Steve Koonin has served as undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration and was the founding director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. He’s nowadays teaching at the NYU. Koonin is also the author of Unsettled : What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters (1). This best-sellers was sold to more than 200.000 copies in the USA and is now translated is many languages. We have the opportunity to meet with professor Koonin during his stay in Paris and he has accepted to answer our questions on Climate change and Energy solutions.
On Climate Change
Jean-Paul Oury : The IPCC AR6 synthesis report has just came out. It is presented as « a final warning for humanity to act swiftly ». What is your comment on this new report ?
Steven E. Koonin : I have not had the chance to read it in details, since it only came out yesterday and have been busy travelling. I did briefly look at it. One practical comment is : they do not release the full report, but only the summary for policymakers. Of course, for those of us who are interested in the details, we would want to see the full report. On the other hand I don’t expect that there will be much new there ; after all it is expected to be a synthesis of the three previous reports, but it is very interesting to see how they present it. I have already had occasion to read a few pages and they talk about increase number of deaths that result from higher temperatures and that’s true ; but they forget to tell you about the larger decrease in the number of deaths from fewer cold temperature. So as in the previous reports it’s a misrepresentation of the underlying science. It is meant to persuade rather than to inform.
And I think that the scientific community does the world a deservice when it tries to persuade them to take a particular course of action rather than inform a complicated decision which involve the science but also technology, values, equity and so on.
JPO : One of your main assumption is that those who are speaking about climate change have not read the IPCC assessment full reports, but they are mainly quoting the summary for the policymakers – much more alarmist. Is this one more time the case for this new report ? What are consequences ?
SEK : Yes. And in fact in many ways Working group 1 of the AR6, the one who deals with the physic of climate, is less alarming, than the previous report. They have declared the most extreme emission scenarios are unlikely, so more moderate scenario is likely ; they have narrowed the range of climate sensitivity and the projected warming to twenty one hundredth under the most, what they did the most probable is 2,7° C which is significantly less than what previous reports have projected. The fact that people are focussed on alarmism further inflames the passions more here in Europe than in US, I have been discovering. Still a passion among many people that we have to take prompt large scale action or things are going very bad and that is just not supported by the actual science or the reports and nor is it necessarily the wisest course of action to make large and rapid reductions in emissions.
JPO : You’ve called your book Unsettled. Why ?
SEK : It really has three meanings. It refers to the science itself : we often hear the politicians say « the science is settled we need to act » ; it refers to how I felt, and I think readers will feel when they read some of the actual reports as opposed to the summaries of the medias ; and then I think it refers to what do we do as a society about the circonstances we’re in… that’s very much not settled as well. So I really wanted to give people information to inform them that they can think about those thinks for themselves rather than just taking what the media tell them.
JPO : You’ve said once that you wanted to do for climate what Václav Smil did for energy. Can you explain us ?
SEK: Vaclav Smil is an emeritus professor in the university of Manitoba in Canada and he has written over twenty books that are very logical quantitive analysis of society systems. The most recent is « how the world really works. » I have first being acquainted with his works and then with him when I’ve started working about energy and joined BP (about 18 years ago). He has a wonderful quantitative way of synthesizing material and giving one the picture, so you can understand the details once you’ve got this broader framework. I’ve learned so much by reading couple of his energy books when I have started in energy. I know Bill Gates has said Smil was his favorite author, mine as well and I was most proud when Smil agreed to write a comment about my book (2).
There’s a lot to do in popular science to explain the climate. But I’d like to say that one of the best introduction I had was when someone compare me to William Tindall. He was the first person in the early sixteen century to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English so that the common people could understand what the Bible actually said, as oppposed to what the church claimed it said, and of course he got burned at the stake for doing that.
JPO : Since a couple of days on the French national television, they run a new broadcast called « meteo climat »(3) (Weather Climate) which contextualize the weather reports through the general story of the climate change. In your book you insist on the difference between the climate and the weather report. So what do you think of this new way of presenting weather forecast ? Can you explain us why it is important not to confuse weather and climate ?
SEK: This program is deceptive. Because climate is a thirty year average, there’s no such thing as climate « news ». It changes as slowly as the grass grows. It takes forever. Moreover – I haven’t seen this broadcast but – whenever they talk about an extreme event, as scientist I would say they are ought to talk about extreme event in the past as well. How unprecedented is this ? Because if something happened in the past and It’s the same or more unusual that what we’ve seen today, while the past human influence was much smaller. So it’s very difficult to attribute that to human influence. I’d like to pull out figure 1.2 in the book (see below) which shows the height of the Nile river year by year over a hundred year and more : this is the minimum height every year. What you see is two things : one is strong variability from year to year. One year it’s up to six meters, then the next year it’s down below 2 or something like that. The second is even if you take the 30-year climate average there are long term trends.
So these guys at the beginning of the records, there’s probably some medieval Egyptian IPCC guy saying « new normal, new normal and you’re better pray and sacrifice » and so on and you just wait hundred and fifty or hundred years and it comes back. So we should not get too excited ; or better say, we should have a little bit of humility in trying to discover a long trends of extreme events.
The weather disasters that we do see often have a human component and sometimes a dominent component that has nothing to do with climate. So I like to cite the Pakistani floods that we saw this summer. Two days after the peak of the floods the Pakistani environmental ministry gets on the media and says ” this is clearly due to human cause climate change and you owe us money ” ; and she says « this is the worst flood since 1961 ». Any scientist, as I teach my student, when you hear something like that you should look at the record and see what happened before 1961. We have that record and see the monsoon going back to eighteen something when the British were there. And in fact there were comparably strong monsoon events a century before. Moreover in modern Pakistan the mountains are practically naked : no trees, so the water runs off. They are many more people, many of them living in flood plains. And so of course it’s gonna be a disaster. You have to be really careful about saying « it’s carbon dioxyde ».
JPO. : In the chapter « human, humble influence on climate », you say « understanding how the climate system responds to human influences is, unfortunately, a lot like trying to understand the connection between human nutrition and weight loss, a subject famously unsettled to this day. » Then you give the half-cucumber’s diet example. Can you explain us ?
SEK. : So the climate system, in terms of the energy that flows through it, is massive. To put a number it’s 240 watts per square meters of sunlight that comes in and heat that comes out, almost in balance. And the human influences through greenhouse gases and aerosols amount to one per cent of that (2,4 watts per square meters). And so the scientific challenge is to understand the effect of this one per cent perturbation on the system. Compounding that is that there are other influences at that same level. Volcanoes (on and off), changes in the solar intensity thought to be smaller, but natural variability is of the same magnitude. Untangling all of that when the system is noisy and we have incomplete data is a major challenge and I needed some analogy of a complicated system, that is why I’ve compared it to human diet. The most recent IPCC synthesis report says it is all the human cause and I’ve heard on the news that the last two hundred years are all human cause, but it can’t be because there are ups and downs. Human influences have just been going up steadily.
JPO. : You are very harsh on the climate models. You say they are useful for research, but to make trillion dollar decision, we should be cautious. Do we give too much importance to models ?
SEK. : I think we do. When you talk to people who actually do the modeling and interpret the results, you will get all the caveats. Then you get the value judgement from them : yes but we should be safe and make changes in energy. But I’m stunned for example if you take the latest ensemble of models from 2 years ago and you look at the sensitivity of the models. The IPCC itself deems about 40% of them too sensitive and just ignored them for the rest of the discussion. So it’s very disconcerting that the world best modelers trying as hard as they can get it so wrong 40% of the time. And I can’t blame them, they’re doing the best that they can but it is a very difficult modeling problem. When you look at the ability to reproduce the actual temperature history, it is terrible.
A fundamental tenet, at least in the science I grew up with, is that if you can’t reproduce the existing data d, the model is not very good. They seem to ignore that. I think making trillion dollars decisions is not very wise on that basis when there are countervailing reasons not to change the energy system. The uncertainty grows as you go down the influence chain. The bare effect of CO2 in increasing the heat trapping ability of the atmosphere, that is pretty well understood, that is just molecular physics, people do the calculations and it is about what it is. But there are feedbacks in the models which can not been put in by hand, but have to emerge from the models, that is the main source for the uncertainty, particularly the clouds, and then there’s the follow-on uncertainties : how that change in the climate system will affect human society, what is the impact. As you go through this influence chain, it gets more and more uncertain.
JPO. : You say that there is a confusion between assessment report and peer reviewed study. You’ve proposed to have the IPCC’s Assessment Report reviewed by a red team. Do you think that your request will be once taken into consideration. What’s on your mind ?
