Thinking Citizen Blog — The Stephen Koonin Controversy — Denier or Truth Teller?

Thinking Citizen Blog — Wednesday is Climate Change, the Environment, and Sustainability Day

Today’s Topic: The Stephen Koonin Controversy — Denier or Truth Teller?

Stephen Koonin, formerly a physics professor and vice provost at Caltech as well as Undersecretary of Energy for Science under Obama, has just published a book on the climate crisis entitled “Unsettled, “ in which he argues that matters are not as “settled” as the “consensus” claims. The book was reviewed positively in the Wall Street Journal but was branded as lacking “scientific credibility” by Facebook based on a 4500-word critique on a climate change website. Is Facebook suppressing legitimate scientific debate or is it doing the right thing in discouraging the spread of misinformation? Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. “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. Uncertainty is a prime mover and motivator of science and must be faced head-on.” (Koonin)

2. “While the past two decades have seen progress in climate science, the field is not yet mature enough to usefully answer the difficult and important questions being asked of it.” (Koonin)

3. “Even though human influences could have serious consequences for the climate, they are physically small in relation to the climate system as a whole. . . . Since the climate system is highly variable on its own, that smallness sets a very high bar for confidently projecting the consequences of human influences.” (Koonin)

NB: “The oceans, which change over decades and centuries, hold most of the climate’s heat and strongly influence the atmosphere. Unfortunately, precise, comprehensive observations of the oceans are available only for the past few decades; the reliable record is still far too short to adequately understand how the oceans will change and how that will affect climate…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.” (Koonin)


1. “Heat waves in the US are now no more common than they were in 1900, and that the warmest temperatures in the US have not risen in the past fifty years.” (Koonin)

Rebuttal: “This is a questionable statement depending on the definition of “heat wave”, and so it is really uninformative. Heat waves are poor indicators of heat stress. Whether or not they are becoming more frequent, they have clearly become hotter and longer over the past few decades while populations have grown more vulnerable in large measure because they are, on average, older [Section]. Moreover, during these longer extreme heat events, it is nighttime temperatures that are increasing most. As a result, people never get relief from insufferable heat and more of them are at risk of dying.”

Question: how persuasive is the rebuttal?

2. “The warmest temperatures in the US have not risen in the past fifty years.” (Koonin)

Rebuttal: According to what measure? Highest annual global averages? Absolutely not. That the planet is has warmed since the industrial revolution is unequivocal with more than 30 percent of that warming having occurred over the last 25 years, and the hottest annual temperatures in that history have followed suit [Section SPM.1].”

Question: how persuasive is the rebuttal?

3. “Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was eighty years ago.” (Koonin)

Rebuttal: “For a risk-based approach to climate discussions about what we “should do,” this statement is irrelevant. It is the future that worries us. Observations from 11 satellite missions monitoring the Arctic and Antarctic show that ice sheets are losing mass six times faster than they were in the 1990s. Is this the beginning of a new trend? Perhaps. The settled state of the science for those who have adopted a risk management approach is that this is a high-risk possibility (huge consequences) that should be taken seriously and examined more completely.”

Question: how persuasive is the rebuttal?

FOR POLICY PURPOSES DOES IT MATTER WHETHER OR NOT THE REBUTTAL IS PERSUASIVE? (from a 2014 commentary on Koonin’s perspective by Raymond Pierrehumbert, professor of physics at Oxford)

1. “What he fails to note is that this uncertainty provides an argument for more rather than less action on emissions control, since it means that no scientifically credible argument advanced in the past several decades has been able to rule out the risk that climate sensitivity is at the high end of the range.”

2. “In the face of that, the only way to avert the risk is to simply not emit so much carbon dioxide. And the millennial duration of the warming induced by carbon dioxide means that we don’t have the luxury of waiting a few more decades before taking action, in the hopes that 30 more years of research will finally accomplish what the past 30 failed to do.

3. “As the Swedish cookbook pioneer Kajsa Warg is reputed to have said, “You cook with what you have.”

Physicist Steve Koonin impeaches scientists’ climate consensus

A New Book Manages to Get Climate Science Badly Wrong

The Wall Street Journal Needed a Fresh Face for Climate Inaction. It Found a Doozy.

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Please share the coolest thing you learned in the last week related to climate change or the environment. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to climate change that the rest of us may have missed. Your favorite chart or table perhaps…

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart.