Smoke discharges from chimneys at a coal-fired power plant in eastern China's Jiangsu province on December 12, 2018. Photo: AFP / Xu Congjun / Imaginechina

This is the fourth of a five-part series on climate science. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Here we continue our interview with Dr Steven Koonin, chief scientist in the US Department of Energy during the Barack Obama administration and author of the just-published book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.

Jonathan Tennenbaum: Getting now to the policy aspect, I would like to ask you about your proposal to organize a team to probe the scientific validity of statements put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the US National Climate Assessment.

You specifically suggest an aggressive public scrutiny of forthcoming assessment reports of these two agencies, by a “red team” of leading scientists. In your book, you provide some interesting background to this proposal, which I would like to mention for our readers.

You recall how in 2013 the American Physical Society asked you to conduct a review process for updating the APS official position statement on climate change. In 2014 you organized and chaired a “Climate Change Statement Review Workshop” under the auspices of the APS – a one-day seminar with participation of six top climate scientists and six physicists posing critical questions and engaging in an intensive scientific dialog.

I noted that two of the most influential climate authorities involved in the IPCC assessments took part, Benjamin Santer and William Collins.

In the book, you speak of a “stress test” of climate science. Indeed, the short “Framing Document,” put out in advance of the workshop, contains the sharpest and most devastating criticisms of key assertions of the IPCC that I have ever seen. (The Framing Document and the transcript of the seminar are available on the internet.)

You write, “I came away from the APS workshop not only surprised but shaken by the realization that climate science was far less mature than I had supposed.” From the workshop and subsequent inquiry you concluded that “the science is insufficient to make  useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it.”

Needless to say, this conclusion runs totally contrary to the impression given to the public and decision-makers. On this background, I can well understand your 2017 call for a public red team exercise on climate science. But so far nothing of the sort has occurred.

Do you think there is a chance that such a red team could be organized in the United States in the foreseeable future?

Steven Koonin: Well, that’s a great question. Let me say first that a lot of the book is what I think the red team would have written, had it looked at the National Climate Assessment. I got so incensed that I couldn’t get a red team exercise going, I basically decided to write the report myself.

And I think it has done, or will do, two things. One, it will educate people about the science we’ve been talking about now. But I think it will also show people that the assessments of the NCA and IPCC, as they are issued, through the processes they result from, are deficient; that there are misleading things in them, there are errors.

And what I would hope, having put the book out there, is that this will convince at least the US government to do something like a red team exercise for the next climate report that the National Climate Assessment will issue in 2023.

I have sent copies of the book to top science advisors of the present administration, some of whom I know. If I were in their position I would have a hard time squaring my scientific integrity with the present stance of the administration on the climate issue. I will watch with interest.

JT: Leaving the US aside, could you imagine that some group of nations, for example developing nations, might decide to organize a climate red team of the sort you are proposing?

Smoke is discharged from chimneys at a coal-fired power plant in Changchun city, northeast China’s Jilin province, December 24, 2018. Despite pioneering the development of green technology at home, state-backed Chinese lenders are financing or are looking to finance a quarter of coal projects taking place overseas. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhendong / Imaginechina

SK: I could imagine China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and so on assembling a really strong team of scientists and doing the red team exercise on what gets reported by the IPCC. Whether they would have the motivation to do that, I don’t know. This gets into geopolitics, a subject about which I know very little.

But I could imagine that China is rather pleased to see the West tie ourselves into knots over this issue, while China continues to go ahead and develop. Indonesia and India have probably less of a geostrategic interest in that dimension. But they are just going ahead and generating the energy they need, and I would argue it’s probably immoral to stop them from doing that.

This whole issue about reducing emissions and so forth has been bubbling along for 25 years, and I think a lot of citizens and industry and maybe even national governments will say, “we’ll just go along because nobody is doing anything about it, or the measures are not effective.”

But we’ve now got governments, particularly now the US but also the EU, who are pushing, and the regulations that are being put into place will directly affect people’s lives, will directly affect industry. So there may now be an appetite to take a much more critical look at the underlying science.

JT: I have the feeling that people will wake up one day and say, oh, I’m going to end up paying for all this. Here in Germany, for example, the price of electricity is among the highest in the world, having nearly doubled since the year 2000 – mainly because of the surcharges and taxes to pay for the transition to so-called renewable energy sources.

Wealthy countries such as Germany may be able to afford these kinds of costs, at least for the moment; but what about the developing countries? Tens of thousands of kilometers of oil and gas pipelines, hundreds of coal power plants are being built in China, India and throughout the developing sector. Are they going to abandon all this infrastructure?

SK: I think the measures that are being proposed are extraordinarily disruptive or will be. One can look at the science, and say, I am really risk-averse, and I think we should do these things. But when the measures really start hitting people’s lives I think people will perhaps have a different calculus. Maybe we’re not going to do this as rapidly or as completely as is currently being discussed.

JT: So you think Biden’s 2035 goal to base all of US electricity generation on so-called clean energy is just completely unrealistic?

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former Secretary of State John Kerry listens during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate at the East Room of the White House April 23, 2021, in Washington, DC. Biden pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030. Photo: AFP / Anna Moneymaker-Pool / Getty Images

SK: Yes, I think so. First of all, when you look at how energy systems have changed in the past, it takes decades, and for good reasons. You change them by orthodontia, not by tooth extraction.

JT: I have the feeling that a new kind of religion is emerging around the theme of climate change. Ironically it is supposed to be grounded in science; but science demands a constant critical, questioning attitude, demanding evidence, rejecting dogmas.

Instead, we seem to be witnessing an entire belief structure coming into place, which – to my mind, at least – has an increasingly irrational, dogmatic character. And governments are getting caught up in it, committing stupendous amounts of resources on that basis and maybe even making it into a kind of state religion.

Meanwhile, if I am to believe what you say, the key scientific issues have to a large extent not been resolved. I don’t know of a comparable example for such a huge mismatch.  

SK: Well, you can go back and can look at Lysenkoism (a political campaign led by Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko against genetics and science-based agriculture in the mid-20th century.)

You can look at eugenics. These are also issues where the official science really did not accord with what was going on. And they were eventually corrected, of course, but sometimes with great, great pain.

Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1973 at age 22. Also an author, 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.