Climate science 101: nothing is certain

One of the questions often asked of scientists concerns their level of confidence in the claim that human behaviour influences the Earth’s climate. Yesterday on BBC radio this question was posed to Ed Miliband, the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Miliband, who is not a scientist by training, could have been better advised on how to answer such questions.

There is no absolute certainty that humans are responsible for climate change. But then there is no certainty that the physics which describe the workings of the transistors in the computer in front of you are valid. Even if the physics are not totally correct, they are a very good approximation, and have so far stood up to every test thrown at them. We rely on the technology, and thus the science.

Nothing in science is certain, and therein lies its strength. Quantifiable and qualifiable uncertainty is what sets science apart from religious and political ideology, and allows us to make progress in understanding the natural world.