If you’ve been following international news lately, you’ll have noticed a new development. Europe and Asia are suddenly worried about energy. With winter coming, costs are soaring and there’s even concern about shortages that might trigger industrial shutdowns and endanger people’s ability to heat their homes.
From an object of loathing and scorn, fossil fuels have been transformed into objects of desire. And as transitory as that attitudinal shift may be, it’s also a stark reminder of the extent to which modern life depends on the likes of natural gas, oil and such.
This would come as no surprise to Steven Koonin, the author of a recent controversial book called Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Koonin is a physicist who spent several years as undersecretary for science in the U.S. Department of Energy under President Barack Obama.
Let’s be clear about something: Koonin doesn’t reject the proposition that humans influence the climate. He’s not a “denier.” So if you’re looking for a book arguing that climate change is a hoax, don’t bother with Unsettled. You’ll get no joy from it.
That said, Koonin has a range of observations, many of them critical about what has become climate orthodoxy.
For instance, delving into the details of the underlying research papers provides a more nuanced and uncertain picture than we’re presented with via press releases and media summaries; climate science is far less mature than generally portrayed; sometimes information morphs into persuasion, thereby blurring the distinction between science and advocacy; and there’s a real fear of the career consequences attendant on publicly critiquing the orthodoxy.
Koonin also devotes a long chapter to models in general and how much climate science depends on them. Having authored one of the first textbooks on computational physics modelling, it’s a subject he knows something about.
Koonin isn’t against modelling; he quotes the famous observation that “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” However, he believes that modelling the Earth’s climate “remains one of the most challenging scientific simulation problems there is.” So be warned about banking on the results.
Along the way, he discusses some of the related issues.
There’s the question of how the model tuning process can range from guesswork to cooking the books; there’s the matter of models dramatically disagreeing with each other, a fundamental discrepancy that’s then downplayed by averaging the results; and there’s the fact that they can’t explain the strong warming observed from 1910 to 1940, which suggests there are material climate influencers that the models neither understand nor capture.
As for the talk about the world becoming carbon-free over the next half-century, Koonin calls it “a practical impossibility.” There are several reasons.
Modern prosperity and economic development are closely related to the availability of abundant, affordable and reliable energy. Today, fossil fuels provide about 80 percent of the world’s energy supply.
And led by Asian economic development, global energy demand is expected to grow by about 50 percent through 2050. Even with a significantly increased role for renewables like solar and wind, it’s estimated that the world will still rely on fossil fuels for something in the neighbourhood of 70 percent of its mid-century energy supply.
Of course, improvements in efficiency and switches in fuel sources can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, U.S. emissions fell 16 percent between 2005 and 2018, largely due to substituting natural gas for coal. But natural gas is still a fossil fuel.
And besides, every 10 percent reduction in developed world emissions is offset within four years by new emissions from economic growth in the developing world.
None of this means that pursuing renewables and reducing carbon is a bad idea. In the meantime, though, we’d better take very good care of our current energy infrastructure – pipeline construction being an example. Otherwise, catastrophe beckons.
Koonin relates an occasion where he asked an affluent American audience about the implications of eliminating their carbon footprint. What he got from them was an expectation that some vague mix of “technology” and “policies” would facilitate the evolution of a relatively painless carbon-free existence for their children and grandchildren.
Bottom line: much of the popular acquiescence for carbon-free is still at the virtue-signalling stage. The adult conversation about trade-offs, implications and dependencies hasn’t kicked in yet. When it does, the situation might get much more disputatious.
If aspirations and reality collide, always bet on reality.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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