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.