Steven Koonin v Andrew Desler

I have just read the book “Unsettled” by Steven Koonin a Caltech Physicist who has a long academic, industrial and political career. Of course he agrees that CO2 emissions have a warming effect, but he argues that many of the more extreme claims of climate change are unproven and potentially dangerous.  The policy to reach net Zero emissions by 2050 based on renewables alone  could well destroy western economies. As a result of his criticism, mainstream climate scientists have ganged up on him to call him a “denier”, especially as he once worked as Chief Scientist for BP.  His main point is that the basic physics of greenhouse warming as described say in AR5 is correct, but the implication  that this means we  must close all fossil fuels immediately is mainly political. Furthermore he criticises those Climate scientists that push scare stories of increasing severity of Hurricanes, droughts, and accelerating sea level rise, to imply that time is short.  On the contrary the data do not support  such  alarmist statements. Extreme weather events are not increasing in frequency and sea level has been rising for hundreds of years.  Instead we probably have about 50 years to finally solve the energy/climate dichotomy.  Pushing current wind and solar right now will not work, partly because we will need new nuclear. I am pretty much aligned with his thinking.

Joe Rogan has managed to achieve the impossible – an actual long distance debate between Steven Koonin and Andrew Desler. First up was Steve Koonin.

Some sound bites:

“I hate the term CO2 pollution.”

“Nobody has put together a sensible decarbonisation plan. The plans that you see are put out by a bunch of academics , but noone will implement them unless they can make money.”

“You need to change the energy system not by tooth extraction but by orthodenture !” i.e. carefully!

Decarbonisation must be done in a graceful way.

6 billion people in the third world need energy to improve their life and who are we to tell them they can’t do that. So yes maybe we can cut our carbon emissions but who are we to restrict their development?

US emissions are 16% of global emissions so reducing by global emissions by 30% will have a modest effect on climate change.

Plans  are put out by a bunch of academics e.g. 2075 carbonisation. The daily weather that gets referenced to climate change drives me crazy! There is no evidence that the frequency of extreme weather is increasing. No wonder kids are getting scared all the time for the future.

Climate Models typically use 3D tube boxes 60 miles in dimension size so they can’t effectively  simulate the details of weather, because the weather acts on much smaller sizes for example clouds, onshore and offshore winds etc.

That’s why climate models  only give you a hazy picture of the future

We only have one chance at decarbonising the energy system We’ve  got the time to get this right.

“Minimum temperatures are going up faster than maximum temperatures” I agree with this statement see Nights warm faster than Days

Joe Rogan then gave  the right of reply a week later to Andrew Dessler.

Andrew Dessler does not address any of Koonin’s criticisms of climate science itself, but focuses instead on the Energy debate.

He starts up by comparing Kronin  to the old Tobacco lobby, the fluorocarbon ban, etc. which is kind of silly since I am sure he agrees too that those were easily solvable problems. Andrew’s argument is that Koonin is no different to the tobacco scientists of the 1960s. The slur is implied because  Kroonin was once chief scientists at BP, so somehow he is still in the pay of the oil industry.

Climate change though is fundamentally different to the tobacco or fluorocarbon debate, because  there are no obvious simple alternatives to fossil fuels. The real problem with the proposed solution is that renewables are intermittent,  even if  prices for solar and wind power “capacity” are now competitive, because they still need an equivalent amount of dispatchable backup.

He keeps repeating the ugly slur  that “Dr Koonin rejects anything which doesn’t support his client (fossil fuels) because quote “He is trying to create doubt”

During the two hour interview he  doesn’t really discuss climate science at all, or address Koonin’s criticisms.

1/4 of emissions go into the biosphere and 1/4 got into the oceans (Greening and Acidifying) and 1/2 remains in the atmosphere. If there were an easy way to drag more out eg. planting forests then we would be doing it.

If you could reach $50 a ton to suck out CO2 then it would be worth it.

In Europe natural gas is very expensive. He likes geothermal because drilling has got so good thanks to fracking.

Plastic depends on oil and he agrees we need that we need them long term. Similarly oil is used to make tar for road surfaces and even wind turbine blades.

We might be able to solve the energy system but farming and agriculture will be tougher to decarbonise. Ethanol blending in petrol is really for the farmers. Fertilizers etc. Factory farming is awful.

“We really should be phasing out fossil fuels as fast as possible”

When invited at the end to have a debate with Steve Koonin, he declines because he says it is all in the peer reviewed  papers. The other reason he gave was that he once had a debate with Richard Lindzen which clearly didn’t go so well. I think this may be this one (see footnote).

This is the first time I have ever heard a Jo Rogan’s podcast. I was really impressed by the way he handled things and had prepared himself by reading the book first. He has come n for a lot of stick recently but on these podcasts he came out of it really well and with open mind.


Footnote: Debate between Andrew Dessler and Richard Lindzen.

About Clive Best

PhD High Energy Physics Worked at CERN, Rutherford Lab, JET, JRC, OSVision
This entry was posted in Climate Change, climate science, nuclear, renewables, wind farms. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Steven Koonin v Andrew Desler

  1. David Guy-Johnson says:

    It’s a good book. Dessler did himself no favours in that interview.

  2. I don’t follow most of the above. There doesn’t appear to be much science on either side.
    Physicists only show us some CO2 absorption bands when they point their instruments to a source of IR radiation. They should finally identify the resulting ghg emission bands along with an energy balance.
    They should also explain why this can’t be seen in the heat capacity of CO2, which happens to always be lower than the heat capacity of everyday air at surface ranges of pressure and temperature.
    Or they should write a paper and publish to explain why they don’t need to do that. That would be better than any entertainment.

    • MarkR says:

      Which papers on atmospheric IR absorption and energy balance have you read?

    • Clive Best says:

      My take on the CO2 greenhouse effect is given

      • MarkR says:

        Clive, I think you commit the same sin Michael Wallace mentions: you have several figures showing the CO2-caused spectral changes in detail, and only one showing a fuller atmospheric spectrum!

        IMO your choice makes sense since it seems you’re just checking how simple you can get to sensibly reproduced the more detailed iRF and ERF calculations.

        I like your “emission height” spectrum figure by the way.

        • Clive Best says:

          There is an element of bootstrap involved because you have to assume a temperature pressure structure in the atmosphere which itself results results from the greenhouse effect. If less or more heat was being radiated to space (H2O, CO2 etc) from the top of the atmosphere then the convection driven lapse rate and height of the tropopause also change. In fact more CO2 increases the height of the tropopause slightly.

          In the following post I derive the Log(C/C0) relationship see: Radiative Forcing of CO2

    • earth scientist says:

      I do know I have seen the graphs on these IR bandwidths where h2o & co2 absorb & Clive has them here. I also recently stumbled on a Nasa graph that Will Happer used that shows the ranking of gh gases across the vL/IR bandwidths & it clearly shows the grey globs that vapor has for its profound effect.

  3. entropicman says:

    Interesting debate and several lessons.

    First, the science debate is over. Both Koonin and Depler accepted the physics and the models.

    Next, the optimist and the pessimist. Koonin expects the outcome to be at the bottom of the model uncertainty range (Bit disappointing to hear him play the grid box size Climateball card) while Desler expects worse.

    Thirdly, the distribution of resources. Koonin wants to spend less now and accept greater warming in the future. Desler wants to spend more resources now to lower the peak warming later.

    Minor points.

    Desler’s tobacco slur didn’t help. Even if you think your opponent is a fossil fuel company lobbyist, it is not polite to say so.

    I can understand Desler’s reluctance to debate live. The Warmists tend to debate science and policy numbers while the sceptics go for rhetoric. In a seminar room, in front of a scientific audience, the Warmists win hands down. On Joe Rogan the audience pays more attention to the rhetoric than the data and Koonin would have the advantage.

    “Minimum temperatures are going up faster than maximum temperatures”

    Generally accepted. Nights warming faster than days, Winters warming faster than Summers, high latitudes warming faster than low latitudes. Individual new high records are more common than new cold records but the averages are increasing mostly because the low tails of the frequency distributions are disappearing.

    But why did Koonin use it as a debating point?

    • Agree on this and I elaborated on the resource issue in another comment. Rogan is in the business of rhetorical debate where anything goes — he knows this because of his experience in no-holds-barred UFC and AWE matches. The alternative is dialetic debate, which is usually reserved for scientific journals, as any debating point has to logically validated. No way does his audience have the patience for this.

    • morfu03 says:

      >> First, the science debate is over.

      Is wrong! Anybody saying this does not understand how science works at all!
      There are new model generations coming out continuously and particularly CMIP 6 uses a different approach to local cloud modeling which has significant impact on the CO2-Feedack.
      Likewise, R. McKitrick showed significant mathematical flaws in the way attribution of model parameters into real world is done for the last 20years.

      >> while the sceptics go for rhetoric
      Also seems wrong. Compare above facts that models are continuously improved and attribution is potentially completely flawed with sensational stories warmists put in the newspapers. There are many cases of rhetoric used against climate skeptics.

      When did you the last time mentioned that the anthropogenic warming hypothesis is yet unproven (of course there is warming by CO2, but particularly high feedback parameters only exists in models)?

  4. MarkR says:

    “Furthermore he criticises those Climate scientists that push scare stories of increasing severity of Hurricanes, droughts, and accelerating sea level rise, to imply that time is short. On the contrary the data do not support such alarmist statements.”

    I thought sea level rise data *do* show acceleration. Satellites:
    Both Dangendorf and Friederikse show the fastest rises recently with a 20-year+ LOWESS.

    It looks like things were near balanced in the ’60s and ’70s and then the rates have accelerated to about double the ’80s value. Of course you can’t just tell from the data alone what will happen next, but to say sea-level rise hasn’t accelerated looks to me like the opposite of what’s in the data.

    • morfu03 says:

      >> I thought sea level rise data *do* show acceleration.
      You are mistaken, the data is that noisy scribbely line, acceleration is only visible in that model forced onto it, a linear model seems also possible (looking by eye)

      Tide gauges seems local measures, other factors than warming related sea level rise might come into play, after all a lot of ice melted from the land on recent geolocigal history.

