Publisher’s View: Obama-era scientist explains why climate change is unsettled
By Robert Martinelli
During my recent vacation, I avoided the popular fiction that others were reading and chose Steven Koonin’s new book, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t and Why It Matters.”
“Unsettled” addresses every aspect of the climate-change issue in two surprisingly readable parts. Part One deals with what we know about climate change and how the science got partisan. Part Two proposes reasonable, cost-effective, and timely responses to what is known about climate change.
Koonin’s science credentials are impeccable. He has been a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology and served as the top scientist in former President Barack Obama’s Energy Department. The book is extensively referenced and relies on widely accepted government documents.
He’s not a “climate denier.” He makes it clear on page one that “it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it.” But he also questions the magnitude of civilization’s contribution, the speed of changes, and urgency and scale of governmental response that’s needed.
Koonin also believes the climate change message gets distorted as research literature gets converted to assessment reports and report summaries that are then subject to soundbites from self-interested environmental groups, scientific organizations, politicians and even members of the media who need an apocalyptic storyline to get their stories published. Koonin even concedes that it’s not easy to avoid this, writing, “I should know, that used to be my job.”
In short, he does not see that the underlying principles behind the current discussion is at all settled, despite President Joe Biden’s “greatest existential threat” position.
He doesn’t believe the global climate system is broken. Instead, he rails against the “climate consensus” that says humans have broken the climate. The solution to the Earth being doomed, say many following this Chicken Little line of reasoning, is radical changes to society and its energy systems.
Koonin believes 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. He believes we should put money into better modeling before we throw trillions at climate change.
Some of his evidence:
- Sea levels are rising, but only at an average rate of one foot per century since 1855. He also shows how the past half-million years tell a story of repeating episodes in which sea level dropped slowly by about 400 feet every 100,000 years and then rose back up rapidly as the glaciers melted again. Today, the Greenland ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly than it was 80 years ago.
- Ocean temperatures are rising, but only 0.07 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
- Humans have had no detectable impact on hurricanes over the past century.
- Heat waves in the United States are no more common today than they were in 1900. The warmest U.S. temperatures have not risen in the past 50 years. The 1.8-degree increase in average global temperatures since 1880 is due to higher average low temperatures, and Koonin says the real question is not whether the globe has warmed recently but rather to what extent this warming is being caused by humans.
Koonin says the path to zero emissions is impractical because developing countries will need more energy in the coming years to support their development. Are we going to tell developing countries that they must stop developing because they can’t burn fossil fuels when there isn’t an alternative today?
The book closes with a plea for better communication of complex science and to restore “integrity to the way science informs society’s decisions on climate and energy.”
I agree with his view that technology and markets should be allowed to work at their own pace. The climate might continue to change – at a pace that’s difficult to document – but societies are good at adapting.
I highly recommend this book which you can obviously buy through Amazon or a major national retailer but consider supporting a local independent bookseller.
Rob Martinelli is the president and CEO of Today Media, the parent company of Delaware Business Times.