Overview of the Koonin-Dessler Debate

By Andy May

The SOHO Forum Debate began at 5:30PM (Central Time) on August 15, 2022 in the New York Sheen Center, as I announced here. Koonin won the Oxford Style debate since 25% of the in-person and online audience shifted to his view that the debate question: “Climate science compels us to make large and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” is a false statement.

Here I will lay out both Dessler’s and Koonin’s most important arguments, in my opinion. Steve Koonin has generously given me his PowerPoint slides. I also requested Andy Dessler’s slides, but he did not respond to my request, if he does at some point, I will post them and let you know. Steve Koonin’s slides can be downloaded here. You will be able to see the full debate on YouTube before the end of next week, probably by August 24.

Dessler had seventeen minutes to make his initial argument that humanity does need to make large and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. He first asserts that the estimated rise in global average surface temperature (GAST) of about one-degree C since the 19th century is unusual over geological time. The accuracy of proxy temperatures used for his GAST record and the temporal resolution of temperature proxy reconstructions is very poor, so this sort of “Hockey Stick” graph has little impact on me, and I suspect on the rest of the audience. In any case, a rise of one degree in 120 years is not alarming.

His next assertion is that solar and wind energy can provide most of the world’s energy, he admits to a few exceptions, such as the airline industry. He cites studies that show the electric grid can be modified to allow such intermittent sources of electricity efficiently. He uses Texas as an example and points out that these sources provide most of the electric generation capacity in Texas. He cites a study that Texans save $20 million per day because of our use of solar and wind electricity generation. Both Andy Dessler and I live in Texas. While this is true, these sources rarely work at capacity, and when they fail due to adverse weather, as they did in February of 2021, the result is catastrophic and deadly.

He also provides evidence that wind and solar are the cheapest sources of electricity, later Koonin counters that those statistics do not include the cost of backup or electrical grid upgrades for those times when the wind isn’t blowing at night or on cloudy days. Koonin cites a Harvard Business School study that puts the cost of the necessary transmission upgrades alone, for the United States, at $2.4 trillion.

Finally, Dessler provides a chart, without numbers or backup, that claims all effects of climate change are negative for humanity. All I could think about as he discussed the chart was: Where are the numbers? Is he talking about GDP, lives lost, what is the scale of his graph? For more on this topic, see here.

Next it was Koonin’s turn. He counters that if we continue using fossil fuels, and if the IPCC climate and economic models are correct, growth of the United States economy will only decrease by 4% for a further warming of an incredible 5 C (9 F) by the end of the century. The United States economy will continue to grow by some 2% per year throughout this century, thus the economy 70 years from now will be ~400% larger if we somehow fix climate change or ~384% larger if we don’t, a barely perceptible difference. There’s a similar story for the world economy. See here and here for more.

Koonin then notes that people are much better off when they use more energy. In the fossil fuel age, life expectancy, quality of life, and real income have increased. Due to technology and cheap energy, our resilience to climate change has increased, and deaths and damages due to extreme weather have decreased.

Electricity reliability is very important, often lives depend upon electricity, and emergency backup generators are too expensive for most people. The Federal standard for the bulk power system is insufficient capacity to meet peak demand less than one day per decade. Koonin cites studies that show the cost of such a system for some common clean sources of electricity and finds that natural gas systems are the cheapest clean energy source, as shown in Figure 1, from his debate materials.

Chart, bar chart

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Figure 1. The cost of 99.99% reliable electricity from selected clean energy sources. From Steven Koonin’s debate materials, data from (Dowling, et al., 2020) and related papers.

So, while Dessler is correct that solar and wind can produce electricity cheaper than fossil fuels under ideal conditions, the cost to make that electricity reliable drives the total wind and solar cost much higher. Other problems not properly accounted for in wind and solar accounting are the land required for them and the cost of high value materials, such a rare earth metals, lithium, copper, zinc, dysprosium, and many others. Onshore wind power generation uses nine times more of these materials per megaWatt than natural gas. China accounts for most of the production of these critical materials, and some of them are produced with slave labor.

Fossil fuel use is often accused of causing deaths or shortening lives due to air pollution. Does increasing fossil use shorten human life Koonin asks? It appears not, he notes that while fossil fuel use has increased in India 700%, life expectancy has increased by 16 years. China’s life expectancy has increased by 10 years, even though their fossil fuel use has increased 600%. Fossil fuel use increases human wellbeing as shown in Figure 2, also from Koonin’s debate slides.

Figure 2. A plot of GDP per capita and total energy use per capita. Data from OurWorldinData.org.

In Figure 2 we see that GDP per capita is highly correlated with energy consumption per capita. This should not be surprising to anyone, the more energy we use, the less we must work and the easier and safer our lives are. Notice the correlation is with energy consumption, which goes up as available energy prices come down. If energy is less available, less reliable, or more expensive consumption goes down, and human wellbeing deteriorates, at least that portion of wellbeing that is related to GDP/capita. Unfortunately, Dessler and many other advocates of the debate assertion only look at one side of the argument, and they ignore the benefits of fossil fuel use, warming, and additional CO2.

Finally, we mention Koonin’s closing statement. Andy Dessler lent his name to a shameless unScientific American article in 2021, the heading of the article is in one of Koonin’s slides and reproduced here as Figure 3.

Figure 3. An unScientific American attempted “takedown” of Steve Koonin and his book.

We expect this sort of slanderous nonsense from the likes of Naomi Oreskes and Michael Mann, but for Dessler to participate is both surprising and disappointing. Further, I read and respected Scientific American as a child, as I’m sure many of you readers did as well, it was once a serious magazine. Now, I see it as the magazine equivalent of CNN or MSNBC. Nothing but opinion and yellow journalism.

The article in question does not dispute any of the facts or analysis in Koonin’s very popular book Unsettled, although they make the attempt to refute what Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote about the book. Even in this, they fail to land any punches.

Most telling is that after publishing this shameful hit piece, unScientific American refused to publish Koonin’s rebuttal to it. Obviously, I have no respect for unScientific American and it obviously has no respect for science. A very distasteful bit of business, but I am glad Koonin brought it up. For the record, Andy Dessler disavowed the article and apologized. This raised my opinion of him several notches. He is a good scientist and has written some very interesting and helpful articles, at least in my opinion. He just didn’t make as good a case in this debate as Koonin did. Koonin had the evidence and the numbers on his side, Dessler didn’t, and that determined the outcome shown in Figure 4.

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Figure 4. In this Oxford-style debate, Koonin won since 25% of the audience opinions moved to his side after the debate.

You should be able to view the entire debate by August 24th, I’m told, on YouTube. This post is just the highlights of the debate from my point of view, there is a lot more in the actual debate.

Published by Andy May

Petrophysicist, details available here: https://andymaypetrophysicist.com/about/

5 thoughts on “Overview of the Koonin-Dessler Debate

  1. Thanks for the analysis. I’ve not seen the debate but have read Mr Koonin’s book, ‘Unsettled’. He comes across as an honest participant in the climate field and to his credit, sharing and defending one’s evidence is a mark of honesty rather than, as so very many other players in the climate field, who’s determination to hide and not publish methodology used to support their dire, doomsday predictions smacks of manipulation.

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