Thursday, February 18, 2010

Is climate research physics?

Posted on behalf of Hans von Storch

Our ongoing survey shows that many of the participants of the debate have a professional background in physics (about 30%). In society, the "physicists" are not a larger group then the "engineers" or "biologists", but here they are more frequent than others. I wonder why. Why does this group of professionals feel more qualified, or more interested, in this debate than other groups? Is it because climate science is foremost physics?

Here, I have one question –
1. to what extent is climate science just a special variant of physics, possibly an inferior one? Are there elements in climate science, which makes this field different – because of inherent characteristics?

Another issue is the observation that the discussion here at the Klimazwiebel all too often falls into the limited dichotomy of "AGW is real, case close" vs. "AGW is overblown and constructed; case is open". Many of us will likely concur that this debate is useless, because it does lead nowhere. None of the two sides will accept the arguments of the other, or seriously debate the basis of their position.
On the other hand, Klimazwiebel is a rather special webblog, in that we have people from these two extremist sides, as well as various sceptical people, who ask real questions, plus some climate scientists, who consider part of the case closed, and others not, plus a number of social and cultural scientists.
The permanent return to the endless positioning of pro/contra AGW is damaging the Klimazwiebel, because this posturing is simply boring. But, there is an alternative, which Werner pointed out – why not agreeing on what we disagree on the AGW issue and discussing to what extent we nevertheless share some positions. Therefore another set of questions:

2. What is it we can agree that we solidly disagree on?
3. Is the relative majority of physicists in this group possibly a reason why the debate always returns to the pro/contra of whether a significant AGW exists?
4. What are the questions we can constructively discuss?


_Flin_ said...

There is solid disagreement over
"CO2 is the main cause for anthropogenic global warming."

Whether this is due to the assumption that
- CO2 is not a GHG (which it is due it's physical characteristics concerning the absorption of infrared light)
- CO2 in the atmosphere will saturate and be of no further concern
- there are negative feedbacks
- there are no positive feedbacks, so the effect exists but is small
- there is no warming
- the warming is not anthropogenic


I am not qualified to answer the physics questions.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

excellent questions. I shall venture a partial answer to the questions regarding the role and importance of physics.

Many scientists in this area will have been trained to:

* reach clear conclusions in their research (yes or no answers to clear cut questions)
* be careful with their statements but aim at description, explanation & prediction

In addition, many physicists will regard themselves as standing on top of an epistemic hierarchy, with other 'hard' sciences similarly up there (chemistry), but then falling off with biology and other 'soft stuff' where the cultural norm within the science is not focussed on a yes/no answer.

I guess what I am saying is that especially physicists (but also others steeped in the culture of cognitive certainty, like some branches of economics) will want to "prove a point" -- as if you could get proof in such matters. What if the best you can hope for is circumstantial evidence (to use a legal term)? And then answer the question "What shall we do?"

Physicists tend to think that no debates are necessary once a point is proven (for them, anyway). The rest of the world just has to learn what they already know. Hence the impatience of many of these in public debates and the blogosphere.

We see some admirable exceptions on this blog which is a pleasure to witness!

eduardo said...

I remind you that they are Hans questions, not mine.

I would like to see opinions about nuclear power in the context of climate change. Björn has already left some interesting comments in the 'Ravetz in the Guardian post'.

Would we all agree that an expansion of nuclear power is something that should be considered?

Bayesian Empirimancer said...

i have no opinion regarding whether or not climate science is physics. But it is, in practice, fundamentally different from physics as it has been practiced for the last few hundred years. In particular, the standard model of physics as it is has been practised (and is often 'normatively' discribed) is that of laboratory physics. This involves tightly controlled repeated hundreds of times. The kind of physics for which simple statistical methods have been formulated. In contrast, climate science has no controlled experiments and only one data point. This renders many of the the standard methods and analyses (i'm thinking statistical here) of little practical use.

_Flin_ said...

@eduardo 3: Phew, nuclear power is a tough one. Problem of ultimate storage and safety on the one hand.
The security issue (imagine Iran as a climate hero).
CO2 and availability of ressources on the other hand.

And there is a politics problem again. Being that politicians try to suppress information about existing problems. As happened often enough.

But in the end I do not see a possibility to solve the climate issue without nuclear power. If ITER ever leads to commercial fusion, it will take at least until 2040. Regenerative Energies have the basic load and storage problem.

sien said...

