Not So Fast, Mr. Koonin


March 1, 2022

Humph. The WSJ ran an opinion piece by climate change disbeliever Steven Koonin in which he relied on the above graph for his argument.

Now, two weeks later the WSJ runs an opinion piece by one of the men who developed the above graph saying Koonin misinterpreted the graph.

Is that good journalism? Shouldn’t the WSJ have checked to confirm that Koonin was correct?

Understand my position — ALL press gets the story wrong a lot. Solyndra wasn’t about playing favorites with donors or inept government employees. It was about China dumping solar panels into the US. How do I know? I was there. But you never heard about illegal dumping being the cause of Solyndra’s demise, did you?

My message is only this — be skeptical when reading Koonin’s analysis. He has staked out a position that Is contrary to many scientists in the field. What he is doing now is doubling down. If you read Koonin, read those who disagree with him and draw your own conclusion.

Koonin’s piece:

One of the most sacred tenets of climate alarmism is that Greenland’s vast ice sheet is shrinking ever more rapidly because of human-induced climate change. The media and politicians warn constantly of rising sea levels that would swamp coastlines from Florida to Bangladesh. A typical headline: “Greenland ice sheet on course to lose ice at fastest rate in 12,000 years.”

With an area of 660,000 square miles and a thickness up to 1.9 miles, Greenland’s ice sheet certainly deserves attention. Its shrinking has been a major cause of recent sea-level rise, but as is often the case in climate science, the data tell quite a different story from the media coverage and the political laments.

The chart nearby paints a bigger picture that is well known to experts but largely absent from the media and even from the most recent United Nations climate report. It shows the amount of ice that Greenland has lost every year since 1900, averaged over 10-year intervals; the annual loss averages about 110 gigatons. (A gigaton is one billion metric tons, or slightly over 2.2 trillion pounds.) That is a lot, but that water has caused the planet’s oceans to rise each year by only 0.01 inch, about one-fifth the thickness of a dime.

In contrast, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that for the most likely course of greenhouse-gas emissions in the 21st century, the average annual ice loss would be somewhat larger than the peak values shown in the graph. That would cause sea level to rise by 3 inches by the end of this century, and if losses were to continue at that rate, it would take about 10,000 years for all the ice to disappear, causing sea level to rise more than 20 feet.

To assess the importance of human influences, we can look at how the rate of ice loss has changed over time.

In that regard, the graph belies the simplistic notion that humans are melting Greenland. Since human warming influences on the climate have grown steadily—they are now 10 times what they were in 1900— you might expect Greenland to lose more ice each year. Instead there are large swings in the annual ice loss and it is no larger today than it was in the 1930s, when human influences were much smaller. Moreover, the annual loss of ice has been decreasing in the past decade even as the globe continues to warm.

While a warming globe might eventually be the dominant cause of Greenland’s shrinking ice, natural cycles in temperatures and currents in the North Atlantic that extend for decades have been a much more important influence since 1900. Those cycles, together with the recent slowdown, make it plausiblethat the next few decades will see a further, perhaps dramatic slowing of ice loss. That would be inconsistent with the IPCC’s projection and wouldn’t at all support the media’s exaggerations.

Much climate reporting today highlights short-term changes when they fit the narrative of a broken climate but then ignores or plays down changes when they don’t, often dismissing them as “just weather.”

Climate unfolds over decades. Although short-term changes might be deemed news, they need to be considered in a many-decade context. Media coverage omitting that context misleadingly raises alarm. Greenland’s shrinking ice is a prime example of that practice.

If Greenland’s ice loss continues to slow, headline writers will have to find some other aspect of Greenland’s changes to grab our attention, and politicians will surely find some other reason to justify their favorite climate policies.

The rebuttal:

Steven Koonin’s arugment in “Greenland’s Melting Ice Is No Cause for Climate-Change Panic” (op-ed, Feb. 18) is based on an incorrect interpretation of the plotted data, which comes from research by one of us, Mr. Mankoff.

Mr. Koonin claims that “the annual loss of ice has been decreasing in the past decade even as the globe continues to warm.” While that is factually correct, it is an invalid interpretation, considering only the last decade and excluding previous periods. This is often referred to as “cherry picking.”

A more correct interpretation of this plot is that the last decade has the highest average mass loss of the previous 120 years. This gives ample cause for concern. We also note that from 1840 through 1900 (not shown by Mr. Koonin), the ice sheet was in approximate balance—not losing mass—making the current trends even more concerning.

There are several factors that explain a downward trend in the past decade, including atmospheric changes and associated effects influencing the regional climate, which on short timescales does not always reflect the increase in global average air temperature. What matters is the cumulative effect of Greenland Ice Sheet mass loss. If we add up the loss, which is always positive, the result is around 14,000 gross tons, equal to around 1.5 inches in sea-level rise since 1900 from Greenland alone. While this might seem small, it often causes flooding in cities that did not previously flood. Without changing our greenhouse-gas emissions, this growing contribution to sea-level rise will lead to increased flooding along many of the world’s coastlines.

K.D. Mankoff

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