Ben Franklin was wrong: Death and taxes are not the only two certainties in life. Heck, they aren’t even certainties.
There is no death for even the most long-debunked climate myths, especially on the pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. And the only certainty about carbon taxes — or indeed any serious climate action — is that the Journal will try to undercut their moral urgency by giving life to dead myths.
In the case of the Journal’s Saturday piece, “Climate Science Is Not Settled,” we get the umpteenth error-riddled rehash of denier talking points — to the effect that the remaining uncertainties in climate science undermine the case for strong action.
The piece is by former BP chief scientist and former Department of Energy official, Steven Koonin, but this dangerously error-riddled piece is much more BP than DOE — and its bizarre and unjustified conclusions have already been debunked by leading climate scientists.
In fact, it has long been known that the reverse is true: Uncertainty is a major reason climate action is so urgent. Three years ago, a major climate-assessment study of just the rainfall impacts to this country conducted by Sandia National Laboratory concluded:
“We want to reemphasize that the methods of this study reveal how compelling risk derives from uncertainty, not certainty. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the risk. It is the uncertainty associated with climate change that validates the need to act protectively and proactively.”
As a side note, Koonin was in charge of “coordinating and overseeing research across the DOE” when this major scientific report from a DOE lab came out.
Uncertainty increases the moral necessity of climate action for two main reasons. First, virtually all the large-scale uncertainty associated with climate inaction concerns how catastrophic the worst-case scenario is. That’s because inaction makes the chances of a best-case scenario — tolerable or manageable impacts — very small.
Climate science makes clear that “inaction eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether future warming will be catastrophic.” Worse, inaction introduces the very real risk that we might render large parts of the currently inhabited and arable land of the world unfit for human life and/or crops, reducing the carrying capacity of the planet far below its current level of 7 billion, let alone the 9+ billion people we are projected to have post-2050.
But uncertainty at the smaller-scale level is also a key reason we must act. Critics of climate models like Koonin often note that they aren’t able to make accurate predictions of local weather. That’s true, and unfortunately that makes waiting and adapting a far more costly proposition.
We know that global warming makes previously rare, city-devastating deluges increasingly common. We know that devastating deluges of the kind that have swamped Boulder and Nashville and upstate New York and Pakistan are becoming more frequent and more intense over time thanks to climate change. We know the same is true for storm surges like Superstorm Sandy’s that flattened so much of the New York and New Jersey coast.
But we can’t predict exactly where these super storms will strike. So that means if we don’t spend the money to minimize them from happening somewhere, we have to spend money preparing for them everywhere. And that is very, very expensive.
Relatedly, it is a very well known that humans dislike uncertainty, especially uncertainty surrounding the possibility of catastrophic risks. That’s why we own fire insurance, even though the chances of a fire are very small. It’s a key reason we own health insurance, especially catastrophic health insurance. We don’t know who is going to get catastrophically sick; we only know that if it were to happen to us, it could easily be a life-ruining, bankruptcy-inducing event.
That’s a key reason uncertainty motivates so much human action.
And it’s a key reason inaction on climate change is so immoral. It is one thing to take a potentially catastrophic risk upon yourself — smoking, eating more and more unhealthy foods — but to impose a potentially catastrophic risk on billions of people who contributed little or nothing to the problem is among the most immoral acts imaginable. That’s particularly true when the prospective damage is irreversible over a time span of centuries and the cost of even very strong action is negligible if not zero (or less!).
Koonin’s Wall Street Journal piece itself is an embarrassing collection of errors, denier talking points and hypocrisy. You can find fuller debunkings by scientists here and here. But a few whoppers are worth highlighting.
Koonin claims that “the impact today of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.”
No. Not even close! In fact, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which Koonin repeatedly mentions but apparently never read closely) states clearly that the “best estimate is that humans are responsible for all of the warming we have suffered since 1950.”
As Dr. Michael Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, explains in his reply to Koonin:
The fact is that the actual peer-reviewed scientific research shows that (a) the rate of warming over the past century is unprecedented as far back as the 20,000 years paleoclimate scientists are able to extend the record and (b) that warming can ONLY be explained by human influences.
Indeed, it is the RATE of warming that presents such risk to human civilization and our environment.
Climate scientists Michael Oppenheimer and Kevin Trenberth also debunk Koonin, noting, “Warming is well beyond natural climate variability and projected rates of change are potentially faster than ecosystems, farmers and societies can adapt to without major disruptions.”
They add that Koonin’s main conclusions — that climate science only justifies increased R&D into renewable energy and “cost-effective” energy efficiency — “ignore decades of research results.”
Bottom Line: Although Koonin was technically in charge of overseeing science at DOE for years, he has chosen to ignore decades of research, including research done at DOE during his tenure.