Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Climate Science: the same destiny of "The Limits to Growth"?

Studies of resource depletion, such as "The Limits to Growth" of 1972 were attacked and demonized in the 1980s, and then consigned to the dustbin of "wrong" scientific ideas. Now it is the turn of climate science to be attacked and demonized. Two parallel stories unfolding at different times .

In the 1950s, the mineral depletion problem and the climate problem started to be recognized. In 1956 Marion King Hubbert published the first study that examined worldwide oil depletion; suggesting the model that today takes his name; the "Hubbert Model". At about the same time, in 1957, Roger Revelle coauthored with Hans Suess the first paper that noted that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increasing as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels and pointing out the related climatic effects.

Both climate studies and oil depletion studies dealt with complex, non linear systems, so that quantitative estimates of future trends became possible only with the development of digital computers, starting in the late 1960s. The first general circulation models (GCM) was developed at NASA's NOAA in the late 1960s. The first world model that examined the world's economic system in light of resource depletion was published by Jay Forrester in 1971, with the title "World Dynamics". One year later,  in 1972, the more detailed study "The Limits to Growth" appeared. These events marked a rapid growth of two new fields of research: "Climate Science" and "World Modeling".

Already the 1972 study, "The Limits to Growth" had identified the main elements and the behavior of the world system. Here is the basic result from that study.

As you see, the model had already identified the "tipping points" of the system; where the gradual depletion of natural resources and the increase in pollution would lead to the collapse of the industrial and agricultural production and, later on, to the collapse of population. The choice made to build this model were to "aggregate" most of the variables involved, that is to lump them together to limit the unavoidable uncertainties when dealing with single variables. Lacking sufficient data to build a very detailed model, the approach of "The Limits to Growth" study was heuristic and oriented to the understanding of the system's behavior, rather than to making exact predictions.

On the other side of simulations, climate scientists found themselves facing the high complexity of the world's climate, for which they often lacked sufficient data. The result was that climate modeling grew together with a substantial experimental effort dedicated to measuring the parameters of the system. Several of these parameters required extensive studies to be understood and quantified. With time, models grew in sophistication, just as the data in input became more detailed and reliable. Perhaps because of this very sophistication, the models had troubles in addressing the question of "tipping points", abrupt changes that could result from enhancing feedbacks within the climate system. The result has been a tradition of presenting the results of climate models as smooth and continuous curves. Here are, for instance, the curves for the temperature rise in the first IPCC report in 1990.

The results of the simulations haven't changed very much in the latest IPCC report, in 2007. Now, here is the difference in the two fields of research: World modeling, with its vision of collapse, seemed to provide a more immediate and more worrisome threat than the smooth curves of climate science. This difference had consequences.

We know what happened to the iconic study of world modeling: "The Limits to Growth" of 1972. It appeared threatening enough to many people that it underwent a series of political attacks in the 1980s that moved it to the dustbin of the "wrong" scientific theories. The problem was not just the demonization of a single study, but the fact that an entire scientific field was cast in bad light and that led to the nearly total disappearance of research funds in the area. Only in recent years we are seeing world modeling laboriously trying to re-emerge as a legitimate field of study.

The problem with climate science, however, is that its vision of the problem has gradually become more and more dramatic. With the Northern Ice Cap on its way to complete melting, drought, floods, and hurricanes, the question of abrupt climate change can't be ignored any more. Scenarios that take tipping points into account start to look even more worrisome than those provided by world modeling in the 1970s.

So, it may not be casual that we are seeing a reaction against climate science  very similar to the one seen in the 1980s against world modeling. Apparently, people do not like to see threatening scenarios and many lobbies feel that such studies are bad for business. As a consequence, a concerted effort is being carried out in order to demonize climate science and climate scientists in the eyes of the public and to make the whole story look like a joke or, worse, a purposeful hoax. If anything, the present attacks against climate science are more aggressive and violent than any attack against world modeling has been. Today, demonization technologies are much better known and refined than they were in the 1980s. The "Climategate" fabrication, for instance, is a true masterpiece in how to deceive the public.

So, what we are seeing are two parallel stories unfolding at different times. It is not impossible that climate science will go the same way as world modeling did in the 1980s: demonized and riduculed by a concerted and well financed political attack and subsequently removed from the pool of legitimate fields of study. If that happens, we may very well lose a couple of decades before realizing that studying climate science was important. By then, it will be surely too late.

Perhaps, however, the recent wave of symptoms of climate change, from hurricanes to melting ice caps, will make the problem so clear that it will spare climate science from the fate of demonization that befell on world modeling. However, the anti-science campaign is still going on and we lost already a lot of time. Is it too late? Only time will tell. 

Hat tip to Bernhardt for having suggested the subject of this post


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)