A Few Things Ill Considered

This is just one of dozens of responses to common climate change denial arguments, which can all be found at How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic.


Objection:

Scientists can’t even predict the weather next week, so why should we believe what some climate model tells us about 100 years from now?

Answer:

Climate and weather are really very different things and the level of predictability is comparably different.

Climate is defined as weather averaged over a period of time, generally around 30 years. This averaging over time removes the random and unpredictable behaviour of weather. Think of it as the difference between trying to predict the height of the fifth wave from now that will come splashing up the beach versus predicting the height of tomorrow’s high tide. The former is clearly quite a challenge, as your salty, wet sneakers will bear witness to, but the latter is routine and reliable.

This by no means says that it is necessarily easy to predict climate changes, but clearly seizing on the weather man’s one week failure to cast doubt on a climate model’s 100 year projection is an argument of ignorance.


This is just one of dozens of responses to common climate change denial arguments, which can all be found at How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic.


“We Can’t Even Predict the Weather Next Week” was first published here, where you can still find the original comment thread. This updated version is also posted on the Grist website, where additional comments can be found, though the author, Coby Beck, does not monitor or respond there.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave
    February 9, 2009

    Where’d you come up with that number 30 years? Why not 500 years? Because you won’t live that long? Hm?

  2. #2 coby
    February 9, 2009

    Hi Dave,

    Check this article for a discussion of that number, “30″. The short answer is that it is how climate is defined in the textbooks, I did not make it up. It was not made up for the AGW debate either.

  3. #3 Adam
    February 9, 2009

    Regarding the short term prediction vs. long-term prediction, isn’t short-term prediction more focused on specifics on a particular day (which is difficult, as you say) and long-term focused on averages?

    Or did I basically just re-phrase your post?

  4. #4 Rob
    March 27, 2009

    Coby,

    I believe what Dave is getting at isn’t that you yourself chose such a 30 year interval, but rather it seems arbitrarily labeled by the scientists responsible for it.

    In the article you linked, Robert Grubin talked about air movement, and determining relevant data depending on the hypothesis or variable being tested. One can start with one air molecule to determine velocity, yet the one individual does not hold much sway on the grander picture of total wind velocity. So, we can consider another molecule, and another, and another, and so on. However, our scope should not cover too much area, or we risk losing the data in the noise. I thought this was a fitting example, as it reflects the great philosophical conundrum of identity. Since Grubin uses air, I thought it proper to invoke David and Stephanie Lewis’ dialogue regarding how one defines what a “hole” is. (http://pwp.netcabo.pt/0154943702/Holes.pdf) The main point of the discussion is regarding the defining power of human observation and the limitations of language. How does one define the boundaries of a hole? An area where one substance ceases and another starts, amidst the original medium? The problem here is that, depending on the scale from which one observes the hole, the difference between materials could appear stark as day (macro), or blurred and congealed (magnified). When dealing with an example as inherently dramatic and forcefully tangible as a hurricane, this question seems arbitrary. However, when one applies such thinking to the intangible notion of a 30 year span for climate change, it is not clear from which perspective one is making this seemingly arbitrary temporal distinction.

    While Grubin did in fact address (with a large degree of satisfaction) why we ignore the lower denominations of time (simply because the data is too chaotic and subject to cherry picking), he was not all that clear on why we should ignore larger denominations. It would appear that the limit only comes from the lack of additional information regarding some of the other plotted data on the graph (as denoted by the fact that entire plots are eliminated for simplicity in his example). Such a limit is still arbitrarily placed. So, why not 100 years? Grubin would most likely argue that it would cause the trends of the graph to blend into the background, which I would by and large agree with. However, this would not prevent alarming DATA from still being alarming, so if the case can be made that the average fluctuation in temperature over time is vastly detrimental, then it won’t matter the climate time window, or the upward bounds of the graph he uses.

    Regardless of what Grubin says, this sort of timeline is still cherrypicking, however that doesn’t have to be negatively associated. There must be some way to generate useful statistics from useless noise, however limitations inherent with the process of choosing which data to ignore causes warranted skepticism in your numbers. The beautiful thing about life, according to Heisenberg, is that there are just too many variables to grapple with to make a perfect theory about natural laws and processes. While you may think your particular cherry picking is useful, the true answer could lie in a region of thought you did not consider to begin with; eliminating what you perceive to be noise could blind you from the actual truth at hand.

