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We Can’t Handle the Truth and Don’t Look for It

On complex issues like climate change, media narratives are reliably devoid of uncomfortable facts.

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by Steven E. Koonin (BenBella Books: 2021), 320 pages.

Jennifer Granholm—promoted to energy secretary for her failure as governor of Michigan—was recently asked on CNN about the collapse of the condominium in south Florida.

“Given what we know about the change in climate, given that we’ve seen in these so-called extraordinary tides and the impact that it can have in areas like south Florida” the CNN presenter contextualized, “do you think that climate could have played a role in that building’s collapse?”

“We don’t know fully,” Granholm replied.

We might interpret the “we don’t know fully,” as a way to allow rhetorical space for the extraordinary tides of systemic racism, which is the other omnipresent and omnipotent cause of everything in the universe right now. Regardless, it would have been nice to have Steven Koonin, the author of Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t, and Why it Matters, in that CNN studio to give some further context to the energy secretary and the CNN presenter.

When it comes to extraordinary tides and rising sea levels, Koonin might point out that “the question is not whether sea level is rising—it’s been doing that for the past 20,000 years.” Then he might go into the global mean sea level and explain how difficult it is to measure and thus to make supportable statements about human influence on such a phenomenon. In short, he would have been able to readily expose the nonsense of confidently connecting a building collapse in south Florida to the issue of climate change and the human contribution to it.

One of the benefits of reading Koonin’s Unsettled is to realize not just how biased, but how critically unhinged the press is in covering environmental issues. Koonin is not some corporate or think tank hack trying to legalese an important issue of our time out of existence or importance. He believes that global warming seems to be happening and also believes that human activity is a contributing factor. He’s been doing science for almost the last 50 years, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from MIT, with multiple academic appointments and accolades, currently at NYU, previously chief scientist at B.P. and undersecretary for science in the Obama administration.

Koonin has nothing to gain by writing this book. On the contrary, he’s losing admission in all the right circles, an admission that he already had in his pocket due to his curriculum vitae and left of center political leanings. As this article was written, no review of Unsettled has yet appeared in the New York Times, a decision followed by most other establishment media. You would expect that if a highly credentialed academic publishes a book that questions major beliefs and priorities of an administration that he was part of, then that would arouse the curiosity and interest of everyone who proclaims the importance of an issue like climate change. No such luck here.

We are way past the truth-seeking phase of our history. Narrative sustainability is the standard by which all information, events, and opinion are to be judged by. We can’t handle the truth anymore and we don’t care. Koonin quotes Timothy Wirth, former president of the U.N. Foundation, who said that “[w]e’ve got to ride this global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy.”

Koonin got another shot of narrative sustainability when a review of Unsettled appeared in the Wall Street Journal. In a later article for the Journal, Koonin wrote, “this paper published Mark Mills’s review of “Unsettled,” my book on climate science, on April 25. Eight days later, 11 self-appointed ‘fact checkers’ weighed in with a 4,500-word critique on the website ClimateFeedback.org. Facebook is waving that fact check as a giant red flag whenever the review appears in anyone’s feed.” The review was branded with “very low scientific credibility” although no fact in the review or the book was ever challenged. As is all cases where facts cannot be challenged, these “self-appointed ‘fact checkers’” provided, what else, “context”—namely, the imposition of a highly questionable and at times even silly interpretation as a way to maintain the narrative.

In Unsettled, Koonin has written a concise and useful guide for anyone who wants to understand the basics of climate change. It ought to be required reading for all journalists who want to cover this subject. If such were the case, it would have been an important corrective to the massive amounts of misinformation about climate change that dominate the media. He covers everything from what we know about global warming to rising sea levels and extreme weather phenomena to how the U.N. reports are made and how they are reported on. Also included is explanation of how to spot red flags on news articles, and clear and cogent evaluation of current policy proposals. All of it is done in a clear, dispassionate fashion.

In reading Koonin, one gets that now almost forgotten feeling of reading someone who, above all, is interested in the truth. Steven Koonin is a human being, but despite the limitations imposed by this condition, his methods and goalposts remain scientific. As he often remarks in the book, his purpose as a scientist is not to persuade, but to inform.

Napoleon Linarthatos is a writer based in New York.

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