Regarding 1)

What Bayesian Empirimancer says is right. To extend this physics and science
work best when there is easy falsifiability. Where there isn't problems arise.
This is also the case with String Theory. Easy falsifiability gives physics
where results can be unambiguously proven or disproven. This is true across
science. Epidemeolgy results are uncertain for the reasons that climate
physics results

Regarding 2)

Looking at what the well regarded climate scientist skeptics, Lindzen, Michaels,
Spencer, Christy and Pielke Snr in particular and comparing that to the IPCC
consensus view the following points of difference are evident:

a) The degree to which C02 warms the atmosphere

b) The feedback from water vapour

c) The accuracy of paleoclimatology

d) The existence if 'tipping points' where run away AGW will occur.

e) The amount of natural temperature change

f) The influence of the urban heat island effect and land usage on climate

Regarding 3)

The physics of AGW is returned to because it affects all later questions of
extreme weather events and AGW mitigation and adaptation.

Regarding 4)

Coming up with measurements that could better quantify C02's influence on the
atmosphere is highly desirable. The Douglass et al paper and various others
have attempted to do this. Results from measurement rather than models are to
be greatly preferred.

Coming up with ever tighter statistical methods that could be applied to climate models to show if they exaggerate or underestimate AGW would be of great benefit.

Coming up with better, more inclusive studies of previous climate would also be beneficial.

The WG2 parts of the IPCC report are flawed. Including experts like Roger Pielke Jnr and their scrutiny would be greatly beneficial.

Also, this is a great quesstion. It would be terrific to see people like Pat Michaels, Gavin Schmidt, Mike Hulme, yourself, Von Storch, Pat Lindzen, John Christy and Roy Spencer get together and nut out these things more fully.

Hans Erren said...

Once upon a time there were three students who went for an exam, they all got the same question:
"How much is two times two?"

The mathematics student answered: "4"
The physics student answered: "3 +/- 2"
The geophysics student answered: " What do you want the answer to be?"

This joke circulated already in my first year on university in 1979.
Hans Erren, Geophysicist (MSc)

Climate science is applied geophysics. The horror stories are the result of people working with "what if" story lines and most people who work with these "what if" results (eg biologists, ecologists ans economists), do not understand the uncertainties in the physical assumptions.

Anonymous said...


First time on this one. I very much like this idea for constraining discussion on the climate debate. It has gotten so noisy and so vituperative that reasoned discussion and debate is impossible in most online fora.

I would just like to answer your question regarding nuclear. I come from conservation science, and I agree emphatically that nuclear must be an important part of the solution. I find myself exasperated by the continuing strong opposition to nuclear in the conservation and enviro crowd, which I feel remains rooted in a mindset born during the Rachel Carson and 3-Mile Island years.

I also think that people who advocate a purely renewable solution are not considering the vast legion of problems that will be caused by covering huge swathes of the landscape in wind turbines, etc. Beyond its low carbon footprint, nuclear is also desirable because of its small spatial footprint.

Not the only solution, but an important component, I believe. I am heartened to see Obama moving in this direction.

Thanks, M

@ReinerGrundmann said...

@ 4
I agree with what you say there. We only have one planet i.e. no control group available. Epistemologically this means climate science is very much like the social sciences, especially history. Some historians construct counterfactuals (parallel worlds) and climate modeling and scenario building does similar things in climate change. The difference is the presentation in both cases: the historians usually admit they cannot prove anything and are thus humble; climate scientists often speak with 'utter confidence'.

But the first principles of physics (or 'covering laws') are not enough to understand the historically changing environment (like the climate system). To complicate things even further, this historical change of the planet is both naturally caused and influenced by human interventions.

This means that it is not a good idea to organize the 'science of climate change' in one working group where the physics is done with the 'remaining' questions being delegated to WG2 and WG3. True climate science would be interdisciplinary.

What is perhaps most interesting is that when it comes to political effectiveness, politicians have no problem listening to historians or other social scientists who give their advice (based on the interpretation of history). No scientific certainty is needed when going to war, for example.

@ReinerGrundmann said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


Regarding your statement:

"This means that it is not a good idea to organize the 'science of climate change' in one working group where the physics is done with the 'remaining' questions being delegated to WG2 and WG3. True climate science would be interdisciplinary."

For your interest, for AR5 I believe they are planning to have much more integration in the subjects addressed by the working groups.

Cheers, M

Georg said...

Excellent questions:

1)Good part of climate science is physics. Yes.
If Earth would be just one of those planets (since we are travelling with triple light speed from one planet to the other) nobody would argue about WG1 and the other parts of course wouldnt exist.

