It is not the global climate system that’s broken, it’s the alleged “climate consensus” that is. That in a nutshell is a central message of physicist Steve Koonin’s new book, “Unsettled: what climate science tells us, what it doesn’t, and why it matters”, available in bookstores and on Kindle on May 4th. The “climate consensus” alleges that:
Humans have broken the earth’s climate. Temperatures are rising, sea level is surging, ice is disappearing, and heat waves, storms, droughts, floods, and wildfires are an ever-worsening scourge on the world. Greenhouse gas emissions are causing all of this. And unless they’re eliminated promptly by radical changes to society and its energy systems, “The Science” says Earth is doomed.
Settled Science vs. Real Science
“Settled science”, an oxymoron, is anything but settled says the author. Holman Jenkins in his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal captures the author’s contribution to the climate change literature succinctly: “Mr. Koonin argues not against current climate science but that what the media and politicians and activists say about climate science has drifted so far out of touch with the actual science as to be absurdly, demonstrably false”.
Koonin points out scientific facts supported by hard data and the peer-reviewed literature that stand against the reigning climate change narrative: humans have had no detectable impact on hurricanes over the past century; Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was eighty years ago; tornado frequency and severity are not trending up; the number and severity of droughts are not rising over time either; the extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward; the rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated; global crop yields are rising, not falling; the net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century even if global average temperatures rise by 30 C which is double the Paris Agreement goal.
To be sure, what Koonin points out as facts and convincing scientific interpretations have been covered by other equally qualified scientists such as William Happer (Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at Princeton University), Richard Lindzen (atmospheric physicist, retired Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Roger Pielke Jr. (previously Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder) and Judith Curry (American climatologist and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology).
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Steve Koonin is more than eminently qualified in climate science. He has degrees from Caltech and MIT; he is an author of over 200 academic papers; he was previously provost at Caltech and chief scientist for BP. Koonin, in short, is a brilliant physicist who worked and interacted with his colleague at Caltech, Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. But what sets Koonin apart from other prominent climate sceptics are not his impeccable credentials. Happer and Lindzen have equally impressive CVs. But Koonin will be harder to vilify and “cancel” as other sceptics have been (here, here, and here) because he was appointed as Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Science under the Obama administration serving from May 19, 2009, to November 18, 2011. He served under a President who famously tweeted: “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: Climate change is real, man-made and dangerous”. And this is precisely what Koonin’s book testifies against. It is quite wondrous how truth is told to power when one is released from the constraints of a government job.
The Height of Hubris
One of the key contributions of Koonin’s book is its detailed account of how the climate change message gets distorted as it goes through successive filters as the research literature gets converted to assessment reports and report summaries which are then subject to alarmist and apocalyptic media coverage and politicians’ soundbites. It is up to scientists to put forward facts without an agenda or a pre-existing narrative, but it is not easy. Koonin says, “I should know, that used to be my job”. He finds it the height of hubris when scientists believe that they should exaggerate or even lie for a higher cause and there could be no higher cause than “saving the planet”. For a scientist with integrity, there is no dilemma between being effective and being honest.
Why is the science so poorly communicated to the public and policy makers? For Koonin, it is clear that distorted science serves the interests of diverse players, ranging from environmental NGOs, media, politicians, scientists and scientific organizations. The ideological corruption of the hard sciences has been remarked upon by others but Koonin covers it with telling examples arising from his own experiences over the years. Climate science, he asserts, has been an effort “to persuade rather than inform”, leaving out what does not fit the overarching narrative. Contrary to popular belief, even the official assessment reports – such as those by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the US government’s National Climate Assessments — indicate that “significant human-induced climate change would have negligible net economic impact on either the world or the US economies by the end of this century”.
Who Broke The Science and Why
In examining “who broke the science and why”, Koonin argues that misinformation in the service of persuasion is not at the behest of “some secret cabal but rather a self-reinforcing alignment of perspectives and interests”. Turning to politicians who come out with simple messages such as “eliminate the use of fossil fuel to save the planet”, Koonin cites the great American essayist H. L. Mencken who wrote that “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary”. Of the media, Koonin observes that if reporters don’t have a narrative of gloom, they won’t have a story that makes it into the papers since “if it bleeds, it leads”. Scientific institutions seem “overwilling to persuade rather than inform”, and the entire raison d’etre of environmental NGOs is to keep alive the “climate crisis”.
The public faces on a daily basis mounting hysteria and calls for drastic policies adversely affecting the livelihoods of ordinary people and trillions of dollars to “fight climate change”. The “climate emergency” is now pronounced as fact by US President Joe Biden, UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson who plays host to this year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow, and the EU leadership which plans to impose a carbon border adjustment tax on developing countries that refuse to impose draconian climate regulations on their own much poorer citizens. It would be too much to hope that Steve Koonin’s book can do much to fight the global climate change juggernaut that has gained momentum over the past three decades. Nevertheless, he has written a brave and convincing book on the weak case of an impending human-induced climate apocalypse. It would be a sorry indicator of our times if he were subject to the obscene charge of “climate denier”, as many of his sceptical colleagues have been.