In 2021, the American Political Science Review generated a storm of controversy by publishing Ross Mittiga’s “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change.” A political science professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and former Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, Mittaga raises a problem he does not solve: must we sacrifice democracy to save the planet? (I posed the same question in these pages 13 years ago: “All the Leaves Are Brown,” Winter 2008/09).
The most overwrought, assertive climate change activists have a “transformative” agenda to halt and reverse global warming. The problem is that there’s no evidence voting majorities in any modern democracy are willing to be transformed by Green New Deals or other, even wilder schemes. And if the people reject the climate agenda? There must be ways to enact it despite them. There may even be ways to insist that this thwarting of the popular will is, in fact, a more noble rendering of democracy than mere government by consent of the governed.
Mittiga denies, strenuously yet unconvincingly, that he advocates authoritarian governance. Democratic governments that fail to take vigorous measures to solve the “climate crisis,” he argues, will lose their legitimacy by failing to protect the health and safety of their citizens (the same citizens who at the ballot box resist such measures as carbon taxes). Democracies can only retain legitimacy by enacting climate policies that may require suspending civil liberties and other democratic procedures while taking direct command of the economy—in other words, authoritarianism. Heads-I-win, tails-you-lose.
Mittiga hangs this paradox on a contrived distinction between “foundational legitimacy” (the principles of liberal democracy, especially consent and individual rights) and “contingent legitimacy,” with the latter being wholly historicist—in other words, unprincipled. “[I]n crisis moments,” he writes, “legitimacy may not only be compatible with authoritarian governance but actually require it.” He lists the following steps such a government might take to fight the “climate crisis”:
- “a censorship regime that prevents the proliferation of climate denialism or disinformation in public media.”
- “relaxing property rights in order to nationalize, shutter, or repurpose certain companies, particularly in the energy and agriculture sectors.”
- “imposing a climate litmus-test on those who seek public office, disqualifying anyone who has significant…history of climate denialism.”
- “establish institutions capable of overturning previous democratic decisions (expressed, for example, in popular referenda or plebiscites) against the implementation of carbon taxes or other necessary climate policies.”
The veil over Mittiga’s “we have to destroy democracy to save it” argument slips completely in his conclusion, where he posits that “the climate crisis may also give rise to new standards of legitimacy.” He proposes several supplementary standards that would be comical if they weren’t so typical of the progressive mind. One is the “epistocracy standard”:
Satisfying this standard may entail elevating the status or power of experts in the political process by, for instance, affording them a salient consultatory role or even some kind of veto power over legislation…. One can imagine a “Supreme Court of Climate Experts,” tasked with evaluating, modifying, or striking down legislation to the extent it exacerbates the climate crisis or contributes to other grave forms of environmental destruction.
This hardly differs from the parade of authoritarian horrors offered elsewhere in the article.
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Why waste time on this exercise in kindergarten Hobbesianism that should be an embarrassment even by the desiccated standards of the American Political Science Review? Not only because it is a revealing example of the will-to-power of the climate change fanatics, but also because the logic of Mittiga’s argument rests on the premise that evidence of a “climate crisis” is incontrovertible:
As the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows unequivocally, climate change is already causing massive displacement, agricultural loss, famine and drought, extreme weather, and novel health crises in many regions and states.
In fact, the detailed chapters in the series of IPCC reports going back 30 years (including the most recent—AR6—released last August), which differ from the “summary for policymakers” that are not written or reviewed by the scientists who write the actual findings, offer little support for these summary claims, and often contradict them. Mittiga either never read the full report, or read it without even minimal attention to detail. But remove the premise of undeniable crisis, and his article moves from being pernicious to irrelevant.
He’d have some inkling of this if he’d read Steven E. Koonin’s evenly written book on climate change, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Koonin is a notable voice on climate change, with a background in physics at Caltech and other premier institutions of science (including most of the federal research laboratories), and a stint as undersecretary for science in the Department of Energy in the Obama Administration. The climatistas can’t simply dismiss him as a Trumpist “climate denier,” or even a conservative.
Still, the parallel example of Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish welfare-state-loving social democrat, shows that not even liberal bona fides provide cover if you dissent from climate orthodoxy. Koonin notes that an op-ed he published in the Wall Street Journal on some crucial uncertainties of climate science generated vicious attacks against him: “I had inadvertently broken some code of silence, like the Mafia’s omerta.” He says he knew he’d “be attacked for writing” Unsettled.
