Climate models as futurology

I’m listening in on a conference in Cambridge (England) on models, uncertainty, and policy-making. They are all models which project future outcomes, in climate, economics, or epidemiology, so there is a futurist thread running through the meeting, as well as the “official” theme of risk and uncertainty.

In that light, tonight’s keynote lecture from Mike Hulme of University of East Anglia (he of Why We Disagree about Climate Change, which I have yet to read as my, ahem, request to the nearest university library has yet to be fulfilled because the other Dr Turney is frantically overworked just now) was a good taster.

What struck me (well, it would) was that although his talk was about the various kinds of authority – epistemic, social, political – we may grant to climate models, he opened by characterising them as tools for probing the future. In fact, he began by asserting that “they claim to offer access to the far future”, though without defining “far”.

Later on, after a thoughtful dissection of the status of climate models I’m not going to try and summarise (I’m sure he has/will publish it), he affirmed that they remain “the single most powerful way for scientists to organise their knowledge of the earth system”, and that they have value in “opening up possible futures”. That note was echoed by a climate modeller from the Met Office, who suggested that the UK climate scenarios they published in 2009, which ranged across a large set of climate models, should be thought of as “a range of possible futures”.

Anther dimension of this, not discussed this evening, is how climate models use the past as validation in order to scope the future. And, as Paul Edwards points out in his surpassingly splendid book on the development of global climate models The Vast Machine, we can expect or at least hope to move to an era where climate models are used to plot the past futures we did not actually see – assuming some mitigation measures actually have an effect and we have an interest in assessing how where we are at some future point compares with how bad things might have been…  That will presumably be as complex a debate as the one we are having now, as imperfectly as ever, about what policies to follow to steer a path into a bearable future.

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