Mark Twain has supposedly quipped that: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that ain’t so.”
Challenging what we know for sure about climate change is “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters” by Steven E. Koonin. Dr. Koonin was Undersecretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy during the Obama Administration. His in-depth understanding of the complexity of climate change is quite apparent in Unsettled.
Unsettled is a candid, thorough treatise addressing every aspect of the climate change issue in two quite readable parts. Part One deals with what is actually known about climate change and how the science got distorted. Part Two proposes doable responses to what is actually known about climate change, giving reasonable, cost-effective, and timely solutions.
Part One, titled “The Science,” explicates the uncertainties surrounding the complexity of the atmosphere and its dynamics along with the greenhouse gas emissions that affect the climate. Greenhouse gas emissions consist primarily of carbon dioxide and methane from industrial operations and agricultural activities. The first part is a good discussion of the mathematical models employed to simulate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the airy nuances of the earth’s atmosphere.
My decades-long career as an air quality meteorologist frequently relied on the modeling of short-term, local impacts of toxic pollutants from individual emission sources. Yet even under these limited sources, time, and space conditions, atmospheric models produced many unreliable results.
Although climate modeling considers more averaging over time and space (decades and global areas, for instance) than typical air pollution models, such modeling includes many greenhouse gas emission sources. And the extended time and expanded space do not necessarily reduce inherent modeling complications. Unsettled concludes that: “The uncertainties in the modeling of both climate change and the consequences of future greenhouse gas emissions make it impossible today to provide reliable, quantitative statements about relative risks and consequences and benefits of rising greenhouse gases to the Earth system as a whole, let alone to specific regions of the planet.”
Based largely on analysis of reports by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which rely heavily on climate modeling, Unsettled shows that it is unlikely “human influences [will] push the climate over some ‘tipping point,’ with deleterious changes happening very rapidly….”
Furthermore, from careful consideration of temperature data, tornado and hurricane records, historic precipitation or lack thereof, sea-level measurements, and economic indicators, Unsettled concludes that “media, politicians, and often the [climate] assessment reports themselves blatantly misrepresent what the science says about climate and catastrophes.”
The serious misrepresentation is not without dire real-world consequences since more immediate pressing issues get much less attention. Unsettled points out that even the World Health Organization has said that “indoor air pollution in poor countries—the result of cooking with wood and animal and crop waste—is the most serious environmental problem in the world, affecting up to three billion people.” The book goes on to note that this is “not the result of climate change. It’s the result of poverty.”
In Part Two, after exposing the fantasy of a carbon-free future, Unsettled proposes opportune solutions that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and stress adaptation, which in turn helps alleviate poverty.
The closing thoughts of the book are valuable for their candor and reiteration of a plea for better communication of complex science — such as that involving the climate—and to restore “integrity to the way science informs society’s decisions on climate and energy….”
• Anthony J. Sadar is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist and author of In Global Warming We Trust: Too Big To Fail (Stairway Press, 2016).