Why did he do it? Koonin explains how leading a team of scientists in 2014 in a deep dive into climate assessments at the request of the American Physical Society left him shocked, and many of his colleagues privately embarrassed, at the poor quality of data and weakly supported assumptions behind common claims about climate change. But Koonin is a far from typical climate skeptic. He ought rather to be regarded as an honest broker for the subject. Despite his book’s title—Unsettled is clearly aimed at the debate-stifling cliché that “the science is settled so shut up and fall in line”—Koonin affirms many core claims of the climate “consensus.” Unsettled is no brief for those who think climate change a “hoax,” or that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a mere “trace gas” with little or no potential for driving significant climate change. “Not everything you’ve heard about climate science is wrong,” he writes early in the book. He later affirms that “the climate system is quite sensitive” and that “[t]here is no question that our emission of greenhouse gases, in particular CO2, is exerting a warming influence on the planet. Human influences on the climate have grown over the past decades and will continue to grow under all but the most radical scenarios for future emissions.”
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But Koonin raises serious questions about the extent of climate change, and whether it will have massive adverse effects on human and ecosystem well-being. The great strength of Unsettled is Koonin’s sober, balanced review of the disparate range of related scientific inquiries and his calm critique of the government assessment reports’ defects, reports produced serially for the past 30 years. One major cause of our distorted climate change debate is that “[t]he public gets their climate information almost exclusively from the media; very few people actually read the assessment summaries, let alone the reports and research papers themselves…. The data and analyses are nearly impenetrable for non-experts.” Koonin demonstrates that these summaries are often erroneous or misleading, and, like the children’s game of telephone, get mangled further by journalists and politicians. As I’ve said above, summary statements are seldom submitted to scientists for review or comment before publication. The discrepancies between the summary statements, written by U.N. or U.S. government agency staff, and the actual report language have long been known. It ought to be a scandal.
Koonin’s prose is accessible without skimping on serious technical detail. Drawing entirely from the “mainstream” climate assessments of the IPCC, the U.S. government, and the peer-reviewed scientific literature that the U.S. government and the United Nations both employ, Koonin walks through what we know about climate change and the basic physics of greenhouse gases’ thermal effects. The most important usable distinction Koonin makes is between man-made “climate change” and “a changing climate” consistent with the historic range of temperature variation. From the media and environmental activists you’d think we are well above the lane of natural variability over the last 30-50 years, but Koonin points out that the IPCC’s fifth assessment report in 2014 (AR5) “has only low confidence that the global warming of the past thirty years has exceeded the range of reconstructed temperatures [of the last 1,400 years].” (A sixth assessment report was issued last August after Koonin’s book was published. In another Wall Street Journal op-ed, Koonin sees nothing new in it; if anything, it draws back slightly from some of the previous doomsday scenarios.) If he were writing the summary of the state of climate science based on what the full scientific reports actually say, it would read:
The earth has warmed during the past century, partly because of natural phenomena and partly in response to growing human influences…. Unfortunately, our limited observations and understanding are insufficient to usefully quantify either how the climate will respond to human influences or how it varies naturally. However, even as human influences have increased almost fivefold since 1950 and the globe has warmed modestly, most severe weather phenomena remain within past variability. Projections of future climate and weather events rely on models demonstrably unfit for the purpose.
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Koonin explicates that last sentence in his book’s most dazzling chapter. Computer climate models are the largest “black box” of climate change, and Koonin skillfully demystifies how they work—and don’t work. I’ve heard scientists describe the intricacies and defects of climate modeling several times, but have never seen a written account as lucid as Koonin’s. One fact jumps out as particularly important for the wider public—the models’ “resolution.” Climate models are surprisingly crude, dividing the atmosphere into 100-square-kilometer grids, which are then stacked like pancakes from the ground to the upper atmosphere. Most climate models have one million atmospheric grid squares, and as many as 100 million smaller (10 sq. km.) grid squares for the ocean. The models then attempt to simulate what happens within each grid square and sum the results. It can take months for the fastest supercomputers to complete a model “run” based on the data assumptions fed into the model (a whole separate problem).
