In a new Wall Street Journal piece former BP scientist and DOE Undersecretary of Science Steven Koonin delivers a paradoxical case for climate change inaction. Koonin mis-states a number of scientific details, and ultimately lures readers toward the conclusion that climate change isn’t an urgent problem. His choice of emphasis doesn’t hold up when confronted with all of the available evidence.

[We will be on travel from September 23-28 so comment moderation is likely to be even slower than usual — apologies in advance.]

[UPDATED September 21 with statements by scientists Michael Mann, Michael MacCracken, and Howard Frumkin, added below.]

The following is a guest post by Climate Nexus:

On eve of climate march, WSJ publishes call to wait and do nothing

In a new Wall Street Journal piece (Climate Science Is Not Settled, September 19) former BP scientist and DOE Undersecretary of Science Steven Koonin delivers a paradoxical case for climate change inaction. In a testament to just how strong the science is, he acknowledges the basic facts that humans are causing harmful warming, never flat-out stating that action isn’t needed. But Koonin mis-states a number of scientific details, and ultimately lures readers toward the conclusion that climate change isn’t an urgent problem. His choice of emphasis doesn’t hold up when confronted with all of the available evidence.

  • We know that humans have warmed the climate
  • Future projections run from bad to worse
  • Uncertainty is a central concern of climate science, far from being covered up
  • The IPCC is transparent and clear on uncertainty
  • Reducing emissions is practical, achievable, and necessary now – and the status quo poses huge risks

We know that humans have warmed the climate. Koonin is clear on this point, saying there’s “no hoax” and “little doubt” that humans are influencing the climate. But he subtly understates the amount of human influence, by saying that it is “comparable” to natural influences. This implies that human and natural influences are equal, but the IPCC states that their best estimate is that all recent warming is due to human activity. Like all of Koonin’s points here, this is a common delayer argument that simply does not stand up to even the mildest scrutiny.

The only uncertainty in climate projections concerns the difference between harmful warming and catastrophic warming. Koonin manages to conduct a lengthy discussion of uncertainty without giving any clue as to what range of outcomes the “unsettled science” encompasses. He doesn’t mention that the potential range runs from bad to worse. Climate change is already harming us through extreme weather, health, and other impacts. Without concerted emissions reductions, even the best-case future warming scenario escalates these harms, while the worst case poses grave threats to all humans. Models are designed for long-term projections: asking them to predict short-term variability is like confusing a calendar and a clock. Through Koonin’s choice of emphasis, he encourages the reader to jump to the inaccurate conclusion that warming might end up being negligible, but never actually states this because the science doesn’t support it.

Scientific uncertainty has not been covered up. Koonin implies that he is raising issues which otherwise would be relegated to “hushed sidebar conversations at academic conferences.” But (to use the example of one of the largest and most influential scientific conferences) at last year’s AGU meeting one of the six primary lecture series specifically focused on the difficulties of characterizing uncertainty. Scientists have been working closely on this, yet even with an intimate knowledge of climate uncertainties, the overall warming trend could not be clearer and they overwhelmingly support action now.

The IPCC treats uncertainty appropriately. Koonin complains that the IPCC summaries do not feature his questions, but this is entirely appropriate. The purpose of a summary is to provide a readable overview of what we DO know about the climate system, not to provide an accounting of every gap and thorny detail. As Koonin acknowledges, the underlying IPCC chapters discuss uncertainties and questions in detail. The summaries conclude that action now would be cheaper, safer, and more effective than delay, not because they pretend uncertainty doesn’t exist, but because that is where the balance of evidence rests.

Reducing emissions is practical, achievable, and necessary now. One recent report found that in the next 15 years, the world will need to spend $90 trillion on infrastructure upgrades regardless of whether we pursue a low-carbon pathway. Investing in low-carbon technology would add less than 5% to this cost, and would deliver a cascade of other savings in the form of health co-benefits and averted climate impacts. Another MIT study found that the health benefits from a variety of policies could deliver a tenfold return on the investment.

As a reliable anchor of denial and delay, it’s notable that the Wall Street Journal published a piece that essentially acknowledges the reality of global warming and the huge risks it poses to national and global stability. On the topic of action, Koonin states, “Society’s choices in the years ahead will necessarily be based on uncertain knowledge of future climates. That uncertainty need not be an excuse for inaction.” But unsurprisingly for the WSJ, he then completely overwhelms this very accurate statement by giving a one-sided presentation of the science, and emphasizing the uncertainties and costs of action throughout the piece.

This paradoxical approach encourages a dangerous “do-nothing” attitude, employing self-defeating platitudes like “the climate is always changing” and (paraphrasing) “we mustn’t suppress scientific debate.” Both are technically true, but neither is relevant to the current situation. We need climate action for a safe future. Many observed changes and impacts are outpacing projections, and the risks of the worse-case scenarios are too much for society to bear.

Climate scientists respond:

Dr. Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State:

Koonin mentions that this climate is always changing. This is a standard line in the WSJ because it sounds reasonable at first blush, but of course it conveys a deep falsehood. The fact is that the actual peer-reviewed scientific research shows that (a) the rate of warming over the past century is unprecedented as far back as the 20,000 years paleoclimate scientists are able to extend the record and (b) that warming can ONLY be explained by human influences.

