On May 6, theoretical physicist and former Obama administration energy official Steve Koonin appeared on two Fox programs to discuss his recently released book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.
In a nearly 13-minute appearance on Fox Business’ Kudlow, Koonin pushed a number of claims from his book that contradict the established scientific consensus on climate change. Among other things, he stated that “we've seen hardly any change in most severe weather events”; that “in the U.S., the highest temperatures haven't gone up in 60 years and are the same as they were in 1900”; and that there’s been “no detectable human influences on hurricanes over the last many decades.” He also questioned why “somehow people don’t want to use” fracking and said the current situation around climate change is “misleading panic.”
Later that evening on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, Koonin repeated the same statement on humans and hurricanes, and on hotter temperatures, he stated that “the incidence of heat waves across the 48 states is no greater now than it was in 1900, and the highest temperatures haven’t gone up in 60 years.” He also called climate models uncertain and claimed that climate science has become “immoral,” as “it's being used as a tool to scare young people, create depression.”
Koonin, who is not a climate scientist, has a controversial history within the scientific and political climate change community. He formerly served as chief scientist for BP (a company that has played an outsized role in both worsening climate change and delaying climate action). In 2017, he advocated for a “red team-blue team” approach to climate science, which would “put the ‘consensus’ to a test” and illuminate “differing perceptions of climate science.” This idea apparently caught the attention of then-EPA Administrator (and notorious climate change denier) Scott Pruitt. And in 2019, he reportedly tried to help former President Donald Trump create a “climate contrarians” panel with longtime climate denier Will Happer.
Given the content of his new book, it’s no surprise that Koonin appeared on Fox to discuss its key points. While those points are wrong and easily debunkable, they have been spreading across the vast right-wing media ecosystem.
Real climate scientists and experts have lambasted Koonin’s book
Some of the major claims Koonin made in his May 6 Fox appearances came directly from his book, which was reviewed in an April 25 Wall Street Journal piece that repeated a number of its claims. Climate Feedback, a website featuring climate scientists who review dubious climate pieces in the media, reviewed the article and estimated “its overall scientific credibility to be very low.”
Regarding Koonin’s misleading statement on human impacts on hurricanes, MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel said the “most up-to-date research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates an increase in the proportion of hurricanes that become major hurricanes (Category 3-5) globally, supporting theoretical predictions that date back to 1987.” University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain echoed this point, noting that “the most intense tropical cyclones are indeed becoming stronger in terms of maximum wind speeds and minimum central pressure and are producing more extreme rainfall.”
In his Kudlow interview, Koonin also downplayed the threat of melting ice and rising sea levels, stating that “people worry about the melting of the ice sheets, but that’s gonna take hundreds of years, if it happens.” This statement is remarkably wrong. Twila Moon of the University of Colorado stated that “over the last 20 years, ice loss has been rapid and large, creating measurable sea level rise.” Postdoctoral researcher Thomas Frederikse agreed, saying that “tide-gauge observations show that sea levels are persistently accelerating since the 1960s, and overall, the observed sea-level rise during the 20th century is higher than during any other century over the last 3000 years.”
Koonin’s claims downplaying the effectiveness of climate models are also wrong. Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather states that Koonin’s criticism “ignores the fact that climate models published since the 1970s were quite accurate in projecting the warming that actually occurred in the years after they were published, as we discuss in our recent paper.” (In fact, climate models have been so correct that even fossil-fuel giant Exxon’s own scientists accurately predicted the rate of global warming in the 1980s.)
The Climate Feedback piece also addressed other misleading claims from Koonin’s book that he did not repeat in his Fox interviews, including misleading statements on global wildfires, the severity of droughts, global crop yields, and the economic impact of climate change. Overall, says Twila Moon, “many conclusions highlighted in this article are examples of cherry-picking information and failing to provide the context of change. In other instances, statements are fully wrong and unsupported by scientific research.”
Marianna Lavelle of Inside Climate News also addressed some of the claims Koonin made in his new book, including rebutting the statement he made on his Fox appearances about hot temperatures and heat waves in the U.S.:
The average annual temperature in the contiguous U.S. has increased from 0.7 degrees to 1.0 degrees Celsius (1.2 to 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the 20th century. The year 2020 was the fifth-warmest year in the 126-year record for the contiguous U.S. And the five warmest years on record have occurred since 2012, NOAA reports. There is a more marked increase in nighttime lows than in daytime highs (the “warmest” temperatures) because of factors like the cooling effect of daytime aerosol pollution and soil moisture evaporation.
She also countered his claim about a future minimal economic impact of climate change by noting 2019 research that found that “global warming has very likely exacerbated global economic inequality, including ∼25% increase in population-weighted between-country inequality over the past half century.” Multiple scientific studies have showed that the cost of climate inaction far outweighs the cost of climate action. Indeed, one analysis finds that climate change could cost nearly $70 trillion by 2100.
In the past several weeks, Koonin has been featured in numerous right-wing media outlets
In addition to his May 6 appearances on Kudlow and Tucker Carlson Tonight, Koonin has made a number of other television appearances, written op-eds, and given interviews promoting his book. The vast majority of these have been with right-wing media outlets, including sources that are climate deniers.
He appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s The First on May 6, Andrew Bolt’s show on Australia’s Sky News on May 5, CNBC’s Squawk Box on May 4, and Kudlow on March 19. O’Reilly, Bolt, Kudlow, and Squawk Box’s Joe Kernan are all climate deniers. He also appeared on the Outsiders program on Sky News Australia on May 8. Here, he claimed that “modest” global warming will be beneficial for the planet, without noting that the negative impacts of climate change will far outweigh any positive ones. Sky News Australia, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, has a history of climate denial.
He has written pieces promoting his book for The National Review and the New York Post, given a print interview to The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins (who has a history of being wrong about climate issues), given interviews to conservative radio personalities John Gormley and Ross Kaminsky, and spoken to fossil fuel industry shill Alex Epstein, climate misinformer Rich Lowry of The National Review, and conservative Daily Beast writer Matt Lewis. His book and its climate misinformation have also been the basis of articles in Townhall and The Federalist. And along the way, he’s been promoted by notorious climate deniers Marc Morano and Steve Milloy.
Right-wing media propping up books that are skeptical of climate change is an all-too-familiar occurrence
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is -- this sort of thing happened just last summer, when climate contrarians Bjorn Lomborg and Michael Shellenberger both released books downplaying the seriousness of climate change within a month of each other. Like Koonin, they both appeared across the right-wing media ecosystem to promote their books. There are other similarities between these individuals as well -- all are highly controversial within the climate science community, while their major works have been fact-checked and discredited by actual climate scientists and experts. Additionally, none of them are climate scientists.
As the realities of worsening climate change become more and more apparent, it’s become more difficult for right-wing media outlets to continue unequivocally denying that climate change is even happening. This new type of climate denial espoused by people like Koonin -- who say climate change is happening but it’s not that big of a problem -- provides perfect cover for right-wing media outlets to act like they care about the issue while they continue helping polluting companies kick climate action down the road.
Koonin’s misinformation-filled book won’t be the last one to downplay the threat of climate change, but it’s becoming easier to spot books like these when right-wing media take an exclusive interest in promoting their false claims.