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Dr. Ben Santer: Climate Denialism Has No Place at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Posted on 25 May 2021 by Guest Author

This is a repost of Dr. Santer's statement via the Union of Concerned Scientists blog and we thank UCS for this permission. 

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has invited Professor Steven Koonin to give a seminar on May 27, 2021. Professor Koonin’s seminar will cover material contained in a book he published on May 4. His book is entitled “Unsettled”. Its basic thesis is that climate science is not trustworthy.

Professor Koonin is not a climate scientist. I am. I have worked at LLNL since 1992. My primary job is to evaluate computer models of the climate system. I also seek to improve understanding of human and natural influences on climate.

In collaboration with scientific colleagues around the world, our research group at LLNL has identified human “fingerprints” in temperature changes at Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, and in the oceans. We have also found human fingerprints in rainfall and moisture. LLNL’s fingerprint research is one small part of a large body of evidence that contributed to scientific findings of a “discernible human influence on global climate”.

I have interacted with Professor Koonin since late 2013. Back then, he argued that uncertainties in climate science were large and were not fully acknowledged by climate scientists. In his view, climate science was not sufficiently “mature” to be useful to policymakers. Similar claims are advanced in his new book.

It is simply untrue that Prof. Koonin is confronting climate scientists with unpleasant facts they ignored or failed to understand. The climate science community treats uncertainties in an open and transparent way. It has done so for decades. At LLNL, we routinely consider whether uncertainties in models, observations, and natural climatic variability call into question findings of a large human influence on global climate. They do not.

It is of concern to me that Professor Koonin will be speaking at LLNL. He is not an authoritative voice on climate science. LLNL climate scientists have devoted their careers to measuring, modeling, and understanding changes in the climate system. Professor Koonin has not.

The decision to invite Professor Koonin will not help LLNL to attract and retain the best and brightest climate scientists. More importantly, LLNL is participating in the dissemination of Professor Koonin’s incorrect views on climate science. This makes it more difficult for US citizens to reach informed, science-based decisions on appropriate responses to climate change.

We live in a democracy. Free speech is important. It is important to hear diverse perspectives on issues of societal concern. It is equally important for US citizens to receive the best-available scientific information on the reality and seriousness of climate change. The National Laboratories should be providing this information. When they provide inaccurate and misleading information, there should be ample opportunity for actual climate scientists to set the record straight.

I conveyed to LLNL management my concerns about the decision to invite Professor Koonin to speak at Livermore. I do not believe my concerns were adequately addressed. I therefore decided that I will no longer have any affiliation with LLNL after I retire on September 30, 2021. There is no personal satisfaction in this decision.

Writing and releasing this statement may be viewed by some as an act of disloyalty. I do not see it that way. I chose to remain loyal to the climate science we have performed at LLNL for over three decades. I do not intend to remain silent while the credibility and integrity of this research is challenged.

Ben Santer is an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He studies natural and human “fingerprints” in observed climate records. His early research contributed to the historic 1995 conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” Ben holds a doctorate in Climatology from the University of East Anglia, England. After completing his Ph.D. in 1987, he spent five years at the Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology in Germany, where he worked on developing and applying climate fingerprint methods. Ben joined Lawrence Livermore in 1992. Ben has received a number of awards for his research. These include a MacArthur Fellowship (1998), membership in the US National Academy of Sciences (2011), and the Procter Prize (2019). The most significant awards are the friendships he has made during his career. He currently serves on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

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Comments 1 to 28:

  1. In a spirit of fairness, here's LLNL's insipid and non-responsive reply to a request for comment by Gizmodo:

    “Differing technical opinions are part of the scientific process,” a spokesperson for LLNL told Earther in an email. “Throughout its history the Lab has invited guest speakers whose opinions differ from those of the Lab and its workforce. It does not mean the Lab endorses those opinions. The Lab has a long and distinguished history in groundbreaking climate research — the Lab continues to advance and stand by that research.”

    Does LLNL routinely invite speakers practicing outside of their professional domains and making markedly inaccurate scientific claims based on incomplete information and touching numerous other disciplines ? May we have some examples? No, we may not. LLNL doesn't normally invite obvious ringers. LLNL's hasty reply doesn't appear to have been fully considered, similarly to Koonin's invitation. 

