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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
In office
April 2012 – ?
2nd Under Secretary 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 72)
Brooklyn, New York
SpouseLaurie Koonin
Alma materB.S., California Institute of Technology
Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Steven E. Koonin
Scientific career
ThesisHydrodynamic approximations to time-dependent Hartree-Fock (1975)
Doctoral advisorArthur Kerman

Steven Elliot Koonin (born December 12, 1951)[1] is an American theoretical physicist and former 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] From 2004 to 2009, Koonin was employed by BP as the oil and gas company’s Chief Scientist.[3] From 2009 to 2011, he was Under Secretary for Science, Department of Energy, in the Obama administration.


Born in Brooklyn, New York City, Koonin graduated from Stuyvesant High School at the age of 16, 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.[4][5][6] In 1975, Koonin joined the faculty of the California Institute of Technology as an assistant professor of theoretical physics becoming one of their youngest ever faculty, and served as the institute's provost from 1995 to 2004.[7][8]

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.[9] He was tapped for the position of Under Secretary for Science at the United States Department of Energy by Steven Chu, Obama's Secretary of Energy,[10] and served from May 19, 2009, to November 18, 2011.[11][12] Koonin left in November 2011 for a position at the Institute for Defense Analyses.[citation needed] In 2012, he was appointed the founding director of NYU's Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP).[13]

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.[14] Koonin's research interests have included theoretical nuclear, many-body, and computational physics, nuclear astrophysics, and global environmental science.[15]

Views on climate change[edit]

Koonin became publicly involved in the policy debate about climate change starting with a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in 2017, in which he floated the idea of a red team/blue team exercise for climate science. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the leadership of Scott Pruitt proposed a public debate on climate change to refute the 2017 Climate Science Special Report. According to a draft press release edited by Koonin and William Happer, Princeton physics professor and director of the CO2 Coalition, they planned "red team"/blue team exercises to challenge the scientific consensus on climate. The draft was never released, and the plans were not carried out.[16][17][18]

In 2019, the Trump Administration proposed to create a "Presidential Committee on Climate Security" at the National Security Council 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. The committee was scrapped in favor of an initiative not "subject to the same level of public disclosure as a formal advisory committee".[18][19][20]

2014 Wall Street Journal commentary[edit]

Koonin wrote a 2000-word essay, "Climate Science Is Not Settled," that was published in an issue of The Wall Street Journal.[21][22] The main points of the article were that:

  • the limits of climate measurement data make it hard to untangle the planet's response to human influences, from natural changes that are poorly understood.
  • The results of various climate models disagree with or contradict each other.
  • Press releases, summaries, headlines, and news stories often don't accurately reflect the consensus among scientists.
  • The science is not mature enough to make useful projections about the future of the climate, nor what effects past or future human actions might have on it.

In an article in Slate,[23] climate physicist Raymond Pierrehumbert criticized Koonin's essay as "a litany of discredited arguments" with "nuggets of truth ... buried beneath a rubble of false or misleading claims from the standard climate skeptics' canon."

2021 book Unsettled[edit]

In 2021, Koonin published the book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters.[24] Critics accused him of cherry picking data, muddying the waters surrounding the science of climate change, and having no experience in climate science.[25]

In a review in Scientific American, economist Gary Yohe 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).[24]

Physicist Mark Boslough, a former student of Koonin, posted a critical review at Yale Climate Connections. He stated that "Koonin makes use of an old strawman concocted by opponents of climate science in the 1990s to create an illusion of arrogant scientists, biased media, and lying politicians – making them easier to attack."[26]

Nonprofit organization Inside Climate News reported that climate scientists call Koonin's conclusions "fatally out of date ... and based on the 2013 physical science report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)."[10]

Mark P. Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science,[27] lauded the book in The Wall Street Journal as "rebut[ing] much of the dominant political narrative".[28] Twelve scientists analyzed Mills's arguments and said that he merely repeated Koonin's incorrect and misleading claims.[29] Koonin responded with a post on Medium.com answering these critics.[30]

On August 21, 2023, an interview with Koonin was released via the Stanford University Hoover Institution video series, Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson.


  • 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.
  • 2024 edition: Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters (Updated and Expanded Edition). Dallas: BenBella Books. 2024. ISBN 9781637745250.


  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. ^ "Steven E. Koonin – Director – NYU's Center for Urban Science & Progress and Former Under Secretary for Science". energy.gov. US DOE. Retrieved 11 May 2021.
  4. ^ "Frank talk on U.S. Energy innovation". 23 September 2010.
  5. ^ "Koonin, Steven E." history.aip.org. Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  6. ^ "Arthur Kerman, professor emeritus of physics, dies at 88". MIT News. 2 June 2017. Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  7. ^ "Former Caltech Provost Steven Koonin Nominated for Under Secretary for Science | Caltech". www.caltech.edu. Archived from the original on 2014-12-07.
  8. ^ "Caltech Appoints Physicist Steve Koonin New Provost". California Institute of Technology. Retrieved 2018-12-20.
  9. ^ "Steven E. Koonin – Director – NYU's Center for Urban Science & Progress and Former Under Secretary for Science". energy.gov. US DOE. Retrieved 11 May 2021.
  10. ^ a b Lavelle, Marianne (May 4, 2021). "A New Book Feeds Climate Doubters, but Scientists Say the Conclusions are Misleading and Out of Date". Inside Climate News. Archived from the original on May 