Can We Trust the U.N.'s IPCC Climate Models?

Many simulations produce four times more warming than actually occurred over the past 15 years.


On Monday, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final draft of Climate Change 2013: The Physical Sciences Basis. The report's Summary for Policymakers flatly states: "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased." Pretty much everyone concerned with this issue agrees that those are the facts. But what is causing the planet to warm up? Here is where it gets interesting.

The Summary for Policymakers declares it "extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." Whether that is so can be probed by comparing actual observed temperature trends with the simulations of the U.N.'s computer climate models, which assume that human influences are driving climate change. According to the IPCC researchers, "There is very high confidence that models reproduce the general features of the global and annual mean surface temperature changes over the historical period, including the warming in the second half of the 20th century." So far, so good: Both the model's projections and actual temperatures did rise during the latter half of the 20th century.

As evidence that the models "reproduce the general features" of actual temperature trends, the new report provides a handy graph comparing projections made in the panel's previous report with three different temperature records. The report further states that "the trend in globally-averaged surface temperatures falls within the range of the previous IPCC projections."

But is that so? Most temperature records show that since 1998 the models and the observed average global temperature trend have parted ways. The temperatures in the models continue to rise, while the real climate has refused to warm up much during the past 15 years.

The IPCC report acknowledges that almost all of the "historical simulations do not reproduce the observed recent warming hiatus." Not to worry, it assures us; 15-year pauses just happen, and you can't really expect the models to simulate these kind of random natural fluctuations in the climate. Once this little slow-down passes, "It is more likely than not that internal climate variability in the near-term will enhance and not counteract the surface warming expected to arise from the increasing anthropogenic forcing." In other words, when the warm-up resumes it will soar.

John Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, has come to a different conclusion. Christy compared the outputs of 73 climate models for the tropical troposphere used by the IPCC in its latest report with satellite and weather balloon temperature trends since 1979 until 2030. "The tropics is so important because that is where models show the clearest and most distinct signal of greenhouse warming—so that is where the comparison should be made (rather than say for temperatures in North Dakota)," Christy explains in an email. "Plus, the key cloud and water vapor feedback processes occur in the tropics." When it comes to simulating the atmospheric temperature trends of the past 35 years, Christy found, all of the IPCC models are running hotter than the actual climate.

Even the IPCC report admits, "Most, though not all, of [the climate models] overestimate the observed warming trend in the tropical troposphere during the satellite period 1979–2012." Another graph from Christy, which simply compares the actual average temperature trends with the IPCC model averages for the tropics, makes the divergence starker.

To defend himself against any accusations of cherry-picking his data, Christy notes that his "comparisons start in 1979, so these are 35-year time series comparisons"—rather longer than the 15-year periods whose importance the IPCC disputes.

Why the discrepancy between the IPCC and Christy results? As Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry notes, data don't speak for themselves; researchers have to put them into a context. And your choice of context—say, the year you choose to begin with—can influence your conclusions considerably. While there may be nothing technically wrong with the way the IPCC chose to display the comparison between model data and observation data, "Curry observes, it will mislead the public to infer that climate models are better than we thought." She adds, "What is wrong is the failure of the IPCC to note the failure of nearly all climate model simulations to reproduce a pause of 15+ years."

The IPCC report does concede that "Almost all [climate model] historical simulations do not reproduce the observed recent warming hiatus." It argues that the difference "could be caused by some combination of (a) internal climate variability, (b) missing or incorrect radiative forcing, and (c) model response error." That is to say, the projections are off owing to pesky natural climate fluctuations, possible errors regarding how much warming a given increase in greenhouse gases will produce, and/or boosting temperature projections too high in response to given increases in greenhouse gases.

The IPCC report also obliquely references an August study in Nature Climate Change that reported that the observed rate of warming over the past 20 years was actually half of what a representative sample of the models relied upon by the IPCC simulated. Looking at just the past 15 years, the models were four times hotter than the actual trend in the average global temperature.

But the IPCC is confident that warming will soon resume at a pretty fast clip too. Back in 2007, other modelers were similarly confident about their predictions for future warming. Specifically, at the United Nation's annual climate change conference in Bali, the U.K.'s Hadley Centre forecasted that between 2004 and 2014 the global average temperature would rise by around +0.3 degrees Celsius. Instead, the Nature Climate Change article reports a trend over the last 15 years of just +0.05 degrees Celsius per decade.

The Hadley Centre also predicted that half of the years after 2009 would be hotter than the current record hot year, 1998. Eyeballing the current set of Hadley data, which was adjusted upward last year, only one year after 2009 so far has been hotter than 1998, and then only by two one-hundredths of a degree.

Finally, consider that the IPCC now reports that the observed global-mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2012 has been increasing at a rate of +0.12°C per decade, and that the global average temperature is about +0.72°C higher than it was in 1951. At that rate, global average temperature by the end of this century would be just over +1.0°C higher than it is now.

The computer climate models are supposed to provide reliable data to policymakers with regard to future trends in man-made global warming. Now that the new IPCC report is out, the question that policymakers have to ask themselves is: Are the outputs of the models robust enough for them bet trillions of dollars on?