Book ‘Unsettled’ by Steven E. Koonin

PDF excerpt 'Unsettled' by Steven E. Koonin
What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters
“Surging sea levels are inundating the coasts.” “Hurricanes and tornadoes are becoming fiercer and more frequent.” “Climate change will be an economic disaster.” You’ve heard all this presented as fact. But according to science,  all of these statements are profoundly misleading. When it comes to climate change, the media, politicians, and other prominent voices have declared that “the science is settled.” In reality, the long game of telephone from research to reports to the popular media is corrupted by misunderstanding and misinformation. Core questions—about the way the climate is responding to our influence, and what the impacts will be--remain largely unanswered...
Publisher: BenBella Books (May 4, 2021)  Pages: 240 pages  ISBN-10: 1950665798  ISBN-13: 978-1950665792  ASIN: B08JQKQGD5

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About the Author: Dr. Steven E. Koonin is a leader in science policy in the United States. He served as Undersecretary for Science in the US Department of Energy under President Obama, where he was the lead author of the Department’s Strategic Plan and the inaugural Quadrennial Technology Review (2011). With more than 200 peer-reviewed papers in the fields of physics and astrophysics, scientific computation, energy technology and policy, and climate science, Dr. Koonin was a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, also serving as Caltech’s Vice President and Provost for almost a decade. He is currently a University Professor at New York University, with appointments in the Stern School of Business, the Tandon School of Engineering, and the Department of Physics. Dr. Koonin’s memberships include US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the JASON group of scientists who solve technical problems for the US government. Since 2014, he has been a trustee of the Institute for Defense Analyses and chaired the National Academies’ Divisional Committee for Engineering and Physical Sciences from 2014-2019. He is currently an independent governor of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and has served in similar roles for the Los Alamos, Sandia, Brookhaven, and Argonne National Laboratories.

Book excerpt

For my many mentors,
who taught me the importance of scientific integrity.


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.

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.”

For example, both the research literature and government reports that summarize and assess the state of climate science say clearly that heat waves in the US are now no more common than they were in 1900, and that the warmest temperatures in the US have not risen in the past fifty years. When I tell people this, most are incredulous. Some gasp. And some get downright hostile.

But these are almost certainly not the only climate facts you haven’t heard. Here are three more that might surprise you, drawn directly from recent published research or the latest assessments of climate science published by the US government and the UN:

  • 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.

So what gives? If you’re like most people, after the surprise wears off, you’ll wonder why you’re surprised. Why haven’t you heard these facts before? Why don’t they line up with the narrative—now almost a meme—that we’ve already broken the climate and face certain doom unless we change our ways?

Most of the disconnect comes from the long game of telephone that starts with the research literature and runs through the assessment reports to the summaries of the assessment reports and on to the media coverage. There are abundant opportunities to get things wrong—both accidentally and on purpose—as the information goes through filter after filter to be packaged for various audiences. The public gets their climate information almost exclusively from the media; very few people actually read the assessment summaries, let alone the reports and research papers themselves. That’s perfectly understandable—the data and analyses are nearly impenetrable for non-experts, and the writing is not exactly grip-ping. As a result, most people don’t get the whole story.

But don’t feel bad. It’s not only the public that’s ill informed about what the science says about climate. Policymakers, too, have to rely on information that’s been put through several different wringers by the time it gets to them. Because most government officials—and others involved in climate policy for the public and private sectors—are not themselves scientists, it’s up to scientists to make sure that non-scientists making key policy decisions get an accurate, complete, and transparent picture of what’s known (and unknown) about the changing climate, one undistorted by “agenda” or “narrative!’ Unfortunately, getting that story straight isn’t as easy as it sounds.

I should know. That used to be my job.


I’m a scientist—I work to understand the world through measurements and observations, and then to communicate clearly both the excitement and the implications of that understanding. Early in my career, I had great fun doing this for esoteric phenomena in the realm of atoms and nuclei using high-performance computer modeling (which is also an important tool for much of climate science). But beginning in 2004, I spent about a decade turning those same methods to the subject of climate and its implications for energy technologies. I did this first as chief scientist for the oil company BP, where I focused on advancing renewable energy, and then as undersecretary for science in the Obama administration’s Department of Energy, where I helped guide the government’s investments in energy technologies and climate science. I found great satisfaction in these roles, helping to define and catalyze actions that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the agreed-upon imperative that would “save the planet.”

But then the doubts began. In late 2013 I was asked by the American Physical Society—the professional organization of the country’s physicists—to lead an update of its public statement on climate. As part of that effort, in January 2014 I convened a workshop with a specific objective—to “stress test” the state of climate science. In ordinary terms, that meant analyzing, critiquing, and summarizing humanity’s accumulated knowledge about the past, present, and future of the earth’s climate. Six leading climate experts and six leading physicists, myself included, spent a day scrutinizing exactly what we know about the climate system and how confidently we can project its future. To focus the conversation, we physicists had spent the prior two months preparing a framing document based on the UN assessment report that had just been released. We posed some specific and crucial questions along the lines of: Where is the data poor or the assumptions weakly supported—and does that matter? How reliable are the models that we use to describe the past and project the future? Many who’ve read the workshop transcript were struck by how successfully—and unusually—it brought out the certainties and uncertainties of the science at that time!

For my part, I came away from the APS workshop not only surprised, but shaken by the realization that climate science was far less mature than I had supposed. Here’s what I discovered:

  • Humans exert a growing, but physically small, warming influence on the climate. The deficiencies of climate data challenge our ability to untangle the response to human influences from poorly understood natural changes.
  • The results from the multitude of climate models disagree with, or even contradict, each other and many kinds of observations. A vague “expert judgment” was sometimes applied to adjust model results and obfuscate shortcomings.
  • Government and UN press releases and summaries do not accurately reflect the reports themselves. There was a consensus at the meeting on some important issues, but not at all the strong consensus the media promulgates. Distinguished climate experts (including report authors themselves) are embarrassed by some media portrayals of the science. This was somewhat shocking.
  • In short, the science is insufficient to make useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it.

Why were these crucial deficiencies such a revelation to me and others? As a scientist, I felt the scientific community was letting the public down by not telling the whole truth plainly. And as a citizen, I was concerned that the public and political debates were being misinformed. So I began to speak out, most publicly through a two-thousand-word “Saturday Essay” published in the Wall Street Journal that September. In it, I outlined some of the uncertainties in climate science and argued that ignoring them could hinder our ability to understand and respond to a changing climate:

Policy makers and the public may wish for the comfort of certainty in their climate science. But I fear that rigidly promulgating the idea that climate science is “settled” (or is a “hoax”) demeans and chills the scientific enterprise, retarding its progress in these important matters. Uncertainty is a prime mover and motivator of science and must be faced head-on.

That piece drew thousands of online comments, the great majority of them supportive. My frankness about the state of climate science was less popular in the scientific community, however. As the chair of a highly respected university earth sciences department told me privately, “I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, but I don’t dare say that in public.”

Many scientific colleagues, some of them my friends for decades, were outraged that I’d highlight problems with The Science and thus, as one of them said, “give ammunition to the deniers.” Another said it would have been okay to publish my essay in some obscure scientific journal but reproached me for doing so in a forum with so many readers. And a prominent defender of the idea that The Science is settled enough published a response to my Op-Ed that began by calling for New York University to reconsider my employment, went on to misrepresent many of the things I had written, but then, bafflingly, acknowledged that most of the uncertain-ties I’d mentioned were well known and much discussed among experts.’ It seems that by highlighting those uncertainties so plainly and publicly, I had inadvertently broken some code of silence, like the Mafia’s omerta.

More than six years of study since the APS workshop have left me increasingly dismayed at the public discussions of climate and energy. Climate alarmism has come to dominate US politics, especially among Democrats, where I have otherwise long felt most comfortable politically. The 2020 Democratic presidential primary saw each candidate trying to outdo the other with over-the-top statements about “climate emergency” and “climate crisis” increasingly divorced from the science. The election run-up also witnessed increasingly sweeping policy proposals like the Green New Deal that would “fight climate change” with government interventions and subsidies. Not surprisingly, the Biden administration has made climate and energy a major priority, with the appointment of former secretary of state John Kerry as climate envoy and proposed spending of almost two trillion dollars to fight this “existential threat to humanity.”

While I have no informed opinions on the fiscal and policy merits of proposals like the Green New Deal—I am a physicist, not an economist—I do know that any policy should be based upon what the science actually says about the changing climate. Trillion-dollar decisions about reducing human influences on the climate are, in the end, about values: risk tolerance, intergenerational and geographical equities, and a balance among economic development, environmental impact, and energy cost, avail-ability, and reliability. But they must be informed by an accurate under-standing of scientific certainties and uncertainties.

