Koonin Unsettled Review by Tony Smith

Steve Koonin’s book, Unsettled, is a very useful text for putting science, particularly climate science, and its range of findings into historical and methodological perspectives. It brings and demands a certain methodological rigor regarding climate science that is often absent in the public headlines generated by journalists and politicians. As a board member of 2030orbust.Org, I applaud Steven for taking the time and the genuine intellectual effort to do the work he has done on contrasting daily headlines with what original studies actually say and also looking at irregularities in our history of planet Earth that show the wide range of climate extremes on Earth over millions of years. In this sense, Mr. Koonin has done all of us a service. 

While I and  do come to very different conclusions regarding the timing and necessity of human behavior and action than he does, I salute his stand and his plea/intent for thinking things through scientifically. I recommend his book as background with 3  significant caveats that I will get to.

Koonin takes on multiple facets of the climate conversation, starting from the clear ( fundamentally undisputed) facts that the Earth is, in fact warming, so the question is:

How do we measure global warmth?

moreover, how do we ascertain the various causes that seem to impact the warming? 

Overall,  Steve asserts that, counter to the scientific consensus that fossil fuels are in fact dominant in the current warming and also counter to what the lead scientists of all five major oil companies admitted in Federal court in March 2018 ( where they publicly said that they accept the consensus that we humans and our burning our fossil fuels is the dominant cause of the warming…..  [See Scientific American, March 22, 2018, “Oil Giant(s) Accept Climate Consensus, …”] :

1. That the burning of  fossil fuels does not have enough impact in size and concentration to be a primary cause of the warming and

2. The climate changes have been overreported, amplified, and dramatized beyond the rightful evidence, the observations of the original studies.

Steve does, however, acknowledge that fossil fuels are a real and increasing contributor to global warming. He does not recommend that we do nothing but rather that we reflect deeply on what and when we should act, for both climate and economic reasons.

Koonins’ approach: Koonin sets out to demonstrate that carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide are such a small percentage (about 1/2 of 1% of the atmospheric gases are greenhouse gases, but as we shall see, they’re constructed in such a way as to have a much more disproportionate impact on trapping heat than their small volume % would indicate) that they cannot be the chief cause let alone the sole cause of global warming.  In in any case, Koonin says that even increasing them significantly does not present a clear and present danger of an overheating planet. This is the thesis of Unsettled.

As we shall see, his own evidence is not always as tight and incontrovertible as he may think. For certain it contrasts with the substantial counter-evidence generated by the clear consensus that investigative studies estimate between 80 to 90% of climate scientists…..note: the 97% consensus, which, when examined in depth, is not the 97% consensus that has been so often alluded to but is still a clear consensus (see Forbes, 12/14/2016, “Fact Checking: The claim on 97% consensus on anthropogenic climate change”). 

His assertions also contrast directly with the evidence of the leading scientists of the five major oil companies who, even though they have a huge vested interest in minimizing the seen impact of fossil fuel burning,  nonetheless said in federal court in 2018 that they accept the consensus science that it is the burning of fossil fuels that is the dominant moving force in the planet warming.  [See Scientific American, March 22, 2018, “Oil Giant(s) Accept Climate Consensus, …”] The five major oil companies also argued that it is the economics of industrial energy that pulled for the burning of fossil fuels ( and not the actual extraction and processing of fossil fuels which is what the oil companies do). It is, in fact, the burning of fossil fuels that causes the buildup of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, which get more thickly concentrated very close to our Earth’s surface in the troposphere. 

The troposphere is the first 7 -9 miles upwards of the atmosphere from the surface. And as we increase emissions each year (so far, the past predicts these increases, year in and year out, moderated somewhat by the Covid period and the substitution of natural gas for coal which cuts  CO2 emissions by 50% ). This “insulation blanket” of GHG, Green House Gases, gets thicker and thicker this traps increasing amounts of carbon and methane, which, we will see, can and does create some huge vicious circles of CO2 (and methane (CH4) that trap heat 30 times more powerfully than CO2, increasing heat which increases the release of more C02/CH4,  which in turn increases heat, which releases more CO2/CH4 ), etc., etc., etc.

Indeed, Steve does not always accord to his own work in Unsettled the same scientific rigor he seems to pursue in his zeal not to add any distortion. He says he intends to interpret the observations of the original studies quite strictly, explicitly, and conservatively. In pursuing scientific integrity, he gives great credence to the levels of certainty and ‘levels of confidence’ that the IPCC devised to qualify the observations in the original studies (IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, widely considered a chief arbiter of the evidence). 

The discipline to stick only to the studies’ qualified observations leads Steve Koonin to assert that the observations/raw data of the original studies are not “conclusive,” not settled, and not certain as to the timing and impact of global warming and the role human fossil fuel emissions play in the warming…… Great. This by itself is an eminently reasonable conclusion.  We shall see, however, that scientific certainty is mostly fiction (vs. at best, levels of probability)  and may not be necessary nor even fully attainable in order to act decisively and effectively. This has proven especially true at the many times when human beings have worked together…without conclusive certainty……… to undertake actions that end up moving the needle of history.  For example, on page 57, he asserts that water vapor accounts for 90% of the heat-trapping (vs. heat-cooling) effect of greenhouse gases, and yet he makes no reference in the index or in the text to what science backs that up. This leaves us as the reader trusting him with what he asserts without the specific proof behind it. This kind of unsupported assertion is exactly what he accuses the media and politicians of doing, unsupported assertions….and, interestingly, he doesn’t always stick to his very own standard.

Also, his evidence sometimes can show up in direct contradiction to other evidence based on “hard” evidence from scientific studies, including satellite photographs, and he makes no mention of this. For example, he asserts that the Greenland ice sheet loss is not increasing in any way and its loss of ice is fundamentally unchanged in that way for 80 years. This is directly contradicted by the satellite high-resolution photographs taken over Greenland. According to a research article referenced in USA Today as of 2/13/24 titled, “Greenland is turning green again for the first time since medieval times. Why it matters,”  Greenland is changing, and changing a lot. The article is based on a piece from Scientific Reports 14, article number 3120  (2024) by authors Grimes, Carrivick, Smith, et al., which asserts that the land cover changes across Greenland are dominated by a doubling of vegetation in three decades ( https //d o I Dot o r g / 10.1038 /small s41598-024-521-24-1).

“Ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet and glaciers and ice caps has increased since the 1980s — giving vastly decreased ice cover. Mean temperatures between 2007-2012 were 3° C warmer than the 1979-2000 average. An estimated 11,000 square miles of Greenland’s ice sheet, glaciers, and ice caps have melted over the past three decades….this is slightly greater than the size of Massachusetts. If all the ice in Greenland melted, the Global sea level, it is estimated, would increase by 23 ft. Notwithstanding that, this report compares mean numbers in temperature observations to averages, and the article does not seem to specify over what period the satellite photos were taken. Nonetheless, this evidence is seemingly not close to Koonin’s assertion that nothing is taking place in Greenland that is an acceleration of warming effects.

What gives?

In addition, as Gary Yohe in the Scientific American article of 5/13/21 said in his article, “ A new book manages to get climate science badly wrong,”  there are clear photographic studies taken from 11 different satellites that show specific evidence of the acceleration of the shrinkage also of the  Artic and Antarctic ice sheets. That acceleration is occurring at six times the prior rate of the 1990s. Why is this material counter-evidence not mentioned and addressed fully if Steve Koonin’s gold standard is rigorous, evidence-based assertions, or as he says it, “science is about informing, not persuading or advocating.” This writer concurs with Koonin that keeping original data from being taken over by advocacy/persuasion is no cinch in today’s media and political environments, and it matters to do so. Critically matters. Keeping these conversational domains….science vs. advocacy………. separate and distinct takes real, ongoing, intellectual discipline. Intellectual discipline involves coaching and practice. I surmise such rigor may be, for many of us, beyond our addiction to handy answers and quick conclusions. 

Basic tools:  Both Steve and the rest of us do well to remember that an assertion is a linguistic act; it is a statement that says: “X is true, and I promise to produce the requisite evidence to demonstrate its truth (factualness),” i.e.,  it is a fact (material, measurable, observable) or depending on the context of the assertion, that it is highly probable. That said, Koonin’s evidence does not always match up to such a standard. For example, on water levels, he calls attention to the water levels in Manhattan Harbor have not increased as might be predicted and haven’t even reached some of their depths of the 1950s. However, this local observation does not tell us to what level the oceans themselves overall have risen  (which he acknowledges has been happening for millenia.) What he doesn’t acknowledge, according to Yohe,  is that in the eight to nine inches that have increased since the 1880s, 30% of it has been in the last two decades, i.e., 30% of the increase has happened in 14% of the time which is clear evidence that the ocean rises are accelerating.

Similarly, in chapter 5, called Hyping the Heat, Steve pays considerable attention to ‘running records,’ ‘trailing records, ’  and ‘absolute records’ of many recordings of temperature highs and lows. Yet, it is not clear to me at least what this has to do with average annual global temperatures, over time, where measured, and how measured. His apparent conclusion in his book (which is already almost three years out of date, published in 2021), of course, misses data that has come later that may directly contradict his assertion that nothing out of the historical norm is happening regarding heat. This assertion is directly contradicted by the evidence of the NOAA and NASA (see, amongst others, the interview by Neil DeGrasse Tyson of Gavin Schmidt of the Goodard Institute for Space Studies ( “How 2023 Broke our Climate Models with Neil deGrasse Tyson”)  or simply google the question, is the earth growing hotter?  2023 is, according to NOAA, the hottest year on record and by a substantial margin. Koonin’s book was published almost 3 years ago. Nevertheless, excluding this counter data and its measurements does not serve well his intent to be objective and, if not, at least balanced by “balanced,” I mean including studies that challenge his thesis that there are no high magnitude changes and if so, fossil fuels are not primary.

Steve Conan’s concern is for predictability based on what is already predictable, historical, and observable. His scientific concern is not to nail down,  identify, discover, or create “breakthroughs,” massive, unexpected jumps forward in The Human Condition, or be able to precisely foresee “breakdowns,” enormous, unpredictable events that are phenomenally damaging and at least intermittently overwhelming.  By contrast, Authentic Leaders and those who give them their leadership realize and accept that there is no absolute certainty regarding anything and yet act anyway. So, one place Steve and I and part company is in the role of discontinuities, which is to say, the massive, sudden (unforeseen and unforeseeable) breakdowns and breakthroughs that suddenly emerge and alter the predictable landscape often massively, very often suddenly and sometimes irreversibly.

Given discontinuities, whether a breakthrough or breakdown, are not linear nor predictable, they are what some scientists call “chaotic” or “emergent,” meaning that no amount of information will allow you to predict precisely what is happening. They, in fact, do happen in their own unforeseen and unpredictable way. Some water dripping patterns of faucets, bird flight patterns, and aspects of predicting weather have been reported as ‘emergent’ phenomena. Regarding the climate challenge we all face every one of us, there are discontinuities, surprising and unpredictable phenomena that we all will face. His book does not deal with climate discontinuities, which are very real and arguably the most significant threat we face. The climate threat has aspects of  the danger that are compound impact/exponential changes, sometimes called reinforcing  “vicious circle.” I’ll give two examples.

