Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters
By Dr. Steven E. Koonin
BenBella Books, Inc.
Climate science is one of those fields where you routinely hear that the science is settled. “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree. . .” blah, blah, blah. Koonin shoots down the idea that science can be settled. Some scientists may agree that the climate is warming, but when you pick apart the details—asking “Why is the climate warming?” or “How serious is it really?”—there is nowhere near that level of agreement. Claiming the science is “settled” is wrong, grossly unscientific and arrogant, implying we have it all figured out. Aren’t we awesome? Maybe we need to get over ourselves.
Koonin is highly qualified, having worked in industry, academia and government as an undersecretary in the Obama administration. He has spent years scrutinizing climate hysteria and the data behind it. I am an amateur compared to him, but I have looked into the subject enough to get a good feel for what is really going on. A huge breath of fresh air, the book covers the subject about as fairly and objectively as is humanly possible. And what is cool is that I learned a lot.
We’re all familiar with the frantic headlines that tell us we need to shut down all fossil-fueled operations and choke down kale as we sit in our very hot or very cold houses, depending on the time of year. Where are the data behind this coming from? What do the data really say?
Data from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are considered the most authoritative. This is where the climate cultists claim to get their data, so Koonin focuses extensively on the IPCC data. The people who collect these data do a reasonably competent job, but then, for some reason, the data are turned over to—well, I was going to say chimpanzees, but I don’t want to insult chimpanzees. I don’t think chimpanzees could care less about climate change. You get the idea. By the time the data get to the politicians and the sock puppet media, the world’s population is gaslit into believing we are some horrible scourge on the planet, which is our fault. “You bad, bad people. How dare you?!”
A quick overview of the data shows that global temperature has increased by about one degree C over the last century. CO2 has also gone up and is now a little over four hundred ppm. If it continues at its current rate, it will reach about one thousand ppm in two hundred fifty years. Doubling CO2 from four hundred to eight hundred ppm would increase global tem peratures by about one degree C. This is not an emergency. Atnospheric methane has been increasing for about four thousand years. There was a plateau from 1998 to 2008, which scientists can’t explain. There is no reason to believe methane is going to kill us all in our lifetime or our grandchildren’s lifetime.
One of the book’s recurring themes is that the whole subject is complicated. A lot of things can’t be explained. So far, we see that, yes, CO2 is increasing. Yes, global temperatures are increasing—but hardly at an alarming rate. How much of that is anthropogenic (caused by human activity)? The data do not give us a clear answer, but it is clear that there is no need for the sort of fear-mongering that leads to explosive incontinence.
Much of the “ooga booga” scary stuff comes from computer models. Koonin spends a whole chapter on computer models. In my previous life as a computer engineer, I did a lot of computer simulating, mostly of complex programmable computer chips. I was essentially using a computer to simulate another computer or part of a computer. Digital computers deal with ones and zeroes, which is very deterministic and very predictable. If you do it carefully enough and have some experience, it works very well. When you test out that design in the lab, you get exactly what the simulation said you would get. If you don’t, it is usually due to operator error.
Simulating a climate, however, is a completely different game. I read this chapter very closely to see whether Koonin got it right. He did. The climate is not ones and zeroes. It does not behave in a simple, linear way. You have this butterfly effect where small changes now can result in massive changes a few weeks later. Climate gurus have created different models that generate wildly different results—all of them wrong. One expert says, “It’s a challenge to model what we don’t understand.” Yeah. It’s a challenge to drive a car blindfolded, too. Some might even say it’s impossible.
Testing a climate model is simple in principle. For example, you plug in data from 1980 and see what it predicts for 2010 or other periods of time where you know what the right answers are. How many models get the right answer? None. How many were close? None. Amusingly, the more sophisticated, newer models produce even worse results. Yet, climate scientists continue to use these models as though somehow they will eventually get something intelligent out of them.
Computers are not magic, and they certainly are not intelligent. They are high-speed idiots. We can generate errors faster than ever before. They cannot truly think. Apparently, some people can’t either. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. There has been a lot of buzz about artificial intelligence and programs like ChatGPT or OpenAI. While these programs can do some impressive things, what I’ve seen of them proves my point. If you ask them the right questions, you not only can get wrong answers but self-contradictory answers and answers betraying the programmers’ political bias. They will not answer some questions because they are “afraid” of offending someone. The publicly available AI may not be leading-edge technology, but it gives you an idea what to look out for. Computers do exactly what they are programmed to do. That is not intelligence.
GIGO stands for “Garbage In, Garbage Out” (not “Garbage In, Gospel Out”). It’s not hard to extract any answer you want from a computer, so it is a little hard to believe any computer knows what is going to happen in one hundred years. Is it worth destroying our standard of living based on what a computer model says? Computers are not good crystal balls.
