Climate change models omit key component

Climate models used to study temperature change from greenhouse gases are missing a key ingredient — economics, according to a new study by a University of Guelph professor.

Economist Ross McKitrick, an expert in environmental policy analysis, says most models ignore the effects of socioeconomic change on land use changes, making those models inaccurate.

The study, co-authored with Lise Tole of Strathclyde University, was published online in the journal Climate Dynamics.

McKitrick has studied how land use changes from urbanization, agriculture and other surface modifications affect temperature trends around the world. Past research suggests these effects might account for some of the warming patterns in weather data. Climate modelers assume that the effects are filtered out at the data processing stage, he said.

“As a result, when researchers look for explanations of regional patterns of climatic changes, they rule out things like urbanization by assumption and give greater weight to global factors like greenhouse gases and solar variations,” McKitrick said.

The study examined data from 22 sophisticated climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The researchers compared how accurately those models would have predicted spatial warming patterns over land between 1979 and 2002 with predictions from a much simpler model using data on regional industrialization and socioeconomic growth.

“The contrasts were striking,” McKitrick said. Twenty of the IPCC models made predictions that were no better than random guesses or that contradicted the observed patterns, he said.

“Only two of the 22 models showed any explanatory power for the temperature changes over the same period.”

By contrast, the simple economic model made much more accurate predictions.

Using various statistical techniques to compare modeling approaches, the researchers found that usually the economic model was essential and the climate model could be dropped, but never the other way around.

One technique involved searching more than 537 million combinations of climate model outputs and socioeconomic data for the best possible mix. The research team found that combining three of the 22 climate models and a small number of socioeconomic indicators best explained the spatial pattern of surface temperature trends.

“By assuming the socioeconomic effects are not there, a lot of climate researchers are ignoring a key feature of the data,” McKitrick said.

The researchers also found that the best climate models aren’t necessarily the most well-known ones. The best models came from labs in China and Russia and from one American institute; models from Canada, Japan, Europe and most U.S. research labs lacked explanatory power, either alone or in combination.

The study has important implications for policy-makers, McKitrick said. “Computer forecasts of regional climate changes between now and 2030 can look impressive in their detail, but it would be wise not to make major policy decisions without first looking into the model’s forecast accuracy.”

The findings are also important for researchers, especially those using climate data sets. “A lot of the current thinking about the causes of climate change relies on the assumption that the effects of land surface modification due to economic growth patterns have been filtered out of temperature data sets. But this assumption is not true.”

 

Originally published on June 20, 2012 by the University of Guelph. Ross McKitrick speaks at the What Matters Now event in Thunder Bay on March 4.

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Humanitarian or missionary?

Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014

Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. “I am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,” says Paras. “It is something that is taken for granted by Western societies – the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.” Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. “I don’t think they are that separate,” says Paras. “Organizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.” She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. “If you look at the values of dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, ” says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western world’s approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. “As Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,” says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. “They [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,” says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. “If they stay too close to their traditional mandates – and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies – they risk becoming extinct,” says Paras.    

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Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014

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Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014

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