Review

Is It Fair to Call It ‘Climate Hysteria?’

Environmental protestors on the Marschallbrücke in Berlin during a demonstration of Extinction Rebellion’s “Funeral March of the Dead Trees” on October 5, 2020.

Photo: Courtesy of Stefan Müller, licensed under CCA 2.0 Generic.

The title is apt: this book demonstrates from a myriad of vantage points that climate science, rather than it being certain, as the powers that be would have us believe, is most decidedly not settled. The author—engineering and physical scientist Steven Koonin, who leans Democrat and served among the environmentally correct as Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy under President Obama—does not have a political axe to grind. Bringing to bear his wide-ranging expertise in physics, astrophysics, scientific computation, energy technology, and climate science, New York University professor Koonin meticulously explains the state of affairs in various key areas of climate research. He then carefully draws conclusions from what the science does and doesn’t tell us about climate change.

Despite, or perhaps due to, its straightforward and matter-of-fact prose style, the book is devastating to the received wisdom that is pervasive among the governing and media elites in Europe and among liberals and progressives in the United States. Without noticeably batting an eyelid, Koonin exposes the complete lack of solid scientific basis for what has become in many circles the only socially acceptable view on climate change: that the globe is rapidly warming, that the warming is caused to a significant extent by human activity, and that this poses an urgent crisis that threatens life as we know it here on earth unless drastic measures are taken as soon as possible.

Unsettled is divided into two parts. The first part is about the science, what we know and what we do not know, and how much we are justified in extrapolating from our level of knowledge to predict what are the likely consequences of climate change. In the second part, Koonin lays out how he believes we should respond to climate change, building his case from a prudent analysis of the state of the science, political feasibility, and economic realities.

Throughout Part I, Koonin affirms that the climate is changing and that human activity plays a role in that. Nevertheless, as he states on the book jacket, “the why and how aren’t as clear as you’ve probably been led to believe.” Covering an enormous amount of material from multiple angles, and doing so in a highly readable way, Koonin lays waste to any and all climate-change certainty. It is impossible to summarize everything in a short review—but let me give you just one highlight. The first chapter in Part I is a summary of what we know and what we don’t know about warming; among other things, the reader comes away with a sense of the magnitude and complexity of reliably measuring climate change over time. In addition to this, Koonin demonstrates how the data “show that there are powerful natural forces driving the climate … and they illuminate the scientific challenge of understanding those natural influences well enough to confidently identify the climate’s response to human [influences] .” We know the globe has warmed recently, he says, but we don’t know much more than that simple fact: in particular, we cannot claim to know “to what extent this warming is being caused by humans.”

As he steadily tightens the argumentative noose on climate alarmists of all stripes, Koonin goes on to review and analyze the data on how human influences amount only to a minuscule proportion of the “energy that flows through the climate system”; how difficult it is to ascertain how human-caused influences such as greenhouse gas emissions interact with the many “other aspects of the climate system”; how existing climate models, though they are becoming ever more sophisticated, remain inadequate to the task of reliably “modeling … both climate change and the consequences of future greenhouse gas emissions”; how, “even as human influences on the climate grow […] most types of extreme weather events [such as heat waves, flooding, drought and dryness, hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes] don’t show any significant change” over the past century or more—in fact, they show how “some such events have become less common or severe.” Finally, he shows how the data demonstrate “scant evidence” that human-caused warming has contributed or will contribute significantly to sea level rise, and that the data provide no basis for claims that warming has caused or will cause “death and destruction, disease, agricultural collapse, and economic ruin.”

At the close of Part I, Koonin offers his answer to the logical question: “Who Broke ‘the Science’—and Why?” Surveying the media, politicians, scientists and scientific institutions, activists, and NGOs, Koonin brings to light how a powerful and toxic mix of financial interests, careerism, peer pressure, hubris, journalistic and academic sloppiness, political sensationalism, and an alarmist but sincere conviction of the imminent danger of global warming have led to “a self-reinforcing alignment of perspectives and interests” that is “more concerned with making the science fit a narrative than with ensuring the narrative fits the science.” As he meticulously documents throughout the entire book, none of the climate-change elites—neither journalists, politicians, scientists, nor activists—have been above oversimplification, spin, sensationalism, exaggeration, intimidation of dissenters, and outright deception in order to impose upon us all their narrative of disastrous human-induced climate change. Against this background, Koonin hypothesizes that the climate beliefs of the general public “mostly involve unquestioning acceptance of wisdom handed down from on high.”

