Steve Koonin

Steve Koonin

Credentials

  • Ph.D., Theoretical Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1975). [1]
  • B.S., Physics, California Institute of Technology (1972). [1]

Background

Steven (Steve) E. Koonin is a university professor and founding director of NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. From 2009 to 2011, Koonin was Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy under President Barack Obama. [2]

Before working in government, Koonin spent five years (2004 to 2009) as Chief Scientist for oil giant BP plc where he helped to establish its Energy Biosciences Institute. From 1975 to 2006, he was a professor of theoretical physics at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and served as provost from 1995 to 2004. [2], [3], [4]

In April 2017, writing at the Wall Street Journal, Koonin advocated for the controversial “red team” approach to climate science. E&E News reported he also met with then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to discuss the topic, and that there were rumors Pruitt was considering Koonin to play a role in the process. [5], [6]

In 2019, Koonin was reportedly assisting the White House in creating a panel to advise President Donald Trump on climate change. The panel, to be led by CO2 proponent Will Happer, has been described as a “slapdash band of climate contrarians.” [12][5], [14]

In 2014, Koonin chaired a similar workshop for the American Physical Society with “experts” including John Christy, Judith Curry, and Richard Lindzen.

Stance on Climate Change

September 19, 2014

Koonin wrote an article at The Wall Street Journal titled “Climate Science Is Not Settled.” Some excerpted quotes below: [7]

“The idea that ‘Climate science is settled’ runs through today’s popular and policy discussions. Unfortunately, that claim is misguided. It has not only distorted our public and policy debates on issues related to energy, greenhouse-gas emissions and the environment.”

[…]

“The crucial scientific question for policy isn’t whether the climate is changing. That is a settled matter: The climate has always changed and always will. […] Nor is the crucial question whether humans are influencing the climate. That is no hoax: There is little doubt in the scientific community that continually growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due largely to carbon-dioxide emissions from the conventional use of fossil fuels, are influencing the climate. There is also little doubt that the carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere for several centuries. The impact today of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.

“Rather, the crucial, unsettled scientific question for policy is, ‘How will the climate change over the next century under both natural and human influences?’”

[…]

“Even though human influences could have serious consequences for the climate, they are physically small in relation to the climate system as a whole.”

[…]

“We often hear that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ about climate change. But as far as the computer models go, there isn’t a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences.”

[…]

“Policy makers and the public may wish for the comfort of certainty in their climate science. But I fear that rigidly promulgating the idea that climate science is “settled” (or is a “hoax”) demeans and chills the scientific enterprise, retarding its progress in these important matters.”

Key Quotes

April 20, 2017

“The outcome of a Red/Blue exercise for climate science is not preordained, which makes such a process all the more valuable. It could reveal the current consensus as weaker than claimed. Alternatively, the consensus could emerge strengthened if Red Team criticisms were countered effectively. But whatever the outcome, we scientists would have better fulfilled our responsibilities to society, and climate policy discussions would be better informed,” Koonin wrote in the Wall Street Journal[5]

Key Actions

May 2021

Following the release of his book, Unsettled, Koonin was invited to speak in a seminar at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In an emailed statement first published by the Union of Concerned Scientists and reported on at Earther, leading climate scientist Ben Santer responded that he would be cutting ties with the laboratory in protest of the planned seminar. [22], [23]

“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,” Santer wrote. [22]

“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.” [22]

Santer added, “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.” [22]

“It is simply untrue that Prof. Koonin is confronting climate scientists with unpleasant facts they ignored or failed to understand,” Santer wrote in his resignation letter. “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.” [22]

May 12, 2021

Steve Koonin was a guest on episode 102 of the American Enterprise Institute’s “What the Hell” podcast series with AEI resident fellow Marc Thiessen and senior fellow Danielle Pletka, who later wrote about the episode in an op ed at The Washington Post[19], [20], [21]

As noted in the transcript, Koonin claimed climate change was “not at all an unmitigated disaster as people would have you believe.”[20]

“We adapt and I think we’ll learn to take advantage of whatever changes happen rather than simply tolerate them. That’s what humans do and we’re pretty good at it,” he added. [20]

Koonin also disputed whether decarbonizing the economy was achievable: “If we stop emitting CO2 today, it would still be there in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.” He also argued Western climate targets could prevent developing nations from industrializing, stating: that they “need energy to improve their lot, and fossil fuels are right now the most reliable and convenient way of doing that.” [20]