This book is an attempt to set us on the road to that understanding. And I intend to do it the only way that a scientist knows how: with documented facts, almost all drawn from the most up-to-date official assessments or quality research literature, presented in their proper context. As the late representative John Lewis, the conscience of Congress, said in his speech about the first impeachment of President Trumps.

When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, do something.

My late Caltech colleague Richard Feynman was one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, renowned for both the creativity and importance of his research (including Nobel Prize-winning work on quantum electrodynamics). Irreverence, showmanship, and the ability to tell a good story were also part of what made him a legend. He was a character, one with extraordinary intellectual substance.

I was one of many aspiring physicists attracted to Caltech by Feynman’s presence. Before I arrived in the fall of 1968, I had already read his wonderful “red book” series of physics lectures cover to cover multiple times. My four undergraduate years at Caltech were lived pretty much as those depicted in The Big Bang Theory, except without the laugh track. The highlights included some one-on-one conversations with Feynman (he loved interacting with young scientists), as well as a memorable session playing bongo drums with the great man himself during my first year.

Scientific integrity is central to the Caltech ethos. Its importance is impressed upon new students from their first day on campus, and Feynman’s absolute intellectual honesty demonstrated for students and faculty alike what this means for a working scientist. At the 1974 Caltech commencement, he gave a now famous address titled “Cargo Cult Science.” Its topic was the rigor scientists must adopt to avoid fooling not only them-selves, but also others:

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson Oil doesn’t soak through food. Well, that’s true. It’s not dishonest; but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will—including Wesson Oil. So it’s the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with.

Much of the public portrayal of climate science suffers from Feynman’s Wesson Oil problem—in an effort to persuade rather than inform, the information presented withholds either essential context or what doesn’t “fit.” (And coincidentally, as with cooking oil, it’s mostly a matter of temperature.)

Most of the climate researchers I’ve met pursue their work with the objectivity and rigor that are the norm in every field of science. But because the potential impact of a changing climate strikes at human existence itself, the issue understandably engenders passion and emotion. Some people argue that there’s no harm in a bit of misinformation if it helps “save the planet,” and indeed, when phrases like this (however unwarranted or inaccurate) are being used to describe the stakes, perhaps it isn’t surprising that some climate scientists are less than objective when talking to the public. The late Stephen Schneider, a prominent climate researcher, said it explicitly as early as 1989:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

Many others have made similar points, or commented on the dark side of Schneider’s supposed “double bind.” For example:

  • “It doesn’t matter what is true, it only matters what people believe is true.”
  • “We’ve got to ride this global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy.”
  • “Some colleagues who share some of my doubts argue that the only way to get our society to change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe, and that therefore it is all right and even necessary for scientists to exaggerate. They tell me that my belief in open and honest assessment is naïve.”

And so the media is filled with scary climate predictions. Here are a few old enough to have been proven wrong:

  • “[Inaction will cause] . . . by the turn of the century [z000], an ecological catastrophe which will witness devastation as complete, as irreversible as any nuclear holocaust.”
  • “[Within a few years] winter snowfall [in the UK] will become a very rare and exciting event. Children just aren’t going to know what snow is.”
  • “European cities will be plunged beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a Siberian climate by 2020.”

Although Schneider later spent many words trying to explain his statement about the “double ethical bind,” I believe the underlying premise is dangerously wrong. There should be no question about “what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” It is the height of hubris for a scientist even to consider deliberately misinforming policy discussions in service of what they believe to be ethical. This would seem obvious in other contexts: imagine the outcry if it were discovered that scientists were misrepresenting data on birth control because of their religious beliefs, for instance.

Philip Handler, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, identified the problem in a 198o editorial that resonates eerily four decades later:

Difficulty arises in the scientific community from confusion of the role of scientist qua scientist with that of scientist as citizen, confusion of the ethical code of the scientist with the obligation of the citizen, blurring the distinction between intrinsically scientific and intrinsically political questions. When scientists fail to recognize these boundaries, their own ideological beliefs, usually unspoken, easily becloud seemingly scientific debate.

With scientists’ unique role comes a special responsibility. We’re the only people who can bring objective science to the discussion, and that is our overriding ethical obligation. Like judges, we’re obligated to put personal feelings aside as we do our job. When we fail to do this, we usurp the public’s right to make informed choices and undermine their confidence in the entire scientific enterprise. There’s nothing at all wrong with scientists as activists, but activism masquerading as The Science is pernicious.

We scientists shouldn’t be selling cooking oil.