2) Greenhouse effect (the principle), AGW (qualitative) and therefore sea level change (qualitativ). Open to further discussion is actual any quantitative statement (how much more/less storms, rain etc). Impact is very very unclear, but as a rule of thumb it's not a good idea to impose a 30 Millionen year climatic time travel on a planet if this is the only planet available.

3) Nop. The problem are not the physicists but modern times. Better post-modern times: Everything is open to discussion, education takes now 35 years or so, nobody has jobs for ever, you are born as a catholic atheist and die as a buddhist believer and chose whatever appeals in the big supermarket of ideologies. You change you religion, your sex, your outfit and your wife/man at least 5 times in your life. Under these social conditions it comes as a shock for many that there is something that is just a sober fact. Accept it or stay out of science.

4) Dont know. Everything I suppose.

MikeR said...

I have a lot of training as a physicist, though I'm working at something else (programming) for a while now. Just speaking for myself, we were taught a certain picture of what constitutes "hard science". Testable hypotheses is a big part of it. Very precise experiments with just one variable changed at a time is another. We tend to be suspicious of fields where they can't do that.
I'd add that there are whole fields of modern physics which make the rest of the physicists nervous for the same reasons. String theory and cosmology, for instance; it's hard to say anything you can really test properly. Far too many people working on too little data.

Werner Krauss said...

1. to question +#1
'to what extent is climate science just a special variant of physics, possibly an inferior one? Are there elements in climate science, which makes this field different – because of inherent characteristics?'

Climate change is a multi-disciplinary phenomenon with inherent physical qualities. That's why this field is different - the physicist can only contribute, but never fully understand the problem without help from outside. The world is the laboratory, this is different.

# 3. 'Is the relative majority of physicists in this group possibly a reason why the debate always returns to the pro/contra of whether a significant AGW exists?'

Yes and no.
Here my caricature of the average physicist who will mono- thematically insist that AGW does (not) exist:
Many physicists are 'nerds' who completely forget that there is a world outside of their special interest. It is a field of science where the 'white coat mentality' still prevails; for example, arguments of laypeople will never be accepted, and life-long debates with the ever same opponents in the field are normal. This type was for example prevalent in nuclear science and is now common in climate science. In this world, the media, the public, other (inferior) disciplines and politics are permanently a nuisance, because they never get things right and because they simply don't understand the physics!

Furthermore, there is a certain type of skeptics who will boycott each and every discussion in raising the argument that there is no AGW. This is due to a) a general lack of education and b) a political strategy. Denying (there is no other word for that in this context) climate change is for them part of a cultural war against liberals, abortion, gay marriage, taxes, administration, health care, you name it...

Rainer S said...

@14 Werner,

I do not quite agree with your physicist caricature. Maybe it´s partly true for those who never left Academia, but as soon as you are confronted with "real life", i.e. having to earn your money in a private company that isn´t funded by some agency but has to sell real tangible products to real customers with choices - it becomes an entirely different matter.

Our R&D guys (physicists and engineers) only too well know the limitations of their trade. If the product doesn´t perform, your out and possibly even liable. In the long run, no marketing department or favourable media coverage will save you.

Philip said...

My training is in physics too. I think that climate science is quite similar to cosmology because of an obvious difficulty with constructing some kinds of repeatable experiments.

My concern with the current debate relates to the possibility of environmental damage caused by windmills and biofuels and of economic damage and hardship caused by energy restrictions. My expectation is that before we consider potentially damaging measures, there should be very good evidence to support dangerous manmade warming.

In this context, for me good evidence means a mixture of theory and experiment relating to today's climate system that mutually support each other. Specifically, I would expect to see evidence of this kind for strong positive feedbacks. I would also find indirect evidence gleaned from simulations convincing, if I could see good experimental evidence supporting the reliability of models. I do not find paleo arguments convincing by themselves. I would have more confidence overall if I felt that there was a good enough understanding of natural climate mechanisms so that such mechanisms could be reliably excluded as a cause of late 20th century warming.

Overall, it does make me uncomfortable that we are modifying the content of the atmosphere and I would like to see this put right eventually. Since my perception is that the science is still not reliable enough to justify policy choices, I’m not convinced that WG1 is useful. For myself, I would prefer that at the current time we simply accept the need for emission reductions and work out the best way to achieve this, constrained by preventing environmental and economic damage.

I wouldn't want to see klimazwiebel damaged at all, and I hope the above contains some reasonable suggestions for things that can be constructively discussed.

Peter Heller said...

