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Unsettling the apple cart VI: Koonin on apocalypses that ain't

25 Aug 2021 | Koonin, Science Notes

Continuing University of Guelph professor Ross McKitrick’s look at Steven E. Koonin’s landmark book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why it Matters.

In chapters 8 and 9 of Unsettled Koonin tackles four topics where the dominant narrative is catastrophe but the reality is anything but. Which, of course, rather neatly describes the entire book up to this point. But Koonin’s wrecking ball keeps swinging and finding new targets, from sea levels to heat-driven mortality to crop yields to warming and growth. And on all of them, it’s amazing how far the conventional wisdom is from the facts.

Including on Chapter 8’s topic of sea levels. After reviewing some geological-scale evidence of sea level variability (which shows, among other things, that they rose rapidly after the end of the last glaciation then began dramatically slowing about 7,000 years ago) he looks at the 20th century evidence. And here the choice of time scale matters. Over the past 120 years sea levels rose by about 2 mm per year on average. And over the past 20 years or so, they have risen by about 3 mm per year, which on its own suggests they are accelerating. But you can’t compare a 120-year trend to a 20-year trend because there were also 20-year periods prior to 1950 when sea levels rose by 3 mm or more per year, before slowing down again from 1950 to the 1980s. On 20-year time scales the picture therefore is a variable rate of change, which makes it hard to pin the current rate of sea level rise on greenhouse gases.

Such findings are unwelcome nowadays, to put it mildly. Koonin recounts how, when he explained these things in a newspaper op-ed in 2014 a climate scientist accused him of cherry-picking. But that scientist’s argument was based on comparing the most recent 20-year interval to a 67-year interval early in the 20th century – precisely the sort of invalid comparison of apples and cherries Koonin had counseled against.

Somewhat more remarkable was the response of two scientists working on the draft Fourth National Climate Assessment, which made the usual claim about sea level rise accelerating. Koonin sent that same data and analysis to the Report Lead Author and to the Lead Author for the chapter on sea level rise. Both thanked him and admitted that no one had pointed it out. The sea level expert in particular admitted that, had anyone mentioned it they’d probably have discussed it in the report. Alas, they said, the draft is too far along to change, so they declined to make any revisions. Again, verdict first, trial afterwards, with unseemly evidence excluded.

The dominant narrative includes that sea levels are rising faster and faster and will continue to do so, along with other disasters. So after showing why even the lowest IPCC sea level rise projections for lower Manhattan would require a dramatic increase from current and historical trends, Koonin moves on in the next chapter to three climate hot button topics: heat-related mortality, crop yields and the effect of warming on economic growth. Each time the pattern is identical. A scientist (or economist) puts out a climate forecast with a range of potentially negative implications and highlights the worst-case scenario, which the media then amplifies into even worse-sounding terms and treats as the most probable outcome. Then someone steps up and explains that the projection runs strongly counter to historical trends with no explanation why they will change, or that the climate-related harm is a trivial offset against a much larger trend of ongoing improvements, or both, and gets called names for doing so.

In the case of one lurid projection of rising climate-related mortality, Koonin shows that the author, economist Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago, had testified before Congress that climate change would dramatically increase death due to hot weather, without mentioning, first, that his study admitted such large uncertainties that it could not confidently project any increase at all, and second that the only case where a large increase loomed was based on the bogus RCP8.5 scenario, while more realistic scenarios showed a large probability of climate-related mortality declining. Just as news coverage of other “studies” showing climate change would cause global crop yields to fall did not mention that it was, at worst, a slight slowing down of the ongoing upward-march in global per capita food production.

Koonin then recounts how he was invited to speak to a large investment organization on climate science and economic impacts. I can only imagine that such an audience, after a steady diet of lunacy from the Mark Carneys and Larry Finks of the world, would have found Koonin baffling when he showed them data from the IPCC’s own report on economic impacts which concluded that climate change would only result in a small diminishing of global economic growth, and only if warming was rather large compared to past trends. In effect it would mean that the US economy would take 72 years to quadruple in size instead of 70 years, not exactly the apocalypse. More like within the margin of measurement error.

It is in this context that Koonin relates one of the most remarkable, yet unsurprising, quotes from his various travels in government. Economists and policy analysts widely agree that, no matter how you crunch the numbers, and even with the most pessimistic assumptions, climate change is expected to have only small effects over the coming century, most of which will be ameliorated by ensuring poor countries develop and grow rich. Koonin was discussing this consensus with someone he describes as a “prominent environmental policymaker” who responded “Yes, it’s unfortunate that the impact numbers are so small.”

Read that line again.

A life spent in the vast elite climate bureaucracy, or dreams of forcing through a dramatic social and economic transformation with climate change as the lever, has so warped this person’s thinking that he or she actively wishes for more harm and even catastrophe to befall the world and is sad that it’s not going to happen.

These are the psychopaths who want to rule the global economy and micromanage our lives. How did they get to be in charge both of the science and the policy process? And how can this situation be remedied? To these momentous questions Koonin turns next.

Next week: Who broke the science and why.

2 comments on “Unsettling the apple cart VI: Koonin on apocalypses that ain't”

  1. "Somewhat more remarkable was the response of two scientists working on the draft Fourth National Climate Assessment, which made the usual claim about sea level rise accelerating. Koonin sent that same data and analysis to the Report Lead Author and to the Lead Author for the chapter on sea level rise. Both thanked him and admitted that no one had pointed it out. The sea level expert in particular admitted that, had anyone mentioned it they’d probably have discussed it in the report. Alas, they said, the draft is too far along to change, so they declined to make any revisions. Again, verdict first, trial afterwards, with unseemly evidence excluded."

    Juxtapose this with Santer and Houghton's beyond eleventh hour effort to alter Chapter 8 of SAR.

  2. “Yes, it’s unfortunate that the impact numbers are so small.”
    I read that again and took it to mean that he or she wanted bigger numbers, not necessarily bigger impacts. He or she may be well aware that the numbers do not reflect reality.

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