Steven E. Koonin

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Steven E. Koonin
Official portrait of Steven E. Koonin, former Under Secretary for Science, U.S. Department of Energy
Director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress, New York University
Assumed office
April 2012
2nd Under Secretary of Energy for Science
In office
May 2009 – November 2011
PresidentBarack Obama
Preceded byRaymond L. Orbach
7th Provost of Caltech
In office
February 1995 – March 2004
Preceded byPaul C. Jennings
Succeeded byEdward Stolper (acting)
Personal details
Born (1951-12-12) December 12, 1951 (age 69)
Brooklyn, New York
Spouse(s)Laurie Koonin
Alma materB.S., California Institute of Technology
Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Steven E. Koonin (born December 12, 1951)[1] is an American theoretical physicist and director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University. He is also a professor in the Department of Civil and Urban Engineering at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering.[2]


Born in Brooklyn, New York City, Koonin received his Bachelor of Science from the California Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the supervision of Arthur Kerman in the MIT Center for Theoretical Physics.[3][4][5] In 1975, Koonin joined the faculty of the California Institute of Technology as an assistant professor of theoretical physics, and served as the institute's provost from 1995 to 2004.[6][7]

In 2004, Koonin joined BP as their chief scientist, where he was responsible for guiding the company's long-range technology strategy, particularly in alternative and renewable energy sources.[8] In 2009, he was appointed the U.S. Department of Energy's second Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Science serving from May 19, 2009, to November 18, 2011.[9] He left that post in November 2011 for a position at the Institute for Defense Analyses. On April 23, 2012, Koonin was named director of NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP).[10]

He has served on numerous advisory bodies for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy and its various national laboratories, such as the JASON defense advisory group, which he has chaired.[11] Koonin's research interests have included theoretical nuclear, many-body, and computational physics, nuclear astrophysics, and global environmental science.[12]

Views on climate science[edit]

The Trump administration proposed creating "red team" exercises in the EPA to challenge the scientific consensus on climate. Koonin was proposed to be involved in these exercises; they were never established, and he never took the job.[13]

The Trump administration proposed to create a presidential committee in 2019 that would conduct an "adversarial" review of the scientific consensus on climate change. Koonin was actively involved in recruiting others to be part of this review.[14]

In 2021, Koonin published the book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters.[15] In an opinion column in the Washington Post, "An Obama scientist debunks the climate doom-mongers," Marc A. Thiessen praised the book. He also cited an interview with Koonin,[16] whom he quoted as saying:

The globe is warming, he tells me in an interview, partly due to natural phenomena and partly due to growing human influences. (Scientists can’t untangle the two, he writes, due to “the deficiencies of climate data.”) But, Koonin argues, the terrifying predictions of increasingly violent weather and coastal cities drowned beneath rising seas are overblown.[17]


Koonin's views on the status and conclusions of climate science have been criticized.

In an article in Slate, Raymond Pierrehumbert, the Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, criticized Koonin's 2014 commentary in the Wall Street Journal, "Climate Science Is Not Settled,"[18] as "a litany of discredited arguments":

The nuggets of truth in Koonin’s essay are buried beneath a rubble of false or misleading claims from the standard climate skeptics’ canon. To pick a few examples:

  • He claims that the rate of sea level rise now is no greater than it was early in the 20th century, but this is a conclusion one could draw only through the most shameless cherry-picking...
  • He claims that the human imprint on climate is only "comparable" to natural variability, whereas multiple lines of research confirm that the climate signature of human-caused greenhouse gas increases has already risen well above the background noise level...
  • A large part of the natural greenhouse effect is due to substances (mainly water vapor, and consequent cloudiness) that are in the atmosphere only because carbon dioxide keeps the Earth warm enough to prevent them from condensing out...
  • He states that the effects of carbon dioxide will last "several centuries," whereas "several millennia" would be closer to the truth...
  • [He] doesn’t seem to appreciate that oceans cannot be a cause of long-term warming because almost all of the mass of the oceans is colder than the lower atmosphere.[19]

In a review of Koonin's 2021 book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters in Scientific American, Gary Yohe, the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University, wrote that Koonin "falsely suggest[s] that we don’t understand the risks well enough to take action":

The science is stronger than ever around findings that speak to the likelihood and consequences of climate impacts, and has been growing stronger for decades. In the early days of research, the uncertainty was wide; but with each subsequent step that uncertainty has narrowed or become better understood. This is how science works, and in the case of climate, the early indications detected and attributed in the 1980s and 1990s, have come true, over and over again and sooner than anticipated... [Decision makers] are using the best and most honest science to inform prospective investments in abatement (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to diminish the estimated likelihoods of dangerous climate change impacts) and adaptation (reducing vulnerabilities to diminish their current and projected consequences).[20]

Physicist Mark Boslough has posted a critical review of Koonin's 2021 book on Yale Climate Connections.[21]


Koonin's book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters, received praise as well.

