‘Unsettled’ Review: The ‘Consensus’ On Climate

A top Obama scientist looks at the evidence on warming and CO2 emissions and rebuts much of the dominant political narrative.

By Mark P. Mills

Physicist Steven Koonin kicks the hornet’s nest right out of the gate in “Unsettled.” In the book’s first sentences he asserts that “the Science” about our planet’s climate is anything but “settled.” Mr. Koonin knows well that it is nonetheless a settled subject in the minds of most pundits and politicians and most of the population.

Further proof of the public’s sentiment: Earlier this year the United Nations Development Programme published the mother of all climate surveys, titled “The Peoples’ Climate Vote.” With more than a million respondents from 50 countries, the survey, unsurprisingly, found “64% of people said that climate change was an emergency.”

But science itself is not conducted by polls, regardless of how often we are urged to heed a “scientific consensus” on climate. As the science-trained novelist Michael Crichton summarized in a famous 2003 lecture at Caltech: “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” Mr. Koonin says much the same in “Unsettled.”

The book is no polemic. It’s a plea for understanding how scientists extract clarity from complexity. And, as Mr. Koonin makes clear, few areas of science are as complex and multidisciplinary as the planet’s climate.

He begins with a kind of trigger warning for readers who may be shocked by the book’s contradiction of four points of climate orthodoxy: “Heat waves in the US are now no more common than they were in 1900” and “the warmest temperatures in the US have not risen in the past fifty years. . . . Humans have had no detectable impact on hurricanes over the past century. . . . Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was eighty years ago. . . . The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century.”

Photo: WSJ


By Steven E. Koonin
BenBella, 306 pages, $24.95

But Mr. Koonin is no “climate denier,” to use the concocted phrase used to shut down debate. The word “denier” is of course meant to associate skeptics of climate alarmism with Holocaust deniers. Mr. Koonin finds this label particularly abhorrent, since “the Nazis killed more than two hundred of my relatives in Eastern Europe.” As for “denying,” Mr. Koonin makes it clear, on the book’s first page, that “it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it.” 

The heart of the science debate, however, isn’t about whether the globe is warmer or whether humanity contributed. The important questions are about the magnitude of civilization’s contribution and the speed of changes; and, derivatively, about the urgency and scale of governmental response. Mr. Koonin thinks most readers will be surprised at what the data show. I dare say they will.

As Mr Koonin illustrates, tornado frequency and severity are also not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global atmospheric CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high—they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years.

Mr. Koonin laments the sloppiness of those using local weather “events” to make claims about long-cycle planetary phenomena. He chastises not so much local news media as journalists with prestigious national media who should know better. This attribution error evokes one of Mr. Koonin’s rare rebukes: “Pointing to hurricanes as an example of the ravages of human-caused climate change is at best unconvincing, and at worst plainly dishonest.”

When it comes to the vaunted computer models, Mr. Koonin is persuasively skeptical. It’s a big problem, he says, when models can’t retroactively “predict” events that have already happened. And he notes that some of the “tuning” done to models so that they work better amounts to “cooking the books.” He should know, having written one of the first textbooks on using computers to model physics phenomena.

Mr. Koonin’s science credentials are impeccable—unlike, say, those of one well-known Swedish teenager to whom the media affords great attention on climate matters. He has been a professor of physics at Caltech and served as the top scientist in Barack Obama’s Energy Department. The book is copiously referenced and relies on widely accepted government documents.

Since all the data that Mr. Koonin uses are available to others, he poses the obvious question: “Why haven’t you heard these facts before?” He is cautious, perhaps overly so, in proposing the causes for so much misinformation. He points to such things as incentives to invoke alarm for fundraising purposes and official reports that “mislead by omission.” Many of the primary scientific reports, he observes repeatedly, are factual. Still, “the public gets their climate information almost exclusively from the media; very few people actually read the assessment summaries.”

Mr. Koonin says that he knows he’ll be criticized, even “attacked.” You can’t blame him for taking a few pages to shadow box with his critics. But even if one remains unconvinced by his arguments, the right response is to debate the science. We’ll see if that happens in a world in which politicians assert the science is settled and plan astronomical levels of spending to replace the nation’s massive infrastructures with “green” alternatives. Never have so many spent so much public money on the basis of claims that are so unsettled. The prospects for a reasoned debate are not good. Good luck, Mr. Koonin.

Mr. Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of “Digital Cathedrals” and a forthcoming book on how the cloud and new technologies will create an economic boom.

This article appeared on the Wall Street Journal website at https://www.wsj.com/articles/unsettled-review-theconsensus-on-climate-11619383653


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