Steven Koonin on climate change

This is possibly the best overview of what we know and do not know about climate change by Steven Koonin who was undersecretary for science in the Energy Department during President Barack Obama’s first term. It is well worth a read in full but I will reproduce a few crucial passages for those too busy to click on links:

The idea that “Climate science is settled” runs through today’s popular and policy discussions. Unfortunately, that claim is misguided. It has not only distorted our public and policy debates on issues related to energy, greenhouse-gas emissions and the environment. But it also has inhibited the scientific and policy discussions that we need to have about our climate future.


The crucial scientific question for policy isn’t whether the climate is changing. That is a settled matter: The climate has always changed and always will (…) Nor is the crucial question whether humans are influencing the climate. That is no hoax: There is little doubt in the scientific community that continually growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due largely to carbon-dioxide emissions from the conventional use of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate (…) Rather, the crucial, unsettled scientific question for policy is, “How will the climate change over the next century under both natural and human influences?”


We often hear that there is a “scientific consensus” about climate change. But as far as the computer models go, there isn’t a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences (…) These and many other open questions are in fact described in the IPCC research reports, although a detailed and knowledgeable reading is sometimes required to discern them. They are not “minor” issues to be “cleaned up” by further research. Rather, they are deficiencies that erode confidence in the computer projections (…) Yet a public official reading only the IPCC’s “Summary for Policy Makers” would gain little sense of the extent or implications of these deficiencies. These are fundamental challenges to our understanding of human impacts on the climate, and they should not be dismissed with the mantra that “climate science is settled.” (…) Policy makers and the public may wish for the comfort of certainty in their climate science. But I fear that rigidly promulgating the idea that climate science is “settled” (or is a “hoax”) demeans and chills the scientific enterprise, retarding its progress in these important matters.


Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future. Recognizing those limits, rather than ignoring them, will lead to a more sober and ultimately more productive discussion of climate change and climate policies. To do otherwise is a great disservice to climate science itself.

The above so brilliantly encapsulates my own views that I do not have much to add. If written by a skeptic this essay would be dismissed as a Big Oil PR job but the fact it was penned by Obama’s former scientific adviser should lend it more credibility.



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