      • MarkR says:

        Which methods did you use to calculate this, with which data and over which period?

        My results line up with the publications ( and, but you’ve found out they’re wrong?

        • morfu03 says:

          >> >> the data is that noisy scribbely line
          >> Which methods did you use to calculate this

          Your statement of acceleration come down to a parabolic fit being a better choice than a linear one, which leaves YOU to prove that!

          • MarkR says:

            Those two papers did the tests and report that the rate of change recently is higher now than it was before, i.e. acceleration.

            Their results say they falsify the null or no acceleration, so that should be enough. What did they do wrong?

            I checked using LOWESS with 20 (or longer) year windows and bootstrapping on Frederikse and Linear+quadratic on the satellites. Both give significant recent change rates that are the fastest in the record, and significantly so. For the satellite data I smoothed annually since that gives an autocorrelation structure that suggests the standard errors will be close.

            Which methods did you try, on which data and for which time period?

          • morfu03 says:

            >> Those two papers did the tests
            One of them is behind a paywall, so I dont know what it does.
            The other one manipulates the data in order to use a reduced model, they “remove the Pinatubo and ENSO effect”, so end up with data they fit, which is no longer the global sea level, but an artifact. It is clear that different assumptions will lead to different results. A discussion of your “NULL hypothesis” is also missing here.
            The authors themself say repeatedly how difficult it is to see their acceleration signal in the data, I dont think their analysis is robust or even the correct way to treat this data.

          • MarkR says:

            I get acceleration from the satellite data alone, without removing ENSO or volcanism.

            And you can just fit LOWESS to the Frederikse data, it’s here:

            Which methods did you use to try to test for acceleration? In which dataset and over which period?

          • morfu03 says:

            You do not bring any new facts to the table!
            The question is not if you can fit a data using a certain function, but as I said before
            “Your statement of acceleration come down to a parabolic fit being a better choice than a linear one, which leaves YOU to prove that!”

    • Clive Best says:

      The apparent “acceleration” is mainly due to a systematic shift when connecting the tidal gauge data onto the satellite data.
      You could even argue there was a sudden increase in rate around 1925.

      • MarkR says:

        The Frederikse Figure 1c shows increasing SLR rate, and that has an acceleration around the 1920s, slowdown, then acceleration again. The acceleration they find is pretty much constant since the ’70s and the highest 30-year rates in the record are the latest data.

        The Boulder satellite data alone show acceleration since 1993 too, so that’s not from stitching gauges and satellites.

        So it seems pretty convincing that sea level rise has accelerated recently. The Frederikse sea-level budget closure looks pretty convincing too.

      • MarkR says:

        There’s also Veng & Andersen (2021):

        They add in European satellite data and which also shows accelerated sea-level rise. ESA launched one in 1991, so captures the Pinatubo eruption’s effect. Interesting stuff!

    • Mark Bahner says:

      “I thought sea level rise data *do* show acceleration. Satellites…”

      That’s the first time I’ve seen satellite data with a non-linear fit. I probably haven’t looked in a year or more, but I checked pretty regularly in the decade before that.

      If one looks all the way to 2100 from 2023, the linear value of 3.4 mm/yr adds 262 mm…0.26 meters.

      The acceleration bumps that up to 0.51 meters of sea level rise from 2023 to 2100, by my calculation.

  5. We all know why Andrew Dessler focused on energy in that interview — it’s because he knows that energy is Koonin’s soft spot. In Koonin’s book Unsettled, he never talks about the elephant in the room, AKA the 3rd rail of climate/energy discussion, which is massive crude oil depletion. If you don’t believe me, search his book for any discussion of oil.

    • Mark Bahner says:

      “In Koonin’s book Unsettled, he never talks about the elephant in the room, AKA the 3rd rail of climate/energy discussion, which is massive crude oil depletion.”

      I don’t understand what “massive crude oil depletion” means, and how it has a significant effect on the debate about climate change.

      • Changes in climate also refers to our everyday environment. Conventional crude oil is becoming so rare and expensive that we are forced to use alternative energy sources. Dessler is from Texas A&M, which has one of the few Petroleum Engineering programs, and he realizes that the current crop of students with a PE degree will be the end of the line.

  6. Chubbs says:

    Stale talking points. First heard complaints about model grid square size from an Exxon speaker in the 1990s, grids the size of “Colorado” back then. The intervening time has shown that model errors and other complaints about climate science don’t work in Exxon’s favor.

  7. Aaponline says:

    GET – THEM – TO – DEBATE!!! Steven Koonin was verry verry much up this Andrew Desler almost emidiatly chickend out. Leaves a verry tiny door open. My bet is Andrew will never ever even debate Steven.

  8. Fabio says:

    Grazie mille Clive per questo post !!

  9. Graham says:

    I’ve read Unsettled. I found it like a breath of fresh air to read.
    None of the table thumping alarmist certainly about imminent doom. Rather, well explained complexity of the climate system, which isn’t entirely understood therefore lots of uncertainty.

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