Demanding Better Medium-Term Rainfall Forecasts Would Improve Climate Science

Published December 10, 2014

The classical liberal, like the ordinary person, has a general aversion to revolutionary change. This is justified in the spheres of politics and economics. Science history, however, shows progress is made principally through revolution.

Scientific Revolutions

In his seminal 1963 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed every significant scientific development, including those associated with the names Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, and Einstein, required the complete overthrow of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another, incompatible theory. A second important point Kuhn makes, one much more aligned with classic liberal thinking, is competition between segments of the scientific community is the only historical process to actually precipitate such revolutions.

This presents a significant problem for the growing number of nonscientists who would like to see the overthrow of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory. Rather than simply ridiculing AGW theory, they will need to find, and actively support, competition. To this end, it is important to realize simply repeating claims climate change is natural, a point often correctly made by many sceptical geologists, is not enough. Indeed, stating climate change is natural does not constitute a theory amenable to falsification by experiment.

Valuing a Scientific Theory

A good test of the value of any scientific theory to those external to the discipline is its utility. For example, the calendars developed based on Nicolas Copernicus’ Heliocentric Theory of the Universe were better than those based on Ptolemy’s Handy Tables. The new calendars, based on a new theoretical approach, more precisely predicted the position of the sun and the planets and thus the seasons, which, of course, influence the weather.

In the same way, those who want to see AGW theory discarded need to increase their expectations of climate science and in particular demand some practical benefit from the billions of dollars spent on the development of the General Circulation Models (GCMs) underpinning AGW theory. For example, GCMs would be useful if they could provide medium-term rainfall forecasts including the actual quantity of anticipated rainfall in millimeters for specific localities for particular periods of time.

Consider this issue from a different perspective. It can be argued scientific theories and their overarching paradigms gain their status because they are successful in solving important problems. AGW theory, with its focus on carbon dioxide emissions, solves a problem that has preoccupied activists for years: it provides proof industrial activity is despoiling the earth. An alternative theory of climate, for example one useful to industry, might make as its focus detailed and accurate climate and weather forecasts.

Australian Example

The very wet summer of 2010-2011 severely affected mining operations in Queensland. It is estimated 85 percent of Queensland coal mines had to restrict production or close entirely. By May 2011, Queensland’s coal mining sector had recovered to only 75 percent of its pre-flood output.

These events led to a loss of $5.7 billion, equivalent to 2.2 percent of Queensland’s gross state product for the financial year ending June 2011. A report prepared for Australia’s National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility concluded currently available climate forecasts lack localized information, and other micro details, to enable focused advanced planning and risk management.

In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has directed most of its research efforts over recent decades toward the Predictive Ocean Atmosphere Model for Australia (POAMA), modeling climate systems particularly forecasting the impact of increasing levels of carbon dioxide on climate. POAMA had not been used for the official seasonal rainfall forecasts because POAMA’s forecasts are not very good. POAMA could improve its utility by shifting focus from AGW predictions to rainfall forecasts.

Richard Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a recent article for the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons global climate alarmism has been both costly to society and damaging to science. According to Lindzen, this form of climate science has become a source of authority rather than a mode of inquiry and has successfully taken over all of institutional climate science research.

Competition Required

The history of science provides some insight into how to respond to this challenge. The successful overthrow of an established paradigm occurs only when there is competition. Competition can manifest as something wholly political and strictly within the scientific discipline, or it can be about the evaluation of a theory based on its utility to those external to the discipline.

Indeed, if skillful medium-term rainfall forecasting were a goal of climate research, then evaluating the relative skill of competing theories could be an objective measure of their respective utility and by extension, we would argue, their essential truth.

In short, those skeptical of AGW theory may be able to help precipitate its overthrow by demanding better medium-term rainfall forecasts.

At the moment, however, there is no understanding such a choice potentially exists. Indeed, in Australia, and the West more generally, unless significant political pressure is brought to bear, entire research and development budgets will continue to be spent on GCMs with limited utility beyond politics, simply because they are modern climate science.

Jennifer Marohasy ([email protected]) is an adjunct research fellow at Central Queensland University.


Richard Lindzen, “Science in the Public Square: Global Climate Alarmism and Historical Precedents,” Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2013: