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Climate Forecasts: Intrinsically All For Nought?

It is commonly accepted that all it will take for us to be able to predict future climate, is faster computers with gigantic computing power, in a progression analogous to meteorology’s.

I find that unlikely. And that’s why climate forecasting is likely to go nowhere, just like…alchemy. Not due to anybody’s fault: rather, because it is intrinsically impossible for it to do otherwise.


Climatology is the study of the long term behavior of something that is stable, and predictable, but only until it goes through a state change, perhaps all of a sudden.

Imagine what if anything would nuclear physicists be able to study if there were not even sure if today’s proton-proton accelerators would or would not transform themselves into proton-neutron accelerators, in ten, thirty or a hundred years, thereby completely changing all results and all predictions?

Add to that the climatological possibility, or shall I say the absolute certainty, that in any meaningful (i.e. multi-decadal) period of study, there will be external, uncontrollable, unpredictable inputs such as volcano eruptions and changes in the Sun…as if the energy available to power the LHC would vary at random.

Check for example this statement from German climate scientists, just published on the Süddeutsche Zeitung:

“If we had had 10% more cloudiness over Germany, that would have compensated for the warming of the past 30 years”

In other words, a minor change in a climate detail is enough to modify the end result altogether.


How do you study in a scientifically appropriate manner a system whose simplest scientifically appropriate representation is…itself?

You don’t. You cannot even follow the usual statistical route, because in the long term every possible solution is equally probable. And if you don’t work on the long term, on the decadal or secular scale, then you are not doing climatology.

The problem of climate forecasting is therefore unassailable, just as it is not possible to predict the stock market, another system that is heavily influenced by external factors.

Think of the money thrown for nothing in the financial forecasting route. Then, think of the results.


Of course, the above does not mean that we can not do any climatological study, for example to determine which crops appear to be more suitable for a certain territory…just as one can play the stock market using reasonably objective parameters and computer models without falling necessarily into financial ruin.

But climate forecasting might be the one and only science where “blacks swans”, the events that throw all predictions up in the air, are ironically the one thing that can be predicted.

ADDENDUM 00:27GMT June 5: Isn’t it beautiful to write something on your own in the middle of the night, and then to discover that even Roger Pielke Sr. has just been dealing with a very similar topic?

ADDENDUM #2: There is one point that needs to be clarified in the above.

The climate forecasts I am talking about are multi-decadal. The stuff just criticised by Pielke Sr.  Those, I am educately guessing, are impossible, even if we knew all the physics and we had vast amounts of computing power.

The simplest way to compute the climate of 20-30 or more years in the future, is to build a system at least as complex as the climate own’s . In other words, the Earth’s climate is its own simplest multidecadal computer.

Since “climate” is usually taken as a multi-decadal concept, then perhaps we can move the forecast of what next season will bring, into meteorology.  Of course, before anybody says anything, no, I do not think meteorology is “inferior” to climatology.

ADDENDUM #3: many thanks to Douglas Hoyt for pointing out that Roger Pielke Jr. has just published a blog and article along the same lines of thought

Rather than basing decision-making on a predict (probabilistically of course) then act model, we may have to face up to the fact that skillful prediction of variables of interest to decision makers may simply not be possible. And even if it were possible, we would not be able to identify skill on the same time scales as decisions need to be made. The consequence of this line of argument is that if stationarity is indeed dead, then it has likely taken along with it fanciful notions of foreseeing the future as the basis for optimal actions. Instead, it may be time to rethink how we make decisions in the face of not simply uncertainty, but fundamental and irreducible ignorance

  1. Luke Warmer
    2009/06/11 at 10:10

    Back on topic, I agree with Douglas (and you).

    A proof that has been resurfacing on blogs is that old canard double graph of “here is the temp trend with just natural forcings” and here is the one with CO2. QED it fits.

    Both are from models, and the natural one has been around long enough for it not to include PDO, NAO, AO, El Nino properly (It was a shock for me to even find that El nino could affect global mean temps like 1998). Let alone black carbon, clouds, RHumid, even before we get to the weirder elements like solar cycles, GCR, geomagnetics etc. (and all ignoring the surface stations bit).

    nice link to RP jr.

    The whole thing about the hockey stick for me was that it gave the impression of ‘stationarity’ which when coupled with CO2 levels over the same period made a whole case for ‘oh god we’ve upset the apple cart’ and the rest of this mess. I speak from personal experience as these were usually my opening 2 slides when I was a warmist. (ahem)

    the death of stationarity removes or at least shows the lie to the “since records began” type arguments, my other pet-hate – pre-industrial and finally those who from their vast personal experience say it isn’t like it used to be. The Flaubert quote by you used a while back says it all.

  2. Douglas Hoyt
    2009/06/10 at 22:03

    All the climate models assume that climate will be invariant and stationary unless forced to change by some change in external boundary conditions. However, climate can have regional non-forced internal oscillations (e.g., PDO, NAO, AO, El Nino, and others) and likely sometimes combining globally to cause unforced global changes in climate such as the Medieval Warm Period. None of these oscillations are predicted by the models and they seemed to be specifically programmed to prevent the climate from wandering away from its mean state. Hence, these oscillations invalidate the models.

    Pielke, Jr., today has some comments on the non-stationarity of observed climate changes.

  3. Luke Warmer
    2009/06/10 at 09:16

    I agree it would most likely have to be SF stuff. However, I’m not aware of anything dealing with the collapse of a ‘justified true belief’ as this could likely be for many rather than simply an unjustified religious one.

