A ‘red team’ view of climate science

This is the first of a five-part series on climate science

A new book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the increasingly radical measures nations are being pressured to adopt in response to the so-called climate crisis. Are these measures really justified from a scientific standpoint? Does the supposed menace of a human-caused climate apocalypse correspond to reality?

The book, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, And Why It Matters”, is written by Steven Koonin, a physicist and professor at New York University who served as undersecretary for science in the US Department of Energy during the Barack Obama administration.

Koonin is also a member and one-time chairman of JASON, an independent organization of scientists that advises the US government on sensitive and pressing science and technology issues.    

I received and read an advance copy of the volume and interviewed Dr Koonin for this three-part series, comprised of this book review and a follow-up four-part interview. All in all, I can highly recommend Koonin’s book: It is fascinating and informative reading, and hopefully will improve the climate for honest and open discussion.

Koonin has been calling for the appointment of a so-called “red team” – an independent group of qualified scientists – to carry out a rigorous critique of the scientific validity of the assessments and recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the 4-yearly US National Climate Assessment (NCA).

The book thus might be read as a foretaste of what a red team might turn up. Apart from its sometimes devastating conclusions, the volume provides certainly one of the most readable and fascinating accounts available to a non-technical reader about the challenges of climate science, present knowledge of ongoing climate change and potential options for dealing with it.

As the book’s title suggests, present-day climate science is far from being able to give definitive answers to key questions relevant to policymaking. This is not a popular thing to say, since people like to have black-and-white certainty. Science, however, is not truth; it is only a search for truth. A very difficult search, in this case, given the mind-boggling complexity of the Earth’s climate system.

I find particularly valuable the way Koonin explains, in simple, non-technical language, the problems of computer-based climate forecasting and the reasons for the poor reliability of today’s climate models.

While he takes a rigorous critical attitude, Koonin can in no way be dismissed as a “climate denier.” On the contrary, most of what he writes is consistent with the official reports of the IPCC and the National Climate Assessment — but with an important reservation: a number of the most essential facts and conclusions are buried in the body of the voluminous assessment reports, and not reflected in the summaries provided to the press and decision-makers.

Koonin documents how this circumstance, together with public statements by some climate scientists, has given a seriously misleading impression about the actual results of climate research. The assessment reports themselves are publicly available, of course, but one has the impression that few people actually read them carefully, at least not in the manner Koonin has.

The examples he cites make for astounding reading. Perhaps most significant, the author demonstrates that the IPCC assessments provide no basis whatsoever for the widely propagated notion that climate change is leading to a global catastrophe.

Among other things, Koonin cites a conclusion from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, summarizing some 20 published estimates, according to which a global temperature rise of 3°C by the year 2100 would negatively impact the global economy by about 3%  measured in “equivalent income loss.”

Koonin also quotes the following key passage:

“For most  economic  sectors,  the  impact  of  climate  change  will  be  small relative to the impacts of other drivers (medium evidence, high  agreement). Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.”

Where is the climate apocalypse?

From the official assessments cited in Koonin’s book, one can only conclude that mankind faces incomparably greater dangers and potential losses from developments of a completely different sort — such as large-scale military conflicts, possible use of nuclear weapons, deadly pandemics, socioeconomic instability and spread of extremist ideologies, international financial crises and others. (One might add to the list ill-advised, disruptive and economically disastrous environmentalist policies.)  

I was so dumbfounded to learn that the IPCC Assessment Report had provided such a low estimate of global economic losses from climate warming – hardly mentioned in the media – that I decided to do my own little investigation.

I took the “worst-case” scenario referred to in the literature as RCP 8.5, meaning no measures are taken to limit CO2 emissions, high population growth and a huge expansion of coal power. How much loss would the US economy, for example, suffer from the resulting global warming?    

According to the latest US National Climate Assessment, the global average temperature increase by the year 2100 for scenario RCP8.5 is projected to lie in the range 2.5 – 4.7°C.  Applying the relevant correlation table from the NCA-cited 2017 study, “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States”, I came up with an estimated loss to the US economy of between 2-5% of GDP in “direct economic damages” due to the effects of global warming.