May 11, 2021

In an interview with Asia Times, Koonin—referencing his recently-published book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t and Why it Matters—claimed rising sea levels were no cause for alarm. [17]

“[T]he models show no signs of apocalypse. A lot of the bad things that people talk about just have not been happening,” Koonin claimed. [17]

While Koonin admits there could be some sea level rise, he concludes, “even at a rate of five millimeters a year – that is, five centimeters a decade or 50 centimeters in a century – we will certainly be able to adapt to that.” [17]

Discussing trends on storms, floods, and drought, Koonin claimed: [17]

“You see nothing. You see a little bit in the last couple of decades in California, where it has been getting a little bit drier, but over a couple of centuries that’s not unusual.” [17]

May 4, 2021

Inside Climate News reported that in his new book slated for release on May 4, titled Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t and Why it Matters, Koonin argues “that the impact of human influence on the climate is too uncertain, and may be too small, to merit costly action to reduce fossil fuel use. Society, he says, will be able to adapt to warming.” [16]

Scientists were critical of the new book. “The bottom line is that despite uncertainties in the magnitude and patterns of natural climate variability, human-caused climate change fingerprints have been identified in pretty much every aspect of climate change scientists have looked at,” said Benjamin Santer, an atmospheric scientist and leading climate modeler at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. 

“He’s not a fearless ‘truth teller,’” said Santer, referring to a Wall Street Journal headline on a piece about Koonin’s book. “He’s muddying the waters here. He’s making it much more difficult to make informed decisions.” [16]

“What he does is he just takes potshots,” said Don Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois, who has helped lead the National Climate Assessment, which Koonin’s book criticizes roundly. “He pulls one figure out of context, and then makes a whole chapter on it.” [16]

Describing his book, Koonin has claimed: “The impact of human influences on the climate is too uncertain (and very likely too small) compared to the daunting amount of change required to actually achieve the goal of eliminating net global emissions by, say, 2075.” [16]

“For me,” Koonin concludes, “the many certain downsides of mitigation outweigh the uncertain benefits: the world’s poor need growing amounts of reliable and affordable energy, and widespread renewables or fission are currently too expensive, unreliable, or both.” [16]

Koonin wrote: “I believe it is a responsibility, almost an act of conscience, to portray without bias just how settled—or unsettled—the science truly is.” [16]

February 2019

Steve Koonin was reportedly assisting the White House in creating a panel to advise President Donald Trump on climate change. The committee would be led by climate science denier and CO2 proponent Will Happer[12]

It would “advise the President on scientific understanding of today’s climate, how the climate might change in the future under natural and human influences, and how a changing climate could affect the security of the United States,” according to a discussion paper. [13]

The paper also claims that prior government-issued reports finding climate change to be a serious threat “have not undergone a rigorous independent and adversarial scientific peer review to examine the certainties and uncertainties of climate science, as well as implications for national security.” [13]

In an interview, Francesco Femia, chief executive officer of the Council on Strategic Risks and co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, described the committee as a political tool: [13]

This is the equivalent of setting up a committee on nuclear weapons proliferation and having someone lead it who doesn’t think nuclear weapons exist,” he said. “It’s honestly a blunt force political tool designed to shut the national security community up on climate change.” [13]

April 20, 2017

Koonin wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal titled “A ‘Red Team’ Exercise Would Strengthen Climate Science.” In the article, he suggested “A Red/Blue exercise would have many benefits.” [5]

Richard B. Rood of the University of Michigan speculated Koonin’s article may have played a role in persuading Administrator Scott Pruitt to call for a public red team-blue team review of climate science. E&E News commented that Rood was also a likely pick by Pruitt for a role in such a team. [8], [6]

November 4, 2015

Around the time of climate negotiations in Paris, Koonin wrote an op-ed at The New York Times pushing for adaptation as a solution to climate change as opposed to implementing policies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Koonin proposed there are “two sobering scientific realities that will weaken the effectiveness of even the most ambitious emissions reduction plans”: [9]

“The first reality is that emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas of greatest concern, accumulate in the atmosphere and remain there for centuries as they are slowly absorbed by plants and the oceans,” he wrote. “The second scientific reality, arising from peculiarities of the carbon dioxide molecule, is that the warming influence of the gas in the atmosphere changes less than proportionately as the concentration changes,” Koonin wrote.

