Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters
© 2021 Steve Koonin
Over the last twenty years, ‘climate change’ has been subject to the same abuse as ‘terrorism’: it’s levied so often with such enthusiasm that it’s lost much of its effective meaning. In 2005 and 2006, for instance, a sudden rise in hurricane activity was attributed to cycles that played out over decades: when another spurt happened ten years later, gone were the mentions of El Nino or Atlantic Multi-Decade Oscillation. No, the one and only factor responsible was Climate Change – nevermind that the preceding decade had been quiet and that climate change was happening then as well. For those of us lay citizens who take both science and the potential threats posed by environmental turbulence seriously, this leads to a frustrating scenario, in which valid information is drowned by overzealous claims, and a threat is watered down through boy-who-cried-wolf antics. In Unsettled, Steve Koonin examines the data we’ve gathered, the models used create projections of what the future holds, and offers a pragmatic view of how we should respond to the anticipated threat.
Readers should be warned from the outset that this is not a casual book. The majority of it consists of chewing over data, so if you’re a liberal-arts major who echoes J.K. Rowling (“Oh dear, maths”), this is going to be a bit of a challenge. I have to count myself in that category as well. To sum up Koonin: the Earth is warming, and humans are contributing to this. We don’t know exactly how much of the warming is directly attributable to human activity, however, because climactic conditions are complex: human activity creates both heating and cooling effects, and there are factors outside humanity at play. It is extremely different to untangle human contributions from other sources. The models used to create projections are limited and flawed, often unable even to recreate known results from older data. Any ordinary citizen who has paid attention to the repeated doomcasts of Al Gore and the like (how many times have we been told the ice caps will be gone in a decade?) already appreciates the limits of our future-casting ability. The plugged-in person, however, who lives entirely in the updated-by-the-moment newsfeed of pseudo-reality, may be surprised that the confident predictions of paid gabbers are nothing more than what Hayek called the pretense of knowledge. Such pretense is especially on display when predicting agricultural and economic doom, popular grist for the news and political mill, generating ratings and campaign energy, but only loosely moored in reality. The findings of scientific endeavor pass through an array of filters — precis of studies, scientific journalists, talking heads badly summarizing the science journalists, political opportunists mischaracterizing the media’s own summaries — so that certain facts are blown up out of proportion, or ignored completely, becoming that convenient political beast…The Science. We’ve seen that mephistan creature growing ever larger and more aggressive in the last few years of coronamania.
Ultimately, Koonin offers, we can’t say with confidence what will happen – not to the temperature, or to the seas, or to agriculture. All we can do is plan prudently now and adapt to the future as it happens, as humans have always done. That’s not a prescription I can dispute, although the fact that Koonin is telling me what I already believed sets some alarm-bells klanging.