The only climate change book you need to read

Say the phrase "climate change" to a certain class of generally well-educated and well-placed people, and you will hear how it is the most significant existential threat to humanity, how we should all go around despairing that we as a world community are not doing enough to avert the climate apocalypse that is coming, and that we face either the alternative of doom for humanity or a radical change in political, social, and economic arrangements to avert it. If you think I'm kidding, take a look at publications like the New York Times or The New Yorker or indeed, most mainstream media.

I've written here on climate change occasionally, but by and large I have taken an agnostic position on it. A wise teacher I know tells his students that worrying a lot about something you can't personally do anything about is a waste of time, and that's why I haven't expended a lot of mental energy on the topic. But I did come across a reference not too long ago to a book by Steven E. Koonin entitled Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters. Having read the book, I'm now convinced that my attitude toward climate change is the right one, and I now have one of the best-placed persons in the world to back me up.

I can't imagine a better-qualified person to write this book. Koonin's professional career began at Caltech, where he was a professor of theoretical physics, then vice president and provost for several years. He left academia to become chief scientist for the international energy company BP, and then went into government and was President Obama's Undersecretary for Science in the US Department of Energy. He now holds positions at New York University. So he is a product of academia, industry, and government, and has seen all three from the inside as a leader and participant.

Perhaps it is his early training as a physicist that makes him cut through the sound bites, breathless stories about polar bears, and even the periodic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and go straight to the peer-reviewed, observation-based data and ask the question, "How sure are we that this alleged climate catastrophe is going to happen?" The answer suitable for a 1000-word column is, "Not sure enough to turn the world upside down." Koonin has never met a piece of hype he couldn't see through to get to the raw data that it was allegedly based on.

The first part of the book examines the accuracy, consistency, and meanings of the climate data on which the IPCC and other climate-change reports are based. Take rising sea levels, for example, which have inspired pictures of the Statue of Liberty wading in the Atlantic up to her waist. One overarching point he makes in this section is that climate is something that can't be determined without taking long-term averages, ideally over periods of 20 to 30 years or more, while weather is what's going on outside your window right now. For one thing, global sea level has varied as much as 100 meters (that's about 330 feet) over the last half million years, falling as ice ages take up water and rising as they end. We're currently right at the end of the last melting period, as it turns out. A plot of the last 24,000 years shows a rise of about 120 meters followed by a nearly flat period over the last 5,000 years—in other words, during the historic era. The bottom line here is that it's much too early to tell if the rise in carbon-dioxide levels due to fossil-fuel use is going to make much of a difference in the average sea level. The true climatological answer won't be known in any of our lifetimes.

And it's basically the same or worse for any of the other climate tragedies that have become boogeymen to scare children with over the last twenty years or so. The worst aspect of the distortions and false terrors concerns violent weather: hurricanes, tornadoes, and so on. By two different measures, the frequency of tornadoes in the U. S. is probably going down, not up, although with modern Doppler radars it is easier to detect them than it used to be. And the annual fluctuations in something called the "power dissipation index" in the North Atlantic, which is correlated with hurricanes, are bigger than any so-called upward trend.

After showing how the actual data reveal that the IPCC, governments, and journalists have hyped climate change with cherry-picking, tendentious interpretations, and sometimes outright lies, he examines why this whole mess has come about. He concludes it is a combination of publish-or-perish pressure on scientists, desire for click-bait headlines on the part of the media, and a public that is poorly informed on even basic procedures of science. The "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of yellow journalism has only gotten worse via the Internet and its penchant for 280-character summaries of topics that deserve a book like this one.

Although Koonin doesn't mention the following factor, I think a contributing aspect to the climate-change hype is the gradual secularization of Western culture. Modern science arose from the Christian conviction that the universe was designed by an intelligent Being and was therefore capable of being figured out, because it follows logical rules. If most people no longer hold that view, it is an open question as to how long they will insist on looking at the data themselves, as Koonin does, versus being swept up in a public-relations fantasy that is based on greed for power and wealth rather than disinterested respect for knowledge.

I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the so-called "climate change deniers" (which does not include Koonin) have a Christian background. Yes, there are Christian ignoramuses too, but just because an idiot takes a certain view of a thing doesn't mean the view itself is wrong.

Before you listen to another word on climate change, read Koonin's book. You'll never think about it the same way again.

This article has been republished from the author's blog, Engineering Ethics.


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