Steven E. Koonin is the author of Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters and the director of NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. He also served in the Obama administration as Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, was Chief Scientist at BP, and professor and provost at California Institute of Technology. He joins our CEO, Jennifer Grossman, to discuss his thoughts about climate change and the media’s dire prediction for our future. Watch the entire interview HERE or check out the transcript below.
JAG: Jennifer Anju Grossman
SK: Steve Koonin
JAG: Hello, everyone and welcome to the 64th episode of The Atlas Society Asks. My name is Jennifer Anju Grossman. My friends know me as JAG. I'm the CEO of The Atlas Society. We are the leading nonprofit organization introducing young people to the ideas of Ayn Rand in creative ways. Today, I'm very proud that we have Professor Steven Koonin joining us…Dr. Steven Koonin served as an undersecretary for science in the US Department of Energy under President Obama. He was a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech for over 30 years. He earned his PhD in theoretical physics at MIT. And, since then has more than 200 peer-reviewed papers in the fields of physics and astrophysics, scientific computation, energy technology, and climate. He's currently a professor at New York University and author of numerous op-eds at national publications such as the Wall Street Journal. Most recently, he is author of this book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters. Professor Koonin, welcome. And, thank you so much for joining us.
SK: It's great to be chatting with you, Jennifer.
JAG: So, I'd like to start the conversation and set the stage with the professional experience that set you on the path that would ultimately culminate with writing this book, Unsettled. And, as I understand it from reading your book, the American Physical Society asked you to lead an update to its public statement on climate. As part of that effort, you convened a workshop with leading climate experts and physicists to stress-test the state of climate science. What did you learn in the process and how did it change your perspective on priorities?
SK: Well, we convened that workshop in early January of 2014 in Brooklyn. We had three consensus experts and three experts, who were not so onboard with the consensus, and after listening to them talk for a day—by the way, the transcript is up on the web, so anybody can read it—I realized the science was nowhere near as certain or settled as I had been led to believe from the media. From talking with experts informally, yes, everybody agreed the globe was warming, and everybody agreed that human influences were growing, but exactly how the climate would respond and what the impacts of those responses would be for society and ecosystems was pretty much a subject of great uncertainty and disagreement among the experts.
JAG: All right, well, what we tend to see in the media is anything but unsettled or equivocal. We are told that temperatures are rising, the sea level is surging, ice caps are melting, extreme weather events like drought, heat waves, storms, and wildfires are worsening, and that human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions are causing all of it. Sounds pretty dire. Are we all doomed?
You know, the phrase “climate crisis” or “existential threat” or “a climate disaster” those phrases are bandied about by politicians, activists, and occasionally some folks who should know better, who are scientists.
SK: No, I don't think so. You know, the phrase “climate crisis” or “existential threat” or “a climate disaster” those phrases are bandied about by politicians, activists, and occasionally some folks who should know better, who are scientists; Bill Gates comes to mind, for example. But, when you read the actual scientific assessment reports that are put out by the UN or the US government that summarize and assess the science as it's written in the research literature, and the data, I'm often reminded of a phrase from the movie, The Princess Bride, where one character keeps saying the word ‘inconceivable,” and then the other character says, “You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.” And, in fact, in this case, I don't think science says what everybody else in the political sphere thinks it says because those folks have not read the reports. Rather, it gets filtered, their information, through a long chain that goes through the reports, the executive summaries, the media, and ultimately they get a very distorted and nuanced picture of what the science actually says.
JAG: So, you talk about these Assessment Reports, and when it comes to climate change and human impact, the science is largely defined by these reports: some from the United Nations, some from the United States. So, what are those reports? How are they compiled and how reliable are they?
SK: So, there were really two sets of reports that I think are most important. One is produced by the UN by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The last one that they did was released in 2014 or 2013, and the next one will be released on Monday, actually. These are written by a couple of thousand scientists. They're massive exercises, they take years to put together, and then they're released with great fanfare. Each of the reports has a large body of text, a thousand pages or more, but then it's got a so-called summary for policymakers, which is much more condensed and there's opportunity for great mischief because those summaries for policymakers are heavily influenced by the government, if not written by them. And so, when you compare the report with the summary, they don't agree at all. Well, not “at all,” but they think the summaries give a very distorted picture.
SK: The other set of reports are produced by the US government, the so-called “National Climate Assessment.” It's mandated by Congress that the administration produce one every four years. The last one was produced in 2017 and 18 in two parts. The next one is expected in 2023, a similar large exercise, but focused more on the US. But, of course, these two classes of reports say more or less the same thing. When you read them, and again, most people who talk about climate have never read these reports, they say some very surprising things.