An enormous amount of land mass called permafrost / Tundra is estimated to be 6.9 million square miles. By contrast, the United States is 3.9 million square miles. This tundra/permafrost has been, for the most part, frozen for 11,000 years and, in some cases, just a few feet in depth; in other cases, it has been hundreds of feet in depth. This permafrost comprises much of the upper north regions of Canada, Siberia, Alaska, and the higher elevations in lower latitudes. It is a huge amount of land called permafrost/Tundra. As the Earth Heats, this Tundra and permafrost begin to melt, releasing enormous amounts of methane which is 30 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide. It creates a vicious compounding circle, sometimes called exponential change, which goes like this: as the globe warms and the tundra and permafrost melt, it releases methane which at a very high rate traps more heat, which then melts more permafrost and Tundra, which releases more methane, which then traps more heat, which releases more melting of tundra and permafrost, which then releases methane, which traps more heat, et., etc…, etc. This is a classic vicious circle where the result of an action compounds the impact of the cause of an action. 

The other self-reinforcing vicious circle in climate change is the loss of massive ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctica latitudes. As the Earth warms and more ice melts, not only does that raise sea levels, but it also cuts down on the reflective/deflective surface of the ice sheets, which in turn traps more solar radiation and heat that would otherwise be sent into space. This, too, is a compounding effect.

So here are the three major caveats I mentioned at the beginning of the article regarding wholeheartedly recommending the book.

  1. Koonin does not always apply the rigor he implores us to adapt to his own work, specifically when addressing directly contradictory evidence in an article or study, as distinct from simply regretting the media’s bias.
  2. He does not delve deeply at all into discontinuities and the effect of vicious circles, such as the enormous amount of tundra permafrost melting into methane generating more hear which then generates more methane, etc., etc., nor does he explore how the loss of ice not only raises one concern by rising sea levels but also adds another factor by reducing the reflective/deflective surface of the massive loss of ice surface to send solar radiation and heat back out into space.
  3. As Steve does not deal with discontinuities in much depth( he is more about continuities and what can be safely predicted from carefully observed historical data) he also does not demonstrate much interest in or facility with discontinuities called breakthroughs of which there are 100s of examples including many at large scale human levels. He does not seriously consider that human beings could and can end masse make a huge, sudden, and unexpected difference, such as we have with.…the civil rights movement, the Apollo program, the internet, the fast track COVID vaccines, the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union (being the first empire to dismantle itself voluntarily), China’s enormous surge in productivity in 30 years, tesla and space x, myriad medical breakthroughs and their fast deployment, et al. So, for Dr. Koonin, that factor of human breakthroughs is a not  a factor in his predictions and estimate of global warming……….and that is  a blind spot on his part as breakthroughs, intentionally caused, have existed, do exist, and will exist.

One last note on the unpredictability of discontinuities, both breakdowns and breakthroughs, and their unforeseen and even unforeseeable impact. In 2008 (see Business Week, 2008, interview with Jack and Susie Welch), Jack Welch asked what he thought of global warming and said, “ It’s like Pascal’s wager.” Pascal was a mathematician in the 1690s and came of age as “God” was no longer the undisputed master of the universe….now science was in town, and the rational clock universe of Newton had seemingly become a direct competitor to God and the religious narrative. When Pascal, a statistician interested in probabilities, was asked if he believed  in God, he said, “Well, let’s say I believe in God and comport myself accordingly. I acknowledge the Church, wear my Sunday best, and atone for my sins, and it turns out that, in fact, God does not exist. Well, I am still in pretty good shape. But let’s suppose that I say, insist on, that there is no God, and it turns out that there is a God; well then, I am in pretty tough shape, and I will be shoveling coal in a very hot place for a very long time.”

