Monday, October 04, 2021

Review: Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It MattersUnsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by Steven E. Koonin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An important book, even if you (especially if you) disagree with Koonin. Koonin is presenting a moderate, sober accounting of the scientific work informing our understanding of climate. He is eschews the extremes of either the science is settled and the world is facing a dangerous and immediate crisis, on one hand, or the notion that climate change is all some elaborate hoax or conspiracy on the other. Koonin is very clear that the best evidence shows that the climate is warming and that there is some human influence on this warming. But through in-depth study of the climate assessment reports and the research underlying those reports, Koonin argues that this is not a crisis, this is not a precipice from which we are about to tumble. There is much we need do not know or understand. How much of the warming is human caused and how much is from natural processes? How much can be reversed irrespective of the cause? How much warming is there? What are the outcomes/consequences of a warming globe? Are they are all negative and deadly? There are polices and actions we can and should take to mitigate the worse outcomes, but the alarmism and fear-mongering that surrounds so much public discourse around climate is, he argues, unwarranted and itself dangerous. The main causality is science itself. By turning more towards persuasion rather than towards knowledge, confidence in science has been undermined and its value undermined. (Something we can see playing out in dangerous ways in Covid responses from many sides of the political spectrum).

Koonin goes through what he takes to be the best description of what scientific findings support about what we know about the climate and what is involved in causing/influencing the changes we observe. He challenges some of the ways in which climate science is done (in particular climate modelling--and given his back ground in computational physics he's well positioned to discuss the pros and cons here).

Then he turns to how this has been misrepresented. He goes through the many ways the media, politicians, and others have misreported the climate assessment reports and scientific findings in the literature. The summaries and reporting of what is in the assessment reports are, as he shows, often misrepresented and sometimes even contradictory. All the nuance, qualifications, and hedges that are in the scientific reports gets lost when turned into headlines. The worse case scenarios, which are deemed in these reports as unlikely are sometimes presented to the public as THE outcomes by THE science.

Koonin then turns to ways to repair or deal with the broken science reporting, as well as various things we might be able to do to deal with a warming planet.

All in all, I found Koonin trying to do an honest job of reporting what he has discovered through his research and work on climate science. (He's a theoretical physicist, and was Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy for the Obama administration.) He seemed genuinely motivated by a concern for truth and the climate. He's stance seems reasonable and moderate. He invites you to disagree with him and discusses various criticisms of his claim. He might be wrong on any number of accounts, but his main overall point is that there is no such thing as THE Science, there is science, which is unending, dynamic and complex process of working towards a better understanding of the world we live in. There is much we need to learn about the workings of the climate and how to respond and adapt to the inevitable changes. And only taking the scientific process seriously as a descriptive enterprise can we learn those things.

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