Koonin suggests it would be a slow and difficult process to limit carbon emissions, so instead proposes adaptation:

“The critical role of adaptation in responding to the realities of climate change demands a deeper analysis and more prominent discussion of the nature, effectiveness, timing and costs of various adaptation strategies. But whatever the outcome in Paris, or of future discussions of emissions and the climate, the reality is that humans must continue to adapt, as they always have.”

September 19, 2014

Koonin wrote the article “Climate Science Is Not Settled” in The Wall Street Journal. [7]

According to a response at Climate Science and Policy Watch, “Koonin mis-states a number of scientific details, and ultimately lures readers toward the conclusion that climate change isn’t an urgent problem.” [10]

The response included statements from scientists Michael Mann, Michael MacCracken, and Howard Frumkin. Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, wrote:

“Koonin mentions that this climate is always changing. This is a standard line in the WSJ because it sounds reasonable at first blush, but of course it conveys a deep falsehood. The fact is that the actual peer-reviewed scientific research shows that (a) the rate of warming over the past century is unprecedented as far back as the 20,000 years paleoclimate scientists are able to extend the record and (b) that warming can ONLY be explained by human influences.

“Indeed, it is the RATE of warming that presents such risk to human civilization and our environment. There is no doubt that there were geological periods that were warmer than today due to long-term changes in greenhouse gas concentrations driven by natural factors like plate tectonics. But consider the early Cretaceous 100 million years ago when CO2 concentrations were even higher than today, and there were dinosaurs roaming the ice-free poles. Over the last 100 million years, nature slowly buried all of that additional CO2 beneath Earth’s surface in the form of fossil fuels. We are now unburying that carbon a *MILLION* times faster than it was buried, leading to unprecedented rates of increase in greenhouse concentrations and resulting climate changes. To claim that this is just part of a natural cycle is to be either deeply naive or disingenuous.”

Dr. Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Policy at the Climate Institute, wrote (emphasis in original): [10]

“Of the many points to be made, here are a few:

“Koonin’s analysis totally fails to consider the significant risk of very serious impacts on marine life of ocean acidification from the rising CO2 concentration. Impacts are already affecting those growing oysters and other shelled organisms in the Pacific Northwest, and coral atolls around the world are at risk over coming decades—and that is pure chemistry totally independent of climate models.

“Koonin’s point that the climate has changed so much in the past is actually one of the key reasons to be worried about human-induced climate change. Were the past climate stable even as the various natural forcings were changing, then there would be less reason for concern that human-induced forcings could change the climate. But reality is that past natural forcings caused significant changes in the climate—and now human activities are leading to forcings that are comparable to or even larger than natural ones in the past. In addition, the forcings being created will change climate more rapidly than have natural factors, making this unprecedented except for the catastrophic changes that have followed the impacts of large asteroids. Thus, contrary to Koonin’s assertion that past climate change suggests a policy of caution, a more appropriate conclusion would be that insights gained from past climate change should be leading to much more aggressive policy action than is now underway.

“Yes, there is lots more to be learned, but the basic physics of the climate change issue have been clear since the 1960s when the President’s Science Advisory Council sent their report to President Johnson and Congress in 1965. Except for refrigerants of various types, human activities are adding increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (and other substances) to the atmosphere that are amplifying the natural warming effect of these substances in the atmosphere—it is not that we are not familiar with the substances we are adding to the atmosphere and have dealt with for decades. That these gases will cause warming has been recognized since the mid-19th century and adding more will surely cause more warming. Certainly, there are more questions to be investigated and resolved, and they do affect how best to adapt and other policies—but they do not alter at all the fundamental reality that human activities have become the primary driver of changes in climate, overwhelming the cycling changes in solar radiation and being much longer lasting than the occasional volcanic eruptions.

“On sea level rise, Koonin’s comments are again mistaken and misleading. The present rate of sea level rise is well above the rate for the first half of the 20th century. The relatively stable climate that has allowed civilization to expand over the last several thousand years has kept sea level quite constant—you can still visit the coast of Sicily and find the remains of salt flats constructed in ancient times. That climate change can cause sea level to change is a key lesson from past changes in the climate that Koonin fails to mention. Since the peak of the last glacial cycle, sea level rose about 20 meters for each one degree Celsius increase in global average temperature (equivalent to a sea level rise of about 30 feet per degree Fahrenheit!!) While it took centuries or more for the full effect to be felt in the past when natural forcings were changing slowly, the adjustment will likely be much more rapid with the faster increase in forcing due to human activities. While the rate of rise will likely decrease slowly with warming because there is less ice on land to be melted, there are still about 75 meters (near 250 feet) of potential sea level rise in the ice tied up in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which have been experiencing accelerated loss of mass.”

