Steven Koonin is a theoretical physicist who has had a long career in academia, business, and government. In this episode, Koonin talks with Robert about his new book, Unsettled, why he believes efforts to limit debate about climate science are “pernicious,” why he is concerned about the reliability of the electric grid, why he finds the “denier” term abhorrent, and why “we need slow, steady pressure” on our energy and power systems, “not crash decarbonization.”
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, and welcome to the power hungry podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And we’re going to talk about all those today with my guest, Stephen Kooning. He is the author of unsettled what science tell it what climate science tells us what it does it and why it matters. Steve, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Steve Koonin 0:24
Great. Happy to be here, Robert.
Robert Bryce 0:26
I didn’t warn you. But on the podcast, I asked my guests to introduce themselves. So imagine you don’t know anyone, you’ve arrived somewhere and you have 30 or 45 seconds to introduce yourself, please, by all means. Go ahead.
Steve Koonin 0:38
My name is Steve Koonin, I’m a theoretical physicist by training. I’ve grew up in Brooklyn, New York, educated in public schools, degrees at Caltech and MIT. I was in academia for 30 years, then in the private sector at Viki for five years, then the US government, as Undersecretary for science in the Department of Energy, during the first Obama administration. And now for the last eight or nine years, I’ve been at NYU, or I’m a professor, I went there to start a center for big data and big cities. And for the last few years, I stepped down from that. And I’m now teaching courses in climate science, and energy. And my shtick is to just inform people about the science and let them come to their own conclusions not to try to persuade them.
Robert Bryce 1:29
That’s a good, that’s a good introduction. Thank you. So, you know, as I read, read your book. And I was looking at it, I was thinking, Okay, well, you’ve published a lot. And you said, Why you wrote it that you want to inform, but you’ve been in academia? Could you have written this book and expected much of a future in academia? If you were a young PhD looking for a job?
Steve Koonin 1:52
Robert Bryce 1:54
And why is that? Because I think that this, what interests me is the present a lot of interesting things in the book, but it to me, it’s the the politics of the discussion are really what’s the what the, the problem here, right in the limitation of the discussion? So why, if you’d written this and you were 30 years old, could you have gotten a job? And if not, why not?
Steve Koonin 2:14
So you know, it’s useful to try to separate the research from the public discussion. And I think the research is quite open, and well discussed. And people write papers, often with that of it really does not necessarily agree with the standard narrative. And that’s fine. As long as you’ve backed up your data and done a rigorous analysis. It’s when you get out into the public sphere and writing a book that shouldn’t be a step into the public. Where there start to be problems. And I believe that there is a culture of, I won’t say suppression, but we just don’t talk about certain things because they don’t fit. And I grew up with an ethos that you tell the whole truth. And sometimes it’s complicated. But that’s your responsibility to inform decision makers of the whole truth. So could I have written this kind of book when I was younger? No. Could I have talked about the research that I might have done or other people did? That doesn’t align? Yes. And so there are things that go on, I hate to say behind closed doors, but outside of public awareness that I tried to surface.
Robert Bryce 3:33
So I noticed in the book was released May 4, if I’m not mistaken. And you published a couple of essays in different one was in the New York Post, you did an interview with Holman Jenkins at the Wall Street Journal. And but the fact that you published it, the New York Post, did you submit that piece to the New York Times or with the New York to New York Times have run this piece that you wrote.
Steve Koonin 3:54
So as I’ve discovered, attended to the release of any popular book, at least with a PR team is I do have, they’re looking at all platforms to try to get the word out about the book. And certainly, they have approached the Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, and we’ll see some of the UK papers this weekend. But most disappointingly, they’ve made great efforts to get on the more or the less conservative platforms when we call it that way. CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, and in all cases, what one they’ve been ignored. And to me, this is unbelievable. I write a very carefully research book, on the basis of my experience in science over 50 years. It’s more well referenced, very factual, non political at all. And people seem to ignore At least on the blue side of, of the house and amazes me,
Robert Bryce 5:06
well, if I can interrupt you, because you say in your book, you you climate alarmism, according You see, has come to dominate us politics, especially among Democrats, why have otherwise long felt most comfortable politically? So this is, um, what you’re talking about is tribalism. And this is an issue for a lot of things in politics, but particularly, it seems in the climate debate. So you’re your own tribe doesn’t want I mean, from what I’m reading of your own discussion of your own politics, your own tribe doesn’t want to hear this.
Steve Koonin 5:38
Yeah. And that’s just amazing. Okay. It’s, you know, some people have said to me in the past, why are you talking about this in such a public way?
Robert Bryce 5:50
And I have emails, when you mentioned that in the book that some colleague of yours is saying, Oh, well, you know, I agree with you, but I’ve never published it myself. Yeah.
Steve Koonin 5:58
So it’s pernicious. And if we are ignoring the science in this, what else are we going to be ignoring the science. And you know, there are episodes in history, where governments have intentionally ignored the science eugenics in the early part of the 20th century, lysenkoism, where the scientific establishment knew, but could not persuade the government or the broader powers until something dramatic happened. I think in this case, if we keep going down the path, we are going particularly for the electricity system, using the climate crisis as a excuse or a reason. Eventually, we’re going to see an electricity system that is so unreliable, that the populace will start to start asking hard questions, and perhaps eventually heads will roll, or people who have over exaggerated the need for a rapid and wholescale transformation of the energy system.
