A Climate Change Truth Teller?
May 10, 2021
I purchased this book because both Forbes and the WSJ have praised this book as bringing clarity to the topic of man’s contribution to climate change. I figured it was worth reading what Dr, Koonin had figured out that others have not. I was also motivated by the fact that I had made presentation to a committee’s at DOE of which he was a member. I think I presented to him three or four times.
My takeaways from the book:
The book is mis-titled because Koonin seems to think he has settled the matter (hint, man is contributing to global warming but we have nothing to worry about). The book should be entitled “Misled.”
He’s been beating this same drum since 2014. There’s not much new here (the models are crap, scientists are inept and journalists on both sides have misled us. same goes for politicians.
I am confused. If he is right with his analysis of the “data and the science,” why haven’t others come to his side? I don’t mean a handful of people, I mean thousands of experts in the field.
Koonin missed an opportunity here. He was the force behind Pruitt’s “Red Team/Blue Team“ proposal which John Kelly shut down. Koonin could have used this book to present his Red Team perspective and had a Blue Team attempt to refute his analysis and claims (the ones that the science indicated should be refuted).
I do think this is an important book to read — so long as it leads us to be curious. The findings of the book beg us to do our own review of the scientific literature and to read critically.
I do agree with Koonin that the press has done a poor job with this topic. Whether it is sensationalizing the issue or denying there’s an issue, we should demand to hear from the primary sources - not the musical chairs that filter and summarize the information.
Here are Koonin’s conclusions at the end of the book to give you a flavor of his take on the subject:
I have deliberately written this book in a descriptive manner rather than a prescriptive one: I’ve presented facts, the certainties and uncertainties in what they imply, and the options for choices to be made in response. That’s the appropriate stance for a scientist to take when advising non-experts, whether those non-experts are other scientists, the public, or decision makers in government or industry, and whether the subject is climate and energy, nuclear terrorism, or the human genome project. But while responsible scientists are careful to keep the should questions distinct from the could or will, none of us can avoid having opinions. And I’m asked often enough “So what do you think we should do about the climate?” that I feel obligated, now that I’ve finished laying out the facts, to respond. We can begin with sustained and improved observations of the climate system (the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere). This is essential if we hope to understand what the climate is doing, how it is being affected by human and natural influences, and what it might do in the future. We’ve seen that climate changes resulting from human influences are small or subtle and happen over decades, so precision and persistence are essential, even in the face of institutional or funding vagaries. We also need to better understand the tremendously complex climate models we’ve built. An awful lot of effort is being devoted to not very informative model simulations under varying emissions scenarios. It would be much better spent trying to understand why the climate models fail in describing the recent past and are so uncertain in their projections of the future. In short, there should be more thinking and less unproductive computing. 1 We need to improve the science itself, and this begins with open and honest discussion that goes beyond slogans and polemics, and is free of accusations of skullduggery. Scientists should be welcoming of debate, challenges, and opportunities for clarification. Science starts with questions; it’s hard to encourage new research if we insist they’ve all been answered. In fact, as I’ve shown in this book, there are still plenty of important, even crucial, questions about climate that are as yet unsettled. The truth is that real science is never entirely settled—that’s how we make progress; it’s what science is all about. Let’s further our understanding, rather than repeating orthodoxy. Climate science would also be improved by deliberate efforts to involve scientists from other fields in studying climate. The data is rich and accessible and the problems are scientifically interesting and societally important. The injection of working scientists from outside the field who have skills in statistics or simulation would complement the perspectives of those in the field currently. We also need to get better at communicating climate science. Societal decisions that balance costs and drawbacks against risks and benefits must be made fully informed of the certainties and uncertainties in our scientific understanding. The public deserves complete, transparent, and unbiased assessment reports. A Red Team exercise like that I described in Chapter 11 would be a healthy addition to the climate science assessment process; it has proved its usefulness in other complex matters of national importance. A first Red Team review could involve the close public scrutiny of the UN’s AR6 report expected in July 2021 or of the next US government National Climate Assessment, expected in 2023. It could focus on the issues I’ve raised and the misrepresentations I’ve identified in this book. How will these upcoming reports deal with the failures of the most recent generation of models? Will they even mention, let alone highlight, that there have been no long-term trends in hurricanes or that net economic impacts of a 3ºC warming (far above the Paris goal) are projected to be minimal? I’d think that kind of scrutiny of the assessment would be essential, particularly since the Biden administration is advocating some $ 2 trillion of spending on climate and energy. At the same time, we need to reduce the hysteria in climate journalism. Journalists themselves need help to better understand the material they are presented with, and the public needs the tools to become more critical consumers of media coverage of climate (and many other topics, for that matter). It also makes sense to pursue “easy” emissions reductions, most obviously stopping methane leaks. A few percent of the methane escapes from the production and distribution systems for natural gas; that’s money lost and so there is a financial incentive to stem leaks (often more motivating to producers than climate concerns). The emission of more exotic greenhouse gases such as the CFCs and HCFs used as refrigerants and fire suppressors could also be reduced without much impact on society (unfortunately, the impact on human influences would be similarly slight). Cost-effective efficiencies that lead to emissions reductions are also low-hanging fruit, particularly when there are side benefits. For example, advanced coal-fired generating plants that gasify the coal rather than burn it directly will also reduce local pollution and increase efficiency. And for vehicles, more gasoline-efficient engines, as well as a move toward hybrid and electric cars, can both reduce local chemical and noise pollution and enhance energy security by reducing dependence on the volatile global oil market. A third “easy” step toward reducing emissions is further research and development in emissions-lite technologies. Cost and reliability are the primary factors by which new technologies will be judged feasible, and the focus should be on advances that overcome those stumbling blocks. Small modular fission reactors, improved solar technologies, and, in the longer term, nuclear fusion are all promising areas of research, as is how to economically store massive amounts of electricity on the grid. A win-win strategy is to develop and deploy more efficient, yet cost-effective, end-use technologies, from building ventilation systems to household appliances, as has happened with lighting technologies over the past few decades. Particularly promising here is the use of information-based approaches to transportation (such as suggesting more efficient routes for a trip or better monitoring and control of engine performance) and building operations (such as turning down the heating or cooling in unoccupied rooms). We also need to have a frank conversation about the proper role of government in these efforts (how much R& D to support, how and how much to encourage deployment of a new technology). One of my jobs in the Department of Energy was to start that conversation among Congress, the executive branch, and the private sector; I hope that discussion is about to resume. At least in the US, the government’s role in transforming the energy system has been a point of political contention for decades. I’m less bullish on “forced and urgent” decarbonization, either through a price on carbon or by way of regulation. The impact of human influences on the climate is too uncertain (and very likely too small) compared to the daunting amount of change required to actually achieve the goal of eliminating net global emissions by, say, 2075. And for me, the many certain downsides of mitigation outweigh the uncertain benefits: the world’s poor need growing amounts of reliable and affordable energy, and widespread renewables or fission are currently too expensive, unreliable, or both. I would wait until the science becomes more settled—that is, until the climate’s response to human influences is better determined, or, failing that, until a values consensus emerges or zero-emissions technologies become more feasible—before embarking on a program to tax or regulate greenhouse gas emissions out of existence or to capture and store massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I believe the socio-technical obstacles to reducing CO2 emissions make it likely that human influences on the climate will not be stabilized, let alone reduced, in this century. If the effects of those influences become more evident and more severe than they have been to date, of course, the balance of costs and benefits might shift, and society might well shift along with it. But I’d be surprised if this happened anytime soon. Advocating that we make only low-risk changes until we have a better understanding of why the climate is changing, and how it might change in the future, is a stance some might call “waffling,” but I’d prefer the terms “realistic” and “prudent.” I can respect the opinions of others who might come to different conclusions, as I hope they would respect mine. Those differences can only be resolved if we realize that they’re ultimately about values, not about the science. Another prudent step would be to pursue adaptation strategies more vigorously. Adaptation can be effective. As mentioned in the previous chapter, humans today live in climates ranging from the Tropics to the Arctic and have adapted through many climate changes, including the relatively recent Little Ice Age about four hundred years ago. Effective adaptation would combine credible regional projections of climate change with a framework for assessing the costs and benefits of various adaptation strategies. As we’ve seen, we’re a long way from having either of those. So the best strategy is to promote economic development and strong institutions in developing countries in order to improve their ability to adapt (and their ability to do many other positive things as well). Finally, should there be significant deterioration of the global climate, from whatever cause, humanity would be well served to know whether deliberate intervention into the climate system (geoengineering) is a plausible strategy. A research program into geoengineering options like those discussed in the previous chapter is therefore prudent and, as I’ve noted, the intense monitoring of the earth system that would be a first step in that research program would, in any event, also improve our understanding of the climate system. What I think we should do, in short, is to begin by restoring integrity to the way science informs society’s decisions on climate and energy—we need to move from The Science back to science. And then take the steps most likely to result in positive outcomes for society, whatever the future might hold for our planet. As President Biden exhorted in his inaugural address, “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, or even manufactured.