Steven E. Koonin, a well- credentialed scientist, author of the book, ‘Unsettled’ and founding director of New York University’s Centre for Urban Science and Progress, who previously served as the second Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s administration, was a guest to the Joe Rogan podcast in February. Since the release of ‘Unsettled’ last year April, the book has attracted thorough appraisal and massive criticism, especially from mainstream climate scientists. Based on my judgement, most reviewers of the book didn’t do an excellent job of countering the fact and data stated therein; their criticisms, mostly ad hominem, hinged on prevarications. For example, Mark Boslough, a former PhD student of Koonin at the California Institute of Technology, didn’t contest the writer’s bold assertion that the science of climate remained unsettled. His stance was that unsettled questions in climate science shouldn’t be comforting because the consequences of doing nothing could be catastrophic. Therefore ‘Unsettled’, according Boslough, should have left serious scientists feeling unsettled.
Anyway, during the 2-hour podcast, Koonin touched on the physical science basis of climate, energy systems and the economic impacts of climate change. He agrees that the climate is changing and humans are influencing the climate through the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. However, one of his diverging views from the consensus is that the extent of human influence on the climate is yet to be quantified. Attributing the global warming of the past century and half to anthropogenic forcing, according to Koonin, would be tantamount to disregarding the fact that climate had been changing on all-time scales before human activities became pronounced.
His dispelling of the notion of a climate crisis, by stating that the net economic impact of climate change would be minimal by the end of the century, upset the applecart of climate alarmists. Koonin didn’t stop there; he consigned all current decarbonisation policies to the trashcan; saying they were not sensible because they were formulated by academics who lack experience on the real workings of energy systems. Being a former chief scientist of British Petroleum, he knows that energy systems are recalcitrant; therefore energy transitioning must be slow and steady. An attempt, he said, to dramatically change them would lead to push backs, grid unreliability and suppression of people’s choice. Koonin also posited that a pragmatic, workable and sensible decarbonisation plan should take into consideration factors like technology, economics, consumer behaviour/preference and regulation.
Joe Rogan understands his moral obligation to balance the climate narrative to his teeming audience. Therefore, he brought on his podcast, Andrew Dressler, a mainstream climate scientist and Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, to rebut Koonin’s earlier postulations. I quite frankly enjoyed his conversation with Dressler. Without mincing words, Dressler’s analyses for the greater part of the discussion were electrifying. Apart from the late climate warrior Stephen Schneider, no other mainstream climate scientists had caught my attention in their presentations like Dressler.
Contrary to Koonin’s claim, Dressler stated that the global warming being experienced is human-caused. His reasons are that detection and attribution of climate change point to greenhouse gases. Continental drift, sun’s output, orbital variation, according to him, could not have caused a change in climate during a time period of one hundred and fifty years. Therefore, ocean cycles and GHGs are the great suspects. Dressler further said the carbon dioxide fingerprint (which warms the lower atmosphere and cools the upper atmosphere) points to the gas as the main cause of global warming. If the Physical Science Basis (AR6) of the IPCC, which stated unequivocally that human influence had warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land through observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas concentrations since around 1750, were to be the judge, Dressler’s debunking is spot on.
Apart from calling Koonin a defence attorney for carbon dioxide, the Texas A&M University professor also pointed out his opponent’s hypocrisy in the area of climate and economic models. He couldn’t fathom why Koonin would discountenance climate models as being extremely unreliable but affirm, believe and rely on the judgments of economic models that have been found to be much worse and terrible. Economic models, to him, are highly unreliable because a lot of value and moral judgement goes into unquantifiable factors. To buttress his point, he gave the example of the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) as having different values during the Obama and Trump administrations due to difference in the manner both administrations placed cost on externalities, climate and future damages. Again, I totally agree with Dressler on this point. That, notwithstanding, didn’t attenuate the fact that climate models are unreliable.
When Dressler mentioned geopolitics as one of the reasons to get rid of fossil fuel, I believe he chose acknowledge the fact that the areas of concentration for the rare earth metals needed for global decarbonisation put few countries at the advantage of controlling world supply and production, which has also the propensity to magnify the world’s vulnerability to geopolitical crisis. Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have over 50 per cent of the world’s identified lithium reserve. China controls more than 80% of all rare earth resources which wind turbine components and electric vehicles are made from according to the US Energy Resource Governance Initiative. Going the renewable route will unavoidably lead to the emergence of a ‘Green Tiger’ which is China.
The world’s reluctance to switch from fossil fuels bothers mainly on cost advantage and energy reliability. Dismissing the concerns of decarbonisation, which Koonin methodically enunciated, and expressing hope in the potential of scientists and engineers to sort out those inherent challenges is non-scoring. His argument that the plummeting price of solar and wind signals the possibility of a carbon neutral world failed to provide a formidable defence. I would say on that Dressler was emotive rather than analytic when he cast aspersions on Koonin as being ‘anti- decarbonisation’; more so that he failed to provide strong reasons.
When Joe asked if there was any technology that could extract particulate matter that coal plants eject into the atmosphere, Dressler parried the question. It’s very difficult to state whether his being mum on the question was a defence tactics or that he hasn’t heard of the new tech ultra super-critical (USC) coal-fired technology being used around the world. Apart from the fact that the technology increases power efficiency and optimises coal for high energy productivity, it also removes close to 97 per cent of pollutants and turns them into useful commercial products. There could be an attainment of pollution control to the order of 99.9 per cent upon a fine-tuning of the air quality system of this power plant. The John W. Turk Jr Power Plant in Fulton, Arkansas is a good example.
Dressler gave a fine impression of himself as a firm believer in the free market. He believes that people should be allowed to make their choices. He faulted the state of Texas for devising a policy of refusing to work with businesses that divest from fossil fuels. But Dressler feels no qualms with notable enforced net-zero policies known to be at cross purposes with the principles of the free market economy. The Biden’s executive order on the moratorium on the new leasing for oil drilling cum fracking on federal lands and his outright cancellation of the XL Keystone pipeline; and the California’s Governor’s executive order for the phasing out of new cars with internal combustion engines within 15 year, are some examples of polices that are no respecter of people choices either.