1. Question:
„Climate Science“ will become a pure variant of physics in the near future. At the moment, it is build up mainly by two very different disciplines: “physics of the atmosphere” and “climatology”. In Germany you cannot study “climate science”, there is no university providing it. “Physics of the atmosphere” (“Physik der Atmosphäre”) is about understanding the the dynamics of our climate system, especially the processes of radiation and heat transfer. “Climatology” (“Klimatologie”) is a part of meteorology and deals with measuring, observing, analyzing and characterizing weather (temperature, humidity, wind speed and so on) on different spatial and temporal scales. The climatologist knows, what to measure and how to perform useful observations (which is not trivial), and the physicist tries to explain these observations by developing theoretical models. It is a little bit like the relation between astronomy and physics (I am astronomer as well as physicist). In former times the astronomer was the “observator” and the physicist tried to explain, what the astronomer told him. During the 1970ies astronomy has been totally integrated in physics at german universities. If you want to be an astronomer today, you need to study physics first. At the end you will be “astrophycisist”. I expect the same for “climatology” and “physics of the atmosphere”, the fusion will lead to the “climate physicist”.

2. Question:
“Alarmists” and “skeptics” will never agree on the need to take actions in order to prevent any climate change, manmade or not. The strategy of “minimizing risks” is in my opinion (I am a skeptic) totally wrong, because it does need strong market regulations. We should implement a strategy of “minimizing impact” (in other words: adaptation and not mitigation). Adaptation does need free markets. All skeptics I know are supporters of free markets, all alarmists I know are supporters of strictly regulated markets. The climate debate is about economy, not about science, and not about nature.

3. Question:
Yes. Too many physicists are not interested in economy, despite the fact that they often are able to explain economic processes better than the economists. Too many physicists think, that their way to see the world is the important and interesting one. But the only interesting thing in the climate debate is money.

4. Question:

a) The link between climate science (as an example for other disciplines as well) and politics. Is it useful for a scientific discipline to be the ground an ideology is build on?

b) The lack of understanding science in the general public, especially in the media. Has climate science explained itself well enough and has it done enough against errors in the communication?

c) The link between climate science and NGO’s, especially the role of Greenpeace and the WWF (in Germany also the BUND and NaBu), which are the most influential lobbyists of our times.

Marco said...

@Peter Heller: Allow me to rock your boat on a few points.
First: Why do you think adaptation and mitigation do not require government action affecting the free market?
Second: I consider myself somewhat of a libertarian (but a pragmatic one: government is at best a necessary evil). You can also call me an alarmist. I don't like a strictly regulated market, I don't want a strictly regulated market. But I also don't want to 'pay' for the greed of others.

Regarding Greenpeace and WWF being such influential lobbyist: ask yourself why the coal industry has received billions and billions of euros in subsidies. Currently, the subsidies are running at 2 billion euros A YEAR, that's almost 60,000 euros per employee. How do you think they get this money? That's right, by lobbying.

The simple facts are that fossil fuels have an unfair advantage, which should bother you as a free market ideologue: they have been supported by significant subsidies for decades, allowing their development as mature 'technologies'. Add the financial consequences of their actions (adaptation and mitigation is not free of charge), and the costs of non-fossil fuels isn't nearly as non-competitive as you may think.

Peter Heller said...

There are many car-accidents on our streets and many people are severely injured or die by such accidents. The only way to minimize the risk is not driving. Now think of a seatbelt. It is in no way able to avoid any accidents. It is only useful when an accident happens. It is able to avoid severe damage, it is minimizing impacts, not risks. The seatbelt is not like the market-regulations I am speaking of. Because it is not about forbidding driving. It is about affording driving despite of the risks. This is the risk management we need.
Climate change is a topic about bad weather. But there has been bad weather in the past and there will be bad weather in the future. If there is an anthropogenic influence or not – we have to minimize the impacts of bad weather by developing and implementing “seatbelts”. This strategy will work if there is a manmade climate change, it will work, if there is none. This strategy is resilient in case of any possible future.
The mitigation-strategy is not resilient. It only makes sense, if there is a manmade climate change leading to a substantial increase in bad weather events. Otherwise it leads to wasting money for nothing. And the mitigation strategy is based on the precautionary principle, which is about taking actions independent of the scientific knowledge. The precautionary principle is therefore based on ideology, not on science.
The precautionary principle has been implemented by the environment movement. That was their great victory. Since the UN-conference in Rio 1992, where the precautionary principle has become the official strategy of the industrialized world to deal with environmental challenges, climate policy is in fact independent of any scientific progress. The environment-oriented NGO’s are powerful, because they are able to spin the public opinion, especially in Germany. And politicians take care of the public opinion to gain votes.
In my opinion the only way to deal with the global demand on energy today and in the future is using all possibilities. We need fossil fuels as well as the development of all alternatives we can think of. The question here is not about substitution, it is about adding the alternatives to develop our world. The conventional sources alone or the alternatives alone will not be able to satisfy the future demand. We need both. The IPCC scenarios about the future emissions, on which the climate projection are based, predict a doubling of the world energy demand every 50 years. This is consistent with the reference scenarios of the International Energy Agency. The mitigation strategy based on the precautionary principle is about regulating the supply side of the markets. This is the type of regulation we cannot accept, because it will prohibit the development of the poor countries. We need more energy, not less, we need more freedom for suppliers to get solutions, not less.