JAG: Well, earlier this year, the United Nations Development Program published a wide-ranging climate survey entitled “The People's Climate Vote” with more than a million respondents from 50 countries. The survey found that 64% of respondents believe that climate change was an emergency. How accurate is this perception and what's driving it?
A common phrase is that we've broken the climate and that we're headed for disaster unless we take prompt and immediate action. That's just not true in the reports. For example, there are no detectable human influences on hurricanes over almost the past century.
SK: It's not accurate at all. I mean, a common phrase is that we've broken the climate and that we're headed for disaster unless we take prompt and immediate action. That's just not true in the reports. For example, there are no detectable human influences on hurricanes over almost the past century. And it says it right there in the report, certainly sea level, while it's rising at a more rapid rate in the last few decades, if you go back 70 or 80 years, it was rising at the same rate when human influences were much smaller and, maybe most surprisingly of all, if you look at the reports and ask, what do they say about the economic impact of a change in climate? What they say is that if the global temperature were to rise by six degrees, which is four times more than what's being discussed in the Paris Accords, then the economic impact on the US and on the globe would be minimal. It would delay growth by a couple years at the end of the century. So no, it's not an emergency. It is, perhaps, a problem we should be tending to, but there's no need for sweeping and rapid action.
JAG: Great. Well, I see some of our loyal attendees are starting to put their questions in and we are going to get to them. So, please continue to type them in as thoughts come up. I see quite a few actually have read your book. We're going to have some intelligent questions here, which is great. And those who haven't, I hope will be encouraged to pick it up. The Audible version is also excellent. So part of the problem you identify in the book is a confusion in the scientific community about the ethical code of the scientist versus civic advocacy, blurring the distinction between intrinsically scientific and intrinsically political questions. What are some examples of that? How did you come to that?
SK: Well, you know, I have experience in advising decision-makers in government and in the corporate world on other very different scientific matters, some of them involving very important national security issues, and the ethos that I was taught by my mentors in this business, and I have followed fine men, but other very distinguished scientists who have been involved in public policy matters, is that you tell the truth, and the scientists’ responsibility is to bring the facts to the table, and they're the only people who can do that. And you have to do it completely transparently and without bias. And, of course, you have to convey complicated issues to non-experts. What I've discovered is that the climate science community, let's say, falls somewhat short in that dimension. I first got to see it when I was running the American Physical Society exercise, and one of the American Physical Society members said, you know, we can't say that in public because it would give ammunition to the deniers.
I'm far enough along in my career that I just don't give a damn anymore. I see that my responsibility is to speak the truth and the truth that I'm speaking is what's in the reports themselves.
SK: And, I was caught up short by that. Subsequently, when I started speaking out, I wrote a Wall Street Journal piece in September of 2014 that said the models are not anywhere near as good as people think they are. I had somebody come up to me who was a distinguished scientist at one of the nation's best universities and say, you know, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, but I don't dare say that in public. So, it's a combination of peer pressure and funding, and so on. And, you know, I'm far enough along in my career that I just don't give a damn anymore. I see that my responsibility is to speak the truth and the truth that I'm speaking is what's in the reports themselves. It's not Steve’s science, but it is the consensus science.
JAG: And, you have children, you're setting an example for your children about what it actually means to be a good scientist and what it means to be a good citizen. I was really also struck by some of the exchanges that you relate in the book. One of which, you were looking at one particular study, which had been misrepresented, and somebody said, “Yeah, the changes that we were seeing weren't that significant, and that was too bad.” Well, actually, no, that would be a good thing. Right? So, it would be too bad if we were seeing more evidence of these dire changes and problems right around the corner. The other exchange was when you just merely questioned or pushed back on things like the seas are drying up or wildfires are being caused by global emissions. And, somebody says, well, you're a Trump voter, like you were in the Obama administration, and, what has one to do with the other?
SK: The science is the science, and we need to separate out the scientific certainties and uncertainties, which pretty much everybody can agree on. They might not want to articulate in public the decisions about what do we do about this, which are fundamentally about valuing development versus environment, intergenerational equity, geographical equity. Those are values discussions like the kind of discussion the politicians and the media should be having, as opposed to saying the science is certain, it's settled. If you don't believe it, you're an idiot. I have been most disappointed by the public reaction of many of the consensus scientists who refuse to engage on the scientific points I've written. They're happy to engage on misquotes that other people make of me. I discovered that the second-hand quotation is an endemic problem in public discussions of climate, but nobody has really seriously questioned the scientific points I've raised. And that's very telling, and it's somewhat disappointing that they refused to engage.
JAG: Well, as with climate sometimes, you know, there are inputs and then there are facts and we can't always see the dynamic and the causality. My hope and my belief after reading your book is that what you're doing—putting this out there and putting people on notice that there's not just going to be a free rein to misrepresent things—that we'll begin to have a change in the culture of the scientific community, if not the media. So, we're grateful for that. Okay. I am going to start looping in our audience. John Davis, down in Dallas, asks, in your book Unsettled sometimes the trailing averages are averages of 10 years, sometimes 15 years. Why the difference?
SK: Yeah, you know for some time series, they're short enough that you can't do a serious 30-year average. In other cases you want to highlight sometimes the shorter-term variability. It's easy enough. I've tried in all the graphs to show the year-to-year fluctuations. And, then one of the running averages, as you say, sometimes 10, 15, 30, I try to do that, so that you can bring out certain features. It's easy enough, if I showed a 10-year average, to kind of by-eye smooth it out over longer time periods.
JAG: All right. A lot of the dire climate predictions that we hear are based on computer modeling and we've seen, in other fields, some of the failures of computer modeling. Of course, the infamous British Imperial College models, which drove a lot of the more extreme, non-pharmaceutical interventions which have observably catastrophic implications for the economy and all that the economy drives including further scientific research and discovery, what do our computer models contribute and what is their role in climate science and how reliable are they?
SK: So, the models are the principal means by which we try to say how the climate is going to change in the future under natural and growing human influences: They work by cutting the atmosphere and the ocean up into boxes, millions of boxes, and using the basic laws of physics to track the flow of air and water and sunlight and heat through the boxes timestamp-by-timestamp, typically 10 minutes or so. And you might say, well, that's just physics, it's straightforward. And some people, in fact, have written that in public and they should know better because the fundamental problem is you can't make the boxes too small. Otherwise, there are too many of them to track on a computer. And so, practically, these days, given the power of the computers that we have, which is not trivial, the boxes are still about 60 miles on a side.
SK: And that's really big, it's much bigger than the scale of the clouds, which you can see behind me. My background is maybe a kilometer across, the scale of mountains, a couple kilometers across. And so, you’ve got to make assumptions about what's going on inside those big boxes about the small-scale stuff, and different people make different assumptions. So, the models get very different answers. That's one problem. Another problem is that the climate has natural cycles. Some of them are familiar—El Niño— others much less familiar that take 60 or 70 years to go through a cycle. These are the natural ebbs and flows of the climate system. And unless your model gets those right, you're not going to be able to describe the past century, say, and then you're going to have trouble extrapolating back to the future. So that's another problem. And the model creators, in general, don’t get that right.
JAG: In your book you took some of these statements that were considered settled science, and you looked at the actual research that it was based on. Sometimes it involves modeling. But, the modeling wasn't used, which I understand it should be able to be used. You were calling it hind-casting to look back if the fundamentals were there.
SK: What's interesting is that, as I mentioned, the next report will come out on Monday. The models that inform that report, which is the newest generation of models (they've already been out there for a year or so), are coming in much more discrepant with each other and with the actual high-net than the previous generation. So as they introduce more sophistication, the models are becoming less certain, and that's not a whole lot of settled science.
JAG: What's the report that's coming out again on Monday,
SK: That's the sixth Assessment Report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And, it's actually the first section of that sixth Assessment Report, which is concerned with the physical aspects of the climate. There were subsequent sections that are concerned with ecosystems, that are concerned with economic impact and then all are concerned with, well, what does this all mean? And what do we do about those? Those latter sections will come out probably a year or so from now.
JAG: Okay. All right, Scott, who is a regular at our webinars has a question referring to a controversy with which I'm not familiar. So, I'm not going to assume that you are, we'll give it a shot. He asks if Professor Koonin has any thoughts on scientists like Michael Mann suing people like Mark Steyn in an attempt to silence climate criticism.
SK: Yeah. Who are these people? I mean, that's entirely unprofessional behavior, and it seems characteristic of—I'm old enough now I can say this of a younger generation of accomplished climate scientists—they're very snarky, very combative, not only Michael Mann, but Gavin Schmidt, who was the principal climate scientist in the Obama administration. They have brought discourse down to a level that is entirely unprofessional and perhaps it's due to the 140-character limit in Twitter, or just the way that the debate is being conducted. They call people names. Of course, they have been called names as well by non-scientists. If you've read the book, I've tried to be very circumspect about people's motives, people's personalities, and so on. This is not the way we do science.
JAG: All right. Just seems more like an observation, but an informed one: “Thank you, Dr. Koonin. I also have a PhD from MIT in physical chemistry. He has read the IPC reports and many other technical papers including those that take a more realistic view of the effects of the sun. The fact that rising CO2 follows a temperature rise, et cetera. Also, one should recall the global cooling frenzy of the 1970s.”
SK: Let me just make a comment about the cooling. If you look at the global temperature record, the official record, it warmed from 1910 to 1940 at a pretty good clip. It then went down from 1940 to 1970, or 1975 it cooled. And then it's been going up again for the last 35, 40 years, the rate of warming in the early part of the 20th century from 1910 to 1940, it was about the same as the rate of warming that we've seen in the last decades. And the cooling was there even as human influences grew. So just by looking at that graph, you can see that this is already a lot more complicated than just that rising CO2 is warming the earth.
JAG: Aaron Tao is a supporter of The Atlas Society. He actually has joined The Atlas Society now, and runs our Book Club for students. So, Aaron, you want to consider if we could possibly twist Professor Koonin's arm to join us? So he asks, “What are the reactions of scientists, like Michael Mann, who created the infamous hockey stick on the other side, to your work; are any of them willing to debate you in public?”
SK: Let me just say, I get many unsolicited emails from scientists and engineers who are not deeply involved in climate science, who say, thanks for writing a well-documented, transparent, technical-level book that plays out the facts. I've also had quietly-made comments from some working climate scientists who, again, they might disagree with some of the things I wrote, but by-and-large said, you got it about right as to the public reaction of other folks like Michael Mann, Naomi Oreskes. They have written what I, again, would consider unprofessional pieces in Scientific American in which, again, there's a lot of name calling and motive imputation, but very little direct engagement on the facts. And in one case, I put up on my website on Medium a detailed rebuttal of some of the things that they have said as far as direct debate. Stay tuned. There were some things lined up in the fall, which I hope will come to fruition and we may have a chance to have a substantial engagement with people of different points of view.
JAG: That’s very exciting and we will stay tuned. What, by the way, is the best way to follow you, for example, your reaction to the Sixth Assessment for a section coming up on Monday.
SK: Well, you might expect that I will be speaking out once I've had a chance to look at the report. So, there'll probably be some media presence in a week or two after the release. You can find me on Medium. I have a website, if you search for Medium Koonin, I have been relatively quiet in other media beyond the book. I have no social media presence. I do have these two pieces up again. I think the best way to discuss science is in a substantial and considered way and not this back and forth volley of 140 characters, or whatever the limit is now, of tweets, and Instagram, and all that sort of stuff. It's just not a way to do substantial, thoughtful work.
JAG: So, here in California, fire season is around the corner and many in the media and politicians say that these catastrophic wildfires are a result of climate change, human-caused climate change. It's very personal to me as someone who rebuilt my house after a wildfire started actually by arson, and narrowly escaped another fire—is climate change causing or exacerbating fires in California and elsewhere, and how much of that is due to human influence and could be mitigated or ameliorated by human action.
SK: Let me start with some fire facts, which might surprise you. If you look at the US as a whole, and I'm sure there are comparable figures for just the West Coast fires, much more common in the early 20th century, five or six times more common than they are today in terms of acreage burned and the reason for that. Then they declined, the incidents, to about 1970. And, the reason for that decline was Smokey The Bear. The forest service put in a policy of suppressing or not letting burn at all macro-fires, whether natural or human-caused. Since then we've seen a gradual rise over the last 40 years from the minimum around 1970, but it's still about one sixth of what it was before that. So, fire is a natural part of the West Coast landscape.
SK: The terrible fires that we've seen over the last few years are a combination of several factors. One is the forest fire policies that have let the forest grow. So, you've got a lot of fuel there. The second is that the climate has been drier, so you've got a lot of dry fuel, and we'll discuss climate change in a moment. Then, of course, you need an ignition source. As you mentioned, arson is an important factor. I think something like 80% of US wildfires are started by people in one way or the other. And then, the last thing, of course, is that people like to live in the forest and we have built cities, towns surrounded by forest. And when they burn, terrible things are going to happen, and they did. What role does climate play?
