‘Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t and Why it Matters,’ is the title of a new book by physicist Steven Koonin, a former under-secretary for science in the Obama Administration. Therein, Koonin argues that the impact of human influence on the climate is too small and uncertain to merit any costly action to reduce fossil fuel use. We humans, he says, will be able to adapt to any warming that does occur.
Marc A. Thiessen of The Washington Post writes about Koonin and his book in a May 17 article, ‘An Obama scientist debunks the climate doom-mongers.’ Thiessen interviewed Koonin, who dug through U.N. and U.S. government reports to present some ‘inconvenient truths.’ He says the facts do not support the ‘doom mongering’ of climate alarmists.
Koonin was hired into his position by Obama’s first secretary of energy, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu precisely because he was willing to challenge conventional wisdom. Since leaving the administration, Koonin has gone on to argue that the impact of human influence on the climate is too uncertain, and probably too small, to merit costly action to reduce fossil fuel use. Humanity, he says, will adapt to any warming that occurs.
For context, it should be pointed out that Mr. Thiessen, a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has written articles supporting climate science denial in the past. Mr. Koonin has now appeared on Fox News and its ilk to provide some scholarly sounding arguments to support their point of view. Some of those scholarly sounding arguments are:
“The warmest temperatures in the U.S. have not risen in the past fifty years.” Yes, they have. It’s true that if you cherry-pick data from 2014 government reports as Mr. Koonin has done, you may be able to twist the truth around enough to make a statement such as this. But the EPA Climate Indicators Report states that “Some parts of the United States have experienced more warming than others. The North, the West, and Alaska have seen temperatures increase the most, while some parts of the Southeast have experienced little change.” And data for the U.S. is not as important for the understanding of the impact of climate change as that for the entire planet. Here, the EPA states that “Worldwide, 2016 was the warmest year on record, 2020 was the second-warmest, and 2011–2020 was the warmest decade on record since thermometer-based observations began.”
“Instead of droughts, the past fifty years have been slightly wetter than average” in the United States. This may be true in some parts of the U.S., but not others. The drought in California and other western states is fairly unprecedented. Historic western wildfires have many causes, but the underlying origin is climate change. Climate change does not apply itself evenly across the globe; there will always be areas that experience more or less heat, and more or less precipitation. But those dryer and hotter areas will be more extreme than ever.
The planet is warming, Koonin tells Thiessen, partly due to natural phenomena and partly due to growing human influences. Koonin says that scientists can’t untangle the two. But, Koonin argues, the terrifying predictions of increasingly violent weather and coastal cities drowned beneath rising seas are overblown. Yet the Union of Concerned Scientists stated in 2009 (and updated in 2021) that global warming is caused mainly by human activity. Despite Koonin’s assertions, scientists working on climate change compare the climate patterns they observe with patterns developed using sophisticated models of Earth’s systems. By comparing the observed and modeled patterns, scientists can positively identify “human fingerprints” and attribute a proportion of observed warming to human activities. Regarding increasingly violent weather and rising seas, they’re happening, and they’re happening big. The UCC says, “While some types of events are more readily attributable to global warming than others, attribution science is becoming increasingly robust. Several authoritative scientific institutions and government agencies have confirmed both the rigor and the validity of attributing individual extreme events to human-caused climate change.” Sea level rise is well documented and is also directly attributable to human-caused climate change.
Koonin also argues that predictions of climate-induced economic devastation are delusional as well. Since this is an economic argument instead of a scientific one, Mr. Koonin is out of his realm. Even if the U.S. experiences less economic impact from climate change than expected, it will still be severe. Moreover, the effect will be uneven, with some developing countries – those that can ill-afford it – will absorb most of the economic impact. Ultimately, some will be able to adapt, and others will not. Regardless, it’s not a good thing for the U.S. to survive in an increasingly desperate world.
Koonin believes that it will be impossible to stop the climate from changing. “If we stop emitting CO2 today, it would still be there in the atmosphere for hundreds of years,” he tells Thiessen. “If we manage to reduce emissions a little bit, it’ll just accumulate at a slower rate but it’ll still go up.” Here, he is correct. But we have to try. How can we not?
We need to not just slow our climate-changing emissions, we have to halt them completely; we need to get to zero emissions. Although it will be complicated and difficult, this must be our goal. We will need to set the stage for possible innovative breakthroughs, and we need to work to use the technologies currently available to bring our net impact on the climate to zero. If we do so, we will not only save our planet, we will save our economy and position the U.S. to maintain its economic, technological, and moral leadership.