A former high-ranking Obama administration official says climate science and the implications of global warming are not "settled," insisting such claims are "misguided" and stifle debate on the matter.
Writing a Page One story in the Wall Street Journal Weekend Review section, Dr. Steven Koonin argues that group think among experts has been inhibiting "the scientific and policy discussions that we need to have about our climate future."
Koonin, who served at the Energy Department as President Obama’s undersecretary for science in the Energy Department, is director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University.
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Koonin’s position strikes a blow against climate change activists as People’s Climate March organized demonstrations at more than 2,000 locations worldwide.
In New York, tens of thousands participated in the demonstration demanding urgent steps against carbon emissions as the United Nation’s General Assembly opened.
"We often hear that there is a 'scientific consensus' about climate change," writes Koonin
. "But as far as the computer models go, there isn't a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences."
Koonin says his extensive training as a computational physicist with a 40-year career of scientific research and management, has given him an up-close knowledge of climate science.
"Detailed technical discussions during the past year with leading climate scientists have given me an even better sense of what we know, and don't know, about climate," writes Koonin.
The point, Koonin says, isn't whether the climate is changing, as "the climate has always changed and always will."
Further, he says, there is little doubt that humans are influencing climate change, as greenhouse gases, mainly from carbon-dioxide emissions, have had an effect.
But the main question remains about how the climate will change under both natural and man-made influences, which will affect energy and infrastructure choices.
"Those questions are the hardest ones to answer," writes Koonin.
However, Koonin adds, while humans can cause serious issues for the climate, "they are physically small in relation to the climate system as a whole," with additions to carbon dioxide to "directly shift the atmosphere's natural greenhouse effect by only 1% to 2%."
Other scientists have argued that the sun’s solar activity has a much greater impact on earth temperatures that human activities.
Meanwhile, while the Earth's average surface temperature has risen by 0.9 degree Fahrenheit over the last quarter of the 20th century, the increase has been much slower over the past 16 years, while the human contribution to carbon dioxide has gone up by 25 percent.
"Yet the models famously fail to capture this slowing in the temperature rise," says Koonin. "Several dozen different explanations for this failure have been offered, with ocean variability most likely playing a major role. But the whole episode continues to highlight the limits of our modeling."
Koonin says current global warming models have limitations. Many advocates of global warming dismiss or downplay contradictory data, he writes.
To this end, Koonin cites:
- Models that show Arctic ice melting over the past 20 years forget to note the almost equal growth of ice across Antarctica, which he says is “now at a record high.”
- A prediction that the “lower atmosphere in the tropics will absorb much of the heat of the warming atmosphere” has not materialized.
- The fact global sea levels in the first half of the 20th century rose at almost the same rate as today.
- Climate sensitivity— "that is, the warming induced by a hypothetical doubling of carbon-dioxide concentration," he says is "no different, and no more certain" than it was 30 years ago.
These, and many other factors that are still not decided will not allow lawmakers and the public to make a definite decision when it comes to climate change, he contends.
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"But I fear that rigidly promulgating the idea that climate science is 'settled' (or is a 'hoax') demeans and chills the scientific enterprise, retarding its progress in these important matters, he writes.
"Uncertainty is a prime mover and motivator of science and must be faced head-on. It should not be confined to hushed sidebar conversations at academic conferences ...
"Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future."
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