Physicist and former CalTech provost Steven Koonin’s superb 2021 book, Unsettled? What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, busts many popular myths about climate change. Koonin is clear that global temperatures are indeed rising, and that some of this rise in temperatures is caused by human activity. But Koonin warns – and he marshals much data to justify his warnings – that what we really know about the details behind and beyond these large facts about climate change, and about efforts to arrest it, is surprisingly tentative. Indeed, such knowledge is often so skimpy as to be non-existent.
Our relatively meager amount of knowledge about climate change, as well as about the likely consequences of different policies to deal with it, is surprising not because of any recent discoveries that cast new-found doubt on what was once legitimately believed to be ample knowledge. No, our relatively meager amount of knowledge about climate matters has always been meager, yet this ‘meagerness’ has been consistently ignored by prominent politicians, journalists, and other ‘elite’ molders of public opinion.
A public frightened into believing that some collective calamity is in the offing is a public more eager for, or at least more docile in the face of, authoritarian efforts marketed as necessary to prevent the calamity.
With the turn of almost every page of Unsettled? I was struck by the ominous parallels between the mainstream narrative on the climate and the mainstream narrative on COVID. Pointing out such parallels wasn’t at all Koonin’s purpose; in fact, I suspect that he himself took no notice of these parallels. And, of course, I’d earlier been alerted by other writers to these parallels. But the length and reality of these parallels weren’t driven home to me until I’d read Koonin’s tract. Each and every one of the following attitudes – which I distill from my reading of Koonin’s book and from my immersion over the past 30 months in all things COVID – is prominent in matters of COVID as well as in matters of the climate.
Humanity is doomed to suffer gravely unless the government takes drastic, indeed, unprecedented corrective action and does so immediately!
Nothing – no other goal, aspiration, hope, or concern – nothing is as important as doing all that we can to reduce as much as is physically possible our exposure to the toxic substance that poses an existential threat to humanity! Therefore, there’s no need to account for the ‘costs’ and other collateral harms that might arise from drastic corrective action, for none of these costs and harms, even if they’re real, can possibly compare to the costs and harms that will befall us if we don’t take in full measure the prescribed drastic action!
The present emergency demands decisive interventions that are neither delayed nor diluted by trifling concerns, such as the sanctity of private property rights or the desire to avoid overreach by the government’s executive branch!
The problem is one that can be correctly diagnosed only by scientific experts. Fortunately, such a diagnosis has been confidently made. And so to save humanity we must put aside our petty individual self-interests and for the greater good do as we are instructed by the experts! Humanity’s very survival demands that we all obey the Science, for only the Science can light the path from a dark and dangerous today into a shining and safe tomorrow!
The Science reveals that there is one and only one path to our salvation. Everyone must follow the One Path! Those who insist on other paths would not only destroy themselves but all of humanity!
Fortunately, the Science is clear, complete, and settled! Therefore, anyone who challenges the Science – anyone who dares to challenge the prediction that catastrophe will occur unless government overhauls society and the economy as instructed by the Science and the Scientists – is a slack-jawed ignoramus, a sociopathic apologist for plutocrats, or a dangerously benighted ideologue! And so there’s nothing to be gained by allowing these dissenting voices to speak! Indeed, dissenting voices must be silenced lest they lure the unsuspecting masses into a self-destructive skepticism of the Science!
To keep to a minimum the number of anti-social renegades who insist on acting contrary to the counsel of the Science, the Scientists and their champions in government and the media must, sad to say, routinely simplify or exaggerate – and occasionally, alas, even to falsify – the public messaging. Taking such liberties with the strict, literal truth is, of course, not to lie; only a rube would think it to be so. The taking of such liberties with the strict, literal truth furthers the higher Truth. Taking such liberties is a necessary means of promoting the greater good by ensuring that the noble masses, simple-minded creatures that they are, aren’t misled by pointless doubts and irrelevant nuances to behave self-destructively.
These parallels of public discussions about the climate and public discussions about COVID are indeed real and ominous.
The passage in Koonin’s book that, more than any other, drove home to me the reality of these ominous parallels appears on page 171:
Creating alarming headlines through highly uncertain projections of the future is one thing, but promoting the specter of climate-related deaths by distorting existing data is quite another. A 2019 article in Foreign Affairs by the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, was titled “Climate Change Is Already Killing Us.” Yet the text doesn’t deliver on the catchy title. Astoundingly, the article conflates deaths due to ambient and household air pollution (which cause an estimated 100 per 100,000 premature deaths each year, or about one-eighth of total deaths from all causes) with deaths due to human-induced climate change. The World Health Organization itself has said that indoor air pollution in poor countries – the result of cooking with wood and animal and crop waste – is the most serious environmental problem in the world, affecting up to three billion people. This is not the result of climate change. It’s the result of poverty. That pollution does indeed affect the climate … but pollution deaths aren’t caused by a changing climate; it’s the pollution itself that kills. Such brazen misinformation by the WHO’s leadership is particularly upsetting for its potential to diminish confidence in the organization’s public health mission.
Readers might recall that Dr. Ghebreyesus, seated in his high perch, has a habit of predicting calamity from COVID, even well into the virus’s decline in lethality. This dishonest or incompetent (I’m not sure which) performance by one of the world’s supposed leading public-health officials is, obviously, part of a longer pattern. The pattern is ominous.
Science is an especially sweet and nutritious fruit of the Enlightenment. But an even sweeter and more nutritious fruit is the recognition that truth – including, but not limited to, scientific truth – is only reliably approached without ever being absolutely and forever secured, and approached only through open inquiry, discussion, debate, and tolerance for dissenting opinions and perspectives.
Too many elite intellectuals and public officials today – and, I fear, also too many ordinary men and women – have lost sight of the fact that science and reason are tools for improving our understanding and for supplying us with some information that’s useful for making the complicated and inescapably value-laden trade-offs that, in this vale, we must make. The belief that science is a source of complete and godlike knowledge is not merely mistaken, it’s a toxic fuel of authoritarianism when it’s combined with the false understanding of social problems as being a science project to be ‘solved’ by persons in power.