If you want to work on the biggest and best supercomputers running climate models, it’d be hard to find somewhere better than Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. And for the past couple decades, Dr. Ben Santer has been leading key pieces of LNLL’s climate modeling research.
But now he’s cutting ties with the lab over their inexplicable decision to invite Steve Koonin to speak this week. Santer — made famous by deniers who attacked him for writing a key line in the 1996 IPCC report attributing observed changes in the climate to human activity — wrote in a letter after his protests to LNLL leadership were ignored.
Thanks to the insistence of very-not-a-climate-expert Dr. Brad Roberts, director of LLNL’s Center for Global Security Research, LNLL will get to hear from a climate denier who’s been lauded exclusively by paid oil industry propagandists and their favorite right-wing media outlets, and in exchange will lose Ben Santer’s affiliation after his retirement in September.
Perhaps it’s not totally inexplicable, as this could just be standard boss-butt-kissing. Since 2012 (back when his Obama appointment was relevant) Steve Koonin has held a position on the Board of Governors for the LLC that oversees the lab, which might explain why Roberts insisted on extending Koonin the platform to speak over Santer’s objections
Because Dr. Ben Santer, unlike Koonin, actually does climate science — on Monday, for example, he published a study showing denier-favored satellites have been underestimating warming, keeping him as an emeritus would’ve been quite valuable. Koonin, on the other hand, should be worried that researchers are (for some reason?) developing AI that can produce effective disinformation, because it means he may soon be out of a job regurgitating old op-eds in Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloids.
We’re not the only ones to notice that dynamic either. As Don Wuebbles pointed out to Molly Taft at Earther, Koonin has “taken potshots at the science, but doesn’t really get involved with scientists in a careful sense. He publishes his comments in the Wall Street Journal — that isn’t exactly peer-reviewed literature.”
And not for lack of trying. Wuebbles was one of the lead authors of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the U.S. government’s official climate report, which Koonin uses to cherry-pick from and misrepresent in crafting his denialist claims that he’s The Only One who can accurately tell you what official reports say about climate change. Apparently Wuebbles reached out to address Koonin’s concerns “several times,” and “pointed out that he was overstating things, and [Koonin's] response is he goes and writes a book. That’s just not how science is done. There’s a peer review process. You want to write a peer-reviewed paper and say this wasn’t done right? Go ahead.”
But a peer-reviewed paper challenging the consensus would be difficult. Rehashing old Wall Street Journal op-eds is much easier, and that’s the path Koonin’s chosen. And it’s not like Koonin is incapable of academic work, as he is a professor at NYU, after all!
He’s not actually interested in real science though, seeing as how he had his climate science debate back in 2014, lost, and flounced out. Clearly what Koonin wants is to create the impression that there’s a debate, where he will forever make the same misleading claims that scientists will debunk time and again. It’s clear because he’s been doing it for years. For example, in response to a thorough fact-checking at ClimateFeedback, he published a “nuh uh!” denial-double-down response at the Wall Street Journal complaining that Facebook’s action based on the fact check would “suppress debate.” Because limiting how many rubes can be suckered into buying your book is apparently “Facebook spreading disinformation under the guise of ‘fact checking.’”
Anyone who’s assailing Facebook's quite minimal fact-checking efforts as “spreading disinformation” is clearly not interested in any sort of good faith debate about the science.
Which makes sense, because Koonin’s not a scientist, or an academic, or an Obama advisor, or acting in good faith. Steve Koonin is a denier, and he’s selling a book to other deniers to try and deflate the urgency for climate action.
For a centerpiece of the US climate modeling community to give Koonin a platform to spread his dangerous disinformation is, as Taft wrote, “like asking a tobacco apologist to address the American Lung Association.”