But, writes Koonin, “many important [climate] phenomena occur on scales smaller than the 100 km (60 mile) grid size (such as mountains, clouds, and thunderstorms).” In other words, the accuracy of the models is highly limited. Why can’t we scale down the model resolution? Koonin, who taught computational physics at Caltech, explains: “[A] simulation that takes two months to run with 100 km grid squares would take more than a century if it instead used 10 km squares. The run time would remain at two months if we had a supercomputer one thousand times faster than today’s—a capability probably two or three decades in the future.” This basic computational constraint is at the heart of the defects of climate projections, but it is far from the only significant factor Koonin covers. Unsettled confirms something I’ve long argued, to the outrage of climatistas: “So here is a real surprise: even as the models became more sophisticated—including finer grids, fancier subgrid parametrizations, and so on—the uncertainty increased rather than decreased.” The more we learn of the complexities of the climate system, the less we know with confidence. Koonin offers the understatement, “It’s uncommon for the popular media to discuss how problematic our climate models are.”
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Unsettled debunks or qualifies many of the most frequent claims about sea level rise, hurricane and tornado frequency and intensity, drought, rainfall, flooding trends, agricultural output, human health and mortality, and economic cost. This last factor ought to be the biggest red flag about the serial exaggeration and demagoguery that puff up the “climate crisis.” Koonin explains how the IPCC “consensus” estimates conclude that “the economic impact of human-induced climate change is negligible, at most a bump in the road.” The IPCC says that a probable 2% annual global economic growth rate will experience only a 0.04% decrease in growth. Translation: it will take an extra two years to reach the same level of wealth that we would reach if there were no climate change. It is hard to square this finding with the portents of doom and disaster we hear from the climate campaigners every day. For this we are told we need to make a “radical transformation” of our economy and society by central government diktat? Koonin quotes a “prominent” unnamed environmental policymaker: “Yes, it’s unfortunate that the impact numbers are so small.” (Lomborg, environmental economist Richard Tol, and Nobel laureate William Nordhaus have been making this point for years, but almost no one pays attention.)
In nearly every case of climate change horrors, journalists and activists misrepresent the scientific literature. Koonin is restrained in his discussion of this problem, never mentioning bad actors by name or possible motives for the distortion of climate science. Instead, he describes a general scene where a politicized issue has “broken” science and policy. The problem is the “self-reinforcing alignment of perspectives and interests” that has led the climate science and policy world into a disposition to “persuade rather than inform.”
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What should be done both to fix the scientific assessment of climate change and to deal with climate change of whatever dimension or cause? Koonin calls for establishing a rival “Red Team” of scientists that “would be charged with vigorously questioning one of the assessment reports, trying to identify and evaluate its weak spots.” Similar suggestions in the past raised hackles in the climate community, strongly suggesting it is a very good idea.
Koonin’s discussion of policy measures, though brief, is also plainspoken and realistic. He notes the fantasy of the “net zero by 2050” goals of policymakers, and that we’ll be using fossil fuels for many decades to come because the developing world, especially, needs a lot more affordable energy to reduce poverty. (Though he doesn’t review the defects of our currently deployed “renewable” energy sources such as wind and solar power, that beat is very effectively covered by Mark Mills, Robert Bryce, Jonathan Lesser, and everyone at the neo-progressive Breakthrough Institute.) To counter the ill-effects of warming, he says we need a more deliberate strategy of adaptation, something already in progress with the development of drought-resistant crops and more efficient water usage systems, to name just two examples. Koonin notes that the Dutch have effectively dealt with rising sea levels for centuries.
Koonin makes a basic point seldom acknowledged: human beings are highly adaptable. I like to point out that humans have lived for centuries near the North Pole and in the Arabian desert. Koonin says that “[s]ocieties have thrived in environments ranging from the Arctic to the Tropics” and “have adapted through many climate changes,” with fewer technological resources than we have today.
Finally, in the event of catastrophic warming, Koonin recommends that we conduct serious research into “geoengineering” or “solar radiation management”—interventions such as high-altitude injection of reflective particles that would change the earth’s “albedo,” its reflectivity. This proposal remains largely off-limits to climate orthodoxy and has the same defects as the rest of our climate projection efforts: a huge uncertainty about the effects, unanticipated or unprovable, it might have on the climate beyond just reducing warming. But, Koonin argues sensibly, “it’s irresponsible for anyone who believes that there’s an impending ‘climate catastrophe’ not to support such research.”
Unsettled is a remarkable book—probably the best book on climate change for the intelligent layperson—that achieves the feat of conveying complex information clearly and in depth. One thing every reader will take away from Steven Koonin’s sober survey is the complete disconnect between the reality of climate science and the authoritarian designs of many climate agitators, who pose a much greater threat to humanity than a rising thermometer ever will.