To what extent are the last few decades natural versus human-caused, I think is still up in the air. Certainly, the warmer temperatures around the globe that we've had have exacerbated the droughts. But, you know, if we stopped driving SUV's, that's not going to stop the fire. Right? It just isn't.
SK: Well, it has been dryer for the last couple of decades on the West Coast, but if you look back over centuries, and we have records and tree rings and other ways, there have been mega droughts in the West over the last couple of thousand years, which have been entirely natural. Now, to what extent are the last few decades natural versus human-caused, I think is still up in the air. Certainly, the warmer temperatures around the globe that we've had have exacerbated the droughts. But, you know, if we stopped driving SUV's, that's not going to stop the fire. Right? It just isn't. So, let me just talk about extreme events. I mean, we've seen fires, we've seen floods in Europe. We've seen the heat wave in the Northwest. These are weather phenomena. And, what I like to use as a demonstration of that is the record of the level of the Nile river as measured in Cairo over about a thousand years.
SK: The Egyptians were doing that from about 650 or so, up until the Aswan dam messed things up in the 1970s. And, when you look at that record, you see tremendous year-to-year variation in the water level of the Nile, but there are smooth trends over decades. And if you're looking—I have a graph in the book—if you look in 650 to 750 or so, it was going down, and you can just imagine some medieval Egyptian climate panel saying, we've got to pray some more and maybe do some sacrifices. And then, it turns around again in 50 or 60 years. So, there are these natural variations. And, one of the challenges in climate science is to separate those natural variations from the response to human influence.
JAG: Got it. Aaron Tao just told me we have you on our list for November. So we'll be reaching back out to you. And, it's a really wonderful group of young people who read the book. So, in your book, you talk about an idea proposed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the eve of the March for Science. I think that was back in 2017 and that was convening a red team/ blue team process for climate science. What is that process and why do you believe it's needed?
SK: Deciding what we do about a changing climate is a major societal decision that, as I said, needs to be informed by science. Major technical projects, like the launch of a spacecraft, for example, are always subject to red-team reviews. We do that routinely in the intelligence community as well, you know. To decide whether the Iraqis are building the atom bomb or not you have a red team, and the red team is supposed to pick holes in the argument. They do that both to make sure that you've got things right, but also to find things that could go wrong, that you need to fix. Climate science doesn't have that. Yes, people will argue that the scientific literature is peer-reviewed, and that's true, that’s some quality-check, but the Assessment Reports are very different. They involve judgments, they involve language-spin in some cases, and there is no independent, hard-scrub of them.
I found instances where the reports misrepresent either by not telling the whole story or misportraying the data. And, those are the kinds of things that need to be scrubbed out and brought to the public's attention: that sea level was rising almost as rapidly 80 years ago, as it is today. Most people don't know that.
SK: When I started to realize how misrepresentative some of the Assessment Reports were, I said, we should be doing a red team. I tried to get that going. For various reasons, we couldn't do it. So, the book is, in part, what I think a red team would have written about some of the reports. And, obviously, I found instances where the reports misrepresent either by not telling the whole story or misportraying the data. And, those are the kinds of things that need to be scrubbed out and brought to the public's attention: that sea level was rising almost as rapidly 80 years ago, as it is today. Most people don't know that.
JAG: Oh, I think it's an excellent idea.
SK: The reports vary. So I've been trying to get this going. The consensus community doesn't want it because they don't want these things, I think, they don't want them highlighted.
JAG: Well, it would be interesting to do another poll of the consensus community and if they believe they’re deniers—and that term is used to cover people who are merely skeptical of some of the hyperbole and some of the mischaracterizations that you're referring to. I think a real driver of deniers or skeptics is precisely because those who look a little bit more carefully, see that there is a lot of misrepresentation, and so, kind of clearing the air on that, I think, would restore confidence to not just climate science, but other science.
SK: And, you know, in many respects I don't consider myself a skeptic because almost everything I've written in the book is right out of the reports or the subsequent quality literature. So, it's not my science in some ways, it's the science that the community has written, but has not come through because nobody reads the reports.
JAG: Yes. I think I'm referring to a skepticism of the consensus, skepticism of some of these more spectacular claims, not the fundamentals.
SK: The narrative, perhaps.
JAG: Fair enough. Fair enough. Okay. Dean Scoville says he recalls reading decades ago that a singular sizable volcanic event could offset all manner of man-made pollution, curtailment given such realities. The fact that such events have seen the earth’s surface subsuming itself throughout millennia, doesn't that underscore the problems associated with the political hyperbole.
