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.

Tagged: Economy, Nature, Blog, Events, Stories

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts

Indigenous art and the ‘...

Sharon Oosthoek | June 27, 2016

Gerald McMaster is fascinated by creative people who move in an out of, or are influenced by different communities and cultures. At once nomadic and connected, their experiences formed the basis of his early research. Today, the Ontario College of Art and Design University professor, curator, author, and artist is about to dive back into this area of research. He is launching a multi-year project that will examine the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures interact, influence and inspire one another. read more »

2016 Women’s Health Scholars

Alex Hughes | June 22, 2016

Ten outstanding Ontario university scholars are being recognized for potentially life-changing research for women in Ontario and across the globe, as they look to develop health care in the areas such as HIV-care, contraceptives, and breast cancer. The Council of Ontario Universities, with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care introduced the Ontario Women’s Health Scholars Awards in 2001 to ensure that Ontario attracts and retains pre-eminent women’s health scholars.  The awards aim to improve women’s health. The 2016 recipients include postdoctoral, doctoral and master’s students from six Ontario universities. They each will receive scholarships of $25,000 to $50,000, along with research grants of $1,000 to $5,000. This year’s recipients and their areas of research are: Alisa Grigorovich, University of Toronto – how to create effective policies that address the sexual harassment of female workers by clients in Ontario residential long-term facilities. Jocelyn Wessels, McMaster University – how female sex hormones found in contraceptives affect vaginal health and susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections. Lori Chambers, McMaster University – the challenges and benefits to African immigrant women who are living with HIV and choose to work in prevention, treatment and advocacy for others with HIV. Komal Shaikh, York University – assessing the effects of education-based therapy in treating and rehabilitating cancer survivors with cancer-related cognitive dysfunction. Amanda D. Timmers, Queen’s University – how sexual arousal patterns vary across genders and how these variations can inform the treatment of sexual dysfunction. Kelly Coons, Laurentian University – how to improve the ability of future health care professionals to counsel pregnant women on drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Sara King-Dowling, McMaster University – how the development of girls’ motor skills affects their overall health and activity levels over time. Denise Jaworsky, University of Toronto – how living in rural and Northern areas of Canada affects the ability of women living with HIV to access care. Justin Michael, Western University – developing tools to allow for a single-visit radiation treatment for women with breast cancer to make things easier for those living far from treatment facilities. Shira Yufe, York University – how to encourage breast cancer survivors to adopt healthy lifestyle and weight management habits. Each of the researchers has spent countless hours studying topics related to women’s health and improving the lives of women in Ontario.  Their research (full descriptions available here) will contribute to the way that Ontarians (and the global community) live, work and play.  Congratulations are in order to the award recipients! Stay Curious!

Closing the cancer gap ...

Pippa Wysong | June 17, 2016

First Nations women are up to 20 times more likely to develop cervical cancer compared to women in the general Canadian population, largely because very few First Nations women undergo Pap testing. But a project focusing on this population is coming up with new ways to improve screening and help get cancer rates down. read more »

Rewriting Ottawa’s history

Chris Cline | June 13, 2016

New evidence shows an extensive Indigenous burial ground from as early as 4,900 years ago at “Hull Landing,” the present site of the Canadian Museum of History, directly across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill. The find came to light last year thanks to the research of Carleton University journalism professor Randy Boswell and Canadian Museum of History curator, Jean-Luc Pilon. While Bytown antiquarian Edward Van Cortlandt first investigated the site in 1843, knowledge of the burial ground’s true location was lost for more than a century. That is, until Boswell's recent series of discoveries in 19th-century Ottawa newspaper archives. read more »
university classroom

Calling out racism in ...

Sharon Oosthoek | June 7, 2016

Growing up in Northern Ontario as a member of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai, Sheila Cote-Meek is no stranger to the impact of Canada's colonial history. So when she set out to study colonized classrooms for her PhD dissertation — published as a book in 2014 — she had a good idea of the kind of stories she would hear from  university students and professors. Still, even she was taken aback: "I was shocked and saddened that in this day and age,  students still have to deal with racism in overt and covert ways," she recalls. read more »
More Blogs »