    However, I don’t want to pretend that I am necessarily right on the matter. It is a possibility that my analysis is mistaken, since I am not at all clear on what the individual plots mean (120, 240, 360, etc.). I just wanted to clear up what Dave’s comment was; not where you got the number from, but rather, how the number came to be canon.

  5. #5 Rob
    March 27, 2009

    Oh, and I want to appologize to Mr. GRUMBINE, not Grubin, for mistyping his name, and thus misappropriating credit for his thorough and useful article.

  6. #6 M Oliver
    April 19, 2009

    This is more than a bit misleading – your suggestion is that it is impossible to predict outcomes in the short term, but on the long term the “averaging” effects make prediction easier, is not coherent. Weather is not random and unpredictable, neither is climate – both are part of the same chaotic system. Chaotic systems are characterised by multi-variate relationships (that is, simple two factor cause and effect assessments can not be made). To imply the two tasks are so separate as to be unrelated is not rational. A chaotic system can not be described with statements like ‘more CO2 means higher temperature’.

    The same challenge exists with predicting weather and projecting climate. The ability to predict weather in the short term involves modelling the atmosphere – and so does modelling climate. So you can not easily separate the two challenges. The difference is the time scale and the size of ‘cells’ used to model the atmosphere.

    I’m wasting electrons, I know, because I’ve already run into many of the disciples of climate change who bow before the altar of junk science. I’ve done modelling of chaotic systems and published in international, referred journals – and I have a bit of an understanding about numeric modeling. It isn’t that good, and certainly not good enough to justify dramatic political revolution (unless of course that has been your goal all along, and “global warming” forms a nice hat rack on which to hang your cultural change agenda).

    What amazes me is the willingness of so many to cling to irrational argument – which is ultimately just another hallmark of post-modernism.

  7. #7 Mark Wisedale
    July 13, 2009

    You imply that it is more reliable to predict climate change than the weather. What track record do we have in predicting climate change that you can make such an implication?

  8. #8 Adam
    July 13, 2009

    Mark Wisedale -

    You imply that it is more reliable to predict climate change than the weather.

    This isn’t a particularly controversial claim. Scientists can predict climate better than weather for the same reason meteorologists can predict the average temperature of August more accurately than the temperature on August 12 at noon.

    Or, for a common analogy, on any given die roll, you cannot accurately predict which number you will roll, but if you average many die rolls, you can predict the average with a high degree of confidence. The same holds true if you are using a loaded die, except that you will get a different average.

    If you’re concerned about whether climate models bear legitimate results, check these discussions:
    http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2006/03/models-are-unproven.php
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-models.htm

  9. #9 Brunnen_G
    March 9, 2010

    So let me get this straight. The UK met office last autumn gave their long range forecast predicting a mild winter.

    Britain has the coldest winter in 30 years.

    But when the same people predict global warming in 30 to 100 years, I shouldn’t have a doubt in my mind, should I?

    And yes, I know the difference between weather and climate, I can fucking read.

    My point is, if I can’t trust people to predict the weather, what possible reason is there for me to have confidence in their predictions for the climate?

    Is the view in the crystal ball clearer the further you try to look?

  10. #10 coby
    March 9, 2010

    You may be able to read, but you have not understood.

    “My point is, if I can’t trust people to predict the weather, what possible reason is there for me to have confidence in their predictions for the climate?

    Is the view in the crystal ball clearer the further you try to look?”

    Weather and climate are very different things. It is like you sat at the beach with me got your ass wet because I incorrectly predicted the next few waves would be low and now you conclude I can’t possibly know if the tide is coming in or out.

  11. #11 Meghal Jani
    May 3, 2011

    Climate and weather are not two different things. Climate is compilation weather at different places all over the world. This post assumes that there is unpredictability in weather which can be eliminated while you take average of it. If errors and unpredictability are removed just by averaging a few numbers, why do we need all these scientific theories and precise measurement devices?

  12. #12 Wow
    May 4, 2011

    To see if the methods of ascertaining the climate match up to reality, Meghal.

    You know, check the answers.

    So far, the climate models are doing very well.

    PS unpredictability in weather isn’t eliminated when you average it. When you average weather, you get climate. Climate is rather more predictable, else you would be unable to use such terms as “winter”.