    With all the scientific talent in the world more or less at its behest, LLNL specifically chose Koonin why? The parsimonious explanation seems most likely to be "publicist struck lucky on book tour," after which LLNL administration found itself stuck on the horns of a dilemma: cancel Koonin and weather a storm from the usual suspects, or gut it out by comparing Koonin with people of merit one might ordinarily expect to be speaking in that venue. LLNL chose the latter, which is again ill considered as by so doing LLNL inevitably drags down both its own reputation and that of anybody agreeing to speak there. From first rate to second rate, in one easy sentence.  

    Describing Koonin's "difference of opinion" as a legtimate provocation of better thinking is along the lines of inviting in a crank to describe the heliocentric nature of the solar system as unagreed. Yes, that will start a discussion, but it won't be productive.

    LLNL could simply admit making an dumb error but for reasons we cannot know, the path chosen is the hard way. 

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  2. Steven Koonin truth teller apparently. That had me in howls of laugher. From his wikipedia entry:

    "Koonin's views on the status and conclusions of climate science have been authoritatively criticized. In an article in Slate, Raymond Pierrehumbert, the Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, criticized Koonin's 2014 commentary in the Wall Street Journal, "Climate Science Is Not Settled,"[18] as "a litany of discredited arguments":

    The nuggets of truth in Koonin’s essay are buried beneath a rubble of false or misleading claims from the standard climate skeptics’ canon. To pick a few examples:

    He claims that the rate of sea level rise now is no greater than it was early in the 20th century, but this is a conclusion one could draw only through the most shameless cherry-picking...

    He claims that the human imprint on climate is only "comparable" to natural variability, whereas multiple lines of research confirm that the climate signature of human-caused greenhouse gas increases has already risen well above the background noise level...

    A large part of the natural greenhouse effect is due to substances (mainly water vapor, and consequent cloudiness) that are in the atmosphere only because carbon dioxide keeps the Earth warm enough to prevent them from condensing out...

    He states that the effects of carbon dioxide will last "several centuries," whereas "several millennia" would be closer to the truth...

    [He] doesn’t seem to appreciate that oceans cannot be a cause of long-term warming because almost all of the mass of the oceans is colder than the lower atmosphere.[19]"

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  3. Maybe, the good Professor Koonin's gig at LLNL will turn out to be a transient aberration of LLNL conduct.  Time will tell, on that.

    Doug, as you are probably thinking yourself, there could be various wheels-within-wheels operating at LLNL.    ??The personality quirk of some high-up in the organization's ranks ; a palliation of some political extremist in the ranks ; opening up a pipeline to Koch money (surely not?) which has been dangled in view ; a misguided attempt at fake "balance".

    Could it be that some of the seniors at LLNL have simply been unable to recognize the flim-flam and logical faults of Koonin's climate presentations of the past 7 years or so?   After all, Koonin has not completely  stepped over the boundary into flat-earth territory.   In that regard, he has some resemblance to Professor Curry ~ a large component of rhetorical vagueness and obfuscation/neglect of rigorous analysis of the total picture.   A design to appear reasonable at first glance, at least in the eyes of the half-attentive public.

    For years, Koonin has seemed to be on a discreditable crusade.  

    (But why?)

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  4. Eclectic @3,

    The promotion of Koonin to premier-league climate-change dnier does give the opportunity to demolish another of these folk. He certainly gets a bit of a kicking here and here.

    So what is his message?

    This New York Post OP from Koonin appears to be saying that, while the science is sound, the problem is with the interpretation of the science. Yet while the exemplars he gives are probably flat wrong, they are not central to the AGW science so quite irrelevant in the full analysis. The only other thing he presents in this OP about his grand message is:-

    "Humans exert a growing, but physically small, warming influence on the climate. The results from many different climate models disagree with, or even contradict, each other and many kinds of observations. In short, the science is insufficient to make useful predictions about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it."

    This he says he learned at the feet of Lindzen, Curry & Christie during the APS RedTeam-BkueTeam exercise Koonin chaired in 2013, an exercise that contains nothing of merit that I can see.

