With the Biden administration proposing to spend trillions of dollars on climate change, a sober assessment of the claims supporting this spending is long overdue.
There is nothing sober about the rhetoric supporting these claims. In their political campaigns of 2020, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York both warned of a climate catastrophe by 2030 if these trillions were not spent. Such apocalyptic warnings have a rich history. In 1982, Mostafa Tobal, the then-director of the U.N. Environment Program, prophesied that inaction on climate change will cause “by the turn of the century (2000), an ecological catastrophe which will witness devastation as irreversible as any nuclear holocaust.”
Today a culture of consensus has built up over these warnings to the point where it has become a political religion. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls climate change “an existential threat.” President Biden refers to it as a “climate emergency.” His climate change adviser, former Secretary of State John Kerry, accuses any doubter of these claims to be members of “the flat earth society.” President Biden sums this up by asserting that “climate change is real” because “I believe in The Science.” Any questioning of this new religion invites an inquisition of ridicule.
For all this talk of catastrophe and holocaust, it should be noted that the planet Earth is one tough planetary rock. Over the eons of its existence, it has tolerated a range of average temperatures from 33 degrees to 73 degrees Fahrenheit. In our 21st century, the average global temperature is a temperate 54 degrees. Correspondingly, sea levels have varied by hundreds of feet, and continents have shifted all over the Earth’s surface.
Fortunately, in looking for some anchor of sobriety, Steven Koonin has just published a major challenge to this religion in his new book, Unsettled? (2021). His main point is that President Biden’s Science, with a capital S, is not real small s science — and that the science on climate change remains unsettled.
Koonin’s scientific credentials are impeccable. A former professor of physics at Cal Tech, with 200 published papers, he is a Democrat and one of President Obama’s principal advisers on climate change. His book displays 72 charts and tables that lay out his case that the claims of climate change are overstated.
At the outset, he concedes that global temperatures appear to be warming, some of it clearly due to manmade causes — and it is a good idea to work at mitigating this warming. Whether countering this warming requires such massive expenditures is what he thinks cannot yet be supported by the “lower-case s” science.
On the claim of global warning itself, though there is an upward temperature trend, it is not without hiccups, and is over too short a period for confident generalizations. From the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, there was very little rise in global temperatures until the 1930s. In fact, from 1940-70, there was a drop in global temperatures. They pushed back up from the 1980s to 2000. But in the first decade of this century, there was a pause. Since then, the global temperature rise has resumed.
This sporadic temperature rise has yet to result in any significant rise in global sea levels. Despite some glacier melt in Greenland and Antarctica over the past 150 years, the total rise in global sea levels has only been 8 inches. Though 3 of these inches has occurred from 1993 to 2010, another 3-inch rise took place from 1920-50. On both temperatures and sea levels, Koonin has observed a pattern of 60- to-80-year up-and-down cycles, quite apart from the levels of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.
Whenever there is a major weather event, National Public Radio routinely attributes it to climate change. In a chapter laden with tables on hurricanes, tornados, droughts, wildfires and floods, Koonin makes clear that any relationship between climate change and extremes of weather simply has not been scientifically established.
One of the key reasons for this is that climate models are not yet sophisticated enough to pick up all the details necessary to accurately model climate. Computer modeling is a particular area of Koonin’s academic research. He shows that the insufficiency of the data entered into computer simulation “grid boxes” forces the modelers to make assumptions — guesses — about what is missing and even not understood — and that will vary from one modeler to another. His point is that these models, therefore, cannot be fully trusted. In the confession of one such modeler: “It is a real challenge to model what we don’t understand.”
Before we spend trillions of dollars on climate change, we need to recognize that real science is not a religion of absolute, settled truths. Rather, it is a method of investigation that has been developed to understand the ever-changing world in which we live. On the question of climate change, and what to do about it, we need a lot more investigation.