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Following “The Science”?

“In all times it is only individuals that have advanced science, not the age.”

Goethe

In a small but domestically significant family epic, the kids are boot-sledding down the slushy shoulders of Grinnell Glacier in the incomparable Glacier National Park. It is perhaps the longest and hottest day of the year, the day before Summer Solstice. While not quite material for a feature-length documentary, it’s cool enough to keep the kids’ attention.

Especially so, since Grinnell Glacier is not supposed to exist.

Last year, park authorities made embarrassing national headlines when they had to remove signs saying that all of Glacier’s glaciers would be gone by now. In a large, three-dimensional interpretive display titled “GOODBYE TO THE GLACIERS,” a leaden conclusion stated that “Computer models indicate the glaciers will all be gone by 2020.” It’s summer 2021, and 26 named glaciers remain. Dire predictions about climate change, often enough, veer into the realm of farce.

Steve Koonin’s Unsettled explains just why this is so. Climate science, and climate modeling in particular, is barely out of its infancy: the idea that “The Science is settled” is a myth of world-historic proportions, and yet it permeates every sector of public discourse and policy from energy use to childcare. In clear, refreshingly cool-headed language, Koonin demolishes the frenzied posturing that dominates climate alarmism. His is the clarion call to reason we need in this irrational age, complete with a comfortably old-fashioned insistence on observations before conclusions, data over decrees, and most importantly, a healthy serving of intellectual humility.

Koonin is no crank, let the record show. Former Undersecretary for Science at the Department of Energy in the Obama administration and professor of theoretical physics at Caltech for more than two decades, he has been Chairman of Faculty there as well as provost. He has served on advisory boards at the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences as well as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is not known as an especially provocative publication houndhis previous published book, Computational Physics: Fortran Version is distinctly less accessible to a lay audience than Unsettled. It is of course tedious to have to lay out this imposing resume instead of diving straight into his arguments, but in a time when “consensus” sets the agenda and stifles independent inquiry, it’s better to have an authority of Koonin’s caliber to appeal to rather than, say, Bill Nye The Science Guy.

For those wishing to cut to the chase, Koonin’s position, informed by the data, is this (spoiler alert in case you missed the title: “The Science” on climate change isn’t “settled”):

The earth has warmed during the past century, partly because of natural phenomena and partly in response to growing human influences. These human influences (most importantly the accumulation of CO2 from burning fossil fuels) exert a physically small effect on the complex climate system. Unfortunately, our limited observations and understanding are insufficient to usefully quantify either how the climate will respond to human influences or how it varies naturally. However, 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 the purpose.

No matter how often it is trumpeted or loudly proclaimed, there is no monolithic scientific understanding on precisely what is happening in the chaotically complex realm of planetary geophysics. Those, especially in media, who cover overblown claims with  “The Science” fail to understand how the scientific method works. To be sure, there is broad agreement among a great number of climate specialists that anthropogenic climate change is real, but this is not the end of the discussion. Science is not conclusive, by its very nature. After all, the broad consensus among earth scientists even up until the late 1960s was that the crustal plates were static—continental “drift” was a career-killing heresy at most major institutions. The current “consensus” on climate change, moreover, does not buttress claims of imminent climate “collapse.” 

Even allowing for systemic attribution-error problems, it may surprise readers to know that the “consensus” on many climate trends amongst scientists is muted—the data simply do not support the doomsday scenarios we are relentlessly fed.

Koonin’s point is that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do about climate change. This is not a hands-throwing concession to the know-nothings, but rather a careful, informed introspection on what exactly we know about climate change, how we make informed assessments, and just how badly we’ve collectively gone off the rails thinking modeled predictions are actionable prognoses for present, extraordinarily expensive collective action.

Perhaps the most valuable part of Unsettled is Koonin’s deep dive into how (imperfect) observations and (even more imperfect) modeling scenarios are collected into major intergovernmental climate assessments. These assessments, simplified into “summaries,” are then translated into media and institutional narratives that often exactly contradict the underlying data. For instance, the substantiating supporting text in a Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) in 2017 stated that:

. . . there is still low confidence that any reported long-term (multidecadal to centennial) increases in TC [Tropical Cyclone/Hurricane] activity are robust… Furthermore, it has been argued that within the period of highest data quality (since around 1980), the globally observed changes in the environment would not necessarily support a detectable trend in tropical cyclone intensity.

