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 provenboth 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 bullycorporations 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 a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research as well as the deputy director of the National Center’s Free Enterprise Project. This first appeared at Issues & Insights.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.