Robert Bryce 7:06
You know, I’m glad you brought that up, Steve, because that’s an issue that I’ve followed a lot. And I wrote my latest book on it, right, the question of power, electricity in the Wealth of Nations. And I’ve written out and been talking a lot on this podcast about the closure of Indian Point, which to me is directly related to this issue of I mean, if even if you take climate issues away from it, ignore the zero carbon attributes of Indian Point and just say, well, it’s nuclear. But well, it gives in New York City, gave New York City nearly a quarter of its electricity, gave fuel diversity gave resilience, robustness, all these things and it’s being shuttered. And it seems to me your that’s the part that I worry about the most is the grid overall, and the reliability of that. follow up on that, if you don’t mind, what are your feelings about the closure of Indian Point?
Steve Koonin 7:51
Yeah, so you know, I live not far from Indian Point, or where I am right now. It’s about 20 miles away from me. And I happen to pass by it. And on Friday, which was the last day that was on online, I waved farewell to it. But you know, I would agree with you, it seems like there’s nobody really in charge of these decisions. When you ask what is supposed to replace the two point something gigawatts of electricity that the two units generated when they were operating? The answer is gas. But then you have a whole contingent of folks saying, no more gas, no more gas, because it’s a fossil fuel. So eventually, I think there’s going to be a crisis. And as I say, the public’s going to wake up and say, What the heck are we doing? I think in large part, it’s the fact that the political folks are not technically trained at all. And we need to have more engineers weighing in on this, rather than simply being cowed by a green fervor. And just giving it I mean, we see it, we saw it in California, already, we’ll probably see much more of that. Texas was a whole other situation, which you may know, much better than I would talk about. But, but basically, if we put in too much wind and solar, that grid will go unstable, as you probably well know. And so we’re going to need to get that baseload frequency regulation and baseload from somewhere. And we haven’t thought that through.
Robert Bryce 9:30
It is deeply scary to me. I mean, deeply scary. Because, you know, in researching the book, and for the documentary I made when in the book, we went to Indian Point, and it’s just a marvel of technology. I mean, you know, you’re been a technologist, your whole life. And you know, I’m new to some of these things. But I’ve visited a lot of industrial facilities in my career. And indeed, point was just stunning. I mean, just the power density 2000 watts per square meter. You kidding 95 some odd percent rely availability. I mean, just a remarkable technical achievement. That was during a time when the society as I put it thought big right? It was started during the Eisenhower years unit one. And when America was able to think big, and it was the year that Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system. If we lost that, then and he made a good point there about who’s watching over this right, what was responsible, and that seems to me deeply worrying, because well,
Steve Koonin 10:22
you know, there are many people watching over it. There’s for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, there’s NERC, North American and other cruising reliability Council, there is a New York, ISO independent system operator. So they all watching, I think that concerned, I talked to people who work for ISO, and they’re very concerned, in terms of thinking big, I think we have as a society, and maybe it’s just a natural consequence of society, getting older, demographically, but also getting a little bit fat and happy. We have lost the ability to do the things that we do do some great things, I think, wonderful achievements, vaccine, for example, just an amazing achievement of science, I think with respect to nuclear, the way forward is to think not so big, and promote small nuclear reactors. And you probably know, the small modular reactors story very well, when I was in the government, I helped promote those. And I’m pleased to see now about a decade later, they’re making good progress, or at the point where they’ve been applying for licenses. And, again, initially, it’ll be more expensive than, let’s say gas driven. But if we can build enough of them and get the costs down, it could be a very favorable low emission source of electricity, if that’s what the country wants all emissions. Sure.
Robert Bryce 11:53
I agree with you. And I hope very hopeful for small modular reactors, and there’s some some really interesting ones and designs being made. But right now, still there. Unfortunately, paper reactors and the Chinese and the Russians are deploying at scale, and we’re stuck. And we can’t even keep, excuse me, we can’t even keep Indian Point open, much less build new ones. So I mean, to me, and I wrote a piece on this recently, just you know, quoting Lily Tomlin, no matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up. I mean, you know, if this is the if this, if this is a crisis, then it was a lay down hand, it’s a two foot to two inch pipe is a layup? Well, sure you keep this existing infrastructure open, that’s conserve. And instead, it’s about low emissions, if
Steve Koonin 12:34
that’s the goal, I think the other issue is the rapidity with which the change is being proposed. As you know, the binding administration wants to go to zero emissions from the power sector in 2035. And I think that’s so rapid as to be extraordinarily disruptive. And the people I talked to, in the electricity sector, who are very experienced, say, there’s no way this is going to happen. I like to say we need to change energy systems by orthodonture, not by tooth extraction. And, you know, what’s being proposed amounts to almost a whole mouth renewal.
Robert Bryce 13:14
I like that. Your book, I know that that the fact Yeah, more akin to orthodontia than tooth extraction is I remember your line that’s, that’s a good line. I might use it, I might steal it. Good,
Steve Koonin 13:27
good, good. Well, I you know, I stole it from somebody else in a different context, but we won’t go there.