Hans von Storch said...

Peter Heller,
the example of car accidents and seat belts is a good one! Will use it in future. (Does not mean that I agree to the rest of your analysis, but thanks anyway!)
An earlier talk of mine, on adaptation has been published in September 2009 (nobody told me) - see On Adaptation – a Secondary Concern?, The European Physical Journal - Special Topics, 176: 13-20 DOI 10.1140/epjst/e2009-01145-0.
We should have a discussion of the merits of mitigation and adaptation. I guess there may be some joint positions among our readers.

_Flin_ said...

On free markets it is important to note that markets cannot be totally free. There is always liability for caused damages against other market participants or customers.

If a company produces a faulty product it will have to pay damages to the persons being damaged by it, if sentenced to do so. If a company violates Anti-Trust legislation, there are damages to the market itself and a company faces high penalties, up to the breaking up of the company.

Markets need to be regulated and are regulated everywhere in the world (anti-trust legislation, environmental emission regulation, sewerage regulation, competition regulation &c.). The extent of regulation is both an intetellectual and a moral question, the question being on the one hand "Where does a free market damage the market itself?" and "Where does a free market damage society, customers or non-parcitipants of the market?".

So the whole "Free Market" theme is just a phantasmagoria, because a free market doesn't exist anywhere anyway. And the free market has been proven scientifically long ago to be ineffective in regulating itself in the short term. The latest financial crisis was just a reminder of that, although a rather impressive one (Not that we learned anything from it anyway).

Furthermore, Climate Change can't be solved by the market as long as energy is cheap and there is no governmental penalty for emitting CO2. (Please lets not fall back into the CO2 yes no trap. I know some of you think this is bogus, you don't need to tell me again.). Without legislation, there is no economic reason not to produce as much CO2 as one can, as long as I don't kill people with it or make them sick or damage my production equipment with it.

On the other hand, the costs of reducing CO2 aren't high at all in the beginning. There are a lot of action that can be undertaken that are actually benefitting, even without things like Peak Oil or similar. Using different lighting for example. Or just turning the lights off. Emission targets for the Automobile industry. Insulation. More efficient machines.

Especially in the transportation, residential and commercial sector there are a lot of opportunities to cheaply reduce CO2 output. The energy production sector is hard, but not that hard if there is a long term legislation.

Mitigation of the effects on the other hand is really really hard to do, as long as you don't know the exact effects. And when they are suddenly there you figure out that you didn't save for them, because the money went into the last tax break, because polls for reelection were surely looking dire.

_Flin_ said...

@Peter Heller: Concerning the car analogy: While a seat belt is surely a safe thing, a variable speed limit system is even better.
- it doesn't prevent you from driving, but prevents traffic jams from happening by optimizing traffic flow, thus enabling you to reach for goal faster, although it subjectively appears slower
- it lowers the risk of accidents in situations like heavy snowfall, rain, wind or traffic
- when there is no danger, it is turned off

Apart from that the safetybelt analogy reminds me of someone felling a tree in front of his house. When he figures that the tree might hit his house he builds a scaffolding that he thinks is strong enough to withstand the tree. The obvious solution would be to walk around the tree and fell it in a way the house is not in danger.

Hans von Storch said...

Sure, Flin. What you say is that there may be different options ot deal with the problem. But even if one option is "better" - in some sense - than another, it may be that society for some cultural reasons opts for the option, which you consider worse. In other words - all this takes place in a socio-political context, where normative arguments mostly win the debate.

_Flin_ said...

@Hans von Storch: It is true that there are different options. It is just my personal opinion that mitigation does not deal with the problem at all, but only with the symptoms. And while there is such a great uncertainty to what these symptoms are and to what extent these will happen, the calling for dealing with the symptoms appears to me a lot more incalculable than to tackle a known cause. Especially when there are many cheap and even beneficial countermeasures.

