Climate Change as an Intergenerational Problem

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (March 19, 2013, v110 n12 p4435-4436) / by Carl Wunscha, Raymond W. Schmitt and D. James Baker

Predicting climate change is a high priority for society, but such forecasts are notoriously uncertain. Why? Even should climate prove theoretically predictable—by no means certain—the near-absence of adequate observations will preclude its understanding, and hence even the hope of useful predictions. Geological and cryospheric records of climate change and our brief recent record of instrumental observations show that the climate system is changeable on all time scales—from a few years out to the age of the earth…

Understanding of climate change is a problem for multiple generations. One generation of scientists has to make provisions for the needs of successor generations, rather than focusing solely on its own immediate scientific productivity. Today’s climate
models will likely prove of little interest in 100 years. But adequately sampled, carefully calibrated, quality controlled, and archived data for key elements of the climate system will be useful indefinitely.

This intergenerational problem must be faced by any entity —government or otherwise— hoping to eventually provide accurate forecasts of climate change…


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