    And as for climate models making useful predictions, they've done a pretty good job up to now.

    So whay actually is Koonin bleeting about? Waht is his message? It would be good to see the actual message because so far all I hear is a blowhard!!

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  5. MA Rodger @4 :

    Yes, it is very strange mental activity by Koonin.  His 2013 (2014?) activities at the APS "review" showed the same strange anti-mainstream attitude.  His attitude then was a sustained aggressive carping attack which went (IMO) well beyond what a reasonable scientist would do.  It was more than skeptical, more than Red Team.   (Red Team attacks on conventional science have occurred - and very properly so - over many years in the scientific literature within reputable journals . . . and that has always been a desirable & necessary part of all fields of science.  So there is no need for the Amateur Hour theatrics & special Red Team debating showmanship . . . which Koonin seems to be advocating.)

    So I am puzzled by Koonin's inner motivation.  If it were from one of the more common late onset dementias, then it would have shown itself more prominently by now [2021 versus similar signs in 2014.  Could it be that rather more subtle condition (semi-humorously called Emeritus Syndrome) ~ a condition which is far from rare, but which is poorly understood?   Or a subtle diminution of Pre-Frontal brain activity, allowing pre-existing political ideological bias to dominate his previously fine intellect?  Or perhaps it is simply the case of a previously prominent man, who is now suffering from LDS [Limelight Deprivation Syndrome].  

    But there is not much point in trying to diagnose/analyse his situation.  We just have to deal with the consequences.

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  6. Trump is demonstrably incompetent in most areas where he claims competence, uses paper-thin lies, and has no defensible basis for questioning the recent election, yet he is galvanizing a dangerous movement.

    Koonin has academic credentials, is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, and he is being championed by credible sources (WSJ, LLNL). Whether we like it or not, he will continue to galvanize the contrarians.

    But we need to continue to fight such disinformation for the sake of those whose minds are still open, even a crack, to receiving input from more diciplined, consensus-based scientific sources.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] That is crossing the line on the comments policy.

  7. Eclectic @5,

    I don't think there is any reason to think that Koonin wasn't always an oilman at heart and never properly signed up to AGW mitigation. And the declaration of 'Climate Emergency' is what has pushed him into his book-writing.

    As late as 2012 (this LINK downloads a Powerpoint presentation from 2012) we see him saying the requirement is to stay below 550ppm and that this will require emission rates dropping to 50%. "We need to reduce emissions by a factor of two from current levels to remain stable at the 550 ppm level, and this in the face of doubling the demand of energy by the middle of the century, so we need to cut the common intensity of our energy system by a factor of four." That is over 15 years behind the science!! And he also sees a very oily future.

    Back a few years and Koonin is in THIS APS Q&A (with his future boss in the Obama Admin, Steve Chu, who is saying "You’ve got to do something now"). The message from Koonin is ambiguous and if you ignore his advocating CCS, is ambiguous to the point of being a non-message.

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  8. "I don't think there is any reason to think that Koonin wasn't always an oilman at heart and never properly signed up to AGW mitigation."

    Theres probably something in that. But there are probably other factors as well. Some people are also very stubborn by nature. They will never admit they are wrong so they just continue on with the same views and take them to their grave. This can be caused by personality disorders like Narcissm (NPD), and even just getting older leads to less flexibility of thinking. I'm not saying Koonin fits this category because I have no idea, but it does happen. Climate denialism has a lot to do with allegiances to the oil industry and libertarian ideology, but this gets overlaid with a lot of psychological issues.

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  9. To the moderator.

    My apologies for violating the commenting policies. That was not my intent, but I see your point.

    From what I see (this is only my opinion), it appears that people less credible than Koonin are successful at galvanizing movements. I don't offer references for this observation, but trust that people reading this know what I mean. It therefore stands to reason that people with credentials, like Koonin, will not be easily countered. But we need to keep trying, and to counter him, for the sake of the people who are seeking the truth, and who will be influenced by our efforts to present the results of credible, peer-reviewed research.

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  10. I admire Ben Santer for being uncompromising when it comes to the pursuit of increased awareness and improved understanding of what is really going on, especially the application of that improving knowledge to help limit harm done.

