A CERN for climate change

2 December 2019

In order to successfully tackle climate change, Professor Tim Palmer from Oxford University and Professor Bjorn Stevens from the Max Planck Society argue that we must invest in an ambitious new multi-national modelling strategy to further our knowledge of climate science – they are calling for a climate change equivalent of CERN.

Bold initiatives are needed

Professor Palmer explains: ‘We see a clear need for bold initiatives to bring together computational, computer and climate scientists to co-develop modelling systems that will fully exploit emerging technologies and exa-scale computing. By comparison with new particle colliders or space telescopes, the amount needed – maybe around $100 million per year – is very modest indeed. In addition, the benefit/cost ratio to society of having a much clearer picture of the dangers we are facing in the coming decades by our ongoing actions, seems extraordinarily large.’

The pair argue that the contribution of current Earth-system modelling to the understanding of global warming has been important – but primarily to show that the theoretical frameworks for interpreting observations were, despite their many simplifications, on track. Now that the causes of global warming are settled, and the imperative that this places on reducing carbon emissions is clear, climate science is facing new challenges: the need to understand the habitability of the planet and the ability of human populations to be resilient to the extremes of weather and climate that may accompany future warming for example.

Reduced bias: improved predictions

To address these challenges and inform decision making about the rate of future warming and the risks of a warming world, Professors Palmer and Stevens argue that a new modelling strategy is required. They put that the strategy should exploit an emerging new generation of models; ones that aim to reduce biases by representing important physical processes – through known laws of physics rather than error-prone semi-empirical approaches. Decades of experience in numerical weather prediction has, after all, shown that reducing biases leads to improved predictions. The development of a new generation of more physically based models is something that has been advocated before but now is becoming possible according to Palmer and Stevens.

Professor Stevens adds: ‘It is important that scientists speak candidly. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we can understand some things (like the world is warming because of human activities) but not everything (like what this warming means for regional changes in weather, extremes, and the habitability of the planet). By not talking about the limits of our understanding we run the risk of failing to communicate the need for new scientific approaches, just when they are needed most.’

'The scientific challenge of understanding and estimating climate change' by Tim Palmer and Bjorn Stevens, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA).