DeSmog

Former BP Scientist Steve Koonin Claims Climate Journalists Are Spreading ‘Hysteria’

Head of journalism organization Covering Climate Now calls the accusation ‘factually careless and ideologically driven.’
Geoff Dembicki
Geoff Dembicki
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Steve Koonin (right) was BP's chief scientist in 2009 and briefly served in the US Department of Energy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Steve Koonin (right) was BP's chief scientist in 2009 and briefly served in the US Department of Energy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A former chief scientist for the oil and gas producer BP claims that journalists specializing in climate change reporting are spreading false claims about extreme weather — an accusation that a major climate media organization deems “factually careless and ideologically driven.” 

“There are a number of interests that align to produce the current climate hysteria,” Steve Koonin argued last week during a webinar for Canadian post-secondary students. “The media are indeed a big factor in that.” 

The webinar was hosted by the Fraser Institute, a conservative Atlas Network think tank based in Vancouver that has previously received funding from Exxon and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, which is associated with the oil and gas billionaire Charles Koch. For decades, the think tank has disputed whether climate change is a crisis along with questioning whether human activities like fossil fuel production are to blame. 

The Fraser Institute featured Koonin — who after working for BP from 2004 to 2009 briefly served in the U.S. Department of Energy and is now a professor at New York University — as part of a free student seminar series “available for all post-secondary students across Canada.”

Koonin’s presentation came just days after Hurricane Otis slammed into the Mexican city of Acapulco, killing 45 people, a disaster that the United States National Hurricane Center says was intensified due to higher water temperatures caused by warmer global temperatures. 

Yet Koonin argued that mainstream climate reporters shouldn’t be linking unprecedented wildfires and hurricanes to climate change. “Every extreme weather event is the basis for a climate story even though it’s got nothing to do with climate at all,” he claimed. “You add that to the fact that there are climate reporters, people whose beat is the climate news, they often have zero science training and their goal is to get clicks and eyeballs. It’s a big problem.” 

Koonin pointed specifically to Covering Climate Now, an organization that assists and promotes climate coverage in over 50 countries and whose more than 600 partners include media outlets such as the Guardian, BBC and NPR, as well as DeSmog. “[They] have agreed to not publish anything that disagrees with the narrative that we’re headed for certain catastrophe,” Koonin said. 

The executive director of Covering Climate Now accused Koonin of distorting the organization’s work and climate reporting in general. 

“Mr. Koonin’s comments about Covering Climate Now are as factually careless and ideologically driven as his writing about climate science,” Mark Heertsgaard wrote in an email to DeSmog. 

“CCNow has zero tolerance for climate denial,” Heertsgaard went on. “That’s because the scientific consensus — that climate change is man-made, extremely damaging (especially to the poor and generations to come) and bound to get worse unless humanity rapidly phases out oil, gas, and coal — is rock solid.” 

Koonin came to prominence following the 2021 publication of his book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Despite being criticized heavily by mainstream climate scientists — with one review in Scientific American saying it “manages to get climate science badly wrong” — Koonin was embraced by conservatives such as Canadian influencer Jordan Peterson.

Peterson recently hosted the former BP scientist at a gathering of climate crisis deniers and conservative activists and politicians in London, England. Addressing this “ARC Conference”, Koonin reportedly said that the climate crisis isn’t real.  

Denying that we’re living in an escalating climate emergency is a willful misunderstanding of scientific reality, Heertsgaard said. “Journalists will continue to tell the truth about climate change,” he said. “I urge Mr. Koonin to do the same.”

Geoff Dembicki
Geoff Dembicki is an investigative climate journalist based in New York City. He is author of The Petroleum Papers and Are We Screwed?

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