Robert Bryce 13:32
Picasso said, amateurs borrow professional steal or legend.
Steve Koonin 13:38
You know, I, what we need is slow, steady pressure on the system, not crash decarbonisation. If we want to do that. We also, of course, as you well know, need to fix the grid. I mean, two way flow of information, large amounts of storage would be a great idea and a much more sophisticated management system from the grid to diagnosis and management, then we have currently, the administration is proposing that and that’s one that I’m fully on board with.
Robert Bryce 14:13
And that’s a challenge and a big one. I mean, because the grid is so extraordinarily complex, and you have so many different actors, you know, 3000 different electricity providers, 900 co ops 2000, publicly owned entities, the, you know, the investor owned utilities, getting them all to dance to the same tune. That’s different. Yeah,
Steve Koonin 14:28
I you know, okay, I’m at an organizational level and an economic level, it’s a challenge, but at a technical level, to put in pmqs, face measurement units, synchro phasers, across the whole system, to diagnose and then analyze all that information in terms of reliability. I think that’s a doable do and we’re in the way to doing that.
Robert Bryce 14:55
So let me ask you, there’s one point and finally just in terms of this, the media involved Which I’m familiar with been doing journalism for 30 plus years now, I haven’t seen much criticism of your book, there was one critique and inside climate news that kind of, you know, didn’t really attack you personally, although, you know, which was interesting, because they really, I thought were trying to say, well, Kennedy’s not such a bad guy. And but here’s what she says, and here’s what these other people say it, but they, it seems to me, and there’s some way in referring back to your career. You’re not attack proof. But you were in the Democratic administration, you you’ve been in academia, you’re at Caltech, you have the credentials that seem like they’ve kind of maybe insulated you or giving you some armor against what would otherwise be a lot of ad hominem is my read is that how do you read it?
Steve Koonin 15:44
Yeah, I think, you know, I will say, with some modesty, I do have some reputation and stature. And I’ve got a track record of weighing in with clarity on complicated issues. And so I hope that people will take the book seriously, will read it, I have tried to make the book, relatively bulletproof. Because almost everything that’s in the book is right out of the assessment reports, or the quality peer reviewed literature, since. And so I think it’s very hard for somebody to call me a denier. Because in fact, I’m quoting the official science, it’s just that these things never get surfaced. They’re in the back of the report. And I find that very peculiar.
Robert Bryce 16:32
Well, let me ask you about that. Because that was one of the things that kind of made me catch my breath, as I read it. And you wrote about this issue of denier, you said, How can I be denying the science? If I’m saying it straight out of the official data and reports, I find it particularly important to have a call for open scientific discussion, equated with Holocaust denial, especially since the Nazis killed more than 200 of my relatives in Eastern Europe. Tell me about that. You’re you’re Jewish, where do your roots go?
Steve Koonin 16:58
I’m Jewish, my parents were born in this country. My grandparents emigrated from middle Europe, Poland desea, as it’s called, cold not in Lithuania. And on my mother’s side, my grandmother and her generation 200 of the extended family perished in the camps and all the turmoil during World War Two. I, I remember meeting as a younger child, relatives who had the tattoo from the camps on their arms. And so it was not a direct experience for me. But it’s certainly part of the family DNA if you like. And so when somebody says denier that, you know, I would use the word micro aggression or macro aggression. If I were two generations younger than I am. You know, it hurts a bit, and just stop that kind of namecoin. Alright, let’s just talk about the science. But it’s very hard to get to that kind of conversation
Robert Bryce 18:10
when it is such a loaded term, because it involves this kind of it smacks of moralism, right? Oh, are they kind of how dare you? And no, you can’t even bring this up? Because it’s beyond discussion. And that, to me is like, I guess my politics about this. Okay. Yes. I there’s no doubt that humans are affecting the climate. The question is, how much and how do we respond? And those are the things that I think really your your, your book is interesting in that you clearly come down on the adaptation side rather than the medic, the mitigation side, which I I’ve had Bjorn Lomborg on the on the podcast, and that’s clearly the camp that he comes into. And the more I’ve looked at some of the mitigation plans that the Biden administration are proposing, including decarbonizing the grid by 2035, which is effectively impossible. I mean, you’d have to generate as much electricity just to replace coal and natural gas, as much electricity is produced by all global nuclear. And I’ve published on this in Forbes recently, only 700 terawatt hours a year. It’s just a staggering quantity. And you talk about the scale issues. But you see that you say, in fact, on on the mini, certain downsides of mitigation outweigh the uncertain benefits, and you talk about and then you go on, say, the world’s poor need growing amounts of reliable and affordable energy, and widespread renewables efficient are currently too expensive, unreliable or both. And then I think is the absolute key point. And one of the points I’m making my book in the film, there are 3 billion people in the world today who use less electricity than an average kitchen refrigerator in the United States. I mean, the poverty is so widespread. So how do we going back to that moral question? How do we help these people come out of the dark and into the light into the modernity while saying, Oh, no, we are but at the same time saying, Oh, no, you can’t use hydrocarbons. There’s a moral issue here isn’t there?
Steve Koonin 19:54
That is that that is, you know, you could if you want to be nasty, you can say this is neocolonialism. Keep him in the dark at the expense of allegedly saving the planet. And I think that is immoral. There are other immoral acts which we can get to in a while in this business. But that certainly is, you know, the way I like to say it is the fundamental question for those who are advocating global reductions in emissions is who is going to pay the developing world not to emit? And as I say, in the book, I’ve been asking that question for 20 years, and nobody’s got a good answer. I mean, even the Green Climate Fund, but 100 billion a year is not if it ever came to pass at that scale, which is far below. But if it ever came to pick, that’s still far less than what’s needed in order to go to zero by 2050, or 2075.
Robert Bryce 20:51
Well, I think that the disconnect, Steve, and again, just if you’re just tuning in my guest is Steve Kuhn. And he’s the author of unsettled don’t have the book, I have it on my Kindle, what the what climate science tells us what it doesn’t, and why it matters, which came out may 4. But that’s the challenge, right? And it’s one of the points that Roger pilkey, Jr. has made over and over with the iron, the iron law, and I’ve seen it myself, the people who are living in poverty aren’t happy there, and they’re going to do whatever they can to get out of that poverty. They’re not going to say, Oh, the Yankees say we shouldn’t have it. So we’re not going to do it. I mean, isn’t that the other part of the fundamental disconnect here? There’s it’s not just the moral judgment, but these independent actors, China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, they’re going to do what they need to do for their own national security and no national interest. Right.
Steve Koonin 21:33
Right. And, you know, I mean, to be fair to the administration, are they’re hoping the Paris Agreement is not that us actions will make a big difference. And in fact, President Biden and Ambassador Kerry have said, in fact, it’ll How do you make any difference unless the rest of the world comes along? So I think they’re hoping by moral suasion, and, frankly, scare tactics to get the Chinese and the Indians and Sub Saharan Africa, South America, Indonesia, all to come along and create a low carbon energy system.
Robert Bryce 22:14
But and is that even doable, though? I mean, you make your own point about hydrocarbons dominance at some odd percent,
Steve Koonin 22:21
particularly for the developing world. It you know, if you’ve said on a two century timescale or something, sure, but not now, we don’t have the economic technology that has reliability, and economics and safety, to go with it. We just don’t. And, and I can’t blame the developing world. If I was sitting in Mumbai with a flaky electricity system. I worry about that much more than some vague distant threat, that greenhouse gases are going to destroy the planet.
Robert Bryce 22:59
And human nature, right. And that’s what we saw. And we saw it in Lebanon, we saw it in Puerto Rico, we saw it in India, that very same thing, which is that, yeah, people are worried about what they’re doing today, not some issue that’s further in the future. Well, so let me ask you about that to that. Because one of the other things I mentioned, Robert, Roger pilkey, Jr, who’s been on the podcast, you point out, RCP 8.5, which is the of all the climate scenarios is the one that is the most dire. It rather than letting me know, having the attempt to summarize that you write about it in in your, in your book, Can you summarize what why that that scenario is used and what it is and why it’s used so often, because that is the most catastrophic of the scenarios that are that are being talked about.
Steve Koonin 23:45
So it is impossible to make precise predictions about what society is going to do over the next 80 years of shorting the end of the century. And so what the IPCC does, what did was to create a set of four scenarios, which are kind of possible futures for the world. And they’re not meant to be predictions or even to be alternative, but they just kind of span the range of what might be and they’re labeled by a number, which basically measures how strong human influences are by the end of the century and 2100 and they range from 2.4 RCP 2.4 our CP stands for representative concentration pathway 2.4 which is basically we have managed to stabilize human influences what they are today, up to RCP 8.5, which is a very populous coal heavy world. And the models are run with these different scenarios in order to span the range of what might happen with the Kinect and there has been a deliberate effort documented the New York Times to portray the most extreme scenario 8.5 as business as usual. And we’ve seen that infiltrate the scientific conferences, the scientific literature, I think Roger donkey jr has done a great job of documenting that. But we’re now starting to see a calm down callback, whatever you want to call it, of people who claim that business as usual. And the more moderate scenarios are now believed to be much more realistic, largely because growth in the developing world has not been as rapid as had been anticipated. And there are reduced electricity needs because the globe is warming up a bit. And so we don’t need cooling so much. That’s in the developed world.
Robert Bryce 25:54
And so and coal consumption has plateaued, we’ve seen that
Steve Koonin 25:57
yeah, that has Yes,
Robert Bryce 25:58
it hasn’t fallen, but it has grown. Nearly the predictions in in RCP 8.5. And I think that, you know, key issue, right,
Steve Koonin 26:07
it might go up again, you know, China and India crank up their economies post COVID. I think there was a modest uptick in the last year. But okay. But you know, what is so immoral about that is to use those extreme scenarios, to cite them as predictions of what will happen. And I’ve seen that in testimony by distinguished economists. And we use that to frighten young people and create depression and, you know, unwillingness to have children in the world because it’s going to be so terrible. And that that is a model, or I will say that, try it out. And I think the people who are doing that should be ashamed with themselves.
Robert Bryce 26:59
Steve Koonin 27:02
Robert Bryce 27:05
And, you know, I’m not Jimmy Swaggart. So I hesitate to talk about morality, right. But, but there is a bit when we’re talking about them of Mount of money that is being proposed for mitigation efforts in the trillions of dollars. I mean, would McKinsey, a very well known energy consultancy, said decarbonizing the US grid just decarbonizing the grid would be four and a half trillion dollars? Well, then, that’s not talking about industry that’s not talking about transportation, which will be yet harder than just the electric grid. So we’re talking about trillions of dollars to reduce co2. And but I have seen that myself from young people. You know, I’m maybe about 10 years younger than you, I guess, that they there’s a bleakness in many of their outlooks that is based on these catastrophic climate changes. And what I think the gist of your book is The if I would paraphrase it, you’re saying, well, the changes might might not be as, like unlikely to be as drastic as we’re being told. And if that’s the case, then we have to be careful about how we spend our money. And is
Steve Koonin 28:08
that is that a fair summation? Yes, we shouldn’t be we should be thoughtful. I’d like to summarize it, you know, that this climate change business, it’s not a hoax. But it’s not a hard either. And we will certainly be able to manage it in the course of ordinary adaptation measures, that younger people should be optimistic about what’s ahead. For the world. Yes, the US role in place in global affairs is changing because of the rise of other countries. And we need to figure out how we can best navigate that and not tie ourselves up so much with this doom and gloom and distraction about rapid decarbonisation.
Robert Bryce 28:48
And is that roll then, is the best way to think about that as one of attempting to continue in technological leadership because I think that that’s one of the strongest arguments in terms of the smrs and development of nuclear in the United States that here’s an area where we can we can help it cultivate and culture a new an industry that doesn’t exist. And, and I fear that the just the, the time to market and the commercialization and the scaling up of that technology is going to be a very extended time. Tell me what you see in the SMR business. I’ve had several guests. So
Steve Koonin 29:23
yeah, I’m, I’ll talk about some of them in a minute. But you’re talking about innovation more generally. Sure. I think, you know, one of the most important ways that the US can assure a place at or near the head of the table in the world is to make sure that we continue to innovate. And that education, it means that we take in the most educated people from all over the world which we have traditionally done and give them you know, secure intellectual property rights, low cost, innovation, etc. And I think that’s a wonderful thing to do. But we have to be careful. In energy innovation, in particular, where a technology is invented, is different from where a technology gets manufactured. Sure, and is still different from where it gets deployed. And so we will make money not only if we invent, but we can manufacturer as well. And the shift of solar cells manufacturer, outside of the US, is a great example of how we failed to capture the economic benefit of manufacturing. So, we’ve got to make sure that we can manufacture that means quality workforce, abundant energy is very important for manufacturing, reasonable regulation, etc, etc. Right. Let me talk about it. Sorry. Yes, thanks. Um, we. So I mean, for people who don’t know, the notion is to build small reactors, maybe 1/10, or 1/20, the size of the current generation of reactors, to build them by a standard design, which has much greater safety features built in than the current big ones are, so the licensing would be a lot easier if the design is standard, because every reactor now up until now is is different. And then build them in a factory, put them on a flatbed truck or rail car, truck them to a site and add them one at a time to a site so that they get ganged up. And of course, there are advantages to having multiple reactors at the site in terms of maintenance, security, refueling, and so on. And that’s the notion when I was in the government, and then subsequently, the US Do we have catalyzed the design and development of these reactors. I believe there’s only one company left of the three that started eight or nine years ago, but it has gotten to the point where it is applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for licensing. And the hope isn’t because these reactors are different than anything that the regulators have seen before. And so they’re going to take some time to understand the notion of small reactors, by the way is not at all new. We’ve been putting small reactors and naval vessels for 70 years or so right? Since recover.
Robert Bryce 32:35
Steve Koonin 32:36
Yeah. Right. But I mean, these are different. They can’t use highly enriched uranium. We don’t have the water around cool days, you wouldn’t know about Trump. But nevertheless, we know how to design these reactors. And the question is,
Robert Bryce 32:49
can we assure the regulators that they’re safe enough to deploy? And then get the first one demonstrated, perhaps at a national lab in Idaho, to wring out the kinks? And then shot to deploy them commercial? Sure. And I believe you’re talking about oklo, which is the is the company there. They’ve applied to NRC. And I’ve had, well, their co creator, co founder, Carolyn Cochran on the podcast a few months ago, which did did new scale disappear. I mean, that new scale is still around, right. But I forgotten which one Oakland or new scale new new scale is still around. Yeah, they’re they’re there. They were bought by. They’re part of another company. Now Forgive me for not remembering Exactly. But yeah, I think that that and you’re right, exactly. These modular reactors are small reactors are not new. They’ve been on naval vessels for a long time. And then the Russians, I guess, deployed to naval Naval Reactors on their, their, their, their power ship in in Siberia, which is really quite a remarkable thing. But let me follow up on that. It just occurs to me, because that’s, it’s one of the stumbling blocks, it seems to me in terms of the deployment at scale of these types of reactors is the requirement for heavy government involvement. And you see that with rasa Tom with Russians and of course, cnpc. And we got that acronym, right, the Chinese nuclear champions, is it inevitable that we have to have a heavy government hand in that nuclear sector?
Steve Koonin 34:11
Yeah, well, you know, that nuclear power, civilian nuclear power in this country was really a spin off from the military programs. I think we it’s much less of a government hand now than it was made at one point the government control the technology control the fuel and so on. Well, it was in the 50s, I think and even again, in the 60s. I think at the beginning, we’re going to need that. For the small reactors, inevitable, and, you know, bother me regulation. assurance of safety of these plants, I think is absolutely essential. I would not leave that to the private sector. I mean, we’ve seen the problems 737 Max, the Texas energy electricity crisis a couple of months ago, those are places where the government should have been more present, not to exercise a very heavy hand. But just to assure that the companies were doing the right thing. In the case of Texas, you know, having plants that would run through the winter was absolutely essential. And they didn’t do that, because there was no money in it. So I think the government needs, we got to get the right balance between regulation and free enterprise. I would say, as we look perhaps one day to the commercialization of fusion, and as you know, there are a number of private companies working to that and a big international effort in eater. I think there are lessons to be learned from how fishing came to be that some things we should and should not do. But that’s still probably at least a decade away that we have to worry about that.
Robert Bryce 35:59
Yeah. Yeah. And I think that then you make a good point about that balance between private enterprise and government. It’s always the difficult balance, right? In terms of how you would capitalism is great, and it works well. But it it needs the the counterbalance of proper regulation. And I think that that’s the key in terms of the as you point out, and athlete, very, very rightly so. It was the problem here in Texas, where we had an energy only market, there were no incentives for for providing resilience, reliability, if you’re only selling watt hours, why would you concern yourself with providing watts when watts are dear, And therein lies the problem. And to go back to your earlier point, who’s in government, it’s not it’s not engineers, it’s lawyers and wire, the wire the lawyers that wire wire, there’s so many lawyers, because they couldn’t do the math to get into engineering school. But that’s
Steve Koonin 36:49
it, it is a failure of our education system that more people cannot do simple quantitative thinking.
Robert Bryce 36:59
And I agree with you. And I think it’s particularly apparent when it comes to energy and power systems, because the overwhelming majority, and I’ve written about this now for you know, more than a decade, they don’t know the difference between energy and power, they don’t even know the difference between a watt and a watt hour. Well, it’s not the same thing. And they’re continually confused, even by people in the energy business. And so it is remarkable lack of knowledge that I think the people who are rent seeking can very easily exploit
Steve Koonin 37:28
me. And so my own experience just in that, you know, I was a educated scientist, faculty member working in various fields. But until I moved into BP, I had no idea of what it took to provide either fuels or electricity reliably. And I now teach that at NYU, to a mix of engineering and business students. And their eyes light up when you show them what the grid is really about, and how difficult and how much work goes into assuring reliability.
Robert Bryce 38:05
So we’ve made it too easy. Made it too easy just to plug in and not think about it. Yeah,
Steve Koonin 38:11
Robert Bryce 38:13
Well, so let me ask you about Richard Fineman, because you refer to him several times in your book, and I read, it’s been some time I read James Gleick, wonderful biography of him genius. It’s been some time ago, so I’m not remembering a lot of it. You know, aside from, you know, it was, you know, very flattering and some unflattering parts about Fineman. But you were both New Yorkers. In you went you you said in the book that you went to Caltech, because of him, what made him? What made him different? What made him so magnetic? And what was, you know, the was one of the things involved with the Manhattan Project. And you, You speak very fondly of him.
Steve Koonin 38:53
Yeah, you know, for me, he was an icon of what a scientist should be. Not only his brilliance, he was really smart. And imagine it to your stone, you know, the phrase that sticks in my mind is to look at the world from a different point of view. And often he would come up with insights like that. He was also a superb teacher, a beautiful performer, actually a lot of a performer and you can see that image, famous recorded lectures. I think he was most known to the students both before we got to Caltech, and when we’re there for a famous set of three lecture books on elementary physics. But of course, knowing Fineman wasn’t elementary at all. And you didn’t really appreciate them until you had most of a PhD and then you could understand just how brilliant the exposition was. I knew him a bit better A student knew him also as a faculty colleague. But you know, we never worked together, I certainly took a class from him and, and he was an actress. He I saw classes and lectures that he taught. But nevertheless, he was a real presence on the Caltech campus. And I invoke him in the book, because of his rigorous adherence to scientific integrity. And there’s a wonderful passage in a speech he gave at the Caltech commencement in 1974, that I quote, in the book, there’s kind of a central theme. And that’s got to do with the steps a scientist has to take to avoid fooling not only themselves, but also others. And he gives this anecdote which I’m happy to recite, roughly. He says, in the in the speech, you know, last night, I saw an advertisement for Western oil. And the advertisement said, Western oil doesn’t soak through food. And what finally it says is, yeah, but if you look a little harder, you realize that all oil stopped soaked through food. And if you get the temperature high enough, they all do. And he says, that’s the difference between informing and persuading. And that is kind of a central theme or stance, from my book, I’m going to tell you everything. I’m going to make it an unbiased and transparent exposition, but you’re going to see everything, no propaganda. And I think that is relatively rare in these Climate and Energy discussions.
