Steven E Koonin has written a book Unsettled: What climate science tells us, what it doesn’t, and why it matters. The volume is not very long consisting of mostly data (yes data!) and endnotes. It is a sober analysis of a subject that has been a field of landmines maiming the facts that underpin an important scientific issue with explosions of misinformation that have buried science in a heap of politicized cant.
Dr Koonin is a distinguished scientist who has been professor of theoretical physics at Caltech where he also served as vice president and provost for a decade. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he served as Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. He’s currently a university professor at New York University.
Not surprisingly the field of climate science is much more nuanced that one would gather from the breathless reports that populate the press and media like noise makers on New Year’s Eve.
First he states the obvious. The science of climate is not settled; it’s not even mature. Climate alarmism has become a cult among much of the Democratic Party converting an issue that should be one of dispassionate analysis to an almost religious cause immune to sober reflection.
Koonin starts with a few catastrophic predictions that are old enough to be proven wildly inaccurate:
“Innaction will cause…by the turn of the century (2000), an ecological catastrophe which will witness devastation as complete, as irreversible as any nuclear holocaust.” Mostafa Tolba, former executive director of the UN Environment Program, 1982
“European cities will be plunged beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a Siberian climate by 2020.” Mark Townsend and Paul Harris, quoting a Pentagon report in the Guardian, 2004.
CO2 levels have risen over the past century, but for most of the planet’s history they have been much higher than they are today. Uncertain is the amount of the recent increase due to human activity. A more sophisticated analysis of the problem is required than is currently available. Computer models are widely used to examine the cause and effect of CO2 emissions on the world’s climate. The inputs to these models are so complex that the result they yield are at best wide approximations. When they are applied to the past – ie, the results are already known – they typically fail to reproduce what has already happened. Koonin comments, “That the more we learn about the climate system, the more we realize how complicated it is.”
Koonin discusses in detail the difficulty in attributing extreme weather events to changes in the climate. In short, there is no change in long term weather events that can be linked to human activity. While that the globe has warmed over the past few decades is incontrovertible, record daily high temperatures are no more frequent than a century ago. Record low temperatures, which still occur, are never cited as evidence of global cooling. While the number of high temperature records has remained constant, the number of record lows has decreased. Thus, the climate has gotten warmer and milder, a less alarming scenario that wouldn’t make headlines.
You may been told that climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of tropical hurricanes. The National Climate Assessment seemed to support this view. Koonin burrowed deep into the NCA’s text and found this: “There has been no significant trend in the global number of tropical cyclones nor has any trend been identified in the number of US landfalling hurricanes.” He castigates the media for hyping hurricanes as a deleterious effect of climate change.”
The situation vis à vis tornadoes is similar to that of hurricanes. Their number has remained about the same over the past 60 years. The number of the strongest ones has decreased. There has been a marked decrease in the death rate from these storms due to better warning systems. Flood, fires, and droughts are also difficult to connect to climate change. The data show that precipitation, either globally, or in the US is basically unchanged.
Of course a big concern about the warming of the planet is the potential rise in sea levels as many cities are built on coast lines. The National Geographic magazine in 2013 published a picture of the Statue of Liberty half submerged in the sea. We have data going back to 1855 of the sea level at the Battery in Manhattan. They show that sea level has been rising at the rate of one foot per century. At that rate it will take 20,000 years for the water to rise to the level shown on the magazine’s cover.
By now you should realize that Koonin finds little support for the apocalyptic predictions that surround much of the coverage of climate data. The strength of his book is the detailed depiction of the actual data such that the reader can make his own conclusion as to the state of climate science. To fully appreciate Koonin’s work you must spend considerable time studying the extensive graphs and figures that are presented on almost every page. His explanation of why the depiction of climate and its long term effects on the planet have been so overwrought is illuminating. But so many minds are hardened to the point of immovability that no amount of data or caution can perturb a fear of impending doom. The hope has to be that a new generation will give the subject a fresh look.
The book is well written and makes its case clearly. There’s one error that seems amazing coming from a professor of theoretical physics. Towards the end of the book, Koonin confuses the first theory of thermodynamics with the second. “For example, no policy can circumvent the fundamental limits on energy efficiency imposed by the Second (sic) Law of Thermodynamics – we cannot ‘create’ energy, only convert it from one form to another, and that process will always ‘cost’ some amount of energy itself.” This error aside, perusal of this volume will reward the reader with a serious understanding of one of the most important and misunderstood issues of our time. Highly recommended.