TCS Daily

Defense of the Draft

By Sallie Baliunas - March 4, 2003 12:00 AM

The Bush administration has proposed a common-sense review of the nation's climate research, one that could lead to a course correction for directing an area of scientific inquiry that has benefited from an infusion of over $20 billion in funding in the last ten years. Considerable progress has already been made toward understanding the complex system of climate change, but more remains to be done to eliminate critical gaps in our knowledge.

The administration issued a draft outline analyzing and proposing changes to the Climate Change Science Program and welcomed all stakeholders - from scientists to the public - to discuss the future of climate research. The process is intended to determine what areas of climate research are in need of greater funding and support.

The National Research Council organized a panel to review the draft. The panel was critical of the draft, but rather than clarify the existing state of climate science and research, the panel's members muddied the waters.

On the One Hand, On the Other

On the one hand, the panel members claimed that a human-made component of global warming has been firmly established by the scientific community, thus obviating the administration's call for research to reduce uncertainties over anthropogenic warming and bolstering claims that a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is necessary. But they also said, paradoxically, that significantly more research funding would be necessary to reduce the scientific uncertainties related to human-made global warming.

One of the panelists criticized the administration's research priorities, telling the New York Times that research "that would have been cutting edge in 1980 is listed as a priority for the future."

Despite this panelist's assertion, there are longstanding improvements needed in basic climate science. For instance, a deteriorating and insufficient network for ascertaining surface temperature measurements must be strengthened; and understanding of the basic physics of convection that governs the transfer of large amounts of energy must be improved. Even after two decades of research in these areas, they remain at the leading edge of problems to be solved to reduce uncertainty in forecasts of the human-made climate impact.

Moreover, the panel asserted that more is known about a human-made warming trend than the Bush administration will admit. For example, one panel member, Michael Prather, announced that about half of observed warming trend of the last few decades is anthropogenic while the remainder is natural.

This assertion leaves the impression that a human-caused global warming effect is understood thoroughly enough to differentiate the human warming trend from natural causes, and that research on the matter could be concluded and funding reduced.

Scientific claims about anthropogenic warming can be traced to the conclusions listed in the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Climate Variability and Change and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2001's Third Assessment Report. But these conclusions are uncertain because the main tools on which they are based are computer simulations that have not reliably reproduced either past or current attributes of the climate system. However, that is not surprising, since the natural influences of climate are still difficult to model. Reducing uncertainty about natural variability remains a critical concern in distinguishing human and natural warming trends.

The panel's claims are thus confusing: While claiming we know enough to act on global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the panel also criticized the lack of a commitment to substantial new funding for improving climate research.

We Know What We Don't Know

The panel's complaints try to have things both ways: Either the science is complete (or complete enough) to move ahead with substantial cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, or the climate forecasts are uncertain and require substantial advances in order to give reliable forecasts one or two centuries into the future. In the first case, the committee is calling for reductions in fundamental research in climate change, and a restructuring of energy policy in the U.S., with costs that will be difficult to bear in the next decade. In the second case, the argument for much more funding undercuts the previous assertion that the science is settled.

Implementing large and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be costly to human health, welfare and the environment. Waiting for two or three decades while the technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions improves and becomes more affordable does not, according to computer simulations shown in the UN assessment, add significant warming at the end of 100 years. It would make greenhouse gas cuts easier and more affordable. Most important, prioritized research in that interval may allow scientific progress in understanding climate physics and defining the extent of human-made climate change - which was the original point of the draft document.

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