Q&A: How Can Physics Teach Us About Climate Change?

Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann’s work is central to showing the correlation between global warming, carbon dioxide level, and human activity.

This year, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists, Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi, for their contributions to the understanding of complex systems. They each pioneered research on modeling Earth’s climate and the nature of disorder in physical systems. By awarding the prize to climate scientists for the first time, the committee conveyed a clear message: climate change study is a rigorous form of scientific research. 

So, how have scientists used physics to analyze climate change? 

In the 1960s, Manabe, now a climatologist at Princeton University, created mathematical models of the Earth’s climate to demonstrate how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raise the surface temperature. German meteorologist Hasselmann furthered the study by linking climate to the weather as a chaotic system, ultimately supporting that human activity, such as the generation of carbon dioxide emissions, is responsible for the change in climate. Both models are now foundational to the current understanding and research of climate change. 

Meanwhile, Parisi, an Italian physicist at the Sapienza University of Rome, focused on quantum field theory, a framework to construct models of subatomic particles. He used this to discover patterns from underlying disorder and fluctuations in complex systems. The idea of analyzing irregularities in a complex system is analogous to evaluating numerous variables in the Earth’s climate. 

Physics teaches us about climate change through mathematical models and complex systems. These physicists’ recognition by the Nobel Committee emphasizes the rigorous scientific foundation underlying the study of climate change, ultimately prompting us to take action.