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Initial-condition dependence and initial-condition uncertainty in climate science

Werndl, Charlotte (2019) Initial-condition dependence and initial-condition uncertainty in climate science. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 70 (4). 953 - 976. ISSN 0007-0882

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Identification Number: 10.1093/bjps/axy021


This article examines initial-condition dependence and initial-condition uncertainty for climate projections and predictions. The first contribution is to provide a clear conceptual characterization of predictions and projections. Concerning initial-condition dependence, projections are often described as experiments that do not depend on initial conditions. Although prominent, this claim has not been scrutinized much and can be interpreted differently. If interpreted as the claim that projections are not based on estimates of the actual initial conditions of the world or that what makes projections true are conditions in the world, this claim is true. However, it can also be interpreted as the claim that simulations used to obtain projections are independent of initial-condition ensembles. This article argues that evidence does not support this claim. Concerning initial-condition uncertainty, three kinds of initial-condition uncertainty are identified (two have received little attention from philosophers so far). The first (the one usually discussed) is the uncertainty associated with the spread of the ensemble simulations. The second arises because the theoretical initial ensemble cannot be used in calculations and has to be approximated by finitely many initial states. The third uncertainty arises because it is unclear how long the model should be run to obtain potential initial conditions at pre-industrial times. Overall, the discussion shows that initial-condition dependence and uncertainty in climate science are more complex and important issues than usually acknowledged.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2018 The Author
Divisions: Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GE Environmental Sciences
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BC Logic
Date Deposited: 16 Mar 2020 12:27
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2021 02:49

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