SK: Yes. First of all, Dean, if you're the Dean I knew from another part of my life, Hi! So, volcanic events do influence the climate when a large eruption goes off. Pinatubo was perhaps one of the more memorable ones. It put a lot of dust—aerosols, less than dust, small particles—into the stratosphere, and they cool the planet. Demonstrably. You can see it in the temperature record. Those particles fall out over a couple of years and so their influence wanes, but they do influence the global climate. The problem is it doesn't last forever, it only goes for a couple of years. And so, it would not really do to offset the human-caused warming, however great. That is if we were to do it artificially, which is one of the geoengineering schemes, we'd have to keep refreshing the aerosol cloud. And, of course, there are lots of issues with that, environmental impacts. It doesn't cancel the greenhouse warming, and so on. So yes, it happens, but it's a transient phenomenon.
JAG: Speaking of geoengineering, as the daunting challenge of mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions became clear to you, you became interested in other, perhaps, more feasible strategies for responding to climate change such as geoengineering. One would think that those who are most convinced that we are in a crisis, that we are at a tipping point, past the tipping point, climate is broken, that they would actually be the most interested in such strategies. But, that's not the case.
SK: Yes., I think, well, let's just enumerate the strategies.
JAG: If you would just kind of explain what we're talking about.
SK: Oh, that there were two classes of geoengineering. One is what's called solar radiation management, which is to make the earth a little bit more reflective: So it doesn't absorb as much sunlight, and so, stays cooler. As I mentioned, volcano eruptions into the stratosphere are a natural way in which that happens. It would be feasible and we could do it. It wouldn't cost very much to do that. Artificially, there are downsides associated with it, which I don't want to go into now, but it is in some ways hacking the planet to reverse the greenhouse-gas warming. The other mode of geoengineering is to suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and you can do that by planting a lot of trees. You could also do it artificially by building chemical plants that would run the air through a filter.
SK: If you remove the CO2 and then you dump it in the ground, both of those methods, both the carbon dioxide removal and solar, already have a lot of downsides, not the least of which would be the cost. And, what are you going to do with those billions of tons of CO2? The other strategy is to adapt, and we have done that as a species very well over tens of thousands of years of changing climate. People now live in everything from the Arctic down to the equator and we do just fine. All climate will be changing slowly enough, we expect, so that we'll be able to adapt just fine. Why aren't people interested in that if they’re so worried?
JAG: Why? You said it, you're greeted with tight-lipped silence. Again, these are the people that should be the most eager—because they believe that we are in crisis—to look to plan B.
Part of it is a desire to simply get rid of fossil fuels for no matter what reason. Another is a reaction to big business. People don't like that at all because our energy is supplied largely by big business.
SK: I think another question along those lines is: nuclear power fission an obvious solution to emissions-free energy. And, yet, that has also historically been issued by the people who are concerned. I think part of it is a desire to simply get rid of fossil fuels for no matter what reason. Another is a reaction to big business. People don't like that at all because our energy is supplied largely by big business. Another is a desire to localize energy and have the solar cells on your roof and not have to rely on some large entity, hundreds of miles away. But, I think those are on average, pretty poor ways of satisfying energy needs. And, to be fair, adaptation has become more prominent in discussions, now, as people have started to realize just how hard it's going to be to zero out emissions by the middle of the century or 2070. As I said in the book, I think it's a practical impossibility. So we're going to adapt.
JAG: Yes, you've said that the Paris Climate Accords, that the goals that they were setting would require that we completely forswear fossil fuels within the next 30 to 50 years and that it's not going to happen.
SK: I mean, we could probably, we could talk about just how difficult it's going to be for the US to get to zero. The administration has proposed some plans for that, but what matters are global emissions. And, there are 40% of the globe right now, 3 billion people who don't have adequate energy and the most convenient, reliable way for them to get that energy is with fossil fuels. So, you're going to tell them, you can't have that energy, or you're going to have to pay more because you're going to get it from wind and solar? I don't think that's going to happen. And, I would say it's immoral not to let those folks have the energy they need to improve their lives.
JAG: Right. So, recently social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become a lot more aggressive towards banning, suppressing fact-checking posts on a range of issues, including climate science. What's your experience been with this practice?
