This is the first of a five-part series on climate science
A new book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the increasingly radical measures nations are being pressured to adopt in response to the so-called climate crisis. Are these measures really justified from a scientific standpoint? Does the supposed menace of a human-caused climate apocalypse correspond to reality?
The book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, And Why It Matters, is written by Steven Koonin, a physicist and professor at New York University who served as undersecretary for science in the US Department of Energy during the Barack Obama administration.
Koonin is also a member and one-time chairman of JASON, an independent organization of scientists that advises the US government on sensitive and pressing science and technology issues.
I received and read an advance copy of the volume and interviewed Dr Koonin for this three-part series, comprised of this book review and a follow-up four-part interview. All in all, I can highly recommend Koonin’s book: It is fascinating and informative reading, and one hopes it will improve the climate for honest and open discussion.
Koonin has been calling for the appointment of a so-called “red team” – an independent group of qualified scientists – to carry out a rigorous critique of the scientific validity of the assessments and recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the quadrennial US National Climate Assessment (NCA).
The book thus might be read as a foretaste of what a red team might turn up. Apart from its sometimes devastating conclusions, the volume provides certainly one of the most readable and fascinating accounts available to a non-technical reader about the challenges of climate science, present knowledge of ongoing climate change and potential options for dealing with it.
As the book’s title suggests, present-day climate science is far from being able to give definitive answers to key questions relevant to policymaking. This is not a popular thing to say, since people like to have black-and-white certainty. Science, however, is not truth; it is only a search for truth. A very difficult search, in this case, given the mind-boggling complexity of the Earth’s climate system.
I find particularly valuable the way Koonin explains, in simple, non-technical language, the problems of computer-based climate forecasting and the reasons for the poor reliability of today’s climate models.
While he takes a rigorous critical attitude, Koonin can in no way be dismissed as a “climate denier.” On the contrary, most of what he writes is consistent with the official reports of the IPCC and the National Climate Assessment — but with an important reservation: a number of the most essential facts and conclusions are buried in the body of the voluminous assessment reports, and not reflected in the summaries provided to the press and decision-makers.
Koonin documents how this circumstance, together with public statements by some climate scientists, has given a seriously misleading impression about the actual results of climate research. The assessment reports themselves are publicly available, of course, but one has the impression that few people actually read them carefully, at least not in the manner Koonin has.
The examples he cites make for astounding reading. Perhaps most significant, the author demonstrates that the IPCC assessments provide no basis whatsoever for the widely propagated notion that climate change is leading to a global catastrophe.
Among other things, Koonin cites a conclusion from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, summarizing some 20 published estimates, according to which a global temperature rise of 3°C by the year 2100 would negatively impact the global economy by about 3% measured in “equivalent income loss.”
Koonin also quotes the following key passage:
“For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers (medium evidence, high agreement). Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.”
Where is the climate apocalypse?
From the official assessments cited in Koonin’s book, one can only conclude that mankind faces incomparably greater dangers and potential losses from developments of a completely different sort — such as large-scale military conflicts, possible use of nuclear weapons, deadly pandemics, socioeconomic instability and spread of extremist ideologies, international financial crises and others. (One might add to the list ill-advised, disruptive and economically disastrous environmentalist policies.)
I was so dumbfounded to learn that the IPCC Assessment Report had provided such a low estimate of global economic losses from climate warming – hardly mentioned in the media – that I decided to do my own little investigation.
I took the “worst-case” scenario referred to in the literature as RCP 8.5, meaning no measures are taken to limit CO2 emissions, high population growth and a huge expansion of coal power. How much loss would the US economy, for example, suffer from the resulting global warming?
According to the latest US National Climate Assessment, the global average temperature increase by the year 2100 for scenario RCP8.5 is projected to lie in the range 2.5 – 4.7°C. Applying the relevant correlation table from the NCA-cited 2017 study, “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States”, I came up with an estimated loss to the US economy of between 2-5% of GDP in “direct economic damages” due to the effects of global warming.