SEK. : I think there’s no way the IPCC would do that and the reason is that they have been given the authoritative voice and do not want to be challenged at all. Despite the fact that the challenges are credible and in my view often correct. For example they say that death are increasing when gets warmer but they forget to tell you that the death have also decreased from fewer cold temperatures. Forgetting to mention that second fact is advisory malpractice. If you’re writing an assessment reports try to inform decision makers, you have to include both sides particularly when the other side is bigger than what we’re talking about. I don’t know how that get through the review process. So I wanted to have – and I think it’s still a very good idea – a critical scrub. Is what you’ve said really supported by the data ? And you could go through paragraph by paragraph and do that. It’s the kind of thing scientists do often, and if anybody is making a high consequence decision, for example, you want to launch a spacecraft, or you’re building an airplane… you always have a red team review : « tell me what’s wrong with this », do your best to tell me what’s wrong. The IPCC doesn’t do this way, nor does the US government, because what they put out has obvious faults. To be fair, they do solicit comments, but the comments are released long after the report is published and the authors are quite free to just ignore the comments as they do. They cherry-pick the datas, there’s many ways they spin the story. It’s kind of propaganda, it is meant to enforce and persuade, not to inform.
JPO. : In your book you seem to explain that nuclear is one of the best option we have for the energy transition, but you don’t seems to believe in renewable energy as one can see in a Soho Debate (4) you’ve won against Andrew Dessler. Can you give us your arguments for Nuclear and against Renewable ? Did you know that AOC on a trip to Japan proposed to open the dialog on nuclear energy (5) ? What about nuclear energy in the USA ?
SEK. : The grid is central to try to get lower emissions. We’re gonna electrify everything : heat, transportation, and we need a strong and reliable grid. You would like the grid (or electricity) to be reliable. The reliability standard in the US is less than one day out of the decade. So 99,99%. You would like it to be affordable and you would like it to be clean. And we can have each of those pairs. So if you wand it to be reliable and affordable, call in gaz or coal; you want it to be clean and reliable we can do nuclear ; and if you want it to be affordable and clean then we can do wind and solar. We don’t have a way of simultaneously to satisfy all three right now with the technology. So people advocate wind and solar. What you discover when you try to build a grid out of wind and solar using the observed wind and sun hour by hour accross the US and put for thirty years and put the wind and solar facilities in the optimal prices is : what cost the most money is the reliability not the generation. To be able to meet demand I need 99,99% of the time. You even need a tremendous overbuild of wind and solar or you need some kind of dispatchable firm power. When you go through the economics, it turns out that the nuclear together with wind and solar is the cheapest option. You need dispatchability the ability to turn it on. And for a a dispatchable 0 emission sources you have got either nuclear or gaz with carbon capture. And Nuclear wins.
Regarding AOC, she’s not the only one who has or is about to undergo a conversion : Stuart Brand, Michael Shellenberger… those are environmentalists who have started to understand about the energy system and the techno-economics facts and it’s good that she’s coming around. I think that’s good and I would welcome the opportunity to educate her further about energy. Seriously, I find satisfaction in sitting down with people who don’t really understand energy or climate and try to walk them through it.
About nuclear energy in the United States : we haven’t built much. There are two plants under construction now. They are big ones, out of schedule and over budget as usual. I have more hope for the smalls reactors. There are companies that I’d hope they have at least demonstrations up and running before the end of the decade.
JPO. : Do you have any opinion about the nuclear energy’s debate inside the European Union … Are you aware of the controversy between the French nuclear industry and the German Energiewende ? Do you have any advice for the European policy makers ?
SEK : I think the advice is « not to take advice from Germany ». Look at what they’ve done to themselves. Too much reliance on unstable or unreliable wind and solar in Germany my god and a refusal to build a LNG import terminals and a manifest dependance on a unreliable supplier through the Nordstream pipeline. Many people knew that they would get into trouble, and told them so… even ten years before. Scientists and technologists used to know long time ago. So I’d say to the Germans thank you and then do something sensible. I’ve been meeting with energy experts in Brussels yesterday, and it seems that there was more realism over here.
I like to use this picture : the cartoon Wile E Coyote running off a cliff … this is what has happened to the green movement … They’ve suddenly realized « oups » that there are other factors that we didn’t think about.
By This is a screenshot taken from an optical disc, television broadcast, web page, computer software or streaming media broadcast. Copyright holder: Warner Brothers, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1895174
As for example Germans who have chosen wind and solar might have dunkelflaute – an easy way to see why you’re not gonna save energy with renewable grid – for as long as a couple weeks. That mean you need a reliable back-up system wether it is batteries or nuclear, or carbon capture… And this back-up system has to be as capable as the wind and solar. So you’re running two simultaneous systems. And that means the total cost of the system is gonna be at least twice the wind and solar. Because the wind and solar is the cheapest. And so the cost of your electricity is gonna be at least double and sometimes more. And so you ask the question : while the back up system is so capable, why am I running the wind and solar at all ? There’s no good answer to that. The material is another problem with renewable : they use about ten times as much critical materials as do the conventional technologies. And the world does not have the capacities to provide those materials reliably. The only humans who don’t pollute are the dead ones. Energy is such scale that you’re gonna have an effect on the environment one way or the other. Wether it’s mining waste, or carbon dioxide, or taking down trees … you’ve gotta do something and chose your poison.
JPO. : Recently Germany decided to give up on the EU’s decision of going full EV for 2035. And they’ve chosen to keep on producing internal combustion vehicle. What’s your take on this U turn ?
SEK. : Everybody is green until it really affects them. As Kermit the Frog said, It’s not easy being green. I think it’s some combination of self interest (the German automobile manufacturers), but also I don’t think that a ban on IC use so quickly or even at all is very wise. The battery technology is not there yet. There are circumstances where you really do need the chemical fuels … so slowly, slowly. And I would say about the energy transition more generally, Nordhaus, his part of his Nobel price when he worked, pointed out that there is an optimal pace to decarbonize. If you do it too rapidly then there’s a tremendous disruption in efficiencies. I think in some respects, that banning ICV is within the next twelve years just too fast. That would be true in the States as well.
Again there are techno-economic realities that the politicians can try to circumvent, but in the end like gravity, it pulls the coyote down. You can’t beat it.
JPO. : Some expert propose extremes solutions for helping our society to decrease: for example, Mr. Jean-Marc Jancovici a great French engineer proposes to stop healing old people from 65 years and to limit the flight to a number of 4 (per person / per life). What do you think of decreasing ? Is this the only solution as some say ?
SEK. : The real problem is not the decreasing emissions from the developed world. But it is the increasing emissions from the developing world. Remember some of the numbers that you’ve heard before : 1,5 billions in the developed world are energy rich, but 6,5 billion people who are energy poor or energy starved. And their energy consumption will grow as they develop economically. As we should hope that they do. And right now for those folks the most reliable and convenient way for them to get that energy is fossil fuels. And so there is a moral issue involved. That guy can tell « Europe and the US you really need to reduce ». But he can’t tell those other folks that « you’re not allowed to develop ». It is really the moral issue as you can read in Alex Epstein’s book. I credit him with highlighting that. What is his answer to that question : « what do you do ? » There is no moral answer except « let them develop ». You’re asking them to worry about some vague uncertain and distant threat (climate change) versus the fact that they have very immediate and seeable needs. It’s like to tell a starving person, and you’re not going to eat that because of your cholesterol.
JPO. : Bjorn Lomborg, Judith Curry, Michael Shellenberger, Richard Lindzen, Alex Epstein, Vaclav Smil… many others yet and yourself of course… all those voices are speaking of climate and energy transition without contradicting the main thesis of the IPCC, without raising the alarmism, but focussing on the real technosolutions. Why don’t you have more echo in the mainstream medias ?
SEK.: First the mainstream medias have a self interest in promoting dramatic stories and to say the climate is not so bad. That would get reduced attention. Second reason is that many media have now hired climate reporters often without a degree in science and with a mandate to go out and write climate stories. And then there are activists media organisations like Covering Climate Now. It’s a consortium of media organisations (The Guardian, BBC, NPR…) and they have agreed among themselves to just cover stories which agrees with a narrative and not to cover stories that disagrees with. And of course the politicians love that. It’s an unholy alignement of the medias and the politics. All this eventually one day – like the coyote’s story – is gonna crash.
The mesure being proposed (restricting flights, not caring about old people or whatever) ordinary people are going to say « hell no ». You see it already a little bit in the home heating fiasco in the UK, the yellow vest in France. The other thing which is disturbing is that this disease is concentrated in the West. If you go in Asia, they are much more focused on ameliorating their life. My hope is that more and more people are hungry for a fact-based discussion as I can see in many debate I’m having right now.
(2) “We have too many global warming books—but this one is needed. Steven Koonin has the credentials, expertise, and experience to ask the right questions and to give realistic answers.” —Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba about Unsettled.
(5) AOC’s trip to Japan on Instagram
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