At least in my perception the German economy has not been damaged by pursuing a path towards more green energy. Or am I just not aware of it?

Hans von Storch said...

Flin, maybe we have a problem of using words. Mitigation usually refers to efforts to reduce or even avoid man-made climate change, with reducing the emissions as main or sole tool.
Adapation refers to efforts to reduce vulnerability (of people, societoies, ecosystems) to climate hazards (possibly enhanced due to AGW).

_Flin_ said...

@Hans von Storch: Thank you for pointing this out. Being no native english speaker i mixed these two up for the last three posts. Which leads to me being quite embarrased right now. Please let me reformulate my statement:

Assuming that Global Warming is happening, the prediction of the effects of it are still unprecise and partially disputed. So if the effects of Global Warming are uncertain and not calcuable, won't a strategy of adaption be even more incalcuable?

Hans von Storch said...

First, Flin, no reason to be embarrassed - we all make such errors. What is needed is that we clarify what we mean with which words. Plus, we should be aware that sometimes our communication is hampered by using words differently.
Second - the issue which approach is "better" - mitigation or adaptation - or which mix of these two approaches is best, should be dealt with in a separate thread dealing specifically with this issue.

Henk Hak said...

Hans, a question regarding the physics of heat exchange between the earth's crust and the oceans. I have tried to Google this a bit but didn't get very far. Is there any information about the amount of heating the ocean's deepest water receives from the core? There is mention of "petit" volcanoes apparently quite numerous in areas around tectonic shifting. After all the earth's crust is thinner at the ocean's bottom than anywhere else.
Maybe this wasn't the right place to post but don't know where else.

Peter Heller said...


I do have the same problems as you, I am not an english native speaker and usually I write essays and comments about climate policy in german. Therefore I often do not know the correct english terms to explain my view, misinterprations do occur often. I am much better in speaking english than in writing.

I agree to Hans von Storch to take the discussion over into a new thread. But allow me to make a final remark. There are differences between us in the interpretation of what “free markets” really are. In my opinion the market is primarily driven by the suppliers (“Angebot”) and not by the demand (“Nachfrage”). We do have a lot of instruments regulating the demand, especially taxes and legislations. As long as only these measures are taken I characterize our markets as free, because a supplier can produce and offer, whatever he wants.

You can implement a carbon tax or an emission trading scheme or comparable actions – but these are all “demand oriented” (“nachfrageorientiert”), they do not prohibit anyone from emitting carbondioxide, as long as he is willing to pay for it.

In my opinion this is totally wrong (in the end it will not avoid any emission), but a compromise seems possible.

The basic principle of the actual climate change mitigation policy is regulating the supplier side. The alarmists do want to establish a “supplier oriented” policy (“angebotsorientierte Politik”) in a way that reduces the options of suppliers to produce and to offer goods. This is in my opinion a “regulated market” and this is, were no compromise is possible.

The ban of electric light bulbs in Europe is the first example of the future I am combating. It is a future of prohibition which will become reality under the dogma of a mitigation policy based on the precautionary principle. The greens want to forbid, not only nuclear power, but also powerful cars (at first), all fossil-fuel driven cars (at last), travel by plane, eating meat and so on.

I really know, what I am talking about. In my daily work as a consultant I have to deal regularly with greens and their proposals. The prohibition of cars with e.g. more than 100 PS is a real example that has been seriously discussed. Other examples: The prohibition of parking space in cities, prohibition of driving on special days during the year, and so on.

And this is only the beginning. In the city of Berlin for example a regulation is planned which will interdict “heating of air outside buildings”, which will ban not only heating mantles (“Heizpilze”) but also barbecues.

This is, what I am thinking of when speaking about “regulated markets”.

Thanks for taking over the example of the seatbelt, Mr. von Storch. I have read your essay on adaptation in the meantime. It could be productive to discuss it further.

eduardo said...

I am a physicist. I got involved in climate research after my PhD, and I still have some contact to former colleagues from solid state physics. I remember a comment from one of them after a talk a gave at my former university :'There is indeed a lot of physics in this stuff'. It seems that physicist indeed think of climate as something not really belonging to physics, and this mindset may explain that many physicists are to some extent sceptical about climate change, a well-known example is Dyson or even John Maddox, former chief editor of Nature ( From my point of view, I think climate research contains quite a lot of physics, much more than an average 'particle physicist' would suspect. The interesting aspects in climate research is that the physics are 'entangled'. For instance, a laboratory physics working on crystal growth would only have a vary basic knowledge about fluid turbulence. And by the same token a turbulence physicist would not even care about crystal growth theory. However, in cloud physics you encounter both theories entangled. This makes the whole problem really complex but at the same time very interesting. There are many other similar examples in climate research, which makes this science unique I think.

