Climate Change

The Shameless Attack on a Climate Change Dissenter

We couldn't find any negative review of physicist Steven Koonin's Unsettled that disputed its claims directly or even described them accurately.


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In 2021, the physicist and New York University professor Steven E. Koonin, who served as undersecretary for science in the Obama administration's Energy Department, published the best-selling Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters.

The book attracted extremely negative reviews filled with ad hominem attacks, such as a short statement appearing in Scientific American and signed by 12 academics that, instead of substantively rebutting Koonin's arguments, calls him "a crank who's only taken seriously by far-right disinformation peddlers hungry for anything they can use to score political points" and "just another denier trying to sell a book."

We couldn't find a single negative review of Unsettled that disputed its claims directly or even described them accurately. Many of the reviewers seem to have stopped reading after the first few pages. Others were forced to concede that many of Koonin's facts were correct but objected that they were used in the service of challenging official dogma. True statements were downplayed as trivial or as things everyone knows, despite the extensive parts of Unsettled that document precisely the opposite: that the facts were widely denied in major media coverage and misrepresentations were cited as the basis for major policy initiatives.

When dissenting scientists are implicitly compared to Holocaust deniers, or their ideas are considered too dangerous to be carefully considered, it undermines public respect for the field and can lead to catastrophic policy mistakes. It's human nature to favor evidence that confirms our biases and leads to simple conclusions. But for science to advance, it's essential that moral certainty does not override objective discussion and that personal attacks not replace rational consideration of empirical evidence.

In a review of Unsettled in Scientific American, Gary Yohe, an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University, gives the impression that he didn't read past the first few pages. The book has nine chapters filled with examples of exaggerations and outright falsehoods in both scientific and popular accounts. Yohe mentions just four claims taken from the first two pages, plus one from a chapter subtitle, and manages to refute none of them.

He seizes on the assertion, which appears on page 2, that "the warmest temperatures in the US have not risen in the past fifty years."

"According to what measure?" Yohe asks. "Highest annual global averages? Absolutely not." If he had kept reading, Yohe would have found a detailed account of precisely what measure Koonin was using and the evidence that record-high temperatures in the U.S. are no more common than they were in the 1970s.

Yohe attacks Koonin's assertion that "heat waves in the US are now no more common than they were in 1900," claiming that "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."

If Yohe had read the book carefully, he would have found the official heat wave index used and why it matters. He offers no evidence that "heat stress"—something even less well-defined and, hence, less informative than "heat wave"—is greater now than in 1900.

Yohe also focuses on the first word of the book's title, unsettled. He claims that "Koonin deploys that highly misleading label to falsely suggest that we don't understand the risks well enough to take action." Actually, Koonin's argument is that claims of harm from human climate impacts have been exaggerated and are misrepresented in the press and that we should undertake more sensible and longer-term policies than many activists and politicians currently advocate.

In another article published on the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Yohe writes that although Koonin is "a very skilled and well-respected physicist," he should follow the approach of those who "are on the front lines," who "know what they are doing [because they]…have been doing this for 15 years."

Koonin has been attacked by others for not being a climate scientist by trade. In most dogmatic religions, only the anointed are granted the authority to speak. But science is supposed to be a discipline that's open to anyone who can interpret relevant material.

"'Unsettled' is a book you can accurately judge by its cover," wrote Mark Boslough, a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, in Yale Climate Review Connections, and it seems as if he barely read further. He denies that anyone in the media, politics, or otherwise of prominence has claimed that climate science is settled. He ignores all of the book's substantive points because the cover was the only part worth reading.

Koonin is accused of having "cherrypicked and carelessly misrepresented many of his sources" by Bob Ward, the policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Politic Sciences.

Though his refutations are weak, at least Ward does seem to have read the book. In one chapter, Koonin takes the media to task for its overheated account of the link between human CO2 emissions and hurricane frequency, such as a USA Today article headlined, "Global warming is making hurricanes stronger, study says." That article states unequivocally that ​​"Human-caused global warming has strengthened the wind speeds of hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones around the globe." Koonin points out that the study on which that article is based doesn't make that claim with such certainty.

