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Upsetting the apple cart IX: Koonin on Plan(s) B

15 Sep 2021 | 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 the closing chapter of Unsettled Koonin writes “I began by believing that we were in a race to save the planet from catastrophe. Since then I’ve evolved to become a public critic of how The Science of climate science is presented.” As a one-time believer in the catastrophe, but also someone who understood that global carbon dioxide emissions were not going to be reduced in the way many politicians and activists wanted, Koonin spent a lot of time looking at the alternatives, namely geoengineering and adaptation. And as always, he found rigid orthodoxies were getting in the way of serious and open debate. But reality has a way of biting back.

Geoengineering options generally revolve around tinkering with the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface (such as by painting roofs white) so as to reflect more sunlight away and cool the planet, or by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere so as to shade the surface. The first is probably too expensive and ineffective to make a difference. The second could, apparently, be done using artillery shells that spread hydrogen sulfide at very high altitudes. And it’s cheap enough that a single government could take it on, or even a wealthy individual. But there are many questions about who should do it, and where, and what the effects would be. Also the effects would probably only be temporary so if whoever was doing it got tired of it, the effects would soon wear off.

Another geoengineering option is to build a machine that sucks carbon dioxide out of the air. Actually we already have lots of them—they’re called trees; but there aren’t enough of them to counter the CO2 emissions each year. But suppose someone came up with a machine that could do even more than all the world’s trees? The problem then would be what to do with all the CO2. There are very limited options for pumping it under ground (so-called Carbon Capture and Storage) or deep under the ocean, and it is too expensive simply to store it in tanks.

Still, maybe with more research a geoengineering strategy might be found which could be kept in reserve as a last-minute option in the unlikely event warming became a crisis. Alas, this is where the politics gets in the way: in polite circles one does not discuss anything but greenhouse gas mitigation. The last thing politicians and activists want is an inexpensive, effective strategy that neutralizes the effects of carbon dioxide and lets the world carry on using fossil fuels. How would they convince the world to embrace the Net Zero agenda and all the policy apparatus that goes with it, if for a modest cost the whole problem could be made to go away?

In suggesting this reasoning determined the response to his queries I am extrapolating from comments in Koonin’s chapter. But the hints are there. Climate policy is not about finding the least-cost and most effective solutions to the supposed problem. It is about the energy transition crusade and social engineering aimed at eliminating fossil fuel use. Yet, for all the reasons discussed before, it is simply unlikely to happen, nor should it.

Which brings the discussion finally around to the simplest, most effective, and least costly response of all: adaptation. Koonin describes his years living in Pasadena California when he taught at CalTech, where he and everyone else lived with the reality of constant earthquakes, mostly small but occasionally large. What did they do? They adapted, by hardening their built infrastructure and maintaining a constant readiness in case of a large earthquake emergency. Humans have always adapted to whatever natural hazards they were faced with. And they always will, instinctively and automatically, including to whatever the climate brings over the coming century. The adaptation will be local, proportional and more effective at reducing risk than anything activists have been pushing.

That consideration brings Koonin to his final thoughts, describing his intellectual odyssey on this massive topic, and his learned judgments regarding what is really going on. Our scientific institutions have failed us with regards to communicating climate science, and too many individual scientists have been silent as it happened. Koonin has done what he can to tip the scales back towards sanity, and he bravely battles on against his many detractors. We can only respond with gratitude, and a wish that there were a thousand more like him.

That concludes this series. Now please read the book.

3 comments on “Upsetting the apple cart IX: Koonin on Plan(s) B”

  1. It seems to me that oil companies like Shell and Exxon should heartily embrace the production of essential natural cas, gasoline and jet fuel, but make it from atmospheric CO2, rather than drilling for it. This would make their essential business largely circular, and 'carbon neutral', and would supplant the adding of ethanol to petrol, which reduces the energy density of the fuel, meaning you burn more of it to get the same power, making it burn more carbon, not less. A carbon-free source of power is needed to do this conversion, with Canada using hydropower, while other places could use Small Nuclear Reactors, remembering that the CO2 is everywhere in the atmosphere.

  2. I have been reading Koonin's book and highly recommend it. He has managed to cover the subject matter in a way that educates the reader about the real science without completely confusing him or her. I will admit, I found myself going over certain sections a couple of times to fully absorb the information, but this reminds you that so called "climate science" is extremely complex. The reading of this book has made watching or reading the news a very frustrating exercise as I am hearing the politicians and media make claims that I know are false or at best exaggerated. It has helped me create my own list of worst offenders, NY Times, CBC, The Guardian, BBC, Biden, Obama, Trudeau to name but a few.

  3. I am reading Koonin's book & so far I have two criticisms, however not related to his ideas but to the presentation. The book would benefit if the diagrams were in colour, not greyscale, & I fear that the book suffers from the shortcoming which besets any book on a technical subject written for the layman, that of oversimplification, where anything that is considered lengthy or complicated & would not normally be in the realm of a layman's knowledge is glossed over or omitted, leaving one wondering at times how his conclusions are supported.
    Regarding the diagrams, if your eyes are getting old like mine, it is very difficult to tell the difference between different shades of grey in both solid & dotted lines. I have had to make use on several occasions of a magnifying anglepoise lamp to see the diagrams clearly & understand them. Different colours would be clearer.
    As for oversimplification, in chapter two on the 'greenhouse' effect he explains albedo, but only in respect of visible light. A diagram of the spectrum of the sun's electromagnetic output would be useful because the sun gives us much more than light, it gives us infra-red, ultra-violet, X-rays & radio waves, the whole electromagnetic gamut, & of these certainly the sun's infra-red radiation plays a major part of the solar input to the Earth's heating. He leaves this out & refers in figure 2.2 page 50 only to 'sunshine' as the solar input, which gives the impression that only visible light is involved. I also don't think that the Earth's albedo would be the same for all wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, it might even vary across the visible spectrum & probably be different for infra-red. Fig 2.3 purports to show the spectrum of heat radiated back into space from the Earth & the horizontal axis is simply labelled 'colour'. This gives no idea of the direction of the graph, is it going from low frequency to high or high to low? Labelling this axis as wavelength or frequency with some figures would be better as this would give some idea of the type of electromagnetic radiation emitted. Also an approximate formula for the curve & a comparison with the radiation curve for a black body would be useful.
    Overall the book wets the appetite for more knowledge than satisfies it. It is a stimulus to further research.

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