The Key Finding (i.e., summary) in the same report, however, embellishes this position significantly:

Human activities have contributed substantially to observed atmosphere variability in the Atlantic Ocean (medium confidence), and these changes have contributed to the observed upward trend in North Atlantic hurricane activity since the 1970s (medium confidence).

In other words, the data showed no discernible trend at all in storm intensity, let alone indicating that “human activities have contributed substantially” to it. But it’s easy to see how USA Today, doing what media does best, would double down on the embellishment and scarily proclaim: “Human-caused global warming has strengthened the wind speeds of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones around the globe.”  The headlines (and hence the common understanding) are actually contrary to the actual scientific understanding on the matter.

This isn’t a one-off example. Koonin does this kind of analysis over and over again. Tornadoes?  After correcting for observational bias (meteorologists can now “see” tornadoes that never would have registered a few decades ago), intense tornado activity in the US is going down, as is the attributed death rate (by more than a factor of ten, all praise!). Sea level rise? Well within historic background levels, and we have no idea how much of it is due to human action. Heat extremes? A comprehensive average shows no detectable increase in “warmest recorded temperatures” since1900 (coldest days is another matter, but you’ll have to read the book to see why). The reason that headlines featuring “record highs” are so publicly credible is because the narrative prompted by Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) summaries state (with “very high confidence”) that:

There have been marked changes in temperature extremes across the contiguous United States. The number of high temperature records set in the past two decades far exceeds the number of low temperature records.

But this isn’t true. Koonin points out (as he says, with “very high confidence”) that the CSSR is “not just misleading on this point—it’s wrong.”  He shows why a fundamental mathematical framing problem (ratio denominators) can lead even experienced scientists to conclude things that just aren’t so.

Even allowing for systemic attribution-error problems, it may surprise readers to know that the “consensus” on many climate trends amongst scientists is muted—the data simply do not support the doomsday scenarios we are relentlessly fed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR5 WGI report states, for instance, that they have:

  • “…low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale.”
  • “…low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century…”
  • “…low confidence in trends in small-scale severe weather phenomena such as hail and thunderstorms…”
  • “…confidence in large scale changes in the intensity of extreme extratropical cyclones [storms] since 1900 is low…”

Steeped as we are in global catastrophe coverage (today it is floods in Europe and China and drought-fires out West) it is nearly impossible for eager believers not to “connect the dots” on vague-but-serious-sounding climate science narratives and local, very real weather phenomena. But that’s not how it works. Weather is not climate, and science is about using data and reason to peer through the fog of intuitive, agenda-driven groupthink.

What makes Koonin’s book so refreshing is the calculated aim to inform, not persuade—an approach he fears is increasingly left out of serious scientific work on climate. Having effectively demonstrated how riven the existing science is with error, doubt, and even outright deception, the book strikes a distinctly optimistic chord in its latter half. Here, Koonin takes a close look both at what we have been led to believe we should do (he explains where the “2°C” mantra comes from, and also shows explicitly how relatively little “emissions” actually matter), as well as coolly assessing what we can do. After accounting for the very real harms that radical “climate solutions” pose, his rational conclusion, not surprisingly, is to avoid the grandiose, all-encompassing social upheavals prescribed by climate hawks. Instead, he advocates for a clear-eyed strategy of “low-risk changes” (enhanced observation, mitigation, and adaptation) that place human welfare (especially in the developing world) in its proper place against nebulous, unsubstantiated claims of impending disaster. He admits that this wait-and-see approach, along with a thorough embrace of geoengineering tools “should there be significant deterioration of the global climate from whatever cause” is unlikely to appease those who prefer to use “climate collapse” as a pretext for unparalleled coercive interventions. He worries his approach will be seen as “waffling.”

But that’s what we need in this moment: realistic and prudent policies based upon the best available evidence—free from the hysteria born of muddled science. Koonin writes:

. . . this book has been an opportunity to collect and synthesize experiences over a fifteen-year journey in climate and energy. I began by believing we were in a race to save the planet from climate catastrophe. Since then, I’ve evolved to become a public critic of how The Science of climate science is presented.

Glacier National Park has had to do a bit of waffling of its own:  A park spokesperson, in answer to the now-infamous “Gone by 2020” glacier warnings has said that new signs will read: “When they will completely disappear depends on how and when we act.”  Ah . . .  nice re-direct. Except that like the first signs, it’s a false statement. The truth is, we really don’t know when, and we really don’t know what, if anything, our actions have to do with it.