“Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why it Matters” By Steven E. Koonin (2021)
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
This book posits facts, hypotheses, and urging which we are not qualified to judge. It is also full of graphs that gave us acute conjunctivitis. So what we will do here is attempt a summary of what Mr. Koonin is saying, much of which he says very well, and attempt to explain our reaction to the work, located somewhere on the spectrum between skepticism and a resigned capitulation to doom.
Koonin is a professor of theoretical physics and was the Undersecretary for Science in President Obama’s Department of Energy. That, we guess, does not make him a climate scientist per se, but that branch of science seems to be nascent, protean, absurd or fraudulent, depending on your outlook. Unsettled concerns global warming / climate variability (or change).
The author accepts the mantra of Climate Change and a degree of forcing by anthropogenic activity. But he thinks we don’t know nearly enough to be drawing firm conclusions about what climate we can expect in the future, how we can respond, and whether the weather (‘extreme’ events) are linked to our modern, filthy, narcissistic materialism. He also doubts that mere reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, even to zero, is going to be of great assistance, since the concentration of CO2 is a greater problem than emissions per se.
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just put out out its further raft of apocalyptic predictions on Monday 9 August 2021. But if you read Koonin, you see the following:
“…Even as human influences have increased almost fivefold since 1950 and the globe has warmed modestly, most severe weather phenomena remain within past variability. Projections of future climate and weather events rely on models demonstrably unfit for purpose.”
“The uncertainties in modeling of both climate change and the consequences of future greenhouse gas emissions make it impossible today to provide reliable, quantitative statements about relative risks and consequences and benefits of rising greenhouse gases to the Earth system as a whole, let alone to specific regions of the planet.”
“There are high levels of uncertainty involved in detecting trends in extreme weather” [e.g. droughts, forest fires, hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, etc.] “…the science says that most extreme weather events show no long-term trends that can be attributed to human influences on the climate.” [In fact, the more you study the infernal graphs, the more the Earth’s climate appears to be cyclical in the long-term, such that an assessment of one slice of a cycle will give you the result you choose, rather than the reality].
As for the biblical boiling and surging of the oceans (where the heat goes to hide):
“…the dynamics of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are quite uncertain…absent some very dramatic acceleration, it would take two hundred years to achieve even the lowest mapped rise of 30 cm (one foot)…” [Based on a NOAA tide gauge record for Honolulu].
Apart from the virtual worthlessness of modeling (‘always wrong but sometimes useful’), the media mangling facts, deliberately to make an earnest point, deliberately to juice-up copy, or from sheer ignorance, doesn’t help, and neither do slacktivists, many upon whom western civilization has an emetic effect; and scientists that feel the need to megaphone their theories rather than quietly submit them to honest peer review; or their grant-reliant, rent-seeking institutions and journals. And then there are the demagogues who aim (per H. L. Mencken) “to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
“Over the course of this century, cumulative emissions (that is, the total amount emitted) from the developing world will be larger than those from the developed world…under current trends, every 10 percent reduction that the developed world makes in its emissions (a reduction it has barely managed in fifteen years) will offset less than four years of growth in the developing world…the aggregate impact of the reductions pledged by all nations would reduce global emissions by less than 10 percent in 2030…the world is very unlikely to zero out its net emissions by 2075, let alone by 2050…”
Koonin’s warning about uncertainties would probably get him fired if he were still in government: a number of his colleagues have already accused him of running straw men arguments, or pooh-poohing his quibbles about modeling. (He mentioned to some about the actual, not reported, climate assessments, and was immediately asked whether he was a Trump supporter). But no one seems to have credibly challenged his central thesis that the models are an ingenious, heroic, yet consistently failed attempt to predict what (or even reliably reproduce what we know went before!) the largest, oldest, most mysterious, and most complex system on earth – that is Earth – is going to do, and whether we have much say in what she does.
Koonin closes with a chapter on Plans B, given that the requisite reduction in emissions is doomed, and won’t reduce carbon concentration in a hurry even if achieved. But the B-plans seem to be straight out of James Bond. In any case, whatever your beliefs about Climate Change, everyone – from Greta Thunberg to Ian Plimer, from George Monbiot to Bjørn Lomborg, from those who vote Green to those who leave their greens untouched beside their T-Bone steaks – should read this book, if they haven’t already.