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How do Climate Models Gain and Exercise Authority?

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Climate models have become central to the climate change story unfolding around us. Climate models are essential for the detection and attribution of anthropogenic climate change; and they grant us access to the future by foretelling the climatic consequences of the development pathways we have chosen and are choosing. Climate models underpin the knowledge claims and risk assessments of the IPCC . They therefore exercise great power and influence – over policy debates; over human imaginations; over the academy. Climate models have acquired significant authority in the contemporary world; they are respected and they are deferred to.

The question I wish to answer in this lecture is ‘How do climate models gain and exercise this authority?’ And there are two inter-related dimensions to this question which need examination: their epistemic authority and their social authority.

Their epistemic power comes from being rooted in physical theory. And yet approximations, exclusions and parameterisations have to occur. Climate models are significant abstractions and simplifications of reality. The more physical processes are simulated in a climate model, the greater are the degrees of freedom and the greater are the uncertainties in model projections.

What do climate models promise? They promise increasing certainty, but the enduring uncertainty of climate models acts as a form of (political, financial, epistemic) power . Epistemic power: the ability to impose/guarantee certain forms of knowledge. We become vulnerable by insisting that all valid knowledge must be codified in models.

This leads us to ask the question: ‘Are climate models reliable?’ Do models provide answers to questions or do they generate data from which questions emerge?

This talk is part of the CRASSH lectures series.

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