    It is tragic when a helpful uncompromising person like Ben Santer needs to end their association with an institution because that institution appears to be harmfully compromised.

    More tragically, far worse than Koonin presenting in LLNL has happened far more often in the US Senate and House of Representatives. There have been many more absurd presentations in those institutions regarding climate science. In addition to the silly snowball by Inhofe, I remember reading a transcript of M. Crichton's presentation. Part of Crichton's presentation was that any science with a range of results that varied by 400% should not be taken seriously. He was a little unclear but appeared to be referring to the range of warming of 1.5C to 6.0C for a doubling of CO2. Being clearer about what he was talking about, that the low end value of 1.5C was a concern and that the 6.0C would be a catastrophe, would have exposed the absurdity of the claim made regarding the 400% variation of results.

    And even more tragic is the way that giving absurd or misleading claims and beliefs the appearance of legitimacy because of Free Speech can cause people to compromise better understanding of what is going on and how to limit harm done. Centrists, moderates and pragmatists need to learn to be less compromising when it comes to understanding how to limit harm done. They need to be uncompromisingly willing to be unpopular and even support unprofitable actions that will limit harm done.

    As a professional engineer I had to be unpopular and take positions that were unprofitable on many occasions, thankfully supported every time by the institution (the consultancy business) I worked for, even when my determinations about what was required or acceptable (to limit the potential for harm) seriously disappointed a client.

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  11. Free speech is obviously really important, but the first amendement on free speech does not say a private organisation has to give people a platform for their views. Its does not say a private organisation has to give equal voice to denialists and warmists. It does not say be a naieve, self defeating fool. Its only about governments not censoring free speech. This seems to get forgotten.

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  12. Censorship has no place at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Science is skepticism.

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  13. Hameiri @12,

    The enquiring mind should indeed be tinged with a level of skepticism, but only when that skepticism is matched by the ability to understand the subject. And using such a view of the use of skepticism as an excuse to spout nonsense is entirely wrong, or am I being too skeptical for you by saying that?

    As for the twit Koonin who makes such a poor fist of criticsing AGW sceince, we will see tomorrow (27th May) whether he has at last found something worth saying or whether he is simply spouting the same old nonsense he has already presented.

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  14. Al @4 et al.

    I am of course biased, but I like to think that Prof. Koonin "gets a bit of a kicking" here too:

    Here's an extract from episode 6 of my ongoing review of "Unsettled":

    Steven then rather ungraciously chose to ignore my follow up question:

    "Regarding 'the topic somewhat distant from ordinary folks’ perception', that is largely my point. Is Arctic sea ice decline really any more distant to the average (wo)man in the street than sea level rise?"

    Etc. etc. For 8 days and counting…

    Since Steve is evidently unable and/or unwilling to respond to my enquiry perhaps somebody else might be willing to do so?

    Meanwhile here’s news of a brand new paper documenting the evidently inexorable decline of the sea ice cover across the Arctic Ocean:

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  15. Interviewed Koonin in 2009 - kind of trollish in person as I recall.

    Here's what he said: 

    "The magnitude of this problem is not widely appreciated (in the US)," says Steven Koonin, Undersecretary for Science at the US Department of Energy.

    "Once carbon dioxide is up in the atmosphere, it is effectively up there forever," Koonin, a physicist and former chief scientist for BP Oil told IPS in Columbus. US per capita emissions are 20 tonnes of carbon per year while the global average is 4 tonnes but in order to stabilize the climate that average must reach 2 tonnes he said.

    "Energy touches everything" he says and that makes change both complicated and difficult. Energy systems are integrated, low-carbon fuels would have to work in all vehicles for example. And, in the US where much of the energy system works well, there is little incentive to make changes.

    Looking back, Joe Romm had some good comments at the end.

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    Moderator Response:

    [BL] Link activated.

    The web software here does not automatically create links. You can do this when posting a comment by selecting the "insert" tab, selecting the text you want to use for the link, and clicking on the icon that looks like a chain link. Add the URL in the dialog box.

