“If It’s Consensus, It Isn’t Science”

(p. C9) . . . science itself is not conducted by polls, regardless of how often we are urged to heed a “scientific consensus” on climate. As the science-trained novelist Michael Crichton summarized in a famous 2003 lecture at Caltech: “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” Mr. Koonin says much the same in “Unsettled.”

. . .

As for “denying,” Mr. Koonin makes it clear, on the book’s first page, that “it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it.”

The heart of the science debate, however, isn’t about whether the globe is warmer or whether humanity contributed. The important questions are about the magnitude of civilization’s contribution and the speed of changes; and, derivatively, about the urgency and scale of governmental response. Mr. Koonin thinks most readers will be surprised at what the data show. I dare say they will.

As Mr Koonin illustrates, tornado frequency and severity are also not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global atmospheric CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high—they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years.

. . .

Mr. Koonin’s science credentials are impeccable—unlike, say, those of one well-known Swedish teenager to whom the media affords great attention on climate matters. He has been a professor of physics at Caltech and served as the top scientist in Barack Obama’s Energy Department. The book is copiously referenced and relies on widely accepted government documents.

. . .

Never have so many spent so much public money on the basis of claims that are so unsettled.

For the full review, see:

Mark P. Mills. “The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 26, 2021): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 25, 2021, and has the title “‘Unsettled’ Review: The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.”)

The book under review is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

Some Oil and Gas Landmen Seamlessly Transition to Being Wind and Solar Landmen

(p. A1) Carter Collum used to spend mornings shoulder to shoulder with competitors in the record rooms of East Texas courthouses, hunting for the owners of underground natural-gas deposits. At night, he made house calls, offering payments and royalties for permission to drill.

Mr. Collum worked as a landman, tracking the owners of oil and gas trapped in rock layers thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface and getting their signatures, a job about as old as the American petroleum industry.

. . .

These days, the jobs are going dry. Landmen, after riding the highs of the boom, face weakened demand for fossil fuels and investor indifference to shale companies after years of poor returns. Instead of oil and gas (p. A10) fields, some landmen are securing wind and solar fields, spots where the sun shines brightest and the wind blows hardest.

The difference is shale wells eventually empty and, in good times, that keeps landmen on the prowl for new land and new contracts. Wind and solar energy never run out, limiting demand for new leases as well as landmen.

For the full story, see:

Rebecca Elliott. “Oil-and-Gas Landmen Now Hunt for Wind and Sun.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 19, 2021): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 18, 2021, and has the title “Landmen Who Once Staked Claims for Oil and Gas Now Hunt Wind and Sun.”)

Hundreds of Thousands at Risk From Blackouts That Shut Off Air Conditioning

(p. A15) Because both heat waves and blackouts are becoming more frequent, “the probability of a concurrent heat wave and blackout event is very likely rising as well,” Dr. Stone said.

So Dr. Stone, along with a team of eight other researchers — from Georgia Tech, Arizona State, the University of Michigan and the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada — set out to gauge the human health consequences when power failures coincide with heat waves.

. . .

Crucially, the researchers wanted to know how hot the insides of homes would get under those conditions — something that Dr. Stone said had never been tried before.

. . .

The results were alarming. In Atlanta, more than 350,000 people, or about 70 percent of residents, would be exposed to indoor temperatures equal to or greater than 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the level at which the National Weather Service’s heat classification index says heat exhaustion and heat stroke are possible.

In Detroit, more than 450,000, or about 68 percent, would be exposed to that indoor temperature. In Phoenix, where a vast majority of residents rely on air-conditioning, the entire population would be at risk — almost 1.7 million people.

Even without a blackout, some residents in each city lack access to air-conditioning, exposing those residents to dangerous indoor temperatures during a heat wave. Those numbers range from 1,000 people in Phoenix to 50,000 in Detroit, based on the characteristics of their homes, the authors found.

That exposure is most pronounced for the lowest-income households, who are 20 percent less likely to have central air-conditioning than the highest-income households.

For the full story, see:

Christopher Flavelle. “Blackouts Are Growing Threat to U.S. Cities.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 4, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 5, 2021, and has the title “A New, Deadly Risk for Cities in Summer: Power Failures During Heat Waves.”)

The research co-authored by Stone and mentioned above was described in:

Stone, Brian, Jr., Evan Mallen, Mayuri Rajput, Carina J. Gronlund, Ashley M. Broadbent, E. Scott Krayenhoff, Godfried Augenbroe, Marie S. O’Neill, and Matei Georgescu. “Compound Climate and Infrastructure Events: How Electrical Grid Failure Alters Heat Wave Risk.” Environmental Science & Technology (published online in advance of print on April 30, 2021).