  13. #13 Wow
    May 4, 2011

    “Britain has the coldest winter in 30 years.”

    Sorry, nope. Winter lasts more than three days. In Britain it’s SUMMER that only lasts three days, winter can hang on for months.

    “Weather is not random and unpredictable, neither is climate – both are part of the same chaotic system.”

    Nope for you too. Weather is the chaotic system. Climate is a way of making sense of the chaos. E.g. do you plant your tomatoes in December? Even if the single day is rather hot, no.

    Do you plant tomatoes in summer in Iceland? Again no.

    Do you plant tomatoes in the Sahara? Nope again.

    Why is this known?

    Because climatically, winter in temperate climes is too cold to grow tomatoes.

    Climatically, Iceland is too cold to grow tomatoes.

    Climatically, the Sahara has too little rain to grow tomatoes.

    Weather for any one day may abrogate those climate statements. But tomatoes weren’t grown in a day.

  14. #14 Wow
    May 4, 2011

    “I believe what Dave is getting at isn’t that you yourself chose such a 30 year interval, but rather it seems arbitrarily labeled by the scientists responsible for it.”

    Nope.

    A posteri, you can take a series of weather reports and discern when your variation from the mean is below your trend over that period. about 20 years is sufficient to manage that, 30 years means you’re in the sparse tail of the normal distribution.

    A priori you can take elements such as solar cycle, El Nino and the other oscillations in climate which are around the decade-or-so region. Including any one of those but only one is likely to be as or more dependent on how strong that individual event was than any underlying trend would be. Including two or three is unlikely to be affected by an unusually strong or weak oscillation since they would be unusual by definition. 30 years gives 2-3 oscillations.

    Of course, if you’d bothered to check up, you could find on the WMO web site (and in the IPCC reports) the derivation of the 30 year period.

    But it’s rather easier to echo what someone said that comforts you.

    Isn’t it?

  15. #15 Chris S.
    May 4, 2011

    “Sorry, nope. Winter lasts more than three days. In Britain it’s SUMMER that only lasts three days, winter can hang on for months.”

    Not this year Wow, summer arrived back in March. Funny how you don’t see many people talking about the UK having driest March & April for x number of years & the warmest April since records began but they come pouring out of the woodwork when we get a brief cold/wet snap. One would almost believe those that don’t get the difference between weather & climate are also those that think a short run of weather events are all that’s needed to prove or disprove climate change.

  16. #16 bottom line
    May 8, 2011

    so what if there is such a thing as global warming? all the skeptics would look like complete a-holes. what if scientists are wrong and it’s no big deal? would it really be so bad to go green? (and even if we discount global warming, there’s the issues of mountain top removal and coal slurries. there are plenty of reasons to be environmentally friendly starting with that humans are not above nature)

  17. #17 skip
    May 8, 2011

    tell that to Paul in MI.

  18. #18 Technogie
    January 13, 2012

    wao if you notice that some one already said that how does one define the boundaries of a hole? An area where one substance ceases and another starts, amidst the original medium? The problem here is that, depending on the scale from which one observes the hole, the difference between materials could appear stark as day (macro) ref Technogie. Te or blurred and congealed (magnified). When dealing with an example as inherently dramatic and forcefully tangible as a hurricane, this question seems arbitrary. However, when one applies such thinking to the intangible notion of a 30 year span for climate change,

  19. #19 Ed Bradford
    February 15, 2012

    Since as “Wow” says, climate predictions are pretty good and there is an acknowledged 30 year window, what kind of accuracy can be expected if you predict the average temperatures world wide for the next 30 years? What kind of accuracy can be expected for just saying “temperatures will be high/lower” for the next 30 years?

    Is there a study produce 30 years or so ago, that would shows todays temperatures as they have changed since 1980?

    Ed Bradford
    Pflugerville,TX

  20. #20 Wow
    February 15, 2012

    “what kind of accuracy can be expected if you predict the average temperatures world wide for the next 30 years?”

    Around 0.06C, if you mean “for the 30 year average”. Although that would also depend on the strength of the trend.

    Simple binomial statistics.

    “Is there a study produce 30 years or so ago, that would shows todays temperatures as they have changed since 1980?”

    Yes:

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/01/2010-updates-to-model-data-comparisons/

    several in fact.

    And they’ve gotten the trend pretty close.

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