  16. Also See:

    A critical review of Steven Koonin’s ‘Unsettled’ 

    ‘Tilting at strawmen.’ Or ‘red flag.’ There are no finer shorthand descriptions of a controversial new book on climate science.

    by Mark Boslough, Yale Cilimate Connections, May 25, 2021

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  17. John Hartz @16 :

    Thank you for the recommendation of the Mark Boslough article at Yale Climate Connections.  It is a fairly short article, and well worth reading.

    On the peripheral (and strawman) meme "The science is settled" ~ Boslough says the President Clinton quote was actually: "The science is clear and compelling: We humans are changing the global climate."

    Also noteworthy is Boslough's final paragraph :-

    'If a pilot isn't sure about having enough fuel to get you to your destination, if an astronomer isn't sure that an incoming asteroid will miss the Earth, if your doctor isn't sure if you have a terminal disease, if you are not sure you turned the stove off: In each of these cases, the uncertainty is unsettling.  Why does Koonin think that unsettled questions in climate science are any kind of comfort when the consequences of doing nothing can be catastrophic?  "Unsettled" should leave serious scientists feeling unsettled.'

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  18. If you jump off a 10-story building, for 9 stories you can claim gravity is 'unsettled': where is the evidence for this invisible force?  The problem, for climate science is it takes decades for the planet to respond to our climate forcer, during which the Koonin's can harvest their doubt.  It may be useful to confront them with doubts of our own: what if they are wrong?  An errant wind turbine can be disassembled, an errant excess of carbon dioxide... absent the much-hyped technologies of Science Fiction, something we could be paying for over many hundreds of years.

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  19. Eclectic @17:

    I selected a different quotation from Mark Boslough as my favourite in a recent review article:

    Most of the technical mistakes and misrepresentations in “Unsettled” may simply be attributable to Koonin’s trust of those advisors and lack of rigorous independent verification.

    "Those advisors" being John Christy, Judith Curry, and Richard Lindzen.
    Plus an informative infographic from his suggested source:


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  20. Yes, thank you Jim Hunt @19 .

    Author Boslough's phrase: "Koonin's trust of those [poor] advisers and lack of rigorous independent verification"  can be seen as a sort of semi-apology for Koonin.

    But that doesn't really wash ~ for there is even less  excuse for a very intelligent guy like Koonin to fall into the usual Denialist incompetence of intellect (in matters of climate).

    Figuratively speaking, something is rotten in the state of Denmark ~ and presumably that something is a powerful lot of motivated reasoning going on in the mind of Koonin.   And for me, it is quite unclear what is the underlying emotion driving Koonin.  Whatever it is, it only partly overlaps with the emotional driving force to be found in the usual average denier.  (But the end result is the same.)

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  21. Eclectic @20, Koonins  motivations are a bit of a mystery to me as well. However he was chief science officer at BP (an oil company). Although he was hired to develop a renewables programme he was paid by the oil company and very much part of it. Seems possible his basic allegiances might be to the oil industry and its goals.

    I couldn't find anything on his political views or world views or psychological state of mind (the later which you wouldn't expect to find). But like you say hes an intelligent guy yet he goes on promoting things that are just obviously nonsense. He must know at least some of these things are nonsense. So hes not your typical sceptic with a few lingering doubts. Those people come around eventually. He a hard core denialist and theres something going on in his head driving this. Trouble is it could be many things.

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  22. Nigelj , I am in much agreement with you.   MA Rodger earlier pointed out the long back-story of Koonin's employment in the oil industry.

    People can change . . . but sometimes they don't . . . and it is easy to see the possibility that Koonin's previous sphere of employment would give him a bias towards retrospective justification of his earlier activities.

    There is no need to posit any recent financial influencing of Koonin.  The past connection may well be enough, psychologically, to have him self-censor his intellect.

    Nigelj,  I am sure you can think of many cases where prominent individuals have been "turned" by means of big amounts of money.  But psychologists' experiments show that one can often achieve large influence through surprisingly small payments.  It seems the smallness of the reward causes the recipients to over-compensate by becoming even stronger in their advocacy role.  Example: the very small stipend that was paid by Peabody to Lindzen.

