Climate Science Is ‘Unsettled,’ Says Obama Science Director

Published May 6, 2021

As I write, in just over 12 hours since its official launch on May 4, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, by physicist Steven E. Koonin, Ph.D., is number 15 on Amazon’s list of top-selling nonfiction books, the top-selling book on Amazon Kindle in Weather and Climatology, and the second-bestselling book in 21st Century World History. By the time this review reaches readers, Unsettled might well be the bestselling book in all three subcategories, crack the top 10 in the nonfiction category, and be among the top 100 in sales across all categories.

Of the multiple books and documentaries poking holes in the apocalyptic climate alarm narrative released in the past year, Unsettled may be the most critical of all, because of who its author is.

Koonin was involved in the development of the early computer models used in science and wrote one of the first books describing how computer models were developed, how they function, and their strengths and limits when used in science. The book is still widely used in college classrooms today. Koonin has written more than 200 academic papers and articles, which have been cited more than 14,000 times, according to Google Scholar.

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. Koonin’s portfolio included the government’s climate research program, and Koonin was the lead author of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Strategic Plan (2011).

Koonin is the ultimate climate insider. Climate hypers cannot plausibly portray him as fringe scientist working outside the mainstream or legitimately label him a “climate denier.”

Koonin’s research indicates the climate is changing and humans have influenced some of that change. Almost everything else people have been led to believe about climate change is unsettled, reports Koonin.

The author begins by describing what he refers to as “The Science”—you know, the thing everyone is supposed to be following:

‘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 in original.]

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 presented in two parts: “The Science” and “The Response.”

“The Science” comprises eleven chapters. The first two discuss what we know about how the climate works (hint: its less than you’ve been led to believe), and the extent to which humans are contributing to climate change (also less than you might think). The third chapter discusses how climate models have been developed and the ways in which their results are “muddled,” in Koonin’s words, instead of being definitive and trustworthy. Koonin shows models often contradict one another and fail to match observed changes in temperature and climate. This chapter also begins the book’s examination of how various interested parties suppress and misrepresent good climate research in order to persuade the public we face a climate crisis. This latter point is a running theme Koonin highlights by citing specific examples throughout the book.

Chapters Five through Nine examine various negative effects purportedly being caused or exacerbated by human-caused climate change. This set of chapters is fairly summed up by the title of Chapter Nine: “Apocalypses That Ain’t.” Among the findings Koonin discloses are:

  • The late[st] generation of models is actually more uncertain than the earlier one[s].
  • 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 Climate Change Weekly are likely aware of these facts already, but they will be real eye-openers for most readers of Koonin’s book.

The last two chapters of section one examine who “broke” climate science, and how and why, and then discuss how the science, along with how it is represented and reported, can be improved.

For me personally, these chapters are in many ways the most disturbing and interesting of the book, because they detail the ways by which the scientific enterprise itself is being perverted, to the detriment of both science and political decision making.

Science is a process, a method of discovering new truths and explaining currently unexplained or poorly understood phenomena. As Koonin’s book shows in detail, many of those involved in climate research and reporting have abandoned science—the process of discovering data and evidence and assembling facts—for “The Science,” a massive effort to persuade people to believe something that is not true, for normative or political reasons.

Koonin’s suggestion that the federal government institute a “Red Team/Blue Team” exercise to examine and discuss the weak spots in various government climate reports before they are published has been met with hostility by many politically connected scientists and powerful government leaders.

Prominent Democrat senators such as Edward Markey (MA), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Cory Booker (NJ), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Diane Feinstein (CA) have supported legislation to outlaw scientific debate about what is known and unknown about climate change by “prohibit[ing] 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. Politicians who regularly demand people “follow the science” on climate change have tried to ban the use of the scientific method to discover what climate science tells us.

Of this, Koonin writes,

I confess to being shocked. … [E]nshrining 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.

In section two of Unsettled, “The Response,” Koonin explores why political diktats to curtail fossil fuel use sharply are likely to fail and 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 most likely to mitigate any harms while generating beneficial outcomes, is something societies have historically embraced in response to changing climate and sociopolitical conditions: flexible adaptation.

Koonin definitively shows that much more is unsettled than is settled in climate science, economics, and policy. Koonin’s book deserves the praise it is receiving, and it merits wide readership. If it gets the audience it deserves, there will be one more thing unsettled: the narrative that we face a climate crisis so certain and so dire that only a radical government-controlled reshaping of the economy, people’s personal lives, and consumption patterns can solve it.




New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains why climate models’ representations of temperatures in the tropical troposphere differ so badly from those measured by satellites and other temperature monitoring devices. The research indicates the difference between the models’ simulations of temperatures and actual temperatures is caused by the models’ failure to account for large, natural oceanic trends.

“A long-standing discrepancy exists between general circulation models (GCMs) and satellite observations: The multimodel mean temperature of the midtroposphere (TMT) in the tropics warms at approximately twice the rate of observations,” the authors write.

The researchers found a single subset of model simulations produce TMT trends within the range of temperatures recorded by satellite observations. This subset of small tropical TMT trends results from “subdued sea-surface warming in the tropical central and eastern Pacific,” which matches observed sea-surface temperature trends. Tropospheric temperatures are dominated by natural multidecadal variability, in particular large-scale multidecadal shifts in Pacific Ocean circulation patterns, the researchers conclude.

It seems the newest generation of general circulation models, the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6), which are being used to generate the next set of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, still haven’t resolved the discrepancy between model temperature projections and measured temperatures. Only 13 percent of the CMIP6 model realizations have tropical TMT trends within the observed trend range, the paper reports. Natural variability explains the differences between the models and reality, the scientists write:

These simulations are from models with both small and large climate sensitivity values, illustrating that the magnitude of tropical tropospheric warming is not solely a function of climate sensitivity. For global averages, one-quarter of model simulations exhibit TMT trends in accord with observations. Our results indicate that even on 40-y timescales, natural climate variability is important to consider when comparing observed and simulated tropospheric warming and is sufficiently large to explain TMT trend differences between models and satellite data.

If this research is correct, climate models still have a long way to go before their projections of future climate trends should be trusted. A better understanding and incorporation of natural forcing factors into models, instead of human greenhouse gas emissions, is what is needed to make that happen.

SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


An investigative report published in The Conversation shows sinking land, not rapidly rising seas, is responsible for the steep increase in sea levels experienced in many large coastal cities when compared to sea level rise measured at less-developed coastal areas.

“Subsidence can threaten flooding in low-lying coastal areas, much more so than rising sea levels, yet scientists are only just realizing the global implications of the threat with respect to coastal cities,” reports The Conversation. “In fact, while the average coastal area experiences relative sea level rise of less than 3 mm per year, the average coastal resident experiences a rise of around 8mm to 10mm per year. This is because so many people live in deltas and especially cities on deltas that are subsiding.”

The Conversation reports parts of Tokyo sank by four meters during the twentieth century, and Bangkok, New Orleans, and Shanghai each experienced two meters or more of sinking from 1900 to 2000. Ongoing rapid land subsidence is forcing Indonesia’s government to consider moving the nation’s capital from coastal Jakarta to a purpose-built city inland on the island of Borneo. Jakarta is situated on a low-lying coastal area, and groundwater withdrawals undertaken to slake the thirst of its 10 million residents caused the city to sink by more than three meters between 1947 and 2010. Even though the government built new sea walls, much of the city is still sinking by 10 cm or more each year, because of continuing water withdrawals.

If we want to prevent or minimize harm from rising seas in coastal areas, we must take land subsidence as seriously or more than slowing greenhouse gas emissions, the article concludes.

SOURCES: The Conversation

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