The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) codifies a New York approach to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Unfortunately, the rationale for this massive transformation of the entire energy sector is suspect because the science contained in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment of global warming was not understood. Dr. Steven Koonin’s “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters” translates the IPCC scientific reports into plain English and explains why a more reasoned approach to climate change is more appropriate.
I have written extensively on implementation of the CLCPA because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy outstrip available technology such that it will adversely affect reliability and affordability, will have worse impacts on the environment than the purported effects of climate change, and cannot measurably affect global warming when implemented. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Last fall I recommended two books: “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet” by Bjorn Lomborg and “Apocalypse Never – Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All” by Michael Shellenberger. They both explained why New York is going down a path that will cost enormous sums of money, hurt more of the state’s poor than help, and will have no effect on global warming itself. Both authors base their belief that “global warming is mostly caused by humans” on the results of modeling done by the IPCC. I have enough experience with meteorological modeling that I believe those model results are at the lower end of the possibility scale.
The rationale for the Climate Act is that climate change is “the greatest threat facing life as we know it” based on the “science”. However, the authors of the Climate Act, the politicians who voted for the it, and the individuals charged with developing a plan to meet its targets did not choose to follow the science contained in the IPCC assessment of global warming for what I think are a variety of reasons. Caught up by massive publicity to push the climate catastrophe narrative these folks were either naïve, did not bother to try to understand or know full well that the science buried in the scientific reports contain major uncertainties and results that show this is an issue that can be addressed better.
Dr. Steven Koonin is a theoretical physicist, director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, and a professor in the Department of Civil and Urban Engineering at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. From 2009 to 2011, he was Under Secretary for Science, Department of Energy, in the Obama administration. His book “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters” translates the IPCC scientific reports into plain English and does a great job explaining issues with the climate model results. His background as a scientific advisor in the Obama Administration gives him the background to ask the right questions to develop a policy that will not do more harm than good. He makes a great case that the Climate Act is on the wrong path.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants an in-depth description of the problems with the current climate change narrative that the science is settled and supports the massive transformation to a net-zero economy. The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) had Koonin give the 2021 Annual GWPF lecture based on his book in London on November 16, 2021 that serves as a good advertisement for the book. The video of the lecture takes about 40 minutes of your time to get an excellent summary of the issues described in detail in the book.
GWPF Lecture Slides
In this section I will give an overview of the lecture. I took screen shots of the slides in the lecture. His first slide (discussed at 5:10 in the recording) gave examples of the alarming stories we have heard in the leadup and during the 2021 Conference of Parties meeting in Glasgow Scotland in November 2021.
 The ultimate problem with the climate modeling is that it cannot simulate clouds. In order to solve the physical equations in a global climate the world has to be divided up into a three-dimensional grid. The equations are calculated for each grid cell and repeated to generate a forecast. My particular problem is that the grid cell size needed in order to do these calculations are on the order of 100 km horizontally, the vertical height is often 1 km and they do the calculations every 30 minutes or so. As a result, the models cannot simulate clouds. Instead the climate modelers develop parameters to project the effect of global warming on clouds. That single parametrization is a big enough driver of climate that this model component alone could dominate the GCM projections. This uncertainty is well understood in climate science by those who have worked with these models. However, the problems with parameterization is not well understood and its ramifications on the policy decisions is poorly understood by most of those who advocate eliminating fossil fuel use.
Dr. Koonin went on to explain (6:35 in the recording) where these stories come from. The IPCC and a similar organization, the US National Climate Assessment have developed what has become to be known as the “consensus” for climate change science. Very few people have waded through all those reports and I am comfortable saying that no policy decision makers have read them. The book explains why the material in the scientific assessments say important and surprising things that have not been considered in the Climate Act and bely the narrative that there is a climate crisis.
The book gives examples (8:10 in the recording) of surprises where commonly held beliefs about climate change science are not supported. Please keep in mind that there are multiple lines of evidence and sources of data to support any climate science claim. The point is that while we are incessantly told that the science is certain and settled, the reality is that the scientific assessment reports and other analyses actually show information that runs contrary to the narrative.
Dr. Koonin explains (10:30 in the recording) how the unsettled science with alternative viewpoints has morphed into the climate crisis story in the next slide. Scientific analyses of observations and modeling simulations are numerous and not understood by many people. The IPCC and the equivalent US organizations summarize the literature in assessment reports. However, even those are overly technical for most policy makers so summaries are developed. Press releases describing the assessment results invariably highlight the scariest results and that is what usually drives public and decision maker perceptions. He concludes this discussion with a description of the bad behavior that turned the unsettled science into the current narrative of climate crisis certainty:
- Confusing weather with climate
- Confusing “climate change” with “a changing climate”
- Highlighting recent trends without historical context
- Implausibly extreme emissions scenarios termed “business as usual”
- Minimization of uncertainties
- Alarming predictions that never materialize and are soon forgotten
- Non-expert and activist reporters aiming to persuade rather than to inform
- Suppression of legitimate divergence from the consensus (“denier”,…)
All of this behavior has been evident during the Climate Act implementation process.
