Climate Science is Not Settled

There was an excellent article by Steven E. Koonin by this title in the Wall Street Journal. The subtitle was “We are very far from the knowledge needed to make good climate policy…” The author refuses to be on either side of what has become an increasingly contentious argument about whether or not man’s activities are leading us to a climate disaster that, according to some of our politicians, beats terrorism as the greatest threat. The article adds refreshing reason to the discussion. He was undersecretary for science in the Department of Energy during President Obama’s first term. Perhaps those who are convinced that climate science is settled will dismiss his ideas because one previous position was chief scientist of British Petroleum. I suggest you will learn something regardless of your position if you chose to read his article.

The article leads with the statement that the claim that “Climate Science is settled” “…has distorted our public and policy debates on issues related to energy, greenhouse-gas emissions and the environment…it has also inhibited the scientific and policy discussions that we need to have about our climate future.” The author observes that the crucial question isn’t whether the climate is changing “The climate has always changed and always will.” The average global temperature did increase by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the 20th century, and there is little doubt carbon dioxide levels increased in the atmosphere and influenced the climate. But the author follows those observations with, “The impact of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.” He also writes that he has “…come to appreciate the daunting scientific challenge of answering the questions that policy makers and the public are asking.”

One key paragraph should be read and contemplated by all interested in the subject. “Even though human influences could have serious consequences for the climate, they are physically small in relation to the climate system as a whole. For example, human additions to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the middle of the 21st century are expected to directly shift the atmosphere’s natural greenhouse effect by only 1% to 2%. Since the climate system is highly variable on its own, that smallness sets a very high bar for confidently projecting the consequences of human influences.” Much of the rest of the article lays out the complexity of trying to predict what the climate will do with our poor understanding of the oceans, which “…hold most of the climate’s heat and strongly influence the atmosphere.”

There also is a warning about the climate models that are used by those who preach “the science is settled.” “While some parts of the models rely on well-tested physical laws, other parts of the models rely on technically-informed estimation.” The “technically-informed estimation” allows the person running the model to adjust input to achieve a preconceived result, and that is not science. The fallibility of the models is shown by the fact that, contrary to what the models predicted, temperatures have risen only slightly (or not at all) the last sixteen years while human contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen 25%. Also not following the predictions is  the extent of Arctic sea ice. It is currently significantly greater than the extent measured in 2012 and might even be creeping up towards the historical average. It has done this quietly, or at least I’ve heard nothing about it on the news.

There is more to the article, and you can profit from reading it regardless of what you believe on this contentious issue. My request is that you greet statements that a scientist or politician is being dismissed for “denying settled science” with a modicum of skepticism. They might be courageously telling you what they believe is the truth despite the fact they know they will be demeaned for their position.

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