First-world nations like the U.S. have achieved the highest prosperity and standard of living in history, enabled by abundant, affordable and reliable energy. Energy is connected to everything we do. For things like transportation, fossil fuel is the only feasible option with current technology. California is barely able to keep its power grid online. If they switch completely to alternative energy and mandate all-electric cars, most of California is not going anywhere.
The greatest CO2 increases are coming from the poorest countries, where millions of people are just starting to climb out of that poverty hole. As they ramp up energy use, their poverty levels drop. If your plan is to tell them they can’t have the same energy that made life so much better for the rest of us, I’m pretty sure there is not a middle finger in this world long enough to fully express their contempt. Konstantin Kisin illustrated the point effectively in a debate with Oxford students, which he won. To paraphrase, he said that if there were a big red button that parents could push that would feed their hungry children and, at the same time, release a big old cloud of CO2, they would smash that button as hard as they could (probably with their middle finger) every day for the rest of their lives.
There is no climate emergency. Condemning a few billion people to die in poverty for no reason is murderously evil, to put it nicely. Thomas Sowell insightfully sums up the difficulty of having an intelligent discussion on this subject: “It is usually futile to try to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance.” Climate cultists are not standing on the moral high ground but on ground that could lead to somewhere way hotter than this planet. Koonin is realistic about what you can get people to do. If people are struggling to find their next meal, they are in no condition to worry about what will happen to the planet in fifty—or two—years. If you and your kids are going to starve to death this year, who cares what happens next year?
Step one in Koonin’s practical advice is to calm down and get a grip. He agrees we should probably do something, but there’s no need whatsoever to panic and grab at the first lame or damaging solution that comes along and force it on everyone. We have plenty of time. While in the corporate world, he studied alternative power options. We get orders of magnitude more power out of a gallon of gas than we will ever get out of a solar panel or windmill. Solar can work in a supplemental way, but unless there is a major breakthrough, we are not going to run the world on solar and wind. A promising strategy is to simply adapt. The human race has proven itself very good at adapting. We occupy regions from Siberia to the Equator. We’ll be OK.
Aren’t severe weather events spinning out of control? Nope. Koonin found no evidence that weather is getting more severe. That is all media hyperbole. There is a very good chapter on who is pushing the panic button and why. For the news media, bad news sells. H. L. Mencken summed it up nicely: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” For institutions and scientists, funding can motivate dishonesty. They may feel the need to scare everyone into giving them more money to study the crisis and find a solution or “we’re all gonna die.”
This is an extremely controversial topic, and there is a lot of confusion out there about whom to believe. Here are a few pointers. Any sentence that starts with, “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree. . .” is a sentence you can safely disregard as total rubbish. The truth is not up to a vote. Who is ready and willing to debate, and who will not tolerate debate? Who will not even tolerate questions? Liars know they have no chance against someone who knows what they are talking about. Who appeals to authority and not data? I am convinced that the legacy media almost never tell the truth. Which point of view do they promote? If they say “X” is true, I’m pretty sure that whatever the truth is, it is not “X.” Who has a conflict of interest? Who resorts to name-calling? Who claims their opponents are deniers, racists, conspiracy theorists or flat-earthers? And (a big one), who is trying to persuade you with fear, not facts? Who is telling you “we’re all gonna die” if you don’t go along with them?
This book is wonderfully optimistic. There no impending climate apocalypse, and we have made amazing progress in the last century. The global standard of living is higher than ever. Poverty is at a fraction of what it was even fifty years ago. The global population is living much longer on average. NASA reports show the planet has greened by 40 percent, including semi-arid regions, since 1980 (due to more abundant CO2). Food production has skyrocketed. UN data show that we are producing enough food to feed the world. There is a distribution problem—not everyone is getting the food they need—but there is enough if we fix that. Modern civilization, for all its warts and problems, has made incredible advances. If we allow other nations to enjoy affordable, abundant power, we will have more intelligent people in the world capable of solving whatever problems come along. The Paris agreement will never reach net zero. Stabilizing human influence on the climate is impossible, and the current ham-fisted attempts to do so are causing far more harm than good.
Destroying civilization to save it is not a good plan. We are already seeing preliminary results in places like Germany and Sri Lanka. Due to environmental policies, Germany has been forced to go back to burning coal to keep from freezing in the winter. Sri Lanka has completely collapsed, and they’re getting kind of hungry. The solutions that are being pushed are no better than a rubber crutch and not nearly as funny. I reviewed a video that tells us cows will be the death of us all because they warm up the atmosphere too much. If this kind of mindless panic is allowed to continue unchallenged, we will lose important sources of nutrition and energy. This book is the best source I’ve seen yet to restore some sanity to the conversation. If you are not into reading books, there is a very good interview of Steven Koonin on YouTube at youtube.com/ watch?v=reaABJ5HpLk. The thumb (not my middle finger) is UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2023🖨️ Print post