constrain the behavior of ice sheets effectively. It is certainly worth a try.

On the other hand, consider this. Carefully targeted expenditures on science can be effective, but you cannot hire nine women to make a baby in a month. Intellectual progress can reach some maximum rate but then it reaches a point where more manpower and more funding is just redundant.

Some problems in earth science are undecidable. We may never understand the ocean circulation of the Eocene, much though we might want to.

My guess is that the most likely outcome is that there will be several viable scenarios for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet until one of them occurs. Maybe Greenland will turn out to be a tad less capricious, but we don’t know that for sure yet either.

As for aerosols, (and as for clouds, and so on) yes improvements can perhaps narrow the uncertainty of climate prediction a bit, and I’m happy to be helping out in that regard, but the chances of the first order picture changing very much are slim.

The real issues are environmental, agricultural and civil engineering problems, and the response issues are in the social, political, economic and geopolitical realms.

Climatology is a worthy pursuit in itself as a pure science. As far as application goes, if geoengineering is necessary you will need to rely on huge advancement in the field. Possibly we can improve our abilities for local and regional predictions, which would add a lot of value to adaptation startegies. So by all means support climatology, but don’t look to us for input into what needs doing now on the mitigation front.

We have said our piece and it is unlikely to change, not because we are stubborn, but because there are some things we understand pretty well. And certainly not because we are in it for the gold. The big money is not heading our way, nor should it.

PS from the same article:

Dr. Chu said he was still adjusting to his surroundings and title after most of a career spent as an academic scientist. Asked whether he preferred to be called “Dr. Chu” or “Mr. Secretary,” he answered, “Steve is fine.”

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Reading List about Climate Change (not "global warming")

Another reason to use the expression “climate change” rather than “global warming” is it’s a far more fruitful search term. Amazon’s hits on “climate change” are dramatically more useful, though Singer and Michaels do turn up. I discovered this in responding to a query this morning from a nonspecialist about what to read after “Inconvenient Truth” to learn more.

Here’s my first pass at a response. Suggestions anyone?
If you have the patience, there is no better source than the IPCC itself, especially working group 1. Start with the summary for policymakers.

Somewhat easier reading is Elizabeth Kolbert’s book “Field Notes from a Catastrophe”.

There are a couple of other excellent pop science books I know of that give a lot of context:

Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker

Update: Some good suggestions in the comments. Also here’s a nice Amazon list.

Plows, Plagues and Petroleum by Warren Ruddiman

All of the blogs on my blogroll are well-informed, and they span a spectrum of opinion, so that’s another place to start.

tropical storms and extreme climate change

Matt Huber and his student Ryan Sriver are onto some interesting ideas about tropical storms to say the least. Following on some ideas of Kerry Emanuel’s they are arguing that there are no ifs or buts about it. If their argument, which looks pretty solid to me, is correct, increased tropical cyclone activity is inevitable in a warming scenario. If you have access to the May 31 issue of Nature you can look up the original article.

Matt also points me to this nice summary of the PETM climate crisis of 55 million years ago, including some of the implications of his work, so I thought I’d share.