Issues & Insights

COVID-19 Model Failures Show Why Climate Science Isn’t ‘Settled’

The scientific models used to predict the global impact of the COVID-19 crisis have cast into acute doubt the idea of iron-clad, unquestionable scientific modeling itself. Model failure has had potentially catastrophic effects on the world economy. It should have similar effects on claims about the indubitable nature of climate-science models, and of policies ostensibly flowing from them.

One devastating example illustrates the problem with the COVID-19 models.  Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London published a report in mid-March based on an infectiousness model that predicted that without total lockdown, half a million Britons and 2.2. million Americans could die of the virus. His report was critical in guiding both Britain and many American states to take extreme lockdown measures, rather than milder and less economically destructive courses.

The model, and the report, turned out to be nonsense. The model was a poorly coded mess that contained vital errors and couldn’t be replicated. Meanwhile, Ferguson so little trusted his own predictions that his mistress continued to travel across London for assignations with him, in violation of rules based on his model and ignoring the risks that he himself had predicted.

All of this illustrates the profound danger of declaring apocalyptic models about natural (or potentially partly natural and partly human-assisted) processes “settled” and certain, and then making drastic policy and business decisions on that basis.

These lessons clearly translate to the climate-policy debate. Proponents of extreme climate action assure us that their models are irreproachable, the science is settled, and their policy path is required. But recent developments have taught us better.

Those who want to use these climate claims to enforce a decades-long lockdown of vast swathes of the world economy and human liberties insist that the failures of COVID-19 modeling and policy failures, and their sources, do not apply to climate models and policy.  And it is true that the COVID-19 modeling was done in a hurry, while climate modeling has been going on for years.  But in many ways, the supposedly settled climate models are even more liable to potentially catastrophic error.

The world’s climate is far more complex than a single virus. In order for the climate models to be unquestionably reliable, the modelers must have included all of the right variables, excluded all of the wrong ones, and weighed each one exactly among potentially millions of possible inputs. That’s an enormous task, and any claim that it’s been done perfectly – or even close – should be judged with immense skepticism.

Climate models – and the results forecast by them – have already been repeatedly proven both flawed and wrong. The world has been buffeted since the late ‘80s by claims that the world is just 8, 10, 12 or 20 years away from catastrophic and unstoppable climate change. But those claims never pan out. Or conceivably they’ve been right – but then it’s too late to stop the change, by virtue of the modelers’ own claims. Neither result should create any faith in the current claims, based on the same models, that finally this next 12 years is the critical time period after all.

Meanwhile, the modelers are themselves deeply motivated to “discover” a pending disaster, still just fixable by gigantic action. Thus their claims, that the science shows us always somehow right on the (moving) cusp of exactly that, should receive mountainous skepticism.

Consider the prime example: the chief source of climate models and sweeping policy proposals is the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The UN’s findings are supposedly pure science, above the self-interested considerations of normal mortals. But even UN modelers are just people, as susceptible to the same tangential motivations as others – including desires for influence, prestige and funding. Few people have paid any attention to the UN since before the Iraq war, except with regard to its climate change predictions. Who would pay attention now, or fund endless international conferences, if the UN models and resultant policy proposals were temperate and measured?

Recently climate activists have branched out, coopting institutional shareholders to bully corporations into destroying untold trillions in economic value by subjecting themselves to the UN’s climate assertions, no questions asked. This is ludicrous.

Let us all, as governments, companies and people, learn from the COVID crisis and its modeling mess. Let’s reject shrill claims that vastly complex scientific models created by fallible and self-interested modelers, and the often hysterical policies derived from them, are somehow impervious to skepticism and doubt.

Scott Shepard is the coordinator of the Free Enterprise Project at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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  • What a bunch of deception. The central point, “Proponents of extreme climate action assure us that their models are irreproachable” is utterly false.

    Climate science does not require models. We know that it’s warming, even though the deniers try to convince people otherwise. We know that it’s caused by CO2, even though the deniers try to convince people otherwise. All of the denialist arguments have failed. All they have left is to cast doubt on the models?

    • The problem is that the models have been used to push a narrative. Since the models have been proven wrong (repeatedly) this article just shows a short term use of the models and how wrong they were.

      I took a class in college that focused on this area. The first day and first (or second) slide of the presentation was – All Models Are Wrong, but some are useful. This pretty much tells you what you need to know about computer modeling.