Cahokian Indians “Re-Engineered” Their Environment to Make It “More Stable”

(p. D3) A thousand years ago, a city rose on the banks of the Mississippi River, near what eventually became the city of St. Louis. Sprawling over miles of rich farms, public plazas and earthen mounds, the city — known today as Cahokia — was a thriving hub of immigrants, lavish feasting and religious ceremony. At its peak in the 1100s, Cahokia housed 20,000 people, greater than contemporaneous Paris.

By 1350, Cahokia had largely been abandoned, and why people left the city is one of the greatest mysteries of North American archaeology.

Now, some scientists are arguing that one popular explanation — Cahokia had committed ecocide by destroying its environment, and thus destroyed itself — can be rejected out of hand. Recent excavations at Cahokia led by Caitlin Rankin, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, show that there is no evidence at the site of human-caused erosion or flooding in the city.

Her team’s research, published in the May/June issue of Geoarchaeology suggests that stories of great civilizations seemingly laid low by ecological hubris may say more about our current anxieties and assumptions than the archaeological record.

. . .

“We do see some negative consequences of land clearance early on,” Dr. Rankin said, “but people deal with it somehow and keep investing their time and energy into the space.”

Rather than absolutely ruining the landscape, she added, Cahokians seem to have re-engineered it into something more stable.

That finding is in keeping with our knowledge of Cahokian agriculture, says Jane Mt. Pleasant, professor emeritus of agricultural science at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study. While Cahokians cleared some land in the uplands, Dr. Mt. Pleasant said, the amount of land used remained stable. While heavy plow techniques quickly exhausted soil and led to the clearing of forests for new farmland, hand tool-wielding Cahokians managed their rich landscape carefully.

Dr. Mt. Pleasant, who is of Tuscarora ancestry, said that for most academics, there is an assumption “that Indigenous peoples did everything wrong.” But she said, “There’s just no indication that Cahokian farmers caused any sort of environmental trauma.”

For the full story, see:

Asher Elbein. “Ruling Out Ecocide for a Thriving City’s Downfall.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 4, 2021): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 3, 2020, and has the title “What Doomed a Sprawling City Near St. Louis 1,000 Years Ago?”)

“As a Species, We’re Very Good At Adapting”

(p. A11) Barack Obama is one of many who have declared an “epistemological crisis,” in which our society is losing its handle on something called truth.

Thus an interesting experiment will be his and other Democrats’ response to a book by Steven Koonin, who was chief scientist of the Obama Energy Department. Mr. Koonin argues not against current climate science but that what the media and politicians and activists say about climate science has drifted so far out of touch with the actual science as to be absurdly, demonstrably false.

. . .

Mr. Koonin still has a lot of Brooklyn in him: a robust laugh, a gift for expression and for cutting to the heart of any matter. His thoughts seem to be governed by an all-embracing realism. Hence the book coming out next month, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.”

Any reader would benefit from its deft, lucid tour of climate science, the best I’ve seen. His rigorous parsing of the evidence will have you questioning the political class’s compulsion to manufacture certainty where certainty doesn’t exist. You will come to doubt the usefulness of centurylong forecasts claiming to know how 1% shifts in variables will affect a global climate that we don’t understand with anything resembling 1% precision.

. . .

Mr. Koonin is a practitioner and fan of computer modeling. “There are situations where models do a wonderful job. Nuclear weapons, when we model them because we don’t test them anymore. And when Boeing builds an airplane, they will model the heck out of it before they bend any metal.”

“But these are much more controlled, engineered situations,” he adds, “whereas the climate is a natural phenomenon. It’s going to do whatever it’s going to do. And it’s hard to observe. You need long, precise observations to understand its natural variability and how it responds to external influences.”

Yet these models supply most of our insight into how the weather might change when emissions raise the atmosphere’s CO2 component from 0.028% in preindustrial times to 0.056% later in this century. “I’ve been building models and watching others build models for 45 years,” he says. Climate models “are not to the standard you would trust your life to or even your trillions of dollars to.”

. . .

Let technology and markets work at their own pace. The climate might continue to change, at a pace that’s hard to perceive, but societies will adapt. “As a species, we’re very good at adapting.”

. . .

