Rescuing Climate Science From Agenda-Driven Politics

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I just got back from an extraordinary presentation aptly titled "A Change in Climate: A Fresh Approach to Climate Science." If you're one of those people appalled by the politicization of science by celebrities, congressmen, and the Nobel Committee, I highly recommend you take a look at the work of Professors Kerry Emanuel and Daniel Rothman at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT.

Kerry and Dan are neither climate change zealots nor global warming deniers. In fact, they are not even in the business of making climate predictions. In their view the wildly varying climate forecasts spit out by hugely complex black-box computer models have not only become disconnected from sound science but have drawn all the money and talent away from the critical challenge of trying to understand how basic climate mechanisms work.

Why does carbon dioxide and temperature covary as they do in glacial cycles? We don't know.

What causes the deep meridional overturning of the ocean, redistributing heat around the planet? We don't know.

What accounts for the apparent stability of biogeochemical cycles? We don't know.

Are two or more statistically stable climate states possible for the same climate forcing conditions, such as solar radiation and atmospheric composition? We don't know.

We may have a good idea why the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has been increasing over the past 100 years but why has it been generally declining over the last 50 million years? We don't know.

Kerry and Dan assert that the predictive power of climate models has plateaued and is not likely to improve until questions like these are answered. Worse, over-reliance on computer models to drive draconian energy policy that threatens to dislocate huge swaths of the global economy has helped contribute to a major loss of credibility for the entire field of climate science.

To counter these trends MIT is launching a new program called the Lorenz Initiative named after the late professor Edward N. Lorenz, father of modern Chaos Theory. This program is designed to bring together talented physicists, chemists, biologists, and applied mathematicians from outside the climate field to "create an institutional culture that accords its highest values to science that quantitatively predicts or explains observations and experiments."

Imagine feeling compelled to issue a call to develop science that predicts or explains observations and experiments. Isn't that the very definition of science? Even more telling, these MIT professors believe that such a research environment would be "unique in the field of climate science." What does this say about fever swamps like the University of East Anglia and Penn State?

Clearly, government funding for a program like this is not going to come from politicians determined to demonize anyone that refuses to accept the dogma that imminent climate catastrophe is settled science. Hence, MIT is looking for private financing to bootstrap this initiative.

This, of course begs the question of what will happen to the Lorenz Initiative if it accepts donations from the likes of Exxon, BP, the Koch brothers, and others who might be motivated to encourage fundamental research. When I posed that question to our earnest scientists they paused then offered the hope that offsetting donations from across the political spectrum might insulate them from accusations of being in the pay of the carbon cabal.

Maybe. But I wouldn't count on seeing much money from George Soros or the Sierra Club any time soon. Like the apocryphal patent commissioner accused of trying to shut down the US patent office in 1899 because everything worthwhile had already been invented, I suspect those who fervently believe that catastrophic global warming is a special kind of fact that should never be questioned would just as soon see these two scientists go away. Which would be a pity since understanding climate is arguably the most complex scientific challenge ever faced by mankind.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here.  If you would like to have his weekly columns delivered to you by e-mail, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.

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