A controversial critic of climate science spoke at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory last week, repeating longstanding claims that fossil fuels are vital to the U.S. economy and climate change poses little threat.

Cutting back rapidly on fossil fuel use, as the Biden Administration plans to do in transportation and power generation sectors of the economy, is likely to lead to unreliable new technologies and a “citizen backlash,” in the view of the critic, Dr. Steven Koonin, director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress.

In a charge that he has repeated often since 2014, when he published an opinion piece in the Wall St. Journal, Koonin said that alarms about an impending climate crisis are based on flimsy, if not deceptive, science. 

These false alarms are amplified in the news media by “non-expert and activist reporters who have to get on the front page,” he said.

LLNL’s arrangement for Koonin to speak was itself controversial.  Disagreement and debate are universally acknowledged to be an essential part of science, but many climate scientists who have criticized Koonin in the national media, as well as several for this article, consider Koonin not a serious dissenter but a critical gadfly.

He does not immerse himself in the research, they allege, but instead cherry-picks parts of technical reports that are easy to criticize but require context and detailed knowledge to defend.

Not being a climate scientist, their complaint goes, he publishes his criticisms in news media like the Wall Street Journal that are sympathetic to industry and skeptical of climate research.  (Koonin once worked as chief scientist for BP, the British oil and gas giant.)

In this way, critics say, his views reach and mislead a wide segment of the public without being based on scientifically sound information.

As controversy percolated early last week before Koonin’s talk, LLNL defended itself with a written statement that, “Throughout its history the Lab has invited guest speakers whose opinions differ from those of the Lab and its workforce. It does not mean the Lab endorses those opinions.”

Nevertheless, the invitation rankled many, including the Laboratory’s best known climate scientist, Ben Santer, who was so offended that he announced his intention of leaving the Lab when his present commitment ends on September 30. 

Santer has reported receiving verbal abuse and physical threats as a result of his research over three decades.  

While he was unhappy that the Laboratory would give a speaking platform to a non-climate scientist, he was especially angered that Koonin was posturing as a truth-teller forcing climate scientists to try to match the output of their computer models against observations from the real world.  These kinds of reality checks have always been an integral part of climate science and Koonin has nothing to do with them, he insists. 

To Mike MacCracken, a retired former LLNL division leader who helped establish the Laboratory's atmospheric sciences program, it is understandable that Santer should be upset.

In a fast-changing field, Santer’s research has repeatedly produced results that proved correct over the long run, while the objections of his scientific critics have been found flawed.

In the public spotlight, because his research findings have pointed to the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, MacCracken wrote in an email, Santer has had to “endure unfairly harsh and intrusive scrutiny of his research.”

Now, for a “non-climate expert and critic such as Koonin, who has simply not done his homework, to be given the podium at LLNL is akin to the situation in Arizona where a non-expert entity has been brought in to do a recount of the votes….

“It is thus not surprising that Ben has taken a strong stand in reaction to Koonin coming to argue that climate change is not really a serious issue.”

Joyce Penner, a climate scientist who worked at LLNL from 1977 until 1996 and is now a distinguished university professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Michigan, said in an interview that she believes it was “not in best interest of science to give somebody that kind of platform who’s really not an expert, who doesn’t publish (scientific articles) in the area.”

Penner’s professional focus has been the interaction of the sun’s energy with aerosols, which are suspensions of fine particles or droplets in the air.  Aerosols tend to reflect sunlight and cool the atmosphere, masking whatever warming is taking place from other causes, like the accumulation of greenhouse gases. 

She said that until about 20 years ago, she wondered whether climate change would turn out to be real.  Around 2001, she said, she saw a graph depicting atmospheric temperatures declining slowly over the past thousand years until about a century ago, when they began a steep rise that continues today. 

“Since then, the evidence has gotten stronger and stronger and stronger,” she said.  “There are still uncertainties, like in my own area, how much do aerosols cool, but…observations of sea ice, sea ice depletion in the fall, warming in ocean near surface and at depth, declining snow and ice cover -- just a plethora of different aspects…make it clear that something is happening.  The only explanation really is anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gasses.”

Another prominent climate scientist with an early career at LLNL is Donald Wuebbles, now a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois and a major contributor to international climate assessments.

Wuebbles worked at LLNL from the early 1970s through 1994, carrying out research and, like Penner, helping to make a name for the Laboratory’s climate research program as it narrowed the wide uncertainties that existed in climate science decades ago. 

“It’s important to realize that (today’s understanding of) climate change is built on a strong foundation of science,” Wuebbles said in an interview.  “It is not a house of cards, as Koonin likes to imply.

“The fact that his misinformation can confuse people has me really worried.  It is time for us to get on to doing something about it, not debating whether it exists or not.

“Science is never fully settled, we all know that, but this is settled enough that we need to be getting to policies that make a difference for the world to slow this thing down and eliminate it.”