Koonin quotes directly from the study, but Ward accuses him of having omitted another excerpt from the same paper, which reads: "From a storyline, balance-of-evidence, or Type-II error avoidance perspective, the consistency of the trends identified here with expectations based on physical understanding and greenhouse warming simulations increases confidence that TCs have become substantially stronger, and that there is a likely human fingerprint on this increase."

Ward must be confused about what that sentence means because it doesn't support the USA Today article or undermine Koonin's point. That passage is basically saying that although there's only suggestive evidence that tropical cyclones have gotten stronger, we're better off assuming that they are and that humans are partly responsible. Koonin likely agrees with that statement, and he's certainly correct that it doesn't justify unambiguous headlines like, "Global warming is making hurricanes stronger, study says."

After Koonin wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, "Greenland's Melting Ice Is No Cause for Climate-Change Panic" in February 2022, a publication called Climate Feedback, which calls itself "a worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage," published a response. It labeled Koonin's article: "Cherry-picking, Flawed reasoning, Lack of context, Misleading."

The point of Koonin's op-ed was straightforward and illustrated by this graph.

A graph showing the estimated amount of ice loss from Greenland from 1900 to 2020.

While Greenland is losing ice, the main driver cannot be anthropogenic climate change because there is no steady increase in line with either human CO2 emissions or atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Carbon dioxide emissions and warming may be important, but other factors were clearly more important in the past.

Koonin also acknowledged that "the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that for the most likely course of greenhouse-gas emissions in the 21st century, the average annual ice loss would be somewhat larger than the peak values shown in the graph."

How is it "cherry-picking" to show all the data? Columbia University's Marco Tedesco claims that "the article picks only the last 10 years, excluding the remaining time series for the context." And yet, the graph published in the op-ed clearly shows the data since 1900 and addresses all of it.

Ironically, the Climate Feedback review is guilty of cherry-picking. It claims to rebut Koonin by stating that a 2015 article in Nature "found that ice loss between 2003 and 2010 'not only more than doubled relative to the 1983–2003 period, but also relative to the net mass loss rate throughout the twentieth century'."

In other words, Climate Feedback picked the fastest eight-year increase over the 121 years span shown on the chart and compared it to the lowest 21 years. That's the definition of cherry-picking. It's also irrelevant to the climate change debate because both periods occurred in the time period of rapid global warming, generally taken to have begun in 1970 or shortly before.

Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine, who contributed to Climate Feedback's attempt to rebut Koonin, dismisses the op-ed by claiming that it's rehashing "the old argument that the 30s were warmer than present [which] is false," when in fact, that's not the argument and has nothing to do with Koonin's point.

In another Climate Feedback articlethis one is a review of a video that Koonin made to summarize his book—Southern Illinois University's Justin Schoof disputes Koonin's claim that U.S. heatwaves are no more common today than in 1900. "The 2018 U.S. National Climate Assessment shows that the heat wave season in the United States has increased in length since the 1960s," he writes. This is doubly irrelevant since it refers to a different metric and a different time period than Koonin referred to. To make matters worse, Schoof is citing precisely the data that Koonin explains are misleading in his book.

Why does it matter that Koonin's critics don't want to bother responding to his arguments? Substantive debate is how science advances. If climate science is just an echo chamber, we may make perverse short-term overreactions to the data that have large costs and possibly even negative environmental effects. Many historical policy disasters have been caused by people claiming they shouldn't have to engage with informed critics.

Unsettled is about more than just climate policy—it seeks to free science from the shackles of organized dogma, the sole domain of an anointed elite, who feel justified calling their critics "cranks," "deniers," and "disinformation peddlers." Why engage with a heretic when he can be banished from the church altogether?

Edited by John Osterhoudt; camera by Luis Gutierrez; art by Nathalie Walker; additional editing by Danielle Thompson.

Photo: Brett Raney