I found this article from a Tweet this morning:
Prof John Mitchell: How a 1967 study greatly influenced climate change science
The Carbon Brief blog asked climate scientists to nominate the most influential refereed paper. Manabe & Wetherland’s 1967 paper entitled, “Thermal Equilibrium of the Atmosphere with a Given Distribution of Relative Humidity” was the winner. The paper incorporated the transfer of heat from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back for the first time in a model. Their model produced surface temperatures that were closer to reality than previous efforts. They also tested constant and doubled atmospheric CO2 and found global mean temperatures increased by 2.4C under a doubling scenario. In a nutshell, a simple model in 1967 projected the same warming signal as dozens of more sophisticated models do today.
I am not the first to pose the following question: what additional value do today’s extensive models provide over simple models? Climate scientists still use simple models in their investigations. They’re obviously useful. But posing the question differently addresses my more recent interests: does the public derive more value from today’s climate model results than they did before with simpler and cheaper models? The most obvious addition to me is the increasing ability to resolve regional climate change which is more variable than the global mean. I do wonder how the public would react if they heard that climate models are largely generating the same projections given the amount of money invested in their development and analysis. We have a partial answer already with the growth of climate skeptics in the public sphere. Some people are obviously drawn to the problem. As complex as all the aspects of the problem are and as busy as most people are, perhaps it is in science’s best interest to not make too much noise.
I will also note that one of the drawbacks of climate science in the academy is the utter lack of historical context for results. My experience really has been the proverbial information dump as part of the information deficit model of learning. The Facts Speak For Themselves. I don’t remember hearing about this article that so many in my field consider seminal. My colleagues would benefit from exposure to the history of their science.