Climate
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Episode 187
Featuring Steven Koonin
Demetri Kofinas speaks with Steven Koonin, fmr. Chief Scientist at BP and Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Dept. of Energy under Barack Obama about why the science of climate change is far from settled, what we know about it, what we don’t know, and why it matters.

In Episode 187 of Hidden Forces, Demetri Kofinas speaks with Steven Koonin, author of “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.” Dr. Koonin serves as Director of NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress. He previously served as Undersecretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy under Barack Obama and as Chief Scientist at BP, where he was a strong advocate for research into renewable energies and alternative fuel sources.

The science of climate change has become, like almost everything else, a matter of political identity in 21st century America. A recent Pew Research study found that Democrats are more than three times as likely as Republicans to say that dealing with climate change should be a top priority. And yet, if you ask people independent of party affiliation for their views on climate change and why they believe what they believe, most of them will struggle to give you a coherent answer. In fact, very few people, and this goes for politicians, journalists, and even academics, have actually read the reports put out by organizations like the IPCC and others responsible for doing the actual research that we all cite when we talk about “the science.” And to be honest, can you blame them? After all, why would anyone want to spend a minute of their time learning about exactly why we are so screwed? About how we’ve destroyed the planet and “broken the climate?” 

We’ve read all the headlines. “Climate Catastrophe.” “Climate Disaster.” “The earth is burning!” But how true is this, exactly? Are we really facing a “Climate Apocalypse?” Is climate science really “more reliable than physics,” something that journalist David Wallace-Wells said in a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Podcast. Not according to my guest, but more importantly, not according to the science, which, to borrow from the book’s title, is very much “Unsettled.”

Before you react to that very provocative book title, you should know that no one is saying climate change is a hoax or that anthropogenic warming isn’t real. The purpose of this conversation is not to surreptitiously undermine the consensus view or to troll those who believe strongly in it. Rather, it is simply meant to help inform those of you who either haven’t read the reports or are simply skeptical about just how bad the situation is and what’s required from us in order to solve it. This is a subject that deeply concerns all of us, but the doom and gloom narrative surrounding it has arguably become counterproductive in helping us actually address the problem.

Steven and Demetri spend two hours—between the first half and the overtime—working their way through the data, what it says, and what the models predict about not only future warming, but also the incidences of droughts, forest fires, hurricanes, rising sea levels, climate-induced migration, and pandemics driven by a warming planet. 

In the subscriber overtime, they focus most of their attention on the incentives that account for these widely divergent narratives on climate, the importance of morals and values in thinking about how to structure climate policy, and the missing components of costs and tradeoffs that we all need to think about when coming to decisions on how best to adapt our societies and ourselves to the changing climate.

Kofinas and Koonin also discuss geoengineering, including carbon extraction and the use of aerosols to dampen the sun’s rays, as well as alternative sources of energy like wind, solar, and nuclear, and their respective roles as alternatives to fossil fuels in the coming decades.

You can access the episode overtime, as well as the transcript and rundown to this week’s episode through the Hidden Forces Patreon Page. All subscribers gain access to our overtime feed, which can be easily added to your favorite podcast application.

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Producer & Host: Demetri Kofinas

Editor & Engineer: Stylianos Nicolaou

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Follow Demetri on Twitter at @Kofinas

Episode Recorded on 04/12/2021

Steven Koonin currently serves as Director of NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP). He was confirmed by the Senate in May 2009 as Undersecretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, serving in that position until November 2011. Prior to joining the Obama Administration, he was BP's Chief Scientist, where he was a strong advocate for research into renewable energies and alternate fuel sources. He came to BP in 2004 after almost three decades as Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, serving as the Institute's Vice President and Provost for the last nine years. He most recently held a position at the Science and Technology Policy Institute of the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, DC.  Professor Koonin is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the George Green Prize for Creative Scholarship at Caltech and is a Fellow of several professional societies, including the American Physical Society, the American Association of the Advancement of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.  Professor Koonin received his B.S. in Physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1972 and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from MIT in 1975.
His latest book, "Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters," publishes on May 4th, 2021, and is available for pre-order today.
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