Indeed, it is the RATE of warming that presents such risk to human civilization and our environment. There is no doubt that there were geological periods that were warmer than today due to long-term changes in greenhouse gas concentrations driven by natural factors like plate tectonics. But consider the early Cretaceous 100 million years ago when CO2 concentrations were even higher than today, and there were dinosaurs roaming the ice-free poles. Over the last 100 million years, nature slowly buried all of that additional CO2 beneath Earth’s surface in the form of fossil fuels. We are now unburying that carbon a *MILLION* times faster than it was buried, leading to unprecedented rates of increase in greenhouse concentrations and resulting climate changes. To claim that this is just part of a natural cycle is to be either deeply naive or disingenuous.

Dr. Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Policy at the Climate Institute:

Of the many points to be made, here are a few:

Koonin’s analysis totally fails to consider the significant risk of very serious impacts on marine life of ocean acidification from the rising CO2 concentration. Impacts are already affecting those growing oysters and other shelled organisms in the Pacific Northwest, and coral atolls around the world are at risk over coming decades—and that is pure chemistry totally independent of climate models.

Koonin’s point that the climate has changed so much in the past is actually one of the key reasons to be worried about human-induced climate change. Were the past climate stable even as the various natural forcings were changing, then there would be less reason for concern that human-induced forcings could change the climate. But reality is that past natural forcings caused significant changes in the climate—and now human activities are leading to forcings that are comparable to or even larger than natural ones in the past. In addition, the forcings being created will change climate more rapidly than have natural factors, making this unprecedented except for the catastrophic changes that have followed the impacts of large asteroids. Thus, contrary to Koonin’s assertion that past climate change suggests a policy of caution, a more appropriate conclusion would be that insights gained from past climate change should be leading to much more aggressive policy action than is now underway.

Yes, there is lots more to be learned, but the basic physics of the climate change issue have been clear since the 1960s when the President’s Science Advisory Council sent their report to President Johnson and Congress in 1965. Except for refrigerants of various types, human activities are adding increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (and other substances) to the atmosphere that are amplifying the natural warming effect of these substances in the atmosphere—it is not that we are not familiar with the substances we are adding to the atmosphere and have dealt with for decades. That these gases will cause warming has been recognized since the mid-19th century and adding more will surely cause more warming. Certainly, there are more questions to be investigated and resolved, and they do affect how best to adapt and other policies—but they do not alter at all the fundamental reality that human activities have become the primary driver of changes in climate, overwhelming the cycling changes in solar radiation and being much longer lasting than the occasional volcanic eruptions.

On sea level rise, Koonin’s comments are again mistaken and misleading. The present rate of sea level rise is well above the rate for the first half of the 20th century. The relatively stable climate that has allowed civilization to expand over the last several thousand years has kept sea level quite constant—you can still visit the coast of Sicily and find the remains of salt flats constructed in ancient times. That climate change can cause sea level to change is a key lesson from past changes in the climate that Koonin fails to mention. Since the peak of the last glacial cycle, sea level rose about 20 meters for each one degree Celsius increase in global average temperature (equivalent to a sea level rise of about 30 feet per degree Fahrenheit!!) While it took centuries or more for the full effect to be felt in the past when natural forcings were changing slowly, the adjustment will likely be much more rapid with the faster increase in forcing due to human activities. While the rate of rise will likely decrease slowly with warming because there is less ice on land to be melted, there are still about 75 meters (near 250 feet) of potential sea level rise in the ice tied up in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which have been experiencing accelerated loss of mass.

 Dr. Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington:

From a health perspective, there are two very important points to be made: about the tail risks involved, and about the concept of “no regrets.”

Tail risks: Koonin states that it is crucial to know just how changes in climate will play out, suggesting that unless we know for sure we shouldn’t do anything big. In practical terms, if our goal is to protect people then that’s not the crucial question. It’s more important to ask “What worst-case outcomes might be expected (even if they’re unlikely) and how can we reduce that risk?” This is what economists call tail risk—but it’s not just an economic issue. If you come to my emergency room with high fever, stiff neck, and photophobia, I’m going to treat you for meningitis even before the diagnosis is confirmed, because the downside risk of not acting is enormous—you could die. Koonin would instead have us dither about the details of the diagnostic test.

“No regrets” policy: Koonin supports certain policies, such as those encouraging efficiency, research and development, even in the face of uncertainty.  That’s very sensible.  But when he goes on to say that “climate strategies beyond such ‘no regrets’ efforts carry costs, risks and questions of effectiveness…” things become muddied.  “No regrets” is not a clear and simple attribute of climate strategies. We’re learning that many more interventions are cost-effective than opponents would have us believe, especially when we consider externalities and do full-benefit accounting (including health benefits.)  And we need to ask “Whose regrets”?  What is “no regrets” for most of us might still be regrettable for an influential few (such as the coal industry); there are important questions of fairness embedded in Koonin’s approach of only endorsing “no regrets” solutions.

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See also: BP/DOE’s Koonin: Anthropogenic Global Warming is Real, Important, and Must Be Addressed