What Climate Science Actually Tells Us
Physicist and former Undersecretary for Science, Dr. Steven Koonin, talks about his new book, 'Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters'
This week, I had Dr. Steven E. Koonin on the podcast to discuss his new book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dr. Koonin is an NYU professor who formerly served as the Department of Energy’s Undersecretary for Science during the Obama administration.
The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:
Matt: Tell us about your book.
Dr. Koonin: The fundamental point of the book is that this science that people keep invoking in political and popular discussions about climate is much distorted and discordant with what the scientific reports actually say. I like to steal a line from The Princess Bride and say, “the science doesn't mean what you think it means.” And, in fact, there are many things in the popular perception that are just not so. And they're not in the official reports at all—consensus science. But somehow, through media and other people distorting or corrupting the message. have become common beliefs. For example, there's no detectable trend in hurricanes over the last 100 years. Nevertheless, anytime there's a big hurricane, the media say, “climate change!” Similarly, there's no trend in heat waves in the US over the last 60 years, and the current incidence of heat waves—how often they occur—is about the same as it was in 1900. Greenland isn’t melting any faster today than it was 80 years ago. So there are lots of ups and downs in the climate, and we confuse weather with climate very often.
Matt: My understanding is that the temperature increased by like a degree in the first part of the 20th century, then it actually decreased for a couple of decades, and now it is back up again; however, what we don't know is if this is anthropogenic, meaning if it is a result of humans, because there have been other times throughout history where it was hotter or colder.
Dr. Koonin: Right. We have been on a warming trend for the last 400 years, as we came out with the Little Ice Age [but the global temperature] went down from about 1940 to 1970, even as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate. This suggests that there are other forces at play. And a big challenge in climate science is disentangling the response to human influences from that natural variability.
Matt: Talk about the American Physical Society and the public statement. you were involved in re-crafting.
Dr. Koonin: Sure, so the American Physical Society is the professional society of physicists. It's got about 50,000 members around the world, mostly American, but many people from abroad as well. And in, I think, 2007, they put out a statement about climate science and climate change, and it used the word “incontrovertible.” For physicists, that word is a red flag. It means it cannot be challenged. And there was a big brouhaha among the membership about that word. Eventually, the society had to issue a multi-paragraph explanation of what it meant. In late 2013, the statement had reached its shelf life, it was time to refresh the statement, and I was asked by the society leadership to undertake an exercise to recommend a new statement. And I thought, you know, we're physicists, we can understand this stuff. So rather than simply take the UN report at face value, that we would do a deep dive. And so I convened a one day meeting in January of 2014, in Brooklyn, with three scientists representing the consensus, and three people who are also deep experts, but did not quite agree with the consensus. And we sat and talked for a day. There were presentations. I came away from that meeting, feeling that the science was far less settled, that I had been led to believe while I was working for the Obama Administration. And so I started to pay close attention to what was going on, and I wound up writing a big piece of The Wall Street Journal, pointing out some of the problems… And as now, six or seven years later, I came to write this book, because I believe that the public should have an accurate presentation of what we know and what we don't know as it decides what to do about growing human influences on the climate.
Matt: In the book, you talk about this game of telephone. Kids play this game where you whisper a secret in someone's ear, and they pass it on to the next in line, and at the end of the line, it's a different story. And I'm sure that does happen to a certain degree with climate information. Scientists write official reports, and those reports become bastardized and simplified, and then journalists interpret it. So that's probably part of the story. But it can't be the whole thing. I mean, people like President Obama and President Biden will cite “the science” as evidence that we have to do something pretty radical that could dramatically impact our economy. It could put who knows how many people out of work. You had the ear of politicians. Why do they present this as incontrovertible?
Dr. Koonin: You know, there are probably several reasons for that. One is, with all due respect to President Obama, President Biden, they probably don't have the time—and I doubt that they have the expertise—to dip deeply into the science… On the other hand, there are scientists who have hitched their reputation to climate disaster, or at least a serious climate problem. It means money, it means fame, there's a lot of pressure to go along with the consensus as it's been illuminated. And I think there are, therefore, multiple reasons why the politicians are not telling the truth. You know, there's a wonderful quote that I saw from HL Mencken who says, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” And so politicians, you can't blame them. Their purpose is to inspire, to stimulate action, and okay, we kind of accept that they don't always tell the truth. But it's the scientists and the scientists who are informing the politicians where I would find fault.
Matt: I think there are children out there who are very scared, because because adults tell them, experts tell them, the world is over. That's got to have some psychological toll that is problematic.
Dr. Koonin: Yeah, I would say, you know, there were several reasons why it's really bad to misrepresent the science. And one of the most extreme consequences, and I think it's almost immoral to do this, is to scare the bejesus out of young people that the world is going to end in 12 years, or that there's no future and therefore you shouldn't be having children. I mean, that's terrible. There are other things that are bad about misrepresenting the science. Maybe most importantly, is that it robs from decision-makers who are not experts, and the general public, the right to make fully informed decisions.
Matt: I know you worked, you were young, and you knew Richard Feynman. What you learn from him that is influenced your worldview on this.
Dr. Koonin: I think the thing I learned most from Feynman, but also from a number of other mentors later on, is that when you're informing policy as a scientist, you tell the truth, the whole truth. And you let the decision maker, in the end, make the difficult calls. It's not up to you as a scientist to determine which way the decision should go… I quote, in the book, a wonderful passage from a speech Feynman gave at the 1974, Caltech commencement. And I won't get it exactly right, but basically says, “You know, I was listening last night to an advertisement about Wesson Oil. And the advertisement said, ‘Wesson Oil won't soak through food.’” And Feynman says, “What they didn't tell you is that all oils won't soak through food. But if you get them all at a high enough temperature, they all will soak through food.” And so it's this issue of misleading by not providing proper context or full information that I think scientists should be avoiding, particularly in this [climate change] context, where it's so complicated, and there are so many different dimensions to our understanding.
Matt: Give me some examples where there's a data point or a statistic or something where if I heard it, I would be convinced that climate change is going to kill us all tomorrow, and then if you provide a little context, it falls apart.
Dr. Koonin: Let's talk about sea level rise. Over the last three decades, sea level has been rising at the grand rate of 3 millimeters a year. And if you're not familiar with the metric system, and can't quite do the multiplications fast enough in your head, I will tell you that that's one foot a century. And that's higher than the average rate that we saw over the 20th century. But they don't tell you several important things. If you go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when human influences were much more, it was rising at almost the same rate. And then in the 1970s, it went down to about one millimeter a year, a third of what it is currently. And now, it's going back up again. And so what fluctuates up and down. And by emphasizing just what happened in the last three decades, and ignoring comparable behavior in the past century, they are misleading. They're also misleading [you] when they don't tell you that sea level has been rising for the last almost 20,000 years… And it was going up really fast until about 7,000 years ago, but that has become more gradual—
Matt: Must have been all that coal we were burning 7,000 years ago. Or the cars 7,000 years ago?
Dr. Koonin: The SUV, or whatever. The climate varies naturally, and the challenge is to disentangle what’s human caused, and what's natural. But if you're just talking about the data, not considering the whole data set and providing context is, in my view, a sin.