"Unsettled," by Steven Koonin; Straight Talk on Global Warming

One of the many issues that animate public policies today is that of global warming and what to do about it. That’s why it’s vital to know as much about it as possible, including both what we do and don’t know. Now, “climate science” is vastly complex. It requires deep and broad understanding of such a wide range of scientific disciplines that no one can accurately be called a “climate scientist” and lay people like me can have only a very limited grasp of what questions to ask, much less their answers.

That’s why Steven E. Koonin’s new book, “Unsettled” is so important and in fact, I’d say, necessary. Who is Steven Koonin? Quoting from the book’s jacket,

With more than 200 peer-reviewed papers in the fields of physics and astrophysics, scientific computation, energy technology and policy, and climate science, Dr. Koonin was a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, also serving as Caltech’s vice president and provost for almost a decade.

Koonin also served as President Obama’s Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy and is now a professor at New York University. He’s been on the governing board of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and held similar positions at Los Alamos, Sandia, Brookhaven and Argonne National Laboratories. In short, he’s a heavyweight; when Koonin talks, people listen, or should.

“Unsettled” is written for laypeople. He writes understandably and gives non-scientists vital tools with which to grasp not only the science of global warming, but the various “players” who may or may not be telling us the whole truth about it.

The first clue is the book’s title. The word “unsettled” applies most importantly to the state of the science on global warming, but as well to the fervor generated by that science and its reporting by the MSM and a miscellany of activists and politicians.

“The science” on global warming is, well, up in the air. Is the planet warming? Yes, it is. Do humans contribute to its warming? We do. But how much the planet will continue to warm, how much of that will be caused by humans and what we can realistically do about it are all very much unanswered and, to a great extent, unanswerable questions.

For example, we all know that the future of global warming is predicted by scientists using computer models. Those models are fantastically complex and process an astonishing amount of data. Computers that conduct one billion-billion operations per second take two months to completely process all the input required to predict the course of global warming over the next, say, 70 years.

How accurate are they? Sadly, not very. Indeed, as computer models have evolved, they’ve gotten not better, but worse at predicting the future, and, remarkably, their predictive outcomes grow, not closer together, but further apart. Far worse, they don’t even predict what we already know. So, when existing models analyze past climate data, they fail to predict what we know actually happened. That’s not exactly a rousing vote of confidence in them. Yet these are what we rely on to make environmental policy.

Koonin is a scientist. That means he considers scrupulous science not only a method, but, to an extent, an end in itself. He rightly states that, in order to be good science, but also in order to provide the basis for sound public policy, scientists must fearlessly state the knowns and unknowns, the certainties and uncertainties of any scientific discipline.

Most scientists understand that, but, in the many fields that make up climate science, all too often, careful science has been replaced by advocacy. That’s true of scientists doing basic research, scientists who design computer models, scientists who analyze the outcomes of those models, scientists who write the reports for agencies and organizations, those agencies and organizations themselves, the reports they produce, the news media that report on those reports and politicians and activists who use those reports for their various ends.

Again and again, Koonin cites reports whose executive summaries make claims that aren’t supported by the data they cite or, in some cases, are contradicted by them. That there is a tendency among climate scientists and organizations to misrepresent findings has long been understood, at least by some, but Koonin levels the accusation that, to far too great a degree, scientists promote a point of view instead of presenting information accurately.

For example, in 2019, Michael Greenstone, the director of the Energy Policy Institute told Congress that, by 2100, climate changes would result in more deaths worldwide than are currently caused by infectious diseases. But, over the last century, as the climate warmed, climate-related deaths fell dramatically and, over the last decade, “extreme temperatures caused 0.16 deaths per 100,000 each year, about five hundred times smaller than Greenstone’s projection for 2100.” Meanwhile, Greenstone’s own paper admits to a “remarkable degree of uncertainty” and to assuming an unrealistically large increase in temperatures. In short, it’s arguably junk science, a fact unmentioned to Congress or the press.

To his credit, Koonin doesn’t exempt himself from the scientific strictures he applies to others. Where he’s not certain, he says so. When data aren’t clear, he doesn’t say they are. The result, particularly for the lay reader, is trust in what he says. We know he’s not proselytizing, so we have confidence in his facts and conclusions.

And that’s important because the facts on global warming and what we can do about it are daunting. Consider these few:

“[J]ust stabilizing human influences on the climate would require global annual per capita emissions of CO2 to fall to… a level comparable to today’s emissions from such countries as Haiti, Yemen and Malawi.” In the U.S., that would mean cutting emissions to 1/17th of their current level;

Global demand for energy is expected to grow by about 50% by 2050 as more people’s standard of living – and therefore energy consumption – increases;

Most of the increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the future will come from developing countries that make up about 75% of the world’s population;

About half of new CO2 inputs into the atmosphere remain there for about 100 years before being absorbed by plants and the oceans and 15%-30% remain for up to 1,000 years; that means that any increase in CO2 increases its atmospheric concentration. It also means that “just to stabilize the CO2 concentration… global emissions would have to vanish” (emphasis in the original);

Fossil fuels today supply 80% of the world’s energy and do so more efficiently than any other source except nuclear;

To keep global warming to 2°C, human GHG emissions would have to plunge to zero by 2075 and, if we want to limit it to 1.5°C, we’d have to entirely eliminate our GHG emissions by 2050, i.e., 29 years from now.

The Paris Agreement has no enforcement mechanism, is non-binding on the signatories and has completely failed to stop the growth of GHG emissions.

The almost certain reality is that we will not conserve our way to zero emissions or to any level sufficient to do much about the warming of the globe. What’s far more likely is that we’ll continue to do what we can to reduce emissions consistent with the continued development of the developing world and what humans have always done in changing circumstances – adapt.

Koonin views human adaptation as difficult, but actually our best recourse. After all, the global economy will barely be impacted by warming, severe weather events don’t appear to be increasing in frequency, agriculture won’t suffer noticeably and, although sea levels are rising, they’re doing so very gradually, a phenomenon with which humans long ago demonstrated the ability to cope. Adaptation will come mostly from reducing GHG emissions in the developed world and replacing the use of wood and charcoal with clean electricity (e.g., nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables) in the developing world.

“Unsettled” is a valuable tool for understanding not only global warming, but the public narrative that’s constructed around it. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to follow the public discourse and policy on climate change.

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