However, the difficulty to conduct experiments strongly influences the way of thinking. In my early years, when we were discussing about competing models, we would just try to figure out what we could measure to decide which model is wrong. Just get a few more data points at higher or lower temperature or orienting the magnetic field in a different way and it would be possible to discriminate between models. In climate research, the approach is very different, much more statistical: which analysis of the data would give us a way to discriminate between models within a certain probability, or which is the simulation that should be conducted to explain some observation.

While there is a lot of physics in climate, physics is by all means not all. In the carbon cycle there is a lot of biology; in long-term climate changes a lot of geology and biology; when dealing with proxy data, you have to be really an expert on everything, including some times not very simple statistics. When I look back to what I have learned from others in this field, a physicists should be much more humble.

Sometimes, when I hear the sentence from a climate researcher 'I am a physicist' (for instance in this comment :-:) , I immediately imagine all the cubic light years of knowledge that the guy has no idea about.

Philip said...

@eduardo 31

That was a very interesting comment, thank you.

As a person originally trained in physics myself, I always would tend to expect to see good experiments and data to back up a theory. It is because I haven't been able to find any that I personally am skeptical about warming. But I know this doesn’t have to mean that there really is no evidence for it. Do you (or anyone else here) have any suggestions on where to look to get a better understanding of why so many people are convinced of dangerous warming?

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Eduardo (and others) - are there national differences with regard to the relation between physics and climate science? Is it possible to get a degree in 'climatology' or 'climate science' in some countries?

Peter Heller:
the precautionary is as ideological as the opposite principle, wait and see. Both try to establish (different) procedural logics, obviously to do with the burden of proof.

Hans (and others):
sorry to put some water on your growing enthusiasm for the seat belt analogy. This has been investigated by John Adams and he finds no evidence for the effectiveness of seat belt legislation. This is due to what he calls 'compensating behaviour': each safety tool will increase the risk taking on other fronts. People with seat belts will drive more reckless. See here

Peter Heller said...

@ Reiner Grundmann:

So the absence of an ideology is an ideology too? This is too complex for me, I am thinking much more simple.

You have not understood the seatbelt-analogy as it was meant. It is not about risk management, it is about impact management. The seatbelt does not minimize risks, John Adams is absolutely correct in this questions. The seatbelt minimizes impacts.

Maybe your argument is, that in the case of minimizing impacts people will not be worried about climate change. That is absolutely true. And this is, what "climate-seatbelts", adaptation concepts, will do. There is no need to fear storms or floods or droughts, if you are prepared.

Another example especially from the field of mobility are adavanced driver assistant systems like automatic emergency braking. The driver will not be aware of this system. The system will only take control over the car, if an accident cannot be avoided. The accident will happen, if you have this system or not. But if you have it in your car, the impact of the accident will be less severe.

This is risk management as performed by engineers. It is totally different from the risk management defined by the precautionary principle.

Back to climate: The drought, the flood, the storm: All will happen, if we are prepared or not. Therefore it is better to be prepared. Minimizing the potential damage caused by bad weather is the strategy I prefer.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

‘So the absence of an ideology is an ideology too? This is too complex for me, I am thinking much more simple.’
In fact, you have introduced a simplification in suggesting that one principle is ideological and the other not. But this is not the case.
You also use a word (‘ideological’) to give one principle (PP) a bad name, while the other is seen as neutral or even positive. You see, semantic tricks are everywhere. You say ‘semantic trick’ is another ‘dirty’ word (well, actually TWO)? You have a point, and for this reason sociologists use the term ‘framing’ for such activities. We all do it, but we should be conscious of it and be ready to discuss the assumptions and implications. We also have to lay open data and code … ;-)
As regards the PP, its authors and defenders say measures should be taken ‘even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically’. This principle counters the previous decision rule which was based on the continuation of the business as usual, unless we have scientific proof. Hence the label ‘wait-and-see-principle’. Both principles have to be treated on the same level (hence the term ‘ideological for both, if you start using it for one).
The PP appeals to common sense. We cannot expect scientific proof to become available in risk debates and the levels of risk people are willing to take is not uniform. If we just followed the ‘wait-and-see’-principle, it might be too late for measures. And you will get public unrest. Remember the days when scientists and engineers declared it nearly impossible that anything could go wrong with nuclear power plants (Based on probabilities)? Would you go so far and say the protesters are ideological (or irrational) while the scientists and engineers were rational and therefore should have had the decisive say in political decision making?