SK: I was fact-checked by some organization by, I don't know, eight or ten climate scientists. What they did was to take what some reviewer of my book said and then rebutted and, in fact, if you look on the Medium page, you will find my point-by-point rebuttal to their criticism, most of which consisted of, yes, you know, I said that in the book; what you said, you just never read the book. And, in fact, one of the fact-checkers admitted to me he never read the book, so that's entirely unprofessional and I think was meant to simply shut the book down in many people's eyes. Soon after it was published, I had a chance to publish a little bit of the rebuttal, you know, a Wall Street Journal follow up. And so, I think it's reached more than a few people. Again, as I mentioned, I stay off social media. I don't pay attention to it unless somebody draws something in it to my attention. I'm interested in talking with serious people and I don't think that's a place for serious discussions.
JAG: Certainly is a distraction as I can attest. So folks, we have about 12 more minutes, so we still have time for a couple of short questions, if you want to go ahead and type them into our comment streams on our various platforms. Here's an interesting one. Vicky asks: “Can you talk about drones used in Dubai to create rain and reduce temperature?” I hadn't heard of that.
SK: I've not heard that either. You know, weather modification is a longtime dream of humanity. Obviously, agriculture depends so much on weather and you can read in the Bible, you know, a phrase that says if you follow God's commandment, he’ll bring your rain, which is very important in the Middle East. In the early 19th century the first US meteorologist James Pollard Espy proposed inducing rain by setting forest fires. The smoke from the fires will help in cloud formation and it is not uncommon to see rain, accompanying forest fires. He actually proposed that to Congress. There was no great enthusiasm for it, and so it didn't happen. But, the Russians took it up seriously. The Chinese, during the Beijing Olympics, were successful in keeping Beijing cloud-free or rain-free. So, you can modify weather; the particular thing in Dubai, I don't know about, but it's not impossible that you could do that. But again, weather is not climate, and we should be mindful of that. If we're running out of questions, an interesting thing to talk about might be the Biden administration's policies. But throw more questions. I'm happy to do that.
JAG: Well, we actually did just get a question about that. So, how do you think the Biden administration, and also if you have thoughts on, given the unrealistic and non-binding nature of the Paris Climate Accords, whether the Trump administration's withdrawal from those Accords—
SK: Let me just say, what about the Paris Accord and, you know, Glasgow is upcoming. So, there'll be the five-year turned into six years because of COVID, but the countries will meet in Glasgow in early November and review the commitments that countries have made to reduce their emissions. And hopefully, countries will make new commitments the activists would like us to see. I'm kind of neutral on the Paris Accord. It will have no practical import on the climate, even if the goals are met and most countries are not meeting their goals. The US is. It's symbolic. But, it's a lot more talking than it is real impact. The Biden administration is proposing policies that would amount to a large-scale, rapid, relatively rapid de-carbonization of the US energy system in part to meet those goals.
Energy systems can change, but they change slowly, much more like orthodonture than tooth extraction, which is what's being proposed.
SK: And, more generally to net zero by 2050 for the whole economy. And, it involves things like trying to make the electrical power system emissions-free by 2035, forbidding the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles: so, cars that run or trucks that run on diesel and gasoline by 2035; curtailing the production of oil and gas in the US rather strongly. And, you know, they seem to forget that oil and gas are about 8% of the GDP and employ about 10 million people in the US. We've got 280 million fossil-fuel driven vehicles on the road right now. Energy involves just about every aspect of life. If you start mucking with the energy system, you're going to require people and businesses to change a lot. Energy systems can change, but they change slowly, much more like orthodonture than tooth extraction, which is what's being proposed.
SK: So, I think that as the practical effects of these policies or proposed policies start to impact ordinary people's lives, there's going to be a lot of pushback. You mean I can't buy that F-150 anymore? I’ve got to buy an electric vehicle? You mean my electricity, it's now gotten less reliable, and you're starting to see that in California. Of course, we saw it in Texas. So, I think people are going to push back strongly. We've seen that kind of perspective already in France for the yellow vest protest. The UK just had to call back a proposal to require expensive heat pumps in houses rather than gas boilers to heat the houses. And eventually, people are going to ask, tell me again, why we're doing all of this? I think that can be the sort of a very interesting discussion that we should have had before we decided to go down this road.
JAG: Having been a part of the Obama administration, how would you compare the Obama administration's goals’ sense of realism and the science that it was guided by with the Biden administration’s? Is it just an extension?