 The analogy to our current climate condition is that if we were to spend and invest our enormous human energy and intelligence into reducing and ultimately ending the billions of tons of carbon emissions, we put into the atmosphere each year. We needed not to be so alarmist and committed. We could have taken 10, 20, 30 more years. Still, we are left ok, in fact, in pretty good shape ………..we have a renewable energy system, we dropped the carbon impact decisively, and the attendant damages of fossil fuel by-products such as breathing and drinking microplastics, and the 8,000,000 lives lost each year due to the pollutants from burning fossil fuels per year, drop precipitously. In other words, if it turns out we were too alarmist and moved faster than we might have needed to, we are nonetheless, left in ok shape. If, on the other hand, we assume there is not any substantial real threat, and we continue business as usual with increasing the billions of tons of carbon emissions each year, year over year, and it turns out that we massively mistook/miscalculated the impact of the  6.9 million square miles of thawing permafrost,  and of huge losses in the reflective/deflective abilities of the Artic and Antarctic ice, and the deforestation of so much forest that it releases massive amounts of carbon and destroys the carbon capture/storage of our forestlands, not to mention we fail to intervene to reduce the 2 billion tons each year of the methane/CO2 outputs of the 1 billion cows belching, farting and pooping, then it will be way too late to stop any “runaway” GHG (greenhouse gases) and likely way too late to even adapt to massive carbon increase and its correlated temperature rise. We will have a much hotter planet and can only adapt to extreme conditions. Not our best choice.

Welch went on to say that the climate challenge is not ‘certain’ either way for any of us and said that business must be prepared for any downside, probable or not, particularly when it could be catastrophic. A recent and vivid of example of not attending to high stakes/low probably downsides occurred in January 2020, when then-president Trump was informed by his advisors that there was a 1% chance that there would be a global pandemic. He dismissed it, given that the 1 % probability seemed so low that he did not need to deal with the catastrophic possibility. He did not realize that a 1% chance of a huge catastrophe must be dealt with seriously and preparedly. It cannot be ignored that what this president did not see was the lives that his dismissiveness cost proved to be many, likely at least 1,000s.

None of this measuring of the environmental impacts considers the direct human impact that human beings do not fare so well with prolonged and severe environmental stress, such as what happened with the 1,000,000 migrants in Syria, who after prolonged droughts (2006-2010)  drought sought refuge in the cities (Aleppo, Damasus)  with no readymade capacity to include them effectively……climate migration stress is real for everyone so touched. There is a line of discourse (see  UN report on the drought loss of 80% of livestock/75% of farms, that ties this prolonged and severe climate stress to ripening the conditions of inequality for the violent civil war/uprisings (2011) that followed.

These compounding, self-reinforcing effects are not effectively addressed or calculated in Unsettled, and these effects have already begun in the world. 

Steve Koonin’s book is more restricted to being strictly diligent with original studies and deals with prediction and the explanation that goes with prediction. As we have seen, he does not fully engage with the discontinuities of massive breakdowns or the possibility of massive breakthroughs. This is a key place where Steve Koonin and diverge in what we see is happening and in what we see can happen.

In conclusion, How human beings really can be and are, when they confront themselves and require themselves to be unpredictable, resourceful, resilient, discontinuous, unpredictable and sometimes, simply awesome.  Suppose you read Dr. Koonin’s last few chapters. In that case, there is little to no likelihood in his view that human beings will alter their behavior in any major way regarding the climate, even though we have done so over and over and over again in human history. The innovations of the 20th and the 21st century in particular, mark our expanded ability to create beyond what is already known or anticipated. I suggest that Dr. Koonin’s bias towards his predilection for, the scientifically predictable is based on an inevitable resignation as to what human beings, especially end masse, are capable of. Steve Koonin is a scientist who works with information to determine what is predictable and foreseeable. Authentic leadership, citizen leadership,  works with people for what is unpredictable, including what would be considered breakthroughs. This breakthrough leadership is the work of, to empower individual citizens to take action to end the ‘crisis’ in the climate crisis.

This stand accounts for the discontinuities in human history, both the massive breakdowns and the compounding effects of vicious circles (such as the thawing of the permafrost and the melting of the ice sheets), as well as the massive breakthroughs in science and society we have pointed to, massive breakthroughs that we human beings have generated, is the vital and fundamental divergence between Steve Koonin and Unsettled and

Given we at 2030orbust are generating a stand-based intervention, informed by but not solely given by historical, predictive science, here is the stand of 2030orbust.

The future is mine.

I am ending the climate crisis.

My actions have a global impact.

Thank you for doing the actual work of thinking this through.  You are now grounded in the basics of climate science, its advantages, and potential blind spots.


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