Nobel Prize in Physics awarded for making ‘guess’ about climate

This past week, Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi were awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for research that led to early computer models of the Earth's climate. On the face of it, some people might think this is a grand achievement. In reality, unlike many Nobel-worthy accomplishments that are based on hard data or newly known processes, this one was simply a guess. Incredibly, we still don’t have an answer, more than 60 years later.

As the BBC reports,

“It is incredibly difficult to predict the long-term behaviour of complex physical systems such as the climate. Computer models that anticipate how it will respond to rising greenhouse gas emissions have therefore been crucial for understanding global warming as a planetary emergency.”

The Associated Press reported on Manabe’s work, saying, “…other climate scientists called his 1967 paper with the late Richard Wetherald “the most influential climate paper ever.” Manabe’s Princeton colleague, Tom Delworth, called Manabe “the Michael Jordan of climate.”

CNN reported,

“Manabe… harnessed the calculating power of early computers and applied it to climate. In the late 1960s, his climate circulation model was on a computer that occupied a whole room and only had half a megabyte of memory. After hundreds of hours of testing, the model showed that carbon dioxide had a clear impact -- when the level of carbon dioxide doubled, global temperature increased by over 2°C.”

Glowing reviews, crude early calculations, and wild claims of a “planetary emergency” aside, the bottom line is climate models then and now still don’t provide a certain answer as to how much warming will occur, because scientists still haven’t been able to nail down the single most important variable known as “climate sensitivity.”

As referenced in Climate at a Glance: Climate Sensitivity, for decades, scientists have debated the effect of climate sensitivity, due to the uncertain nature of climate feedback in various models.

Declaring future predictions of global warming “settled science” requires a fairly precise calculation of future temperatures. However, since climate sensitivity was first identified more than 40 years ago, scientists and climate models have produced a very broad range of potential future temperature patterns. Estimates in peer-reviewed studies range from 0.8°C warming to almost 6.0°C warming by 2100.

Such a large range of uncertainty means climate model temperature projections remain dubious, at best. This means that no matter if your climate model is a crude rendition running on an ancient computer, or a new supercomputer that can perform billions of calculations per second if you don’t have the actual value of climate sensitivity to use in the equations, your end result will always be a guess.

If climate scientists don’t understand the Earth’s atmosphere well enough to nail down a true climate sensitivity estimate for increased carbon dioxide emissions, how can we trust climate model projections of future warming that rely on such an uncertain value?

And that’s what we have -- an unanswered guess that was given a Nobel Prize. Physicist Lubos Motls didn’t mince words when he wrote of the award on his website:

“But even if the two men deserved such an award, which they don't, it is absolutely unforgivable how the prize was justified. It was justified by buzzwords (I especially mean the nonsensical superstitious phrase "global warming") that are almost identical like those in the justification of the Nobel Prize in Peace for pure scammers such as Al Gore. In this way, the Nobel Prize has committed suicide and I don't want to hear about it again. The political motivation of this prize is 100% obvious.”

“Award-winning” science deserves something better than guesses that stem from political motivations. We deserve better because politicians are using these guesses to justify upending our way of life, returning us to the dark ages of energy poverty.

Anthony Watts is a senior fellow for environment and climate at The Heartland Institute.

Image: PxFuel

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