The Infant Science

I don’t want to sound overly critical of climate science, as the news coming out is much better being reported than ignored. I’m glad research is uncovering new and important things–maybe we really are getting our money’s worth, even if the sums spent on climate research seem very high.

When it was announced two years ago that black carbon had been determined to be one of the largest forcings of climate change (the soot from chimneys in the North fall on snow, changing the surface’s albedo and hastening its melt, which… also exposes the ground below, further changing the albedo), I wrote that it was remarkable that the second largest component of climate change was discovered so late.

I put it down to climate studies being an example of an ‘infant science’. I got a lot of flack for that, as people equated ‘infant’ with juvenile behavior or something similar. But it’s a professional term that has been used before to describe fields of study in the initial stages, where everything is new and exciting and those working in it are finding important things rather than refining at the margins.


Recent news reinforces my impression–Watt’s Up With That refers us to a study in Geophysical Research Letters asserting that the new generation (CMIP 5) of climate models have programmed in a rather large error in calculating how solar radiation is calculated at the top of the atmosphere, with unsurprising large impacts on the results of these models.

Those with a consensus view of climate science have been resisting skeptical criticism of model performance ever since temperatures plateaued 15 or so years ago. If the findings of this paper hold up, those defences may become a bit more strained.

Almost at the same time, Climate Etc. refers us to another paper that includes an inherent critism of model performance in measuring planetary albedo, which the paper finds to be symmetrical between the northern and southern hemispheres, but is treated differently by climate models.

It is good for climate science to keep improving and I want to applaud these papers. It makes climate science better and we all want that.

However, that matters of such (apparent–it’s early days) magnitude with regard to their impacts on our understanding of both climate and climate change are being discovered now only emphasizes how far we have to go before climate science is settled in any sense of the word.

We are still learning more about some of the basics. Let’s keep doing it, but let’s also remember this before we assume an authoritarian tone in discussing the ramifications of human caused climate change, okay?

4 responses to “The Infant Science

  1. Less infant science than infantile, it would seem.

  2. The impact of soot on albedo and climate was well understood when I took a classes in 1974-75. The papers on out reading list went back to the 60’s. The assymetry of albedo change was already well understood by then.
    Why were they ignored?
    If climate hysteria were about taking control or redistributing wealth, wouln’t the proponents have seized on land use?

    • Marty,
      Climate obsession is a sciencey social mania. Obsessing on CO2 sounds more scientific than boring old soot. Recall that one of the signs of bad science is the belief in new physical properties. The idea of CO2 being a magic control knob for climate that can trigger a run away positive feedback climate effect fits the bill for a new scientific sounding process better than carbon black.

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