Robert Bryce 41:47
Well, it’s not only is it rare, I, you know, what I see and even from attacks on me from attacks on Roger pilkey, Jr, by not just other faculty member or another, not other academics, but by members of Congress. You know, what was one of the Arizona congressmen demanded to know about his funding. Judith curry, who has taken a somewhat similar, skeptical stance about catastrophism really drummed out of academia because of what she calls the harassment that she received, in fact, directly from Michael Mann, who’s That sure is public affairs in the same imprint as I am. But it’s it’s fairly scary to me I’m not an academic never have been never will be. It’s fairly scandalous the this this little lack of of rigorous debate about the some of the central questions of our time. I mean, is that one, it seems to me, that was one of the motivators for you to do this, because you could have easily just shut the heck up and just, you know, you’ve got a good job at NYU, you’re not going to they’re not going to drum you out. But I mean, but you were compelled to, to, to do it. Why?
Steve Koonin 42:54
You know, I see it as a fundamental responsibility of some of us scientists who have experience in science, advising, and in my case, have enough background and experience to look at the science as well as the energy technologies, to just try to better inform the debate. When I see people talking about climate crisis and existential threat and so on, I’m wondering, what are they really talking about? I reminded of the line from the Princess Bride, you know, you keep using the word, the science. And I don’t think the science says what you think it says. In fact, when you read these reports, they do not agree with what’s being said publicly, either by the politicians, or by some of the scientists. And you know, I’d love to be in a conversation with Dr. Mann, or Jim Hanson, or Gavin Schmidt. And say, Gavin, you know, it says this in the report, how come? We don’t know that? We haven’t heard that? and How come? Well, do you think it’s right or not? And, you know, I’ll put them in the position of denying the consensus.
Robert Bryce 44:09
And do you think that’s going to happen?
Steve Koonin 44:11
I doubt it. I’d be delighted if it did, but I doubt what I’d like to see, you know, in terms of a rebuttal of the book, let’s get down to specifics. You know, the very specific points in the book, I’ve even made a spreadsheet of them chapter by chapter and page by page and let people criticize at that level. Rather than simply saying, couldn’t an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about or is bending the truth? Let’s get back down on paper. And then let’s have a public discussion.
Robert Bryce 44:46
Let’s do it. Appreciate that. To me, the issue is not so much. I mean, it doesn’t even have to get into the climate science in terms of mitigation. It’s just a simple math. Can you hit these targets in the in chapter 12, you talk about the carbon free trimmer You say, there’s ample reason to doubt that the Paris 2030 goal can be achieved a certain similarly realistic view of the longer term is that the world is very unlikely to zero out its net emissions by 2075, let alone by 2050. So society will largely respond by adapting is that I have to say, I completely agree with you, because I just, to your point, and it’s one Vaclav smil, has made many times as well, is that energy transitions are slow, um, Edison used coal in on Pearl Street, we’re still using coal today. So this idea that we’re suddenly going to go to something else, and I just had a piece in The Wall Street Journal yesterday about the issues of, you know, in deciding wind energy that, you know, all these rural communities saying, No, Hell no, we don’t want these 500 foot wind turbines. You kidding. And yet they’re promoted as being the solution here. So
Unknown Speaker 45:50
Robert Bryce 45:53
I guess that’s the key point is my question is that this conflict between spending? And we’ve talked about this a little bit, but spending enormous amounts on mitigation, when the reality is whatever happens, we’re going to have to adapt. And is that with the money be better spent on? That is
Steve Koonin 46:05
the question. That’s right, I would agree. By the way, I did see the Wall Street Journal piece on wind, I thought it was great. I mean, you know, you can get down to specifics, which is cracking so much. I think, you know, as we talk, either in books, or in op eds, or public presentations about these problems, we don’t carefully distinguish between what could be done, what should be done, and what will be done. And I’m very careful in the book to stick mostly to the could discussion, which is, in the end about technology, maybe economics, the discussion of will, what will be done is, again, an observation, observation or descriptive discussion, you can look at trends and what people might be willing to spend, and so on, I can prove that adaptation is going to be the dominant way society responds. But people often mix up that with the should, and you know, we should go carbon free, and so on. And, you know, I think mixing those three questions up really confuses the debate, or the discussion. And we need to, we need to take it slowly and thoughtfully.
Robert Bryce 47:29
Well, I’ll follow up on that, because you write in chapter 13. And I think this code follows on that really well, you say, the Manhattan about the Manhattan Project. And of course, Fineman worked on the Manhattan Project. And you say that the real manhattan project was carried out in secret only had to produce a few specific atomic gadgets at a nearly unlimited budget ended, did not aspire this was the I’m quoting a director did not aspire to transform a large system already embedded throughout society. The question I wrote down was, why is that technofix so attractive? And that is because we’ve heard Oh, we need a moonshot we need to me I think I heard Secretary Granholm say that very thing just the other day, that and we’ve heard about the Apollo project. And we hear that, Oh, if only we work hard enough, we’re gonna be able to solve this. But you use that idea that line had not seen before the techno societal challenge.
