OPINION: Professor Koonin’s climate talk was misleading nonsense — here’s why

Many metal oil drills stand on a flat, yellow field.
When theoretical physicist Steven Koonin spoke at CMC last week, Rowan Gray CM ‘26 and Gabriel Konar-Steenberg PO ‘23 weren’t impressed they were appalled. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Let us set the scene for you real quick. Stanford’s Hoover Institution fellow and NYU Professor Steven E. Koonin was the guest speaker at Claremont McKenna College’s beloved Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum (the Ath). The room was packed with our peers, all busy chatting about their LinkedIn profiles, comparing Deloitte-branded merch and complaining about 50-degree weather. We expected nothing less.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar with Professor Koonin’s work or his talk at the Ath, we’ll fill you in. Koonin is a theoretical physicist with quite the résumé — he taught theoretical physics at Caltech for 30 years, then joined BP as their chief scientist. He would go on to serve under both Obama and Trump and for numerous federal advisory boards. In 2021, he published “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters,” the book that was the subject of his talk at the Ath.

But despite the density of his work, Koonin’s talk can be boiled down to two simple parts. The majority of it consisted of statements along the lines of “it’s not as bad as we think it is” or “we’re doing better than we were 100 years ago even with climate change.” 

Koonin even said — verbatim — “Climate alarm robs youth of their optimism.” He accompanied these statements with various factoids from recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and plenty of graphs from other sources. 

The second part of the talk was him showing a set of predictions and broad positions he defends — with actual statements like “cancel the climate crisis.” His solution? We should develop more nuclear and renewable power and we shouldn’t prevent low income countries from industrializing.

So, what did people in the room think of the talk? From the 15 or so people we heard from, the review was surprisingly positive. While there were some critical comments, many of the questions that were asked of him were prefaced with some statement to the effect of “thank you so much for your talk, it really opened my eyes.”

Now would be a good time to give a little more context on Prof. Koonin. Remember his book? Yeah, so he got a ton of criticism for that book from the broader scientific community. For starters, he isn’t a climate scientist — he’s a theoretical physicist.

His education in climate science was something he got at BP — that’s British Petroleum. The book has been summarized by dozens of actual climate scientists and science historians, led by science misinformation expert Naomi Oreskes, as a “scientifically empty” document that “cherry-picks and misrepresents outdated material to downplay the seriousness of the climate crisis.”

Having this context beforehand, we saw that Koonin’s flaws were on full display during his presentation. 

For instance, he claimed that “[a]nybody that tells you that renewables will be cheap is just not paying attention to the data,” while showing a slide only of current renewable prices, ignoring that solar prices are going down exponentially. When asked about IPCC projections of sea level rise, he vaguely objected without citing any conflicting projections, merely asserting that the IPCC’s numbers didn’t make sense in light of historical data.

But we’re not just here to dunk on a misinformed talk or to judge students for believing his schtick. There’s something much more interesting — and insidious — going on here. 

For the first 40 minutes of his talk, Koonin adopted the aesthetic and discourse style of a good-faith academic, displaying graphs upon graphs and flaunting his impressive credentials to give the impression that he’s some supergenius who just disproved all of modern climate science. Koonin portrays himself as the enlightened, objective scientist rescuing his audience from the other guys’ politicized rhetoric, then uses this persona to sell dangerous policies of climate inaction. 

And we wouldn’t blame people for falling for it — we’re taught, for mostly good reasons, to trust people with big résumés, fancy figures and long words. We’re sure we would have been pretty swayed if we hadn’t already known the context. 

And that’s exactly what is so dangerous and irresponsible about Koonin’s brand of climate denialism. 

The kind of discourse he engages in is toxic. He made ill-defined claims with cherry-picked data, planted seeds of unjustified doubt in a room full of change-makers and then weaseled out of having to answer for it. This betrays the scientific ideals Koonin claims to champion. Koonin’s abuse of the scientific ethos and baseless attacks on actual science makes room for others to claim that there is legitimate disagreement among scientists and for the media to portray the issue as having two equally valid sides. The ultimate impact is powerful — trust in scientists, journalists and other institutions is quickly declining. What else are we supposed to do?

For starters, c’mon CMC. We know you can do better when picking speakers. This isn’t about stifling legitimate disagreement — this is about bad-faith presentations that seek to mislead.

But what about us? We can start by learning more. STEM isn’t only useful for high-paying jobs — it’s an integral part of the liberal arts, crucial for understanding the modern world, no matter one’s place in it. There are courses that tackle these exact issues head-on, such as the recent offering “Climate Science and Human Behavior,” jointly taught by a Pomona College psychology professor and a Harvey Mudd College chemist. And there are plenty of free online resources for those who are not able to take advantage of dedicated college coursework.

It’s also crucial that we work on our understanding of public discourse. TSL itself is not immune from the impulse to accidentally amplify misinformation. The initial news article on Koonin’s visit echoes a bizarre claim about graphite being “fancy” and expensive — it’s not more than a few dollars per pound and, more importantly, fails to mention the overwhelming scientific consensus against Koonin’s claims. It is an unfortunate reality of our world that we are constantly bombarded by misleading content, and it’s absolutely critical that we notice toxic discourse when it shows up.

The climate crisis may inspire a sense of hopelessness. Indeed, this is one of Koonin’s arguments against talking about it too much (though we’d argue that his response to a student who asked about the mass extinction humans are causing — that we should keep going because we must value human lives over the environment — isn’t cheering anyone up either). But not all is lost. 

The sooner we as a society wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to the climate transition, the more harm we can avoid. Even individual action makes a difference — multiple studies show that taking steps in your own life to be more sustainable helps us all see the situation as the emergency it really is, rather than absolving more powerful actors of their responsibility. 

People who were told that 30 percent of Americans had recently changed their habits to eat less meat were twice as likely to order a meatless lunch, and the odds of someone installing solar panels on their house goes up with every other person in their neighborhood who does so.

At the very least, there’s another talk you can go to. Remember Naomi Oreskes? She’s coming to Harvey Mudd on April 17. We hope to see you there.

Rowan Gray CM ’26 is from Sharon, Massachusetts. He wants you to know that all Oxford commas in this piece were violently deleted by his copy editors.

Gabriel Konar-Steenberg PO ’23 is a computer science major from Minneapolis, Minnesota planning to enter the renewable energy field. He firmly believes that the center block should never be taken in a game of Jenga.

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