Simple Climate Questions? An Engineer Replies

(my answer to “Simple Question, Simple Answer… Not“, guest commentary by Spencer R. Weart, of the American Institute of Physics on RealClimate)

Would it be possible to have an actual senior engineer present their (presumably, mainstream) views of anthropogenic climate change and of the use of models?

As a (senior? and scientifically trained) engineer myself, I can guess what Mr Weart is aiming at, but he’s still using a language that brings down no barrier. For example, a statement such as

“Gilbert N. Plass used the data and computers to demonstrate that adding carbon dioxide to a column of air would raise the surface temperature”

will and does definitely make people suspicious.

You see, I have seen dozens, and I am sure there are out there hundreds of thousands of designs that have been “demonstrated” in a computer only to fail miserably when put into practice.

In fact, one point that I don’t think Mr Weart realizes (and likely, it’s all part of the miscommunication) is that it’s the engineers that have to deal with the actual world out there, and all its complexity, starting from but having to go beyond what calculations (formulae and/or models) suggest.

It really is the job of engineers to understand the complexity of the real world, and to make things work within that complexity.

There is little point in arguing to your manager that, say, in the computer your revolutionary design of a car needs only 2 gallons per 100 miles, when the actual thing is measured as drinking much more than that.

The one rule common to all engineered system is, the more stuff you put in, the higher the chances that something will go wrong. In Mr Weart’s case: the more factors need to be made to interact using models and supercomputers to calculate “global warming”, the higher the chance that the computed answer won’t be the right one.

Therefore, rather than accusing engineers of looking for simple answers (likely, misunderstanding them), Mr Weart should try to bridge the gap.

An example of another scientific endeavor, apart from climate change, where extremely complex, just-made modelling has been successfully applied as-is into an engineering project, would definitely be a good starting point.