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9 September 2021

Is climate writing too obsessed with “the science”?

The overwhelming evidence of global warming is the biggest problem that deniers face.

By Philippa Nuttall

“We are a great nation. A nation of science, of the Enlightenment, of Louis Pasteur,” said Emmanuel Macron in an effort to persuade a recalcitrant French public to get vaccinated against Covid. Science was offering people a way to protect themselves and they should have confidence in its ability and in progress more generally, argued the president. In richer nations, like France, the majority of unvaccinated people are those who have chosen not to get jabbed, with many doubting science.

Covid and climate change are two areas where this tendency towards doubt seems particularly strong. I have no idea what the US scientist Steven Koonin’s views are on the pandemic, but his takedown of climate science in his new book, Unsettled, follows a similar logic to that posited by those sceptical of anti-Covid measures. “The Science” is being used to serve an end, “to persuade rather than inform”, leaving the fact-based, generally accepted narrative looking shaky, he argues.

“We need to move from The Science back to science,” writes Koonin. Climate science is “far less mature” than presumed, and “climate facts” are nicely packaged “bits of misinformation” sold to an undiscerning public by ill-informed journalists and policymakers. They, in turn, have been misled by scientists focused on “saving the planet”.

Koonin isn’t any old guy. He was chief scientist at BP, undersecretary for science in the US Department of Energy during the Obama administration and is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. In short, he knows, or should know, his stuff. He writes clearly and lucidly, quotes extensively from reports, and sprinkles his text liberally with graphs and data.

But therein lies the problem: the latest science does not bear out his conclusions, not least the idea that humans are having only a “physically small warming influence on the climate”. The report released on 9 August by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear climate change is caused by humans and demonstrates the direct link between extreme weather and a warming world. Other analysis contradicts Koonin’s theory that the net economic impacts of climate change are likely to be “minimal”. “Climate change poses the biggest long-term threat to the global economy,” concludes the Swiss Re Institute. “If no mitigating action is taken… the world economy could shrink by 18 per cent in the next 30 years.”

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Rather than the work of “some secret cabal”, Koonin blames “a self-reinforcing alignment of perspectives and interests” led by practically everyone — the media, politicians, scientific institutions, activists, non-governmental organisations and the public — for allowing “The Science to gain such prominence over science”. Koonin warns that citizens need to wake up. Given the apparently “unsettled” nature of climate science, and balking at the huge task of decarbonising the global economy, Koonin’s plan B is largely to adapt to whatever climate change throws at us. 

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[See also: How public concern over climate change has surged]

Koonin may be right that adaptation deserves more attention, though not at the expense of mitigation. “The discussion of adaptation is, at best, a dog’s breakfast of anecdotes and possible strategies,” he writes. Given the long lifespan of carbon emissions, even if the world stopped emitting today, the effects of climate change would be felt for years to come.

I also agree that “we need to get better at communicating climate science” and “reduce the hysteria in climate journalism”. However, this shouldn’t be a call for reporters to find fault when there isn’t any and place unwarranted doubt in the public consciousness. Rather, it should be a reminder to ensure The Science is explained clearly, no weight is given to false arguments or half-baked theories, and the penchant for doom-laden stories suggesting the end of the world is nigh is quelled immediately.

The latest IPCC report is not an opportunity to burden the public with tales of resignation and despair, but a chance to show that the economic opportunities and technologies to reduce emissions exist. Journalists need to empower the public to demand clean energy and climate action, and to take to task politicians who use arguments, such as those put forward by Koonin, as an excuse to continue to delay action.

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters  
Steven Koonin
BenBella Books, 320pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire