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

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In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Steven Koonin, former Department of Energy Undersecretary and BP scientist makes the case that global warming is caused by humans, important, that we must do something about it, and that further research on key topics is necessary to help guide policy.

He states,

The crucial scientific question for policy isn’t whether the climate is changing. That is a settled matter … We know, for instance, that during the 20th century the Earth’s global average surface temperature rose 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

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. There is also little doubt that the carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere for several centuries.

Unfortunately, Koonin also argues that climate science is largely at sea, and that we know so little about climate change that, he implies strongly, we really don’t know what to do about it. He seems to be suggesting that we should do nothing.

He states that the amount of anthropogenic change in global temperature is a fraction of natural change, but this is wrong. The amount of change over the industrial era caused by humans is far more than expected from natural change, and is all in the same direction. He states that estimates of projected “climate sensitivity,” the eventual change in surface temperature given a certain increase in added CO2, have not changed in 30 years. This is utterly false. The total range of sensitivity has, actually, stayed about the same but recent work has indicated that most climate scientists are more comfortable narrowing down the sensitivity to something like “Two. Or more. But I hope not. Maybe five.” More importantly, the issue of climate sensitivity has moved from being an “unkown unkown” to a “known unknown” over this time.

Koonin badly botches his discussion of models and how they work, confusing and conflating scales of time and space, and overall mischaracterizes what climate models do and how well they work. They actually work pretty well. He deosn’t seem to know that.

Koonin’s piece is well characterized by the title of a responding blog post at Climate Science Watch: “On eve of climate march, Wall Street Journal published call to wait and do nothing

I’d like to write more about it now but I have to shut down the computer for an unseasonal severe storm about to sweep over us. Bye for now.

Media Matters addresses the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of climate here.

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8 thoughts on “BP/DOE's Koonin: Anthropogenic Global Warming is Real, Important, and Must Be Addressed

  1. >>> He seems to be suggesting that we should do nothing.

    I have been looking at right-of-center blogs’ reaction to this article, and left-of-center blogs’ reaction to this article. This line seems to be a common refrain of the lefty blogs. Where do you get this idea? The entire point of the article is this: Climate Science isn’t a “Hoax”. Also, it isn’t “Settled”, and questioning assumptions doesn’t make one a “Denier”.

    As far as what to do, he actually lays out what he believes to be the criteria: “But climate strategies beyond such “no regrets” efforts carry costs, risks and questions of effectiveness, so nonscientific factors inevitably enter the decision. These include our tolerance for risk and the priorities that we assign to economic development, poverty reduction, environmental quality, and intergenerational and geographical equity.”

    >>> They [climate models] actually work pretty well. He deosn’t seem to know that.

    Actually, they very famously *don’t* work very well. As evidenced by the fact that they didn’t predict the current slowing rate of warming over the past decade or so. This doesn’t mean they are useless. It doesn’t mean that it is a “hoax”. It just means that there are some issues that need to be resolved.

  2. The interesting thing is that if Koonin had taken a pro-climate change view, his former position in the Obama administration and as provost at Caltech would have been touted as credibility assets by the true believers. As pointed out by dan-O, the poor fidelity of numerical climatological models is a big deal. Those of us who have spent a good part of our careers in numerical modeling with vastly simpler coupled linear differential equations know how difficult it is to accurately model real world phenomena, provide sufficient fidelity of the answers, and to convincingly verify the results. The fact that Koonin is a physicist and not a climatologist does not change this basic fact. Negative blog comments bad-mouthing WSJ, BP, Murdoch, and Wall Street do not help the conversation or convince anyone.

  3. I am looking for reading material for my students. I was linked to this post from Climate Science Watch. I will not be recommending your post if only because I have no idea what the meaning or relevance of the figure is. Why post it, unless you are trying to impress/bamboozle rather than enlighten?

    1. Jody, the graphic is of various estimates of climate sensitivity. Like it says on the graphic.

      I will be happy to provide you with more information about that but you seem to have gone off in a snit.

      This is not an ideal post for students.

  4. Question is, “What does ‘climate sensitivity’ mean, and how does it relate to climate change?”

    Sometimes we’re a little too close to the trees, when someone wants to get a little info about the forest… :^)

  5. Like many other good posts, this one contains a link to Climate Science Watch. The founder and director of that blog, Rick Piltz, passed away on Saturday. He was highly respected for his courage and his dedication to truth. I hope that Greg will write a post about Piltz and what he stood for, and whether the blog will continue without him. Until then:

    “Last weekend, the country lost a public servant and altruist named Rick Piltz.

    Mr. Piltz was a government whistleblower who documented how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency systematically misled the public, downplaying the certainty of climate change in U.S. science reports.

    He produced a rare, detailed case study in how the fossil fuel industry turns our government against the public in order to make more money for itself. Himself an employee of the U.S. EPA during the George W Bush administration, Mr. Piltz worked among industry lobbyists who were placed into regulatory position overseeing their former employers.

    These lobbyists included people like Jeff Holmstead, who continues lobbying against climate regulations for the coal industry, and Phil Cooney, who was plucked from the American Petroleum Institute and placed into the Bush EPA.

    Rick Piltz exposed Cooney’s hand-written manipulation of the U.S. government’s climate change science reports. This scandal forced Cooney out of the EPA and back into the oil industry as an employee of ExxonMobil. Piltz’s actions earned him the 2006 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.

    After leaving EPA, Rick Piltz created Climate Science Watch, which allowed him to counter campaigns to deny climate science and promote scientifically valid viewpoints on global warming.

    He died early last Saturday morning, October 18th, after a fight with cancer.

    Rick Piltz did what too few in government are willing to do, withstanding immense social and professional pressure to show taxpayers that their government was working for private interests, against the public, on public funds.”

  6. Correction:
    “The founder and director of that blog…” ? of that website…

    The following relates directly to Koonin’s WSJ op-ed and to Piltz’s broader project:

    “My project, and whatever contribution it makes, is primarily aimed at government accountability in national policymaking. I have an analysis and an approach for doing that, and Climate Science Watch is the vehicle via which I and various collaborators express that…
    Of course there are many important scientific questions about the physical climate system to research… But this is not a science education and debate site, and the discourse about unresolved research issues on the physical climate system are well-argued in many other venues by people with serious qualifications.
    But when Rupert Murdoch and the Wall Street Journal put out a piece with a “take no action” slant on the eve of a big UN climate summit and climate movement rally, I take what the WSJ is doing as essentially a political gesture. They print only ‘skeptic’ or ‘contrarian’ pieces, there’s no real balance in their coverage, they are trying to frame a political narrative for the corporate elite. When there’s an opportunity to post something with an alternative view, that raises questions about what they’ve published, I can do that. I don’t have to be able to resolve the science issues in order to do it.”

    Climate Science Watch has had extensive coverage of the attacks on Michael Mann and the ensuing legal proceedings. It’s offered essential information about the Harper government’s attacks on science in Canada. And much more.

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