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Unsettling the apple cart I: Koonin on Climate

14 Jul 2021 | Koonin, Science Notes

Editor’s note: Many CDN readers are interested in the new book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why it Matters by Steven E. Koonin, physicist and former Obama Administration official. I asked University of Guelph professor Ross McKitrick to offer his thoughts on the contents and over the next few weeks he will send in his comments. This week: Part I: What we know about warming.

Koonin responds early on (p. 14) to the inevitable charge that he’s not a “climate scientist” by pointing out, correctly, that no one is. Climate involves countless specialized processes including physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, computer science, statistics and more. No one can claim to have mastered them all. At best people can master two or maybe three components of the topic. In my experience very few people in climate science have advanced training in statistics and don’t realize common errors in their methods. Koonin is an expert in computational physics and energy systems—two very relevant disciplines. In 2013 he was asked to lead a committee preparing a statement on climate change for the American Physical Society, and he came away from the experience unsettled, so to speak, about the many deficiencies of the science which neither he nor the general public had been told about. He wrote a lengthy essay for the Wall Street Journal about the experience, which drew angry responses from some colleagues for giving “ammunition to the deniers.” To his credit Koonin didn’t back away, instead he dug in for a fight.

Koonin draws a distinction between scientists wanting to inform versus those wanting to persuade. He sees a lot of the latter in the climate field, who state openly that they want to motivate action, which raises doubts about their objectivity.

In the early chapters one thing that stands out to me is how much of the mainstream science he accepts without challenge. Under the theme of “What we know about warming” he fully accepts the standard view of the warming effect of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, he accepts the standard data showing warming since the 1800s, he takes the hockey stick paleoclimate picture pretty much at face value and he believes carbon dioxide emissions will continue to warm the planet in the future. Then he surprises the reader by arguing that these are not problems. He explains the (again, standard) calculations showing that a further doubling of carbon dioxide levels above the present level would have only minimal effects on the greenhouse blanket, which he likens to adding a second layer of black paint to a window: the first one made all the difference whereas the second one is redundant. Doubling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would only increase the greenhouse warming effect by about 1 percent, and the effect on temperatures is likewise very modest. The insiders know this, but the message gets heavily distorted en route to the public.

Koonin does mention problems with the surface thermometer record (such as urbanization-induced warming biases and lack of data from the oceans). And he is very aware of the problems of using computer models to predict the future. But his approach in the opening chapters is to say, in effect, I don’t need to poke holes in the main features of the science (though I could if asked to). If I simply take what the climate experts say at face value and write out the numbers carefully, they add up to something very small. With so much chatter about the climate crisis and the coming catastrophe (which Koonin would have heard while working as a senior energy official in the Obama administration), working through the details caused him to realize how big the gap is between the scientific reality and what the public is being told. A lot fell into place, including his realization that we are making disastrous policy errors based on a very distorted picture of climate science. To which I add my complete agreement and gratitude that he has been willing to join the battle. That makes this book immensely important.

Next week: Muddled models.

2 comments on “Unsettling the apple cart I: Koonin on Climate”

  1. Think granting status to co2 media villainy a copout and akin to virtuous lies. His credentials are the contribution demonstrating the flaws of his past allegiance.

  2. I read Steven E. Koonin’s book “Unsettled” but I need to reread the chapter “Many Muddled Models” to solidify my understanding. I really appreciate CDN providing comments on Koonin’s book by Ross McKitrick . Thanks.

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