Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters
By Steven E. Koonin. BenBella. 306 pages
In his new book, The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations, the Pulitzer Prize winning energy analyst Daniel Yergin has observed, as a matter of plain fact, that today the world depends on oil, natural gas, and coal for over 80 percent of its energy, “just as it did thirty years ago.”
This is the stark reality facing climate advocates who are calling for “net zero carbon.” Recent energy price spikes and service disruptions in Europe, Asia and the United States add insult to injury.
The list of climate policy failures in the US includes the withdrawal of the Clinton administration’s Btu tax, a rough proxy for a carbon tax; the 1997 vote of 95-0 in the Senate in favour of the Byrd-Hagel Resolution against signing onto the Kyoto Protocol; and the defeat of the 2009 Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill despite the Democratic Party’s control of the White House and both chambers of Congress at the time.
Michael P. Vandenbergh and Jonathan M. Gilligan, respectively Vanderbilt professors of law and engineering, in Beyond Politics: The Private Governance Response to Climate Change (2018), saw zero chance of the community of nations stabilizing global temperature at 2 degrees Celsius as called for in the Paris Agreement. “In fact, the Paris Agreement, even if all commitments are fulfilled, will allow an increase in global emissions of roughly 34 to 46 percent in 2025 over 1990 levels.”
Even with full implementation of all Paris commitments, and, most likely, those recently made at COP 26 in Glasgow, the world may see temperatures of more than 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Knowledgeable critics of climate policy, like Bjorn Lomborg and Michael Shellenberger, are sceptics, not of the fact of global warming or even the role of human beings in aggravating it, but of the wisdom, efficacy, pace (too fast) and cost-effectiveness of proposed policies to cope with it. For Lomborg fundamental research on technology is key given the cost of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions at the present time. For Shellenberger, the flight from nuclear power to solar and wind, which have less energy intensity than nukes, take up massive land areas, generate waste and intensive mining for rare minerals, is sheer folly.
Steven E. Koonin is the latest critic to enter the public square with his book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, And Why It Matters. His contribution has generated widespread interest from friend and foe alike due to his impressive scientific credentials and his service in the Obama administration.
Koonin is a graduate of the California Institute of Technology and has a PhD from MIT in theoretical physics. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he taught at Caltech for 30 years, serving also as a vice-president and provost. He has published over 200 peer-reviewed papers on everything from astrophysics and scientific computation to energy technology and climate science. Currently a professor at New York University and an independent governor of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he served as Undersecretary for Science in the US Department of Energy under President Obama. He was also a chief scientist for BP “focused on accelerating renewable energy technologies.”
Koonin believes a new orthodoxy, what he calls “The Science,” has squeezed out real science and infected the media and political class who fail to study carefully the massive amount of data and information contained in the many reports from the United Nations and the federal government.
In Unsettled he offers the reader a crash course on climate science and a careful analysis or gloss on all the relevant reports, providing useful graphs with trenchant commentary. This part of the book requires perseverance and careful attention — but it is well worth the effort. He summarizes his basic conclusions as follows:
The earth has warmed during the past half century, partly because of natural phenomena and partly in response to growing human influences. These human influences (most importantly the accumulation of [carbon dioxide] from burning fossil fuels) exert a physically small effect on the complex climate system. Unfortunately, limited observations and understanding are insufficient to usefully quantify either how the climate will respond to human influences or how or how it varies naturally. However, even as human influences have increased fivefold since 1950 and the globe has warmed modestly, most severe weather phenomena remain within past variability. Projections of future climate and weather events rely on models demonstrably unfit for the purpose.
Dr Koonin echoes other analysts in his view that “most extreme weather events show no long-term trends that can be attributed to human influences on the climate.” For instance, “In the US … record low temperatures have indeed become less common, but record daily high temperatures are no more frequent than they were a century ago.”
He debunks media claims of a rise in hurricanes, global as opposed to regional precipitation, droughts, forest fires, and the like. The southwestern US “will become steadily drier as the globe warms but the data shown for the twentieth century are well within the historical context and … the current impact of human influences seems weak in comparison with natural variability.” Increased populations and development are contributing factors to costly events as much as climate in many cases.
In chapter 9 of Unsettled, “Apocalypses That Ain’t,” Dr Koonin reviews three claims of climate disasters which typifies the abuse or misrepresentation of “The Science.” They are “climate-related deaths,” agricultural “disaster” and “enormous” economic costs.
Regarding the first of these inflated claims, Koons cites a source also found in Shellenberger’s book, the Emergency Events database of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) within the Université Catholique de Louvain which indicates that weather-related death rates fell “dramatically” during the past 100 years even as the globe warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) — 80 times less frequent today. This is a tribute to human resilience, adaptation and growing wealth worldwide.
As for agricultural disaster, from 1961 to 2011 global yields of wheat, rice and maize (corn) have doubled and US corn yields have tripled. Per capita supply of vegetable oils and meat has also doubled while calories per capita has increased by roughly a third. Climate does not appear to be impactful in this case.
Regarding the claim that climate variability could reduce the global economy by 3 percent, say, by 2100, Koons says:
An impact of 3 percent by 2100 — some eighty years from now — translates to a decrease in the annual growth rate, by an average of 3 percent divided by 80, or about 0.04 percent per year…assume an average global annual growth rate of about 2 percent through 2100; the climate impact would then be a 0.04 percent decrease in that 2 percent growth rate, for a resulting growth rate of 1.96 percent.
The US economy has grown, on average, 3.2 percent annually. Even assuming only a 2 percent rate over the next 70 years, the economy would still be four times larger in 2090.
For the scientifically challenged reader, the most compelling part of Unsettled is its prudential argument that the quest for a carbon-free world is a “chimera” (chapter 12) — “essentially impossible.” Recall Daniel Yergin’s observation that 80 percent of the world’s energy has come from fossil fuels for the last 30 years. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere grows by roughly half of the amount emitted each year, the result of cumulative emissions over time remaining there for centuries. Moreover, global energy demand is expected to grow by 50 percent through mid-century. The numbers just don’t add up.
Given his pessimism about “solving” the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, Koonin proposes “Plans B” – in the plural, specifically geoengineering and adaptation. The first idea is controversial, and Koonin concedes much more research needs be done on concepts like solar radiation management or human-induced “stratospheric haze” emulating volcanic eruptions that temporarily cool the planet. Scale, cost and unintended consequences all need to be considered.
Adaptation, however, is common sense and in this reviewer’s opinion, needs to be elevated in the public dialogue. As Koonin notes, it is agnostic as to causes of challenges like sea-level rise, proportional in response, locally driven, autonomous (spontaneous), and effective — as demonstrated by the Dutch and human beings living everywhere from the Arctic Circle to the tropics. Economic growth and the diminishment of poverty will be crucial in fostering effective adaptation around the globe.
“Effective adaptation would combine credible regional projections of climate change with a framework for assessing the costs and benefits of various adaptation strategies,” Koonin concludes.