Here is a good discussion of the problems with the PP (Marko Ahteensuu 2007. Defending The Precautionary Principle against three Criticisms, TRAMES, 11(61/56), 4, 366–381)

As regards the safety tool as impact management, I agree. My point was to qualify the specific example (seat belts). If you start using it, it may be not be so straightforward as one might think, because of the effects on aggregate behaviour. Also, if you think about the analogy, you say ‘There is no need to fear storms or floods or droughts, if you are prepared.’ So you are not afraid of a traffic accident because you have seatbelts and airbags in your car?

Peter Heller said...

@Reiner Grundmann:

a) “In fact, you have introduced a simplification in suggesting that one principle is ideological and the other not.”

No, I have not suggested to use another principle than the PP. My suggestion is: Use no principle. Decide what to do on a case-by-case approach. Measures should be adapted to the individual, local problems. This is in my opinion not an ideology, because it defines no general approach.

The failure in the PP is exactly the term “even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically”. This opens up the door to use the results of science independent from their validity. The PP itself established the link between climate science and a special ideology. It is used to support measures based on imagination, not on knowledge.

b) “So you are not afraid of a traffic accident because you have seatbelts and airbags in your car?”

Yes. If I would be afraid of a traffic accident, I would not drive. Whenever using a car (a train, a plane, …) I do it convinced of arriving at my destination without any accident.

The life itself is full of risks, everywhere and everytime. This is the reason for using insurances. To have a fire insurance does not prevent the fire, for example. But it reduces the impact of a fire when it happens. When buying or building a house, e.g., do you think: Well, I should better build no house, because it could be damaged by a fire?

Don’t you fell in love because there is a chance that the relation will break up sometimes in the future?

@ReinerGrundmann said...

I think this is OT and we perhaps need a thread on the PP. In my view, you exemplify the charge of ideological attitude by calling one principle as based 'on imagination', and the other principle (which you now say is not a principle but a case by case approach) as based 'on knowledge'. Loading the terms with preferred values is the semantic trick I mentioned earlier. Who would want to disagree that we should decide on the basis of knowledge and not fantasy? The problem is: what to do when the knowledge is not certain.

Hans von Storch said...

Henk/28 - I have no knowledge about the issue of heat exchange between the earth's crust and the oceans. Thus I have asked a colleague - here is his answer: Fuer das globale Mittel werden etwa 0.07 W/m**2 angegeben. Starke raeumliche Variation. In den Risszonen der Ozeanischen Ruecken geht die Temperatur bis auf einige 100 Grad C; da ist es dann deutlich mehr. - Bei starkem Interesse: Besuch in Bibliothek empfehlen.. -- Hans

itisi69 said...

Talking about Physics and Climate Science, here's a statement by the British Institute of Physics to the Parliament re CRU emails. Pretty damning methinks...

eduardo said...

@ 38

The Institute of Physics publishes, among other more specific journals, Physics World. PW is broadly read within the physics community, together with Physics Today, its American counterpart.
I was indeed a bit surprised, but not totally, by the clarity of this text, and I am curious about whether Physics World or Physics Today will publish anything at all on this topic.

This could be a first sign of a bid to redesign the funds share of public research funds. I guess that the fact that even a European project contained in its web page the Himalayan glacier claim will not pass unnoticed by scientist of other disciplines with influence in EU research policy

eduardo said...

@ 32

Reiner wrote 'Eduardo (and others) - are there national differences with regard to the relation between physics and climate science? Is it possible to get a degree in 'climatology' or 'climate science' in some countries? '

I dont know any country where it is possible to obtain a degree in climatology, but my sample is limited. Some universities do offer a master in climate science, which I guess is pursued by oceanographers, meteorologist, physical geographers, etc.

In Spain, for instance, you cannot even get a degree in Meteorology or Physical Oceanography. These are considered
branches of physics.

From my limited experience I do feel that physicist tend to consider themselves at the top of the tribe, in particular in Germany

eduardo said...

@ 31
Philip wrote 'Do you (or anyone else here) have any suggestions on where to look to get a better understanding of why so many people are convinced of dangerous warming? '

I think your question is not about physics, but about social psychology (?). First, I am not so sure that so many people are convinced of dangerous warming, if you consider the whole population. Also, I think it is very difficult to disentangle what people say they think, and what they really think. Perhaps Dennis Bray can provide an answer here.