    • Well, Glen, not exactly…

      At issue is not whether our climate is changing; climate is not static so it will always be changing–wetter/dryer or cooler/warmer. At issue is the hyperbole. I don’t remember the exact year (2017?), but the “warmest year ever” was warmer by less than tenth of a percent of the margin of error–literally by hundredths of a degree. The media ran around with the headline like the Muppets right before curtain call. Think of it this way: if you spend $68 at the grocery store and realize they over/under charged you by $1.33, are you going to drop everything & rush back to the store over a $1.30 difference on a 68-dollar total? Maybe if you live across the street, but most people wouldn’t go out of their way for a small amount like that.

      In addition to the minuscule temperature differences measured, the term “hottest year on record” is very deceiving from a long-term historical standpoint. We’ve only taken official records for about 140 years. The planet has seen cyclical warming and cooling, with peaks exceeding the current temperature by as much as over 2 degrees C. That’s significant data, considering the last peak about 125,000 years ago (about 1 degree C higher than now) was not caused by human CO2 production. Over 200,000 years ago, the peak was about 2 degrees C higher than now–again, minus humanity’s CO2 production. Our current peak is right on schedule with the pattern of the last 800,000 years. Let’s see what fraction/percentage 140 is out of 800,000, then out of 425,000 (the depth of a couple of ice core samples taken from Antarctica):
      …proportional to 800,000, the value is 0.000175, or less than 2/10000ths, or less than 0.012%;
      …proportional to 425,000, the value is 0.00033 (rounded), or about 3.3/10000, or about 0.033%

      …So, relying on data that spans only up to 3.3 ten thousands of a much longer documented time span is misleading, disingenuous, and as Alan Carlin would call it, a risky gamble [with our economy].

      Another point: where permafrost has thawed in some Arctic areas for the first time in who-knows-how-long (yep, because the temperature has increased), timber has been discovered. That means at one point in time, where the ground is now frozen solid all year and can’t support root systems for plant life, it once wasn’t frozen, and once did support root systems–including sizeable trees.

      AGW alarmists claimed that “climate science” supported the following:
      -There was supposed to be no more snow in New York City as of 2010–wrong.
      -Glacier National Park’s glaciers were supposed to vanish by 2018–wrong.
      -At the turn of the millennium, Al Gore predicted a melted North Pole by 2014–wrong.
      -“Polar bears are going extinct due to global warming!”–wrong (see: Mitch Taylor).

      If a stock broker missed the mark this much, they would never again work on Wall Street, or at the very least they’d be placed under investigation. Likewise, with so much riding on these predictive models that have yet to prove anywhere close to accurate, we don’t need to upend everything in our culture & economy to try to change what is very likely a natural climatology cycle. If we cut fossil fuel use to zero by tomorrow afternoon, it won’t affect the global climate, as is evidenced by repeated warming periods/spikes called “interglacials” shown in the Vostok and Concordia ice core samples referenced above. Physical evidence of interglacials exists in our own upper Midwest in the form of drumlins, small hills left behind by rapidly retreating continental glaciers, as well as deep, north/south lakes gouged out by glacial activity in our northernmost states. Earth is actually a much colder planet, so stock up on your winter weather gear; it’s gonna start getting reeeaaally cold in about 4-5000 years.

      The bigger question to ask is, why are radical progressives in such a hurry to relegate our nation to third world status using climate change (didn’t work), fabricated presidential scandals (didn’t work), COVID (won’t work), or support of anarchists (won’t work either)?

  • Greta preaches many of the first Earth Day’s failed predictions. Many of the spectacularly wrong apocalyptic predictions from Earth Day 1970 are being regurgitated on today’s social and news media outlets on the forthcoming demise of civilization from climate change. We’ll need to critique the 2020 unscientific doomsday predictions in the year 2050 and see if they were any better than those that failed from the first Earth Day 50 years ago!

  • Lucy of Charlie Brown fame to Linus: “Liberal scientist can prove that climate change is real”.
    Linus to Lucy: “They can’t even tell the difference between boys and girls”.

  • I agree completely about the climate models. But the article gets the epidemiology models all wrong. What the author failed to mention was as soon as governments intervened with lockdowns the models then adjusted (in late March) and predicted 100,000-240,000 Americans would die with interventions.

    The model has turned out to be surprisingly accurate. I don’t know of any skeptic who called 100,000-240,000 deaths back in late March, but rather “it’s no worse than the flu.”

    The author needs to give the model credit where it’s due but doesn’t.

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