January 8, 2014

Steve Koonin chaired a “review workshop” on the American Physical Society’s climate change statement. Ben Santer, a climate researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, later described the exercise as similar to “red-team, blue-team” exercises that Koonin advocated in the future. Santer was a member of the “blue team” in the APS exercise, along with Isaac Held from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab and Bill Collins from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The “red team” members opposing established climate science were Richard Lindzen, John Christy, and Judith Curry. [14]

“I did not think that the red team arguments were successful,” Santer commented in 2017. [15]

“For example, John Christy showed this figure, A not equal to B, and was asked by one of the physicists in the room, well, why? Why, Professor Christy, what’s going on? How do you explain this divergence in warming rates between the models and the observations? What’s going on there? And John, Christy shrugged his shoulders and said Mother Nature’s going to do what Mother Nature’s going to do.”

According to the APS proceedings transcript, Christy had commented on the models as follows: [14]

“My comment to the committee when something like that was asked to me a month ago was, ‘Mother Nature has within her all the necessary tools to generate extreme events that exceed what we have seen in the past 50 years.’ So, whatever we have seen out there, Mother Nature already has the ability to do it.”

Santer added: “John Christy was not interested in understanding the why. Why are there these differences in warming rate in the early twenty first century that really aren’t there in the late 20th century? What’s going on? That’s where the science is. That’s what you want to know. The why the understanding and his answer to that question was Mother Nature’s going to do what Mother Nature’s going to do. He made no attempt to provide an explanation as to what he thought physically was going on there. And that was that was telling.” [15]

Santer suggested another “telling” moment was when all of the team members were asked if isotope data supported the conclusion that about 75% of the increase in atmospheric CO2 since the Industrial Revolution was due to the burning of fossil fuels, and Christy was the only member who disagreed. [15]

“Of course, those isotopic measurements have been made by labs around the world. You know, it’s very, very well established science. But John Christie did not agree. And when Professor Koonin asked him, well, why don’t you agree? John Christie said, because I did not make the measurements myself. And again, you could sort of see the amazement in in the room, the the import of that statement is that I am not going to trust anyone else, no measurements unless I’ve made them myself.” [15]

Santer concluded:

“So the red the red team lost, the red team was not convincing to the members of the American Physical Society, Steve Koonin stepped down as chair of this subcommittee charged with updating the statement. And now he’s calling for the same red team blue team process, even though the process that he presided over. Did not yield a result that that he liked, that he was comfortable with.” [15]

Affiliations

  • NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress — Founding director (appointed April 2012). [2]
  • Department of Energy (DOE— Former Under Secretary for Science (confirmed May 19, 2009). [4]
  • Niels Bohr Institute — Former research fellow (1976 – 1977). [4]
  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation — Fellow (1977 – 1979). [4]
  • Caltech — Professor of theoretical physics (1981), Chairman of the Faculty (1989 – 1991). Provost (1995 – 2004). [4]
  • BP — Chief Scientist (2004 – 2009). [4]
  • Council on Foreign Relations — Member. [4]
  • American Physical Society — Member. [4]
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science — Member. [4]
  • Trilateral Commission — Former member. [4]
  • US National Academy of Sciences — Member. [4]

Social Media

Publications

A general keyword search of Google Scholar returns a report by the Steering Committee on Computational Physics where Koonin is listed as a member. He also wrote an article related to BP (formerly British Petroleum) in Physics World entitled “A physicist’s view of energy supply.”

Google Scholar returns a report for The Novim Group on “Climate Engineering Responses to Climate Emergencies.” In that report, Koonin is introduced with his affiliation as Chief Scientist at BP. [11]

The report includes this note under a section on conflicts of interest: 11]

”[…] [I]n this instance, Dr. Koonin has an extensive history of devoting a part of each year to small-group studies of societally-relevant science. These activities long predate Dr Koonin’s joining BP, and BP allowed him to continue this practice in his individual capacity. BP contributed no funds into this study and had no influence over its content. Moreover, as discussed in the report Prelude, all participants share the belief that the relationship between climate engineering and CO2 policy is so complex and multi-faceted that directionality cannot straightforwardly be assigned between encouragement of climate engineering research and discouragement of CO2 reduction policies.”

