The Politicization of Climate Models

Climate models are computer programs that solve the complex mathematical formulas that describe Earth’s climate. These models work in time-steps, where the output at time 2, for example, is used as the starting information at time 3. These models are integral to our understanding of all aspects of climate change: severity, climactic effects, biological effects, etc. These models are widely misunderstood, given that 42% of Americans think climate models are in the same category as daily weather models. In fact, the study linked in the last sentence pretty clearly demonstrates the severe lack of information in the general American public with regards to climate change and climate science. So, how are these models being discussed in the public realm, such that so many Americans misunderstand them?

A new paper by Akerlof et al. in Nature Climate Change suggests that these models are increasingly discussed not by news shows but on political opinion shows. This is problematic when the majority of Americans are already unsure as to whether these models can be trusted.

First, very little reporting of climate science appears to be ‘explanatory’, much of it is informative or opinionated but still assumes a basic understanding of the subject matter. According to the Yale study (first link), this is a bold assumption to make. Perhaps more explanatory material needs to be made available to the public through standard media outlets.

Second, climate models have seen an extraordinarily low amount of attention in news outlets (especially in comparison to stories mentioning global warming or climate change). In fact, The New York Times published far more stories on climate models than any other paper. Over the past decade, climate models have received less and less attention. Not only to climate models receive little attention, many (25%) of the ‘stories’ on climate models were op-ed pieces or letters to the editor, not written by journalists. Most of the mentions of climate models were negative, as well.

So what does all this mean? Well, it means that climate science isn’t being discussed in the public sphere by people qualified to evaluate those models. Most discussion of climate models is done by political pundits who have no more information available than their audience. What can we do? One possibility is that scientists, especially climate scientists, could take a more proactive role. More letters to the editor or journalists. Spend a significant part of the letter explaining climate science and climate models, much like teaching a class. Don’t assume too deep of an understanding of climate science. I would like to see a wave of op-ed pieces, written by scientists for everyone, on global change. Given that there are relatively few (10 or fewer) journalists who report on climate models, perhaps it is time that we cut the middle man and do it ourselves.

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One thought on “The Politicization of Climate Models

  1. There are more problems. First, the public does not appear to understand the role of models in science generally, whether these are instrumentation models, calibration models, or embodiments of hypotheses. Secondly, as Dr Steven Schneider points out, the public does not differentiate between experimental or lab bench science, and “systems science”, where whole portions of natural systems are being explained. These not only include geophysical models, but the successful models of signaling pathways in biology which are being used to help engineer pharmaceuticals and develop medical understanding. Finally, the public does not appear to understand the level of successful model complexity science and engineering is capable of using as routine, whether it is the reacquisition logic of a phased array radar or a cell tower, or a synthesis of a semiconductor integrated circuit surface, or the ability to track individual molecules like teleomeres in vivo in individual cells, or AFM for nanostructures.

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