    But we needn't get too bogged down in all these sorts of analyses.  The real problem is the actions of the deniers, rather than their motivations (which are difficult to change).

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  23. Eclectic @20:

    It seems Boslough has a historical "soft spot" for Koonin:

    "I’ve known the author of 'Unsettled' since I took his quantum mechanics course as a Ph.D. student at Caltech in the 1970s. He’s smart and I like him, so I’m inclined to give his book a chance.

    But smart scientists aren’t always right, and nice guys are still prone to biases – especially if they listen to the wrong people."

    I agree that there's "no excuse", and Koonin's "motivations" are unknowable. Getting back to his "actions", and in particular his upcoming "seminar" at LLNL.

    What do you suppose Ben Santer asked the powers that be at LLNL for in the way of "ample opportunity for actual climate scientists to set the record straight", and why was his request (presumably) refused?

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  24. P.S. I just glanced at a calendar!

    r/his upcoming/yesterday's/!

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  25. We are now a few days after Koovin's seminar at the LLNL but I don't see a word of the grand message presented by Koonin. Presumably it is as embarassing as his silly book.

    Trying to find some coverage of the seminar, I did spot Koonin's pathetic attempt at de-debunking, that is debunking the WSJ Mills' article [LINK-paywalled] that debunked his silly book. Koonin's efforts at de-debunking simply demonstrates the level of utter nonsense you can expect from an obfuscatiing denialist troll like Koonin.

    Just holding up the first of the nine items Koonin attempts to de-debunk shows the purile standard. This first item involves the following untruthful quote from Koonin's book which needs little comment to debunk.

    "Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t shrinking any more rapidly today than it was eighty years ago."

    Cutting through the nonsense presented by Koonin's de-debunk, the troll defends his grand assertion using Fig 1d of Frederickse et al (2020) 'The causes of sea-level rise since 1900'  which shows the 30-year average rate of SLR attributed to Greenland by the study 1910-2010. Koonin tells us:-

    "The “fact check” [by Mills] does not refute the statement quoted, which is about the rate of sea level rise 80 years ago."


    "The 2019 paper by Frederikse et al. clearly shows that Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise around 1940 was about three times higher than it was in the last decades of the 20th century."

    Yet, if it is about SLR and not Greenland, then the relevant evidence from Frederickse et al is shown in Fig 1c not Fig 1d. And Fig 1c shows average rate of SLR in 2010 was 33% greater than at any time "eighty years ago" and that "today" it is likely higher again. Greenland is not the sole contributor to the acceleration in SLR (thus a cherry-pick) while Koonin's use of "the last decades of the 20th century" to represnt "today" is no more than disigenuous trolling.


    And in the intrests of correctness (the troll Koonin may have been saving his best until last), the ninth and last of his de-debunking atttempts to defend the Koonin quote:-

    "...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."

    The context of this quote which compares today with "the past 500 million years" is not given. It appears Koonin bases his "only seen once before" comment on CO2 relative to today's 400ppm being lower 300 million years ago. And presmably his grand book does not provide a justification for this comparison. So, as was discussed in the debunking by an actual geoscientist, 300 million years ago the sun was much weaker, this perhaps 1.5% weaker 300 million years ago, so [0.025 x 250Wm^-2 =] 3.75Wm^-2 or the equivalent to a doubling of CO2. Koonin ignores such argument agaist him and instead concentrates on refuting the potential for future CO2 levels reaching 1000ppm.

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    Moderator Response:

    [BL] You can make your points without all the labeling. Please try to tone it down a bit.

  26. Al @25 - Did you by any chance read my response to Prof. Koonin over at Medium? Or his response to my comment? If not here is a precis for you:

    Steven then rather ungraciously chose to ignore my follow up question:

    Regarding “the topic somewhat distant from ordinary folks’ perception”, that is largely my point. Is Arctic sea ice decline really any more distant to the average (wo)man in the street than sea level rise?

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  27. Jim Hunt @26 ,

    it is a good comparison you make about SLR and the man in the street.  And it appears there is zero hope that Koonin will attempt to salvage his reputation.

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  28. Thanks for you kind words @Eclectic.

    FYI my Arctic alter ego has a warped sense of humour:

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