Resources

  1. Steven Koonin,” NYU Stern. Archived March 5, 2019. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/N9WUU
  2. Steve Koonin,” NYU. Archived March 5, 2019. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/QUf1c
  3. Former Caltech Provost Steven Koonin Nominated for Under Secretary for Science,” Caltech, March 25, 2009. Archived April 17, 2016. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/Uhrbr
  4. DR. STEVEN E. KOONINFORMER UNDER SECRETARY FOR SCIENCE,” Department of Energy. Archived February 15, 2012. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/9jyFh
  5. A ‘Red Team’ Exercise Would Strengthen Climate Science,” Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2017. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/ypSat
  6. Here’s the Obama energy guy that Pruitt might hire,” E&E News, August 7, 2017. Archived March 5, 2019. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/Bxir3
  7. Steven E Koonin. “Climate Science Is Not Settled,” The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2014. Archive.is URL: https://archive.fo/LkeAv
  8. Red Team-Blue Team? Debating Climate Science Should Not Be a Cage Match,” DeSmog, August 18, 2017.
  9. The Tough Realities of the Paris Climate Talks,” The New York Times, November 4, 2015. Archived March 5, 2019. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/IFHZ0
  10. On eve of climate march, Wall Street Journal publishes call to wait and do nothing,” Climate Science and Policy Watch, September 20, 2014. Archived March 5, 2019. Archive.fo URLhttps://archive.fo/GJdj6
  11. J. J. Blackstock, D. S. Battisti, K. Caldeira, D. M. Eardley, J. I. Katz, D. W. Keith, A. A. N. Patrinos, D. P. Schrag, R. H. Socolow and S. E. Koonin. “Climate Engineering Responses to Climate Emergencies” Novim, 2009. Archived online at: http://arxiv.org/pdf/0907.5140
  12. Josh Siegel. “Former Obama official helping Trump establish ‘climate contrarians’ panel,” Washington Examiner, February 27, 2019. Archived March 5, 2019. Archive.fo URL: https://archive.fo/zXq4n
  13. White House prepares to scrutinize intelligence agencies’ finding that climate change threatens national security,” The Washington Post, February 20, 2019. Archived February 20, 2019. Archive.fo URLhttps://archive.fo/lX2E8
  14. AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY 4 CLIMATE CHANGE STATEMENT REVIEW WORKSHOP” (PDF), American Physical Society, January 8, 2014. Archived .pdf on file at DeSmog.
  15. Ben Santer on the Climate Red Team,” YouTube video uploaded by user “greenmanbucket,” October 5, 2020. Archived .mp4 on file at DeSmog.
  16. Marianne Lavelle. “A New Book Feeds Climate Doubters, but Scientists Say the Conclusions are Misleading and Out of Date,Inside Climate News, May 4, 2021. Archived May 7, 2021. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/c2qQj
  17. Jonathan Tennenbaum. “Rising seas no cause for climate change alarm,” Asia Times, May 11, 2021. Archived May 21, 2021. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/vp2Ev
  18. ‘We are being misled’ on the climate crisis: Ian Plimer,” YouTube video uploaded by user “Sky News Australia,” April 26, 2021. Archived .mp4 on file at DeSmog.
  19. Danielle Pletka and Mark A. Theissen. “WTH is really going on with the climate? An Obama administration scientist on climate myth and reality,” AEI, May 12, 2021. Archived .mp3 on file a DeSmog.
  20. “WTH is really going on with the climate? An Obama administration scientist on climate myth and reality“ (PDF), AEI, May 12, 2021. Archived .pdf on file at DeSmog.
  21. Marc. A. Thiessen. “Opinion: An Obama scientist debunks the climate doom-mongers,” The Washington Post, May 14, 2021. Archived May 17, 2021. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/phU32
  22. Ben Santer. “Climate Denialism Has No Place at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,” Union of Concerned Scientists, May 24, 2021. Archived May 26, 2021. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/8iDD8
  23. Molly Taft. “Top Climate Scientist Blasts Government Lab After Denier Invited to Speak,” Earther/Gizmodo, May 24, 2021. Archived May 26, 2021. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/Qdm2m

Other Resources

Profile image via Steve Koonin’s archived profile at Department of Energy.

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