Steven Koonin’s new book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters is the biggest intellectual event in years in the climate debate. We have seen plenty of other excellent, intelligent books from people whose credentials would be hard to dismiss, and were anyway. But Koonin is a little bit special because he was a very senior Obama Administration climate official and he has a PhD in nuclear physics. So of course he’s “not a climate scientist”, just like most of the famous names in climate science. But he’s well-informed and fed-up with the constant barrage of hysterical misrepresentation, and in Unsettled he delivers the debunking it deserves.
Before turning to Koonin’s many substantive points let us note that while you can find anything at all online whether it exists or not, a Google Search of “PhD in Climate Science” on May 20 yielded a mere 104,000 results. (By contrast “Friedrich Hayek” got 3,870,000 and “Selma Hayek” 29,900,000.) Even “chess grandmaster” did better, at 715k.
It is estimated (by iChess) that there are around 1500 GMs in the world out of 800 million chess players, and apparently there have been just under 2000 ever. The relevance of which might seem obscure. But the reason there are more GMs than Climate Science PhDs isn’t that climate science is harder. It’s that chess is a very specialized skill of limited application outside a checkerboard (although some GMs have a multitude of talents including musical) whereas climate science, the real stuff, is extremely interdisciplinary because the field is so broad. One might say complex, but chess positions are also very complex and opening systems immensely more so. (As American GM and online personality Ben Finegold has pointed out with characteristic modesty, a far greater number of people have received PhDs overall than have become GMs.)
By way of illustration, Michael Mann, and even people not liable to be invited to join his fan club or to join if invited would say he’s not a climate scientist, holds sub-doctoral degrees in math and physics and geology and a PhD in geology and geophysics. Phil Jones, formerly of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and again a controversial figure but not on this point, has a PhD in hydrology. Yet when someone challenges orthodoxy, they are accused of not being a climate scientist because… well, why?
Patrick Moore’s apostasy when he quit the Greenpeace he cofounded because it had become anti-science shook the world of environmentalism before becoming subject to the usual character assassination. And sometimes he is mocked for having opinions on ecology including climate and a mere PhD in Forestry. But that qualification doesn’t mean he only knows from trees. It means he’s a really smart guy who knows a lot about a lot of things, knows how scientists think, and somehow endured the boredom and rigours of writing something about trees that nobody really wanted to read then or ever.
On the other side Naomi Oreskes’ PhD is in Geological Research and the History of Science. Which sounds a bit odd. But it doesn’t make her “not a climate scientist” even if she seems bad at statistical analysis and apparently also attended the University of Paranoia, and has for some years been peddling conspiracy theories about Exxon that are now sufficiently mainstream as to appear in Scientific American. Or alternatively to demonstrate that Scientific American has left the mainstream and needs to invest in some tin foil.
Likewise actor and comedian Stephen Fry, an accomplished and in many ways admirable man (with a second-class undergraduate degree in English Literature), has unfortunately put his credibility behind a short video on climate change that is filled with all the available hysteria in service of, again, a conspiracy theory. To which our objection isn’t that he lacks Oreskes’ formal credentials. It’s that both are muttering about dark plots spanning continents by rich shadowy figures.
We have argued for, and still do argue for, the informed lay person. And not only because Einstein’s PhD was on “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions” and then he went and invented relativity. Because if voters are to choose leaders with responsibility over everything from budgets to national defence to epidemics to, yes, the environment, it is essential that both the voters and the leaders be capable of forming and acting on sensible, well-informed opinions on subjects in which they do not have a PhD. For instance by reading Koonin’s book.
It's hard to dismiss. Or at least should be. Because Koonin isn’t some Exxon-funded shill who says the planet isn’t warming or a crank who spends hours every day on line claiming he’s refuted the fundamental physics behind the greenhouse theory. He’s a guy who thinks humans are contributing to warming the planet and we should be careful. But he also knows that science doesn’t support alarmist exaggeration nor does engineering or economics support crash decarbonization, and the constant drumbeat of propaganda about these ideas is leading society down a dangerous path.
He puts the matter fairly bluntly, without descending to personalities. And what surely needs to happen now is for people of all sorts, including grandmasters who care, to ask themselves whether Koonin’s factual claims are correct and, if so, why contrary views are so often and so loudly asserted by people who are not climate scientists but could easily be far better informed than they are.
So what does he say? Well, before he’s cleared the “Introduction” he’s gotten rid of the increase in extreme weather, melting Greenland ice, economic catastrophe, climate models and the scientific consensus. And then… we could go on. But the thing is to read the book. Go ahead. You have the right.