. . . , the mainstream climate community will try to ignore his book, even as his publicists work the TV bookers in hopes of making a splash. Then Mr. Koonin knows will come the avalanche of name-calling that befalls anybody trying to inject some practical nuance into political discussions of climate.

He adds with a laugh: “My married daughter is happy that she’s got a different last name.”

For the full interview, see:

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., interviewer. “How a Physicist Became a Climate Truth Teller.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 17, 2021): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 16, 2021, and has the title “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher’ Review: A Heart in the Right Place.”)

Koonin’s climate book, discussed in the interview quoted above, is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

Biden Plan “Lurches Into” the “Quagmire” of Government Picking Tech Winners and Losers

(p. A23) The Biden administration has put forward the biggest, boldest, most expensive expansion of government in at least a half-century.

. . .

The Biden plan doesn’t just tiptoe around the quagmire of the government picking winners and losers, or what has been termed “industrial policy” — it lurches into it. Hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested by government agencies, whose record of success with direct involvement in the commercial world is, at best, mixed.

A recent case in point: the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which, at $787 billion, was much, much smaller than the more than $4 trillion sum of the two Biden plans put forward thus far. While the 2009 stimulus did put much-needed dollars into the economy without fraud or abuse (as Mr. Biden likes to remind us), it didn’t achieve another of its goals: a swifter transition to clean energy.

As a 2015 Congressional Research Service report reviewing stimulus projects further noted, “Solyndra declared bankruptcy in late 2011 and defaulted on its $535 million loan, Abound Solar received about $70 million of its $400 million loan before shuttering its solar panel operation and filing for bankruptcy in 2012, and SoloPower never met the requirements to initiate its $197 million loan guarantee.”

None of this should be too surprising. Going all the way back to the creation of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation in 1980, which I covered as a New York Times correspondent, the federal government’s recurring efforts at directing energy transitions have mostly struggled.

. . .

No one should want the Biden plan to fall short. But given its vast sweep — I conservatively counted more than five dozen initiatives — the administration should increase its chances of success by leaning more heavily on private models for help and using tax incentives to a greater extent for efficiency.

For the full commentary, see:

Steven Rattner. “Handle Big Government With Care.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Biden’s Big Government Should Be Handled With Care.”)

Cuomo-Endorsed Closure of Indian Point Nuclear Reactors Increases New York’s Use of Fossil Fuels

(p. B6) For most of his long political career, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo railed against the dangers of having a nuclear power plant operating just 25 miles away from New York City, saying its proximity to such a densely populated metropolis defied “basic sanity.’’

But now, the plant is preparing to shut down, and New York is grappling with the adverse effect the closing will have on another of Mr. Cuomo’s ambitious goals: sharply reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

So far, most of the electricity produced by the nuclear plant, known as Indian Point, has been replaced by power generated by plants that burn natural gas and emit more pollution. And that trade-off will become more pronounced once Indian Point’s last reactor shuts down on April 30 [2021].

“It’s topsy-turvy,” said Isuru Seneviratne, a clean-energy investor who is a member of the steering committee of Nuclear New York, which has lobbied to keep Indian Point running. The pronuclear group calculated that each of Indian Point’s reactors had been producing more power than all of the wind turbines and solar panels in the state combined.

For the full story, see:

Patrick McGeehan. “Nuclear Plant’s Shutdown Means More Fossil Fuel in New York.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): A15.

(Note: bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 13, 2021, and has the title “Indian Point Is Shutting Down. That Means More Fossil Fuel.”)

In North Equatorial Africa, Air Pollution Declines with Economic Growth

(p. A9) LAGOS, Nigeria — Rapidly growing countries generally see sharp increases in air pollution as their populations and economies expand. But a new study of air quality in Africa published on Monday [Feb. 8, 2021] has found the opposite: One of the continent’s most vibrant regions is becoming less polluted.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that levels of dangerous nitrogen oxides, a byproduct of combustion, in the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa have declined sharply as wealth and population in the area have increased.

. . .

The reason, according to researchers, is that an increase in pollution from industry and transportation in the area studied — from Senegal and Ivory Coast in the west to South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya in the east — appears to have been offset by a decline in the number of fires set by farmers.

For the full story, see:

Shola Lawal. “As Economies Get Bigger, Air Pollution Falls in Africa.” The New York Times (Tues., February 9, 2021): A9.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 8, 2021, and has the title “A Surprise in Africa: Air Pollution Falls as Economies Rise.”)

