On May 4, the day of its release, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, by physicist Steven E. Koonin, became the top-selling book on Amazon Kindle in the categories “Weather,” and “Climatology.” In just over 12 hours since its official launch Unsettled was the second-best selling book in the category “21st Century World History,” and was number 15 on Amazon’s list of top selling non-fiction books. By the time this review goes to press, I predict it will be the best-selling book across multiple sub-categories, will crack the top 10 in the non-fiction category, and be listed among the top 100 in sales across all categories.
The past year has seen the release of multiple books poking holes in various environmental shibboleths, with the biggest being climate change. They include: False Alarm, Apocalypse Never, and Green Fraud, and there are at least two documentaries, Planet of the Humans and Climate Hustle 2: Rise of the Climate Monarchy, What’s notable about a number of these is that they come from authors or filmmakers normally thought of as progressives’ fellow travelers or liberal environmentalists. Until their break with “consensus” science on climate change and the merits of green energy, the left embraced these authors and filmmakers as true believers in the coming human-induced climate apocalypse. Unsettled is the most recent of these books and it may be the most thoughtful and critical of all. Why? It arguably strikes deepest at the heart of so-called consensus climate science, because of who the author is and the roles he has played in climate research and policy.
Dr. Koonin, currently a professor at New York University, holding multiple appointments in the Stern School of Business, the Tandon School of Engineering, and the Department of Physics. He was involved in the development of early computer models used in science and wrote one of the first books describing on how computer models were developed, how they function, and their strengths and limits when used in scie nce; a book still widely used in college classrooms today. Koonin has written more than 200 academic papers and articles. They have been cited over 14,000 times, according to Google Scholar.
Steven Koonin: His Obama Administration Credentials
Koonin’s research and writings on climate science and energy led former president Barack Obama to appoint him undersecretary for science in the U.S. Department of Energy, where his portfolio included the climate research program and shaping the administration’s energy technology strategy. In that position, Koonin was the lead author of the Department of Energy’s 2011 Strategic Plan. Koonin’s role in the Obama administration, if nothing else he has done or written, makes it hard of for scientists, activists, politicians, or the mainstream media to label him a “climate denier. In short, Koonin is the ultimate insider on climate research and policy and can in no way be written off as fringe scientist.
As Koonin makes clear in his book, his research indicates that the climate is changing and humans have influenced some of that change. Beyond these minimal points, almost everything else people have been led to believe about climate change is unsettled, reports Koonin.
Koonin begins by describing what he refers to as “The Science”—you know, that thing everyone is supposed to be following.
“The Science.” We’re all supposed to know what “The Science” says. “The Science,” we’re told, is settled. How many times have you heard it?
“Humans have already broken the earth’s climate. Temperatures are rising, sea level is surging, ice is disappearing, and heat waves, storms, droughts, floods, and wildfires are an ever-worsening scourge on the world. Greenhouse gas emissions are causing all of this. And unless they’re eliminated promptly by radical changes to society and its energy systems, “The Science” says Earth is doomed. [Emphasis his.]”
Well . . . not quite. Yes, it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it. But beyond that—to paraphrase the classic movie The Princess Bride: “I do not think ‘The Science’ says what you think it says.”
Unsettled is broken down into two parts, Part I, “The Science,” the core of the book, and Part II, The Response.
What We Know about Climate
Part I consists of eleven chapters, the first two of which discuss what we know about how the climate works (hint: it’s less than you’ve been led to believe), and the extent to which humans are contributing to climate change (also less than you might believe based on reading the headlines of daily newspapers).
The third chapter discusses how climate models have been developed and the ways in which their results, rather than being definitive and trustworthy, are “muddled,” in Koonin’s words,. They often contradict one another and often fail to match observed changes in temperature and climate. It’s not that models are bad, it’s just that they are necessarily incomplete because of the huge gaps in humanity’s knowledge of all the factors that affect climate, how they interact, and how they can be modeled.
This chapter also begins to examine the extent to which good climate research is suppressed or misrepresented by prominent research bodies, some individual scientists, the press, environmental lobbyists, and politicians, in order to persuade the public we face a climate crisis that is beyond questioning. This misrepresentation is a running theme throughout Unsettled, which Koonin exposes by discussing exchanges he has had with fellow scientists and by comparing the texts of various reports. These tend to display a great deal of uncertainty, but their summaries (which are all that are discussed by the media, lobbyists, and politicians) reveal none of the myriad uncertainties and evident gaps in knowledge found in the body of the reports Koonin says the many fundamental misrepresentations of the science he sees daily have left him “surprised,” shaken,” and “dismayed.”
Chapters Five through Nine examine various negative impacts purportedly being caused or exacerbated by human-caused climate change. This entire set of chapters is fairly summed up by the title of Chapter Nine, “Apocalypses That Ain’t.” Koonin examines the oft-made claims that present temperatures are unusual and deadly, that extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires, are getting worse, and that weather-related deaths are increasing. Koonin shows that none of these claims is based on solid evidence. In short, they are speculation not backed by fact.
Koonin’s detailed evidence-filled examination of these claims finds, in his words:
- The late[st] generation of models is actually more uncertain than the earlier one[s]. So here is a real surprise: even as the models became more sophisticated—including finer grids, fancier subgrid parameterizations . . . the uncertainty increased.…
- 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.
