Some comments on mathematics, models, etc.
High school student Lyla asked in a comment on a previous post if I would be willing to answer a few questions regarding models for her class. The questions were excellent, so I'm posting them here, along with my answers. Thanks Lyla!
What is the role mathematics plays in understanding the implications of climate change?
Climate is very complicated, because it involves so many controlling factors and influences, many of which interact with each other, and because they operate on sometimes vastly different time scales (a few years to tens of thousands of years). Mathematical models help us to formalize what we know and understand about climate in a very precise manner, allowing us to ask "what if" questions, and essentially conduct experiments that could not otherwise actually be performed.
How is modeling used to help to predict the future of global warming?
One of the major influences on climate are greenhouse gas concentrations. Since those are climbing at alarming rates, and are the source of so much concern, we can increase their concentrations in models and see what the outcomes are. The ways in which we increase the concentrations are based on estimates of how much we think the concentrations will increase over time, like the next 100 years.
How can we stay educated and updated on recent research done about global warming?
There are several excellent blogs online dedicated to discussions of global warming (just Google "climate change blogs"), as well as websites for major organizations such as the IPCC, the NRDC, and the National Academy of Sciences. Some of these are more understandable than others, but they/we are all eager to explain what we are talking about.
What do you think is the most important thing high school students should know about global warming?
The most important thing? That is an interesting and difficult question. I think two things. First, we humans are the cause of the problem because of our huge rates of consumption. We consume too much energy, and we consume too many goods. We simply must learn how to get by with a little less! Second, this is your future, but it's not far off. There is little point in blaming the past, since the past is the past. But we can work on the future, and we have to do it now. Global warming and the climate change that it is driving are happening now. The effects are already all around us, but it is not too late to get a reasonable handle on the problem. Be educated, concerned and pro-active. If you are, then you're also allowed to be optimistic.