The second and final part of Unsettled is about how we should respond to this situation. We know very little for certain, Koonin states, but again, we can say with reasonable confidence that the globe is warming and that human activity does play a role. Koonin grounds his discussion of how to respond upon two basic ideas: first, he clarifies that the debate about how we should respond to climate change, while “best informed by scientific certainties and uncertainties,” is ultimately a discussion not primarily of science, but of values, and it involves trade-offs. It is a discussion of values “that weighs development, environment, and intergenerational and geographical equities in light of imperfect projections of future climates.” Second, he notes that determining the real-world response must involve “assessing the realities of politics, economics, and technology development.”

Exemplifying this approach is Koonin’s conclusion that the idea that we can achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is a fantasy, given the expectation that population growth and the desire for economic betterment will combine to increase energy demand by around 50 percent in the coming thirty years. This expectation puts pay to the most skillfully publicized and passionately advocated goal not only of the Paris Agreement, but also of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which claims that carbon neutrality by 2050 is necessary in order to limit warming to the highly touted goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

What are we to make of all this?

The message of this book is nothing less than astounding and deeply disturbing. To put it considerably more bluntly than Koonin—who is measured and polite to a fault—Unsettled makes an extraordinarily solid case that the following is a fact, not an opinion: there is no solid scientific evidence for disastrous human-induced climate change. The climate change gospel, preached incessantly in the media and by government and—dare I say it?—Big Science, is a myth. It is a sand-castle that exists in the minds of people who are determined to elevate the phenomenon of global warming to an urgent and dire threat to the survival of life as we know it on this planet, a threat requiring drastic measures that would most likely severely cripple our economy, restrict our freedom, and impoverish our everyday lives in manifold ways.

So why the unbending commitment to the idea of looming environmental doom?

Koonin’s explanation as described above, stressing factors such as careerism, financial interests, and peer pressure, is correct. And it is proper to the book’s primary focus on the scientific data and observable phenomena. But it is not complete.

What, if any, are the deeper reasons for the climate alarmism that sounds all around us? Why, if the scientific data is so uncertain and the evidence so weak, do the Enlightened Ones in Davos and Turtle Bay and Berlin and Paris and London and the European Quarter of Brussels all speak—often in ominous tones—as if the opposite were true?

Some say environmentalism is a new religion. Maybe so. Let me offer for your consideration the beginnings of a related yet different explanation, in a bare-bones summary form. My sense is that it is not by chance that the social justice wokeness of identity politics and environmental wokeness are almost always parts of the same package. It is fitting that we now hear the term “environmental justice” and “climate justice” almost as often as we hear the words “social justice.”

In this postmodern age, we have nothing in which to believe. We’ve not only lost our religion, but we’ve also lost our Enlightenment belief in reason as a basis for finding truth and achieving mutual understanding across differences. With nothing remaining in which to believe, the longing for justice, a good thing in proper measure, has become for many of us all we have left. It has crowded out all other considerations and left us unmoored from tradition, truth and—importantly—a humble recognition of our limits as human beings, especially in the political arena. The fact that many of us have lost our sense of the limits of what we can accomplish through politics is key, because everything, including science, threatens to become politicized, instrumentalized—better said, weaponized—in the cause of “justice,” whatever that is, and regardless of whether it be social justice, economic justice, gender justice, climate justice, or any other real or imagined type of justice.

How has this fostered the ideological ascendancy of climate change alarmism? As radical, all-or-nothing progressivism threatens to displace the old moderate liberalism of the center-left—and as the establishment more and more adopts the radical rhetoric and the “justice” obsession of postmodern progressivism—that radicalism has found an effective and compelling avenue of expression in the form of the climate change narrative. This narrative must be true, because without it the vision for justice in the environmental arena will be revealed to be baseless. The climate change narrative has become a political narrative and effectively ceased to be a scientific one. Thus, the idea of disastrous human-caused climate change is asserted to be true because it cannot be allowed not to be true. Its claim to truth is rooted not in empirical reality, but in the absolute priority of the struggle for justice. And the pursuit of justice—all-encompassing justice—may not be denied.

In so many areas, we post-moderns need to return to a healthy respect for reality, reason, and truth, and once again submit our politics, our science, our desire for justice—and our pursuit of political and social goods—to reality, reason, and truth. We need to return to balance and common sense. In that spirit, Koonin’s book is an eloquent plea for the type of environmentalism we need: a common-sense environmentalism marked by moderation and realism.

Todd Huizinga is Senior Fellow, Europe, at the Religious Freedom Institute and a member of the advisory board of the Center for Security Policy. He is the author of The New Totalitarian Temptation: Global Governance and the Crisis of Democracy in Europe (New York: Encounter Books, 2016) and Was Europa von Trump lernen kann (Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag, 2017). All opinions and perspectives in this article are attributable to the author alone.

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