Steven Koonin: Climate science is far from ‘settled’

By Ken Wilson, P.Eng.(ret)

Dr. Steven Koonin, an American theoretical physicist and author of Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why it Matters, was invited to give the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s 2021 Annual Lecture in England last November. The 43-minute lecture is available on YouTube here.

The video is worth watching by anyone interested in the issues surrounding global warming. I am sure most people who watch the first few minutes of the video will want to see all of it.

Koonin’s book Unsettled reviews documents in the 2021 release of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report 6 (AR6).

The IPCC is spending big money to fund its computer-modeling group and support the development of green energy technology. A small group of scientists in Working Group 1 (WG1) concentrate on tracking long-term weather records and changes in climate. Koonin’s book primarily deals with the findings of this subgroup of WG1 scientists.

Koonin is well-qualified to understand and comment on the IPCC’s findings. As an undergraduate at Cal Tech he studied under physicist Richard Feynman. After getting his PhD in Theoretical Physics at MIT, he returned to Cal Tech to become a colleague of Feynman. He is the author of the classic 1985 textbook Computational Physics, which introduced the methodology for building computer models of complex physical systems. 

In 2005, he became the Lead Scientist at British Petroleum (BP) tasked with finding more effective ways to make the transition to green energy. In 2009, he was appointed Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy under president Obama, where his portfolio included the climate-research program and energy-technology strategy. He was the lead author of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Strategic Plan (2011).

In 2014, at the behest of the American Physical Society, Dr. Koonin 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. The workshop was attended by six leading climate experts and six leading physicists, including Koonin.

Up until that time, Koonin had assumed that the statements of the IPCC’s modeling group could be relied upon as the most authoritative and reliable opinion on the state of knowledge of climate science at that time. However, as he notes in the Introduction to his book:

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.

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why it Matters. Dallas: Ben Bella Books, 2021, p 4

Koonin’s book is essential reading for those who believe in a realistic, fact-based approach to the issue of climate change.

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