Dr. Koonin goes on to give specific examples of data contradicting the commonly understanding of increasing hurricane intensity and numbers and sea-level rise. The book includes more examples and provides greater detail. Importantly, remember that all his information is directly from the scientific assessment reports not filtered through the telephone game. The common perception of the existential threat of climate change are the result of the bad behavior he describes. Hurricane trends are described at 13:02 in the recording.
Sea-level trends are described at 14:08 in the recording.
Koonin uses the discussion of sea-level variability in the IPCC latest report as an example of how the real story is obscured in the report at 15:02 in the recording. It is well worth listening to this bit to understand the games that are played to tell the story.
In addition to the perverted historical observation stories, the projections for climate change impacts in general and sea-level rise in particular are biased as shown at 17:38 in the recording. The Climate Act rationale relies on these projections and does not recognize the issues raised for the Manhattan sea-level trends shown in the following slide.
The next slide (19:35 in the recording) looks at Nile River water level over 900 years to illustrate the point that there is always variation in a climate data observation set.
Last summer there was an extraordinary period of high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest that was wrongly attributed to climate change. However, the historical record of high temperatures (22:25 in the recording) does not indicate any trend that could be ascribed to climate change due to greenhouse gas concentrations increasing over time.
Another Climate Act claim is that there are climatic trends in precipitation. Again, the actual historical data don’t support those claims (23:02 in the recording).
In the September 2021, Hurricane Ida caused major damages in New York City and I predicted that the Climate Action Council would blame climate change. My forecast verified. Dr. Koonin provided a couple of graphs (22:25 in the recording) that don’t support any suggestion of a climatic trend causing the storm.
The next slide (24:50 in the recording) addresses SW United States and California droughts. He explained that there is no apparent trend in the Southwest but there seems to be a trend for droughts in California.
The climate crisis narrative ascribes the recent forest fire problems in California to a climate change in droughts but the following slide (24:45 in the recording) explains that forest management and development are also factors for forest fire damages.
One of the fundamental arguments for the Climate Act was that there will be major economic impacts if we don’t do something. The economic impact of warming slide (27:41 in the recording) gives examples of media coverage of those impacts and shows that the alarming numbers are given out of context. If you consider these values relative to the total costs they are “in the noise” of expected variability.
One of the major points in the book that was too complicated to include in the lecture was the over-reliance on an unrealistic projection (RCP8.5 on the chart) for future emissions. All of the most alarming projections use this very questionable assessment and, as a result, are very unlikely (29:32 in the recording).
Even when the unrealistic estimates of future emissions are used the impacts of climate change will “be small relative to the impacts of other drivers” (30:15 in the recording). He concludes that this should not be considered a climate crisis.
In the final section of the lecture and the book he discusses the likelihood that there will be global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He concludes that global “net zero” by 2050 is a fantasy in the developed world because of the importance of reliable energy systems, the difficulty of transforming the energy sector away from fossil fuels, and the potential that ill-conceived changes will have negative consequences (31:03in the recording). With respect to the Climate Act note that he believes that backlash is likely when the public becomes aware of the reliability risks and enormous costs of the net-zero transformation.
In the next slide (34:18 in the recording) he addresses whether net-zero is possible in the developing world. Given the facts that energy demand is correlated with well-being and that “fossil fuels are the most convenient and reliable way to meet growing demand” he believes that there are self-interests and moral obligations to meet that energy demand using fossil fuels. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise.
Koonin explains that if you want to decarbonize in the best way(35:42 in the recording) that it is necessary to optimize the rate of decarbonization. If you go too fast you incur costs due to disrupting the system (e.g., blackouts due to reliability issues) and extra costs because the technology is immature. If you go too slow there are greater risks of climate damages.
Koonin ran out of time to discuss the slide at 36:53 in the recording. He makes the point in this slide that the “largest cost of a green grid is not generation but reliability”.
At 37:04 in the recording he stated that adaptation will be dominant response and explained why. Also note that he makes the point that it is a lot easier to adapt if you’re richer than if you’re poorer. As a result the best global solution may be to help developing countries move along to more prosperity.
In the slide described at 36:18 in the recording he makes a point that is prominent in the book. It is inappropriate to “misrepresent the science to persuade rather than to inform”. He notes that Jonathan Gruber was one of the primary architects of Obamacare and in the quotation admits to exploiting the lack of understanding of economics of the American voter. The architects of the Climate Act certainly did the same thing to con the New York legislature and Governor to pass the plan to “do something” about climate change with the provisions included. I believe that all of the problems noted that result from this misrepresentation are part of the fallout of the Climate Act.
Finally, he recommended (40:05 in the recording) a course forward. He says first we need to not panic and put more emphasis on adaptation rather than mitigation. He concludes that decarbonization pathways were put together by people who have no sense of the real world.
Koonin’s concludes that “precipitous climate action can be much more dangerous than any climate change you can imagine. I concur. If you want a readable description of the basis for our belief than I recommend reading his book.