Regular readers of my Climate Change Weekly are likely well aware of these facts, but I expect his discussion will be a real eye-opener for most readers of the book, since so many people have bought into alarmists’ apocalyptic climate lies.
Who “Broke” Climate Science?
The last two chapters of Section One examine how, why, and who “broke” climate science, and then discusses how it, along with how it is represented and reported, can be improved (if not fixed) . For me personally, these chapters are, in many ways, the most disturbing and interesting of the book, because they detail the ways in which the scientific enterprise itself is being perverted to the detriment of both science and wise political decision making. Koonin writes:
As a scientist, I’m disappointed that so many individuals and organizations in the scientific community are demonstrably misrepresenting the science in an effort to persuade rather than inform. But you also should be concerned as a citizen. In a democracy, voters will ultimately decide how society responds to a changing climate. Major decisions made without full knowledge of what the science says (and doesn’t say) or, even worse, on the basis of misinformation, are much less likely to lead to positive outcomes.
Science is a process, a method of discovering new truths and explaining currently unexplained or badly understood phenomena. As Koonin’s book explores in detail, many of those involved in the field climate research and reporting have abandoned “science,” the process of discovering data, evidence and assembling facts, for “The Science,” aimed at persuading people to believe something that is not true for normative or political reasons. The Science relies on alarmists’ climate rhetoric to generate fear and motivate action rather than presenting a clear, transparent understanding of what is settled and what remains unsettled concerning the changing climate, human influences on it, what impacts these changes might have, and how we can reasonably respond.
Can It be Fixed?
To improve both scientists’ and the lay public’s understanding of climate knowledge, Koonin has suggested instigating a “Red Team/Blue Team” exercise to examine, debate, and discuss the weak spots in various government climate reports before they are finalized to ensure that they are well grounded in solid science, and transparent. This would make clear what is known and unknown about climate. Red Team/Blue Team exercises are well established as a way of uncovering errors, often used to improve strategic decision-making within government and industry. They are, at their core, the scientific method of exploration and debate in action.
Rather than being embraced by his fellow scientists, this idea has been ignorerd or met with hostility. The political reaction was even viler.
Prominent Democratic senators Markey, Schatz, Smith, Blumenthal, Shaheen, Booker, Stabenow, Klobuchar, Hassan, and Feinstein, among others, tried to literally outlaw government- backed scientific debate about what is known and unknown about climate change. They proposed to “prohibit the use of funds to Federal agencies to establish a panel, task force, advisory committee, or other effort to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, and for other purposes.” You read that right. Many politicians who regularly demand people “follow the science” on climate change, literally tried to bar the use of the scientific method to discover what the climate science actually says. In short, the politicians and many scientific academies, are in effect saying “We have the truth, no further debate is to be allowed.
Responding to this reaction, Koonin writes:
“I confess to being shocked—an “effort to challenge the scientific consensus” could easily include many climate science research studies, and enshrining a certain scientific viewpoint as an inviolable consensus is hardly the role of government (at least in a democracy). And as a student of history, I found the bill uncomfortably reminiscent of a 1546 decree by the Council of Trent that attempted to suppress challenges to Church doctrine.”
Koonin lists a number of fallacies commonly used in the climate change discussion that should raise a red flags for anyone trying to get at the truth and shape sound policy,. These include calling anyone the pejorative term “denier”’ appealing to a so-called consensus; confusing weather and climate; omitting numbers; and relying on climate model projections in the face of measured data showing something different.
In Part II of Unsettled, “The Response,” Koonin explores why efforts to sharply curtail fossil fuel use by political diktat is, in the short-term, likely to fail and, in the process, produce outcomes as bad as or worse than the harms they are meant to prevent. Koonin suggests the wisest response to climate change, the response that is most likely to mitigate any harms while generating beneficial outcomes, is flexible adaptation. This is the response societies have embraced in the past to changing climate and socio-political conditions. As a backup plan, Koonin suggests that science closely examine and consider various geoengineering responses.
If I have a criticism of Koonin’s book, it is that he seems to uncritically embrace the idea that big government funding of science is both critical and necessary. I think the evidence suggests government funding of science is at the heart of what is wrong with climate (and much other) research. Government dollars all too often dictate the conclusions to be reached before the effort at true understanding of a problem is even attempted. Research dollars are directed to researchers who already embrace the conclusion, which also happens to promote their influence and career advancement.
In the second half of his farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presciently warned of the corruption of the scientific process by research becoming increasingly dependent on federal funding for support. He warned equally of the dangers of the government becoming corrupted when a federally funded scientific elite is allowed to pronounce scientific decrees from on high., Sadly, this portion of Eisenhower’s address is little remembered.
The dangers of federal science funding have were well, if briefly, catalogued in a white paper from the Cato Institute, titled “Is the Government Buying Science or Support? A Framework Analysis of Federal Funding‐induced Biases.”
In the end, Koonin definitively shows much more is unsettled than is settled in climate science, economics, and policy. Dr. Koonin’s book deserves the praise it is receiving and merits wide readership. If it gets the broad audience it deserves, there will be one more thing unsettled: the narrative that we face a climate crisis so certain and so dire that it can be solved only by a radical government-directed reshaping of the economy, people’s personal lives, and consumption patterns.
Details: Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, by Steven E. Koonin (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2021).
Cloud image by Michelleraponi of Pixabay.
 Eisenhower’s words: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. . . . Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”