Mark P. Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "As Mr Koonin illustrates, tornado frequency and severity are also not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global atmospheric CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high—they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years." [22]

William Hogan, Raymond Plank Research Professor of Global Energy Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, described the book as "Essential reading and a timely breath of fresh air for climate policy. The science of climate is neither settled nor sufficient to dictate policy. Rather than an existential crisis, we face a wicked problem that requires a pragmatic balancing of costs and benefits."[23]

Bjørn Lomborg, president of Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University wrote, "Steve Koonin, the undersecretary for science under Obama, has written a very interesting and thoughtful book on climate. He documents how much of what you think you know about climate just ain’t so. Did you know that while the United States is now seeing many fewer cold records, absolute heat records are not increasing? Unsettled will definitely and rightly unsettle your climate thoughts, and all for the better. If we are to make trillion dollar investments, we deserve to be as well informed as possible.”[23]

Response to Critics of Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters[edit]

Koonin reached out to blogs and websites to disseminate his response to criticisms of his book after Scientific American refused to publish his rebuttals. Koonin wrote in part, "Scientific American has published a criticism of me and my recent book, Unsettled. Most of that article’s 1,000 words are scurrilous ad hominem and guilt-by-association aspersions from the twelve co-authors."[24]


  • Computational Physics: Fortran Version. Baton Rouge: CRC Press. 2018. ISBN 9780429973659.
  • Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters. Dallas: BenBella Books. 2021. ISBN 9781953295248.


  1. ^ "Steven Koonin". Array of Contemporary American Physicists. American Institute of Physics. Archived from the original on 31 March 2015. Retrieved 20 September 2014.
  2. ^ "Steven Koonin". NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
  3. ^ "Frank talk on U.S. Energy innovation".
  4. ^ "Koonin, Steven E." Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  5. ^ "Arthur Kerman, professor emeritus of physics, dies at 88". MIT News. Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Caltech Appoints Physicist Steve Koonin New Provost". California Institute of Technology. Retrieved 2018-12-20.
  8. ^ "Steven E. Koonin – Director – NYU's Center for Urban Science & Progress and Former Under Secretary for Science". US DOE. Retrieved 11 May 2021.
  9. ^ "Dr. Steven E. Koonin – Director – NYU's Center for Urban Science & Progress and Former Under Secretary for Science" retrieved October 20, 2013
  10. ^ "Welcome from the Director – CUSP – New York University".
  11. ^ "Steven Koonin". Department of Energy.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-06-23. Retrieved 2014-07-18.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ Bravender, Robin (June 13, 2018). "Obama official would have led EPA's climate science debate—if all agencies took part". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved 2020-12-20.
  14. ^ Waldman, Scott. "Skeptics Are Being Recruited for an "Adversarial" Review of Climate Science". Scientific American. Retrieved 2020-12-20.
  15. ^ Unsettled, BenBella Books
  16. ^ Danielle Pletka; Thiessen, Marc (12 May 2021). "WTH is really going on with the climate? An Obama administration scientist on climate myth and reality". What The Hell (Podcast). American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved 20 May 2021.
  17. ^ Thiessen, Marc (May 14, 2021). "An Obama scientist debunks the climate doom-mongers". Washington Post. Retrieved 20 May 2021.
  18. ^ Koonin, Steven E. (September 19, 2014). "Climate Science Is Not Settled". Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. Retrieved 16 May 2021.
  19. ^ Pierrehumbert, Raymond. "Climate Science Is Settled Enough". Slate. The Slate Group. Retrieved 16 May 2021.
  20. ^ Yohe, Gary. "A New Book Manages to Get Climate Science Badly Wrong". Scientific American. Retrieved 16 May 2021.
  21. ^
  22. ^ Mills, Mark P. (April 25, 2021). "'Unsettled' Review: The 'Consensus' On Climate". The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. Retrieved 9 June 2021.
  23. ^ a b "Unsettled? On Sale May 4, 2021". Retrieved 9 June 2021.
  24. ^ Koonin, Steve. "Steve Koonin responds to an article in SciAm". the reference frame. Luboš Motl. Retrieved 9 June 2021.