    Everything by Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut gets my thumbs up. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is also a great start for his work – the belief system of Bokonon in there is great fun. PKD’s work borders on the insane, latterly gets a bit narco-gnostic but is a treasure trove of creative ideas. As well as the (great stories but generally weak films) like Minority Report, next, Total Recall, Paycheck and Blade Runner, you can also find surreal precursors to Terminator (guy goes back in time to kill a rebel leader who turns out to be himself) and even the Truman Show (Psychic guy kept unknowingly in fake tranquil village solves crossword puzzles which reveal to hidden observers where next alien attack on earth will be). Yes you have to deal with precogs and papes but well worth it.

    I have a soft spot for hard-sci fi (as a science guy) so recommend an anthology – “The ascent of wonder” and also Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions books.

    BTW Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller is a great read. Primo Levi is one of the few chemists to write – his periodic table is fascinating.

    Personally, I’ve regressed to reading older classics – currently on the Decameron. I read The Golden notebook by Dorris Lessing with interest since it partly deals with a loss of faith in communism in the 50s. (For non-fiction on the same see The God that Failed – Koestler et al)

    here endeth the book club.

  4. geoff chambers
    2009/06/09 at 17:43

    Many thanks Luke for the reading list, much of it unknown to me. I was thinking more of literary examples of the way a society’s belief system interacts with reality.
    Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” has some Borges-like passages which set you thinking along unfamiliar paths, and I am sure I could find more on the further shores of science fiction. (1984 and the Emperor’s New Clothes are familiar examples of what I mean). I’ll report back if I find anything.
    I agree entirely that use of words like “hoax” and “conspiracy” is unhelpful. It’s easy enough to describe certain mechanisms at work (the incentive for researchers and journalists to accentuate the catastrophic, for example) but difficult to sum it up in a simple descriptive phrase.

  5. Luke Warmer
    2009/06/09 at 10:10

    Maurizio, I believe you, “appropriate representation is…itself?” triggered the memory for me.

    Geoff – nice story – I haven’t heard that one before.
    Re books – although there’s a spate of books by skeptics (2 from the antipodes recently – Plimmer’s Heaven and Earth and one I saw referred to yesterday Air Con by Ian Wishart), along with Lawson’s one and many others.

    However, most of these don’t seem to fit the bill for my perspective which is to get a rational explanation of how the situation has arisen rather than to just argue the scientific facts badly in a polemic. I’m also wary (as we’ve ‘spoken’ before) about anyone who calls this a hoax, and as for the c-word (conspiracy) well that’s crazy (although I do recommend the Illuminatus Trilogy for fun and edification).

    A few more general books (which I think is your request) that I would recommend :

    Media hype: Flat Earth news (nick davies) – how ‘churnalism’ works with a brief but fascinating look at green claims in one part, amongst other subjects.

    Eschatology/panic: The Domesday Syndrome (John Maddox), When Prophecy Fails (Festinger) (although my ordered copy never arrived) but you can read more about the cognitive dissonance idea elsewhere). Then there’s McKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions.

    Science: Science and its fabrication (by Alan Chalmers), The Golem (Collins & Pinch). The first one is heavy going but still good IMHO but probably needs a few reads to grok. The road since structure (T.S.Kuhn) – for the interview at the end, mainly. (I’m embroiled in loads of others but these are a good start). The going does get heavy in this area, leads to the science wars which, despite the melodramatic name, are complex and sometimes paradoxical.

    Persuasion: Influence (Robert Cialdini), Uses of Argument (Stephen Toulmin).

    Finally – some long-run background stuff – Charles Reich’s The greening of America and the Club of Rome’s “The first global revolution”.

    Any other recommendations from your side? (or Maurizio – it’s his blog after all).

  6. geoff chambers
    2009/06/08 at 18:12

    Many thanks to Luke Warmer for the Borges quote. I’ve been advocating psychology as a possible source of explanation for the Warmist cult, with little success. The odder corners of literature would probably be a better place to look.
    The 4th century Greek writer Athenaeus in his Deipnosophists, describes a man who, in a bout of madness, imagined that all the world’s ships belonged to him. He spent his days down at the port surveying his untold wealth arriving on every tide. When he recovered his senses, he said: “Those were the happiest days of my life”. I imagine a climate modeller who knows the temperature in 2100 down to a tenth of a degree must get a similar sense of satisfaction.

    How about a reading list for sceptics? I know there’s a hefty historical literature on millenial cults, etc, but for fun reading I think I’d start with:
    Diogenes Laertius: Lives of the Philosophers (or there’s nowt so daft as intellectuals)
    Lives of the Desert Fathers (or how to reduce your carbon footprint to that of a one-legged nematode)
    Any more suggestions?

  7. Luke Warmer
    2009/06/08 at 09:01

    Your post on models, coupled with my own pondering on the complexity and sheer scale of the earth’s climatesphere reminded me of the following:

    “On Exactitude in Science. In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. ”

    from Borges short story (and it is short – the quote above is half of it).

    In my climate fantasy re-write, the computers holding the model would give off so much heat that (with a wink to Heisenberg’s UP) they would actually be influencing the climate.

    • 2009/06/08 at 19:37

      Would you believe it Luke, I searched and found the Borges quote before posting my article, but then proceeded to forget including it 8)

  8. 2009/06/08 at 04:33

    I guess you are saying that it is hard to predict? Lots of people seem to be basing things more on dogma than science.

    While I’m convinced that climate change is very real, I am concerned about the retreat from the term global warming that we have been seeing. Certainly it’s more complex than that, and we are seeing climate extremes that can’t be simply described by the phrase “warming” Still, I’m afraid that it looks like we are retreating and admitting that the world is not warming.

    Climate Change for our childrens’ future.

  1. 2009/06/09 at 00:39

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