Steve Koonin 48:15
Yeah, right. Go ahead. But no, you look at the moon chart, or you look at the Manhattan Project, they did not aspire to develop technologies that would be broadly deployed throughout society. The man project produced a couple of gadgets, as they were called for the military, a single customer, who had almost unlimited funding. The moon shot again, a government customer, the only customer at the time, and also large amounts of funding. They didn’t have to transform our society, that was not their purpose, or goal. Whereas anything to do with energy has got to do that transform society, otherwise, it’s not going to have any impact. So it’s fundamentally different. And I think people who don’t understand the energy system or don’t understand technology, look at those analogies as easy fixes, but they were fixes for a very different problem.
Robert Bryce 49:23
So just a last couple things, because I want to make sure we don’t run over time here. You mentioned it will I’ll ask you this question, because I think it’s one that Roger pilkey Jr. Has formulated but in your view, then what’s the is the best no regrets pathway then continuing r&d, developing smrs continuing focus on adaptation. What are those? I know you listed several others, but I think I’ve hit on the on the main ones. What are the other ones that are missing there?
Steve Koonin 49:50
Yeah. So I think we’re going to see with significant benefit and increasing electrification of the light duty fleet. So electrode coils. Yeah, in automobiles. Yeah. Particularly passenger cars and SUVs. I think the batteries are improving enough, we will slowly get to the charging infrastructure and grid capability. And there are ample benefits to that. If we got to that point, you know, fuel price stability of electricity prices are much more stable reduction and local pollution from the internal combustion engine. You can go on and on. I teach some of this in the course, of course. But it’s going to take a while. And I don’t think we should push it too rapidly. Of course, it’s not happening very rapidly. Anyway, as you probably know, a plug in vehicles are a couple percent of us sales right now. You’ve got issues with range temperature dependence, that we need to charging time that we need to
Robert Bryce 50:56
short out and in common with car cars catching fire.
Steve Koonin 50:59
Yeah, right. So just a
Robert Bryce 51:03
couple last few things, Stephen, my guest is Stephen Kuhn. And he’s the author of unsettled, what climate science tells us what it doesn’t and why it matters. So you’ve been at this game for a while, who do you admire?
Steve Koonin 51:14
Who do you read,
Robert Bryce 51:15
you read and think that they have a good handle on these issues?
Steve Koonin 51:18
Oh, boy, I love smell, as do many people do. And as you may have seen, he wrote an endorsement of my book. I’m particularly proud of that. I mean, there are other wonderful endorsements as well. But no, it’s got such a great way of looking at these things.
Robert Bryce 51:38
And he’s incredibly, incredibly prolific. I wonder where the guy sleeps at all. And just in great, yeah,
Steve Koonin 51:43
this is when when I started winning energy, those were the books benefited from most, you know, not coincidentally, Bill Gates, of course, such as, sir one of his inspirations as well. So I’m particularly proud that he he brought a very nice endorsement for my book, I hope that I wouldn’t be able to read it. We’ll see. So then, go ahead. No, I was gonna say on on. I think, you know, the week David MCI wrote a pretty good book on renewable energy. It’s kind of UK centric. And it doesn’t talk about economics. But I like the way he looks at things. As well, I was one of the really critical readers of that book in his request. So I saw an advanced copy that that was really good. He did a great job on the power density analysis on that and landings, which is an area that I’ve looked at for a long time. On the climate side. And this may come as a surprise, I’ve benefited a lot from a book by rapier and bear, who is was a professor at Chicago and is now at Cambridge, I think, Oxford, one of the Oxford universities. And you might be surprised at that, because he wrote a scathing reply to the first Wall Street Journal article I wrote in put it in Vox magazine, I think it was straight, it wasn’t straight. But when you look at the science, it’s great. But he’s one of these scientists that have a very different research personality, as opposed to a public personality. And so I like what he’s written on the research side, it’s very good and very educational. But the public persona, and the public statements are so at odds with what he says
Robert Bryce 53:33
in the books. Last question, what gives you hope?
Steve Koonin 53:38
Like all educators, it’s to get people to understand. And I think, you know, as Fineman said, You can’t fool nature. And eventually, if we wind up creating a deficient electricity system or transportation system, society will write itself, but you know, be at some cost. And if we don’t, okay, there have been opportunity, there will be opportunity costs to having created such a system. Those are the things are worried about, but also give me hope. I you know, I was talking last week with a group of distinguished young people at graduate student postdoc level, and they’re really interested in these matters. They’re all scientists or engineers, but they’re also eager for a strange story. And that gives me some hope.
Robert Bryce 54:37
Well, let’s end it there. Then. Unless you have something else you’d like to add, then I think, No, I’m good. Great place to stop. Well, great. My guest has been Steven coonan. He’s the author of unsettled and what climate science tells us what it doesn’t and why it matters. out now, I have it on my Kindle. You can get it on your Kindle, I’m sure from all the good and major booksellers. Steve. Thanks again for coming on the power hungry podcast. And the rest of you out there in podcast land Tune in next time for the next edition next episode of the power hungry podcast. Until then, see you later.