Not tomorrow, but 80 years from now, in 2100. However one might twist and turn, this can hardly be regarded as a disaster of apocalyptic dimensions. Needless to say, these figures are only as good as the climate projections themselves.
In separate chapters Koonin addresses, with much interesting detail, some other consequences of climate change, including rising sea levels, frequency of storms and other extreme weather, floods and drought, etc. In each case, there is no hint of an oncoming global catastrophe — neither in the projections nor in the actual data. Instead, we can expect a gradual change of the sort that human societies have successfully adapted to for thousands of years.
Koonin’s 2017 public call for the creation of a “red team” already struck a raw nerve in the climate science community, and resulted in considerable push-back. It was argued, for example, that additional probing would be superfluous since scientific publications on climate are already subject to peer criticism and peer review, as they are in every other field of science.
The latter is true, of course, but when it comes to spending trillions of dollars and adopting measures that will seriously affect the economies of nations around the world, a different, more critical sort of examination is needed.
In Koonin’s view, this would ideally be provided by a so-called “red team exercise”: an “adversary” group of scientists is charged with rigorously questioning an assessment or proposed course of action while an opposing group, a “blue team,” has the opportunity to rebut their findings.
As Koonin remarks in his book: “Red Team exercises are commonly used to inform high-consequence decisions such as testing national intelligence findings or validating complex engineering projects like aircraft or spacecraft; they’re also common in cybersecurity. Red Teams catch errors or gaps, identify blind spots, and often help to avoid catastrophic failures.”
I cannot help being reminded of the investigation of the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion by Richard Feynman – one of America’s greatest scientists and a colleague and hero of Koonin during his time at the California Institute of Technology.
An exceptionally brilliant and independent-minded person, Feynman was uniquely able — as an outsider — to uncover the physical causes, technical difficulties, errors and misjudgments which had led to the Challenger disaster. This kind of rigorous examination would hardly have been imaginable from inside the official US space agency NASA at that time.
Concretely, Koonin suggests that a first red team review might consist of close public scrutiny of the forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report of IPCC, or the next US National Climate Assessment, expected in 2023.
Members of the climate science community have plainly been reluctant to speak up against what has been falsely represented as the consensus view. Koonin devotes a chapter to the problems of miscommunication and misrepresentation of climate science by examining the role of media, politicians, scientific institutes and scientists themselves.
He remarks, “my direct experiences, along with some universal truths about humans, suggest not some secret cabal, but rather a self-reinforcing alignment of perspectives and interests.”
The final chapters of the book are devoted to a detailed discussion of the options available for dealing with global warming and its consequences. Koonin considers the goal of drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions on a global basis, within the timeframe envisaged in the Paris agreement for example, to be quite unrealistic, given among other things the vast and rapidly growing energy demand of developing nations in the coming decades.
Although he supports the use and further development of low-carbon and carbon-free technologies, including nuclear power, transforming the entire world energy system will take a very long time. Koonin argues that the main response to global warming will be simply to adapt to the changing climate.
At the same time, he recommends we must prepare for future eventualities, push climate research forward and explore the possibility – as an ultimate last resort – of actively “geoengineering” a cooling of the climate.
The latter option, often referred to as “solar geoengineering“ has been under serious investigation for some time. In the book, Koonin tells of his own involvement in the area, including co-authorship of a ground-breaking study in 2009.
It is well established that the injection of aerosols into the stratosphere has a temporary cooling effect on global temperatures. This effect is regularly observed following volcanic eruptions. It turns out, that artificially injecting the amounts of aerosols needed to achieve significant global cooling is entirely within the reach of present-day technology. Indeed, it would even be relatively easy.
Naturally, one would want to know how such an intervention might affect the climate system globally and on regional levels. That is a task for climate science. I am sure nobody would object to carrying out a red team exercise before undertaking such a project.
Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1973 at age 22. Also a physicist, linguist and pianist, he is a former editor of FUSION magazine. He lives in Berlin and travels frequently to Asia and elsewhere, consulting on economics, science and technology.