Two in depth book reviews of Unsettled, a book that takes a skeptical look at climate change written by a top physicist who served a few years in the Obama DOE.
after researching it, I was surprised by how weak or non-existent the evidence for changes in hurricane behavior due to anthropogenic climate change is, especially for catastrophic changes. Saying that hurricane changes are still within natural variability sounds like the “climate denier” position, but I’m not sure what else to conclude when a 2018 study on “Anthropogenic influences on major tropical cyclone events” opened with “There is no consensus on whether climate change has yet affected the statistics of tropical cyclones, owing to their large natural variability and the limited period of consistent observations.” The Sixth IPCC Assessment Report, which is the most recent version of the most important climate report, stated, “it remains uncertain whether past changes in Atlantic TC activity are outside the range of natural variability.”
Koonin doesn’t dispute that the climate is changing — sea levels are rising, snow cover is decreasing, and temperatures are warming across the globe. These will create major problems for societies and negatively impact people across the globe. He doesn’t even dispute that humans are having an impact on the climate. But it seems almost heretical when Koonin points out that these impacts don’t seem existential.
The question of how much pressure to put on carbon-emissions reduction policies is a hard one. Some policies, especially the most drastic ones, condemn poor people to poorer lives. It’s not obvious to me what the right tradeoff is… There are real human costs to policies that limit carbon emissions.
It’s unfortunate that so many people have fallen into despair about climate change. Not only does it cause the person to suffer, but ironically, it’s also often obstructive to problem-solving. After reading this book, not only do I think despair is unhelpful, I think it’s completely unjustified by the data. So, to those of you who are either fatalistic about climate change or those of you who think it’s not happening: please read this book.
As the chair of a highly respected university earth sciences department told privately, “I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, but I don’t dare say that in public.”
But the backlash was real as well:
Many scientific colleagues, some of them my friends for decades, were outraged that I’d highlight problems with The Science and thus, as one of them said, “give ammunition to the deniers.” Another said it would have been okay to publish my essay in some obscure scientific journal but reproached me for doing so in a forum with so many readers. And a prominent defender of the idea that The Science is settled enough published a response to my Op-Ed that began by calling for New York University to reconsider my employment, went on to misrepresent many of the things had written, but then, bafflingly, acknowledged that most of the uncertainties I’d mentioned were well known and much discussed among experts.
Much of the public portrayal of climate science suffers from … an effort to persuade rather than inform, the information presented withholds either essential context or what doesn’t “fit.
Anyone familiar with the current issues in the social sciences should be getting deja vu from [Global Warming data], or at least a sense of foreboding. There is sufficient data to tell a wide variety of stories and a large incentive to tell some of them over others. This doesn’t mean that Climate Science’s overall conclusions are wrong or untrue - but it should make us take a step back to make sure that the data isn’t cherry-picked.
Comparing Earth’s current carbon concentrations to its distant past, we see that we are actually in a period of hilariously low atmospheric CO2… the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is not a problem for the Earth. The Earth can get along just fine with tons of carbon in the air. It’s a problem for us tiny little animals that live on the very outside of the Earth’s shell. Whatever your thoughts on plant and/or animal welfare, both can thrive in high-CO2 environments
Simulations also need to be initialized - given starting values for all oceanic and atmospheric variables of interest. The model must also be “tuned,” which seems to translate to, “I tested the model and it made no sense and didn’t match up with what the earth actually does, so I’ll just tweak dozens of parameters until it seems like I’ve got something that isn’t obviously wrong.”
it is impossible - for both practical and fundamental reasons - to tune the dozens of parameters so that the model matches the far more numerous observed properties of the climate system. Not only does this cast doubt on whether the conclusions of the model can be trusted, it makes it clear that we don’t understand features of the climate to anywhere near the level of specificity required given the smallness of human influences.
The false notion of more frequent US high temperature records is likely to pollute subsequent assessment reports, which invariably cite prior reports. More generally, it matters for those who care about the quality of scientific input to societal decisions and the integrity of the processes by which it’s generated. It should also matter to those who proclaim the unimpeachable authority of assessment reports. And it matters for media representations of climate science, which give voice to such misleading “conclusions.”
You all know the drill by now. The second volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA2018) comes out, and the media lose their minds.
That aside, what do we think the impact of climate change will be on the economy? That cluster of studies in the middle indicates that, by 2100, the expected effect on the global economy of about 3℃ of warming is… that the economy is about 3% smaller than it would otherwise have been
I have no problem with activism, and the efforts of NGOs have made the world better in countless ways. But distorting science to further a cause is inexcusable, particularly with the complicity of those scientists who serve on their advisory boards.
It’s the same story as the politicians: emergency and impending doom generate donations and political will; sober analysis of the facts does not.
list of red flags to watch out for in writing about the climate:
- Anyone referring to a scientist with the pejoratives “denier” or “alarmist” is engaging in politics or propaganda.
- Any appeal to the alleged “97 percent consensus” among scientists is another red flag.
- Confusing weather and climate is another danger sign.
- Omitting numbers is also a red flag.
- Yet another common tactic is quoting alarming quantities without context.
- Non-expert discussions of climate science also often confuse the climate that has been (observations) with the climate that could be (model projections under various scenarios).
Koonin’s contention is that Science as an institution has failed to uphold its own high standards in the field of climate science. While he holds considerable regard for many climate scientists and cites their work extensively, he believes that scientists as a whole have failed to uphold their duty to the public to explain their results in a coherent fashion, resulting in alarming and egregious inaccuracy and misrepresentation of the actual facts.
from this review, take these points:
- The climate is always changing, and humans are accelerating those changes in certain ways. It is important and necessary that we understand these changes and our part in them, so we can be prepared for the future.
- Climate change isn’t an existential threat to humanity within the next century to the absolute best of our current knowledge; this is not an excuse to do nothing. We don’t know how the future will unfold - things may get worse, but humans adapt.
- Don’t build things where you know hurricanes are going to hit and then whine about climate change when they do.
- Much like with COVID-19, if you want to know what’s really happening, look to the data and research itself, not the government or the media.
And so of course the media hated on him for his book, and he wrote a response to some of their careless and misleading replies here, which concludes:
To paraphrase a statement attributed to Einstein, “If I were wrong, it wouldn’t take a dozen scientists to disprove me — one would be sufficient.” As I write in Unsettled , I welcome serious, informed discussion of any of the points I raise in the book. Unfortunately, the article by Oreskes et al. falls well short of that standard.