A reader recently asked me to comment on “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, And Why It Matters,” a book published last month by theoretical physicist Steven Koonin. He served in the Obama and Trump administrations, as well as working for BP.
Wikipedia says, “Koonin’s views on the status and conclusions of climate science have been authoritatively criticized.” Substantive reviews of “Unsettled,” below, corroborate this.
Scientific American headlined its review, “A new book manages to get climate science badly wrong.” In response to Koonin’s “major theme” that “the science about the Earth’s climate is anything but settled,” the critique observes “in the early days of research, the uncertainty was wide; but with each subsequent step that uncertainty has narrowed.” It notes, “early indications detected and attributed in the 1980s and 1990s have come true, over and over again and sooner than anticipated.” (Note my comments below on “The Limits to Growth.”)
Koonin’s “intervention into the debate” about climate risks seems “designed to subvert this progress in all respects by making distracting, irrelevant, misguided, misleading and unqualified statements about supposed uncertainties” that he thinks scientists have “buried under the rug.” Quoting from Koonin’s “misdirection statements,” the article proceeds to refute his arguments with facts. Its takeaway message: “Regardless of what Koonin has written … the science is clear, and the consensus is incredibly wide.”
In a second review, Inside Climate News highlights its evaluation thus: “A new book feeds climate doubters, but scientists say the conclusions are misleading and out of date.” This article links some of Koonin’s ideas to his role in the previous administration, where he proposed “a red team, blue team climate debate.”
These criticisms of Koonin’s book are complemented by a lengthy, detailed, substantiative review from 12 scientists in Climate Feedback Criticisms are supported with figures and cited references. The authors discredit The Wall Street Journal’s glowing review, asserting it repeats “multiple incorrect and misleading claims” made in Koonin’s book. In their analysis of the WSJ article, the scientists estimate “its overall scientific credibility to be very low.”
Media Matters, also citing the WSJ as an example, observes, “Right-wing media are having a field day with physicist Steve Koonin’s new book of climate misinformation.” In addition to pointing out errors in the book, Media Matters provides examples of falsifiable statements that Koonin made in interviews on multiple right-wing broadcast outlets.
To support an unsupportable position, the book cherry-picks information long discredited. Such a document wouldn’t survive an independent peer review. As the above critiques explain, the misinformation widely circulated by vested corporate interests continues to sow the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that undermines our democracy by clouding the decision-making process in both government and industry: we don’t know who or what to believe. And that’s the objective.
The limits to growth
Before global warming was hot, science warned about other consequences from interactions between humans and their environment. A 1972 publication, “The Limits to Growth,” linked interactions among population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion on a global scale. Much as climate modelers today simulate environmental dynamics, the MIT authors based their study on a computer model. Updates after 20 and 30 years corroborated the general trends and projections of the original study.
Last week, economist Steve Keen, a fellow at University College, London, told CNBC “war-level footing” is required “to have any hope of repairing the damage” of climate change. “Repercussions of climate change were foretold,” he said, in “The Limits to Growth,” but “economists then and since failed to heed its warnings, preferring instead to rely on market mechanisms.”
Had their warnings been taken seriously, and had we changed our trajectory, “we could have done it gradually,” he said, “using things like carbon tax.” By delaying another half century, “we are, as a species, putting three to four times the pressure on the biosphere.”
Governments, intergovernmental agencies, and UN entities are failing to resolve problems identified a half-century ago, partly because of deniers and obfuscators. To protect their financial interests, these try to discredit valid scientific results, whittling away at credible science by sowing seeds of error-laden FUD. Books like “Unsettled” are unsettling..