Skipping the Test

If you point out that an April snowstorm hardly feels like global warming you get the patronizing lecture about the difference between weather and climate. And if you ask “Then why is hot weather touted as proof?” they declare the science is “settled” and shut down the discussion. Well if it is then I want to know what’s going to happen ahead of time, not after the fact.

I know the difference between weather and climate. But I also know the difference between science and flimflam. One observes data, forms hypotheses about causal relationships, then tests them by making predictions about the future and seeing if they succeed or fail. The other distracts, distorts and blusters.

Testing theories is a complex process involving a good deal of intuition about what hypotheses to test and what constitutes confirmation or refutation. If we’re too ready to abandon theories in the face of anomalies, we just get confused. But if we’re too stubborn, we get dug in.

I can’t count the number of news stories I’ve read saying climate science is settled. Or the number rationalizing any and every weather event as somehow being consistent with the theory. But if the theory really is so settled, let’s hear what wouldn’t be consistent with it.

If some alarmists are willing to say it’s not that simple, fine, provided they’ve been busy shooshing the politician who uses one wildfire as proof that we’re on the brink of annihilation or the celebrity who says California’s droughts will never end because we’re on the brink of annihilation. Let’s hear them admit that it’s complicated when it hurts their argument as well as when it helps it.

For instance a number of us believe the sun has a strong influence on climate so if it’s now entering a significant quiet period, temperatures are liable to flatline or even drop. (And if you want to see a real climate catastrophe, try some cold on Canada’s agriculture.) If temperatures do drop over the next, say, decade, alarmists could claim it’s just a short-term cooling laid on top of a still-worrying long-term trend of human-GHG-driven warming. But how would you test that theory, if up-trends and down-trends can both be rationalized?

Blaming the sun for a short-term temperature drop in the 21st century would require also attributing some previous warming to its 20th century intensification (which the roughly contemporary warming on Mars, Jupiter, Triton and Pluto surely points to), in which case CO2 caused less of the warming than the models say and is less dangerous than the alarmists say. So they don’t want to test that theory. But at the Climate Discussion Nexus, we do.

Then there’s the oft-repeated idea that man-made global warming is causing glaciers to retreat. When a glacier advances instead, like Jakobshavn in Greenland, they tend to go oh that’s weird then resume beating the warming drum. But what about the fact that most glaciers have been retreating for centuries? Wikipedia’s article “Retreat of glaciers since 1850” cheerfully attributes the phenomenon both to the natural end of the Little Ice Age and to man-made GHGs. But as with Mr. Sun and CO2, there’s only so much warming to go around. And I’m at a loss to know how to test a theory that says the retreat was natural until 1970 and not since. But if it’s science, there must be a way.

As for the argument we heard during the brutal winter conditions of early 2019, that overall warming pushed Arctic weather systems south leading to cold weather, it’s easy to be snide about the vaguely Orwellian claim that cooling is warming. But it’s not impossible. The problem again is, how can we test a theory that can never be proved wrong by events after they’ve occurred? The answer is predictions. Don’t tell us afterwards that obviously warming caused the cooling, duh, because a theory that can explain anything after the fact but can’t predict Christmas in December isn’t science, it’s rationalization. A.k.a. flimflam. So here’s my challenge to alarmists.

Tell us beforehand what kind of summer to expect in 2019: a cool dry one, a warm wet one etc. Tell us how much extreme weather to expect, and where. And what will winter 2019-20 be like, in North America, in Europe etc? If you can’t or won’t offer such predictions, then don’t show up afterwards claiming whatever happened was consistent with your theory.

Now if you respond by demanding a prediction from me you might be disappointed because I don’t know what next winter will be like. But as my theory is that climate is too complicated to model my prediction is that nobody’s predictions are any good. And the way to prove me wrong is make ones that work.

So go ahead. Predict something. I don’t care what. A warm winter. A cold one. Glaciers retreating. Glaciers advancing. More rain or less. Forests ablaze or green and verdant. The sky turning purple. I just want some way to tell if your settled science has any validity.

What’s that? You can’t? Gosh, a minute ago you seemed so certain.

About the Author

Dr. John Robson is Executive Director of Climate Discussion Nexus. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Texas at Austin and has worked as a historian, policy analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker for three decades. He has been examining the climate change issue for many years, including both the science and the policy debates.