The False Promise of Net Zero Emissions
with Steven Koonin
If you keep up on the popular literature on climate change—the long magazine pieces, the books touted in the New York Times, and the studies cited by climate activists and left-leaning politicians—you could be forgiven for panicking. The portrait they paint is dire. Coastal cities drowned by rising sea levels and battered by ferocious hurricanes, entire regions of the globe desiccated by skyrocketing temperatures, an entire way of life cooked, frozen, or otherwise destroyed by our reliance on fossil fuels and the carbon they release into the atmosphere.
But there are dissenting voices, and not all of them are conspiracy-minded kooks. My guest this week, Steven Koonin, is a highly regarded physicist and expert on climate change and the author of the best-selling book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. He offers a reasonable alternative view that is far less dire. In fact, he argues that apocalyptic narratives about climate crisis are so overblown that they threaten to stymie the progress that has been so beneficial to the lives of Westerners and is still ongoing in the East and the Global South.
Can we in good conscience give up the benefits of fossil fuels and rely on the uncertainties of nascent and untested alternative energy sources? Koonin argues that the costs of doing so could be far worse than a slight rise in the average global temperature. In the following excerpt, he explains why his perspective on things has such a hard time penetrating into mainstream narratives about climate change and why the most extreme carbon reduction measures are both unfeasible and inadvisable.
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STEVEN KOONIN: Both climate and energy are complicated, nuanced subjects, and none of that comes through in the popular discussions. I teach at NYU in the fall a course on climate science and in the spring a course on energy. And those students at the masters level come away with their eyes opened up about just how complicated and difficult these issues are.
GLENN LOURY: Okay. You end the book with a couple of chapters, “Who Broke the Science?” and “How to Fix the Science.” I guess we've already been talking a little bit about who broke the science, but I wouldn't mind hearing you elaborate on that, and I'm especially concerned about how you think you can fix the science, given the political winds that are blowing.
You know, what I have seen is the scientific institutions, I think the National Academy [of Science]—which in many respects does a great job on other areas—have fallen down on this one. The administration's Office of Science and Technology Policy, the professionals have all, in some ways, jumped on the bandwagon and have been suppressing the uncertainties in the science, the fact that not much is happening with extreme weather, the difficulties in making a transition to low emissions.
And there are many people—and it's not just me or a small group of friends—I think there are many people who realize this but just don't wanna speak out. How to fix it? I think in some ways the situation's gonna fix itself, not without some pain. As the measures that are being proposed to reduce emissions, the banning of internal combustion engines after 2035 that's happening in many states, the push to deploy lots of solar and wind and shut down natural gas and nuclear happening in California, happening in the Northeast where you are, that's going to degrade the reliability and affordability of the energy system. The energy providers in the Northeast got really worried in Christmas a week or two ago, where you are, because they couldn't get enough natural gas because pipelines had been canceled, so to speak.
So that's going to start to affect ordinary people, and I think eventually they're gonna start to ask the question, “Tell me again why we're doing this.” And that is going to lead to some kind of reexamination of the science. You know, I can fantasize that there should be a truth and reconciliation kind of exercise, perhaps sponsored by Congress, about who knew what when and who misrepresented what when. But I don't think that's ever going to happen. Reality will eventually force a reckoning in what we do about all of it.
Well, it takes us a little bit off topic, but I can't help but think about the Great Barrington [Declaration] and the reaction to Covid and the discrediting, I think it's fair to say, of many sources of scientific authority in retrospect, now that we can see that maybe focused protection shouldn't have been dismissed out of hand, maybe herd immunity wasn't a bad word, and things of this kind. You see parallels there?
Oh, absolutely. It's even worse in some ways as we were working our way through Covid. There were a lot of scientific uncertainties particularly early on, and we started to understand more and more. But you couldn't say that one thing was more right than another at the beginning. It's just that you should have given credence to some of these alternative views, which was not done, as you point out.
I think here in the climate, we actually have a lot of data. We have some understanding, and it is full understanding that is being suppressed. You know, again, just to refer to my own particular case, as I told you, we've sold a lot of copies of books. Not a word in the New York Times, New York Times Bestseller List, Washington Post. Nah. Very rare to get a debate going on the science. I've been fortunate to be able to do a few over the last couple months. But you know, the fact that I can just publish the data, not my data, but the official data and say, hey, this does not accord with what you're being told. The fact that I can only publish that in the Wall Street Journal, which is a fine paper but has a limited readership, suggests that there's a lot that people are not being told.
I don't understand why the National Academy of Sciences—of which you are a member, if I'm not mistaken. I am not, but I have served on committees from time to time of—wouldn't impanel a high-level expert committee to overview the entire corpus of scientific work on this very important public issue and issue a definitive report or a set of reports that basically replicate the arguments that you're making in Unsettled, or other arguments if those were the ones that the evidence supported. But in any case, why wouldn't the NAS speak to this in an authoritative way?
Well, you know, what you get out of the panel depends upon who you put on the panel. I have a friend who's not a climate scientist but a very good engineer, and he was on one of these committees. And he describes the experience of walking into the first meeting of the committee, and the discussion was, “Well, we know what we're gonna write. How can we write this?”
The selection of the panel, the modulation of the language, the difference between the summary and the content? You know, a lot of these assessment reports depend upon adjectives to give a flavor to the non-expert. And you can spin it one way or the other. A lot of what's in my book—well, almost all of it—is out of the official reports or the literature or the data. And I think one of the powerful things in the book is exposing the disconnect between what the non-expert description is and what's actually going on with the climate.
Now, what about the Paris Accords, the possibility of international diplomacy being able to get the Chinese and the Indians and the Europeans and the North Americans all on the same page on this? I mean, particularly in light of what you just observed about the fact that most of humanity has yet to fully empower itself to enjoy the benefits of the modern technological civilization that we take for granted, which depends on fossil fuels.
Ain't gonna happen, all right? We're not gonna reduce, we're not gonna go to zero certainly by 2050. Even John Kerry admits that now. And we're not gonna go to zero globally certainly before the end of this century.
Oh, excuse me. Can you just explain to people what “go to zero” means?
Okay, so the world emits a certain amount of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, every year. Most of that emission is due to the burning of fossil fuels. Because the world is developing and the population is increasing, the amount of fossil fuels we burn every year goes up, has been going up at about one-and-a-half percent a year. In order to stabilize—not reduce but just stabilize—human influences on those emissions have to go to zero. If you want to stabilize the climate, allegedly, at one-and-a-half degrees temperature rise, it needs to go to zero by 2050. If you go to zero more slowly, the temperature will be higher, they say.
So the goal, the political goal, the goal of the Paris Accord is to get to zero some time in the latter half of this century, globally. That means no emissions of fossil fuels used in the conventional way. Also, by the way, you gotta fix agriculture, which accounts for about 25% of emissions. But basically to get to an emissions-free world by 2050 or 2100. So that's kind of the goal.
But if you look at the drivers, the development, the rate of change of technology, the somewhat modest increase in population expected over the next 80 years, there's just no way that's gonna happen. And you can understand that from the point of view of the Chinese or the Indian. Their overwhelming priority is to get enough energy for their people so that they can improve their lives. But the issue of, well, something might happen to the climate a hundred years from now is just not particularly important relative to that overwhelming need.