The National Academy of Sciences study mentioned above is:

Hickman, Jonathan E., Niels Andela, Kostas Tsigaridis, Corinne Galy-Lacaux, Money Ossohou, and Susanne E. Bauer. “Reductions in No≪Sub≫2≪/Sub≫ Burden over North Equatorial Africa from Decline in Biomass Burning in Spite of Growing Fossil Fuel Use, 2005 to 2017.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118, no. 7 (2021): e2002579118.

“Solar Geoengineering” Is “a Test of Our Technological Ingenuity”

(p. C6) . . . humans have been so successful at changing the environment that we have become the dominant influence on the natural world. According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, “Under a White Sky,” how we proceed is, in one sense, full of possibility, a test of our technological ingenuity and derring-do, . . .

. . .

Kolbert is a writer for The New Yorker, where parts of this book originally appeared. Her narrative voice is steady and restrained — the better, it sometimes seems, to allow an unadorned reality to show through, its contours unimpeded by frantic alarmism or baroque turns of phrase. The people she meets are trying to reverse the course of man-made environmental disaster, whether that might involve electrifying a river, shooting diamond dust into the stratosphere or genetically modifying a species to extinction. She says that the “strongest argument” in favor of some of the most fantastical sounding measures tends to be a sober realism: “What’s the alternative?”

The biggest and most urgent of the impending cataclysms involves climate change. Mitigation efforts — reducing emissions — won’t do anything to alleviate the greenhouse gases that are already trapping heat on our planet. The title of Kolbert’s book comes from one possible side-effect of “solar geoengineering” (or “solar radiation management,” in what’s supposed to be the less scary parlance). Spraying light-reflective particles into the atmosphere will make blue skies look white.

For the full review, see:

Szalai, Jennifer. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES: Exploring All Measures to Save the Environment.” The New York Times (Thursday, February 11, 2021): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 10, 2021, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES: Electrified Rivers and Other Attempts to Save the Environment.”)

The book under review is:

Kolbert, Elizabeth. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. New York: Crown, 2021.

Optimal Size Changes With Changing Demand and Technology

(p. B1) Twirling above a strip of land at the mouth of Rotterdam’s harbor is a wind turbine so large it is difficult to photograph. The turning diameter of its rotor is longer than two American football fields end to end. Later models will be taller than any building on the mainland of Western Europe.

Packed with sensors gathering data on wind speeds, electricity output and stresses on its components, the giant whirling machine in the Netherlands is a test model for a new series of giant offshore wind turbines planned by General Electric.

. . .

(p. B5) In coming years, customers are likely to demand even bigger machines, industry executives say. On the other hand, they predict that, just as commercial airliners peaked with the Airbus A380, turbines will reach a point where greater size no longer makes economic sense.

“We will also reach a plateau; we just don’t know where it is yet,” said Morten Pilgaard Rasmussen, chief technology officer of the offshore wind unit of Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, the leading maker of offshore turbines.

For the full story, see:

Stanley Reed. “A Monster Wind Turbine Is Upending an Industry.” The New York Times (Saturday, January 2, 2021): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 1, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Ancient “Cousin” to Homo Erectus Adapted to “a Chaotic Climate Shift”

(p. D4) Around two million years ago, this area in South Africa is believed to have undergone a chaotic climate shift. The regional environment transformed from wetter and more lush conditions to drier and more arid ones. In order for a species like P. robustus to survive in such terrain, it probably would have needed to be able to chew on tough plants. But the specimen found in the cave at Drimolen didn’t seem to fit with what some scientists had previously stated about the human cousin.

They labeled the skull DNH 155 and determined that it belonged to a male.

. . .

In addition to being smaller than male P. robustus who lived at Swartkrans, DNH 155’s cranium indicated its chewing muscles were not as strong as theirs. Mr. Martin said the differences suggest DNH 155 and the other P. robustus found at Drimolen were smaller not because they were all female, but rather because they were earlier forms of the species belonging to a different population that hadn’t yet been subjected to the environmental pressures that would favor larger sizes and stronger jaw muscles.

“It basically hasn’t become this massive chewing and grinding machine that it becomes later,” Mr. Martin said.

The change would have been the result of microevolution, or an evolutionary change occurring within a species. Such a morphological change, the scientists said, was likely the result of P. robustus adapting to that changing climate, with members of the species who were able to get enough nutrition from a change in their food supply surviving, and passing their traits to offspring.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas St. Fleur. “How to Adapt: A Skull’s Story.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 17, 2020): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 9, 2020, and has the title “How a Human Cousin Adapted to a Changing Climate.”)