SK: Think the Biden administration has . . . You know, when I was in the Obama administration and then subsequently in the energy department, we had scientists, Steve Chu first, and then Ernie Moniz who were secretaries. And they understood the technical realities, even if they didn't speak about them very loudly. Secretary Granholm, the current secretary of energy, does not have that kind of technical background. And, I think is entirely captive to scientists and engineers who are not telling her the truth. You know, one of the things I like to say about the book is I would hope that decision-makers in the cabinet and the president and vice-president would read the book and say, gosh, I didn't know that, and ask their advisors if that guy couldn't write it, doesn't really say that, and when they come back and say, yeah, that's what the reports say, they might start to ask, what else am I not being told about the climate? And again, really getting people to just start to think critically and ask questions rather than just accepting what the media and activists are telling them.
JAG: So, we're getting to the end here. One of my biggest takeaways from your book was actually a philosophical one. You close by saying, we need to move the science back to science. And, again, you said, we need to do that by restoring integrity to the way science informs society’s discussion about climate and energy. Ayn Rand is obviously who we at The Atlas Society are focused on, connecting young people with her philosophy, which is called Objectivism. It's based in the reality of the natural world and epistemology of reason. She observed science was born as a result and consequence of philosophy. It cannot survive without a philosophical, particularly epistemological base. If philosophy perishes, then science will be the next to go. One does not need to be an objectivist to note that objectivity has been downgraded in favor of agenda-driven narratives. Any thoughts on, perhaps, and I know you explicitly say in the book, you're not a philosopher, you're not an ethicist, but you also said you've been around for a while and you've seen America through different eras, any sense of the deeper cultural forces that may be driving this and how they may be reversed?
SK: In previous decades I have read Rand's writing, so I'm familiar with the stance and the philosophy. And I think to some extent, all scientists are objectivists or maybe with a Russian accent.
JAG: Yes. Right?
The existential threat to the country is not necessarily climate, but just the fact that people don't think anymore, they deny an objective reality.
SK: So, we believe in an objective reality, that's measurable, that's understandable by rational thought. I think most scientists would agree to those statements, and it is very disturbing to me to see that kind of stance abandoned in the media, in the political sphere, and, frankly, in the general public. And, you know, you can bemoan, as I do, the failure of our educational system for some of that. I think social media plays a role as well. And, unfortunately, to see popular opinion being manipulated in nonfactual ways is very disturbing to me. I think it is perhaps the existential threat to the country is not necessarily climate, but just the fact that people don't think anymore, they deny an objective reality. My tactic, at least as far as the science goes, has been to try to reach my fellow scientists who are not climate scientists and to show them the kind of misrepresentation that goes on in the reports, in statements by professional societies, and by the media with the hope that maybe they will rise up and say, hey, this is tarnishing all of science, and you've got to stop it. But that's just a hope; we'll see whether it actually happens or not.
JAG: I think that's a good strategy because I do think that it has collateral damage for other fields. And, I certainly feel that about economics, about the pandemic. You know, when all of a sudden we're saying, well, this isn't true, but we don't want people to panic or even want people to do this and, therefore, we're going to tell them something that we know not to be true. I mean, at some point people begin to doubt the whole enterprise. And, I don't think that's really how you do it. You quoted Albert Einstein saying that science implies a duty to reveal and convey, not just what we know, but that which we don't know, and not to conceal it.
SK: Yes. So, my stance, as I say in the book, is not to persuade, but to inform, and these are difficult decisions about climate, also about the pandemic, where you’ve got to balance against public health, and so on. I can't make those decisions. And, I don't think my fellow scientists should be making those decisions, but that's why we pay the big bucks to politicians.
JAG: Well, and that's why we can unreservedly recommend that you guys pick up, and many of you already have picked up a copy of Unsettled. Wonderful. Again, as I mentioned, it is also great on Audible and we're going to be looking forward to your commentary on this report coming up. And, I'm very excited that we have your book featured in upcoming book clubs. So, Professor Koonin, thank you so much for joining us, great to be talking with you. For those of you who enjoyed this webinar I want to also let you know next week, I'm going to be continuing a bit with this theme. We're going to drill down perhaps a little more on wildfires. I'll be interviewing Brian Jablonski. He's president of PERC, which is the Property and Environment Research Center. If you are enjoying these webinars and if you are pleased with the rest of the work The Atlas Society is doing with our graphic novels or animated videos or book clubs for students, please consider chipping in and making a tax-deductible donation to The Atlas Society. We will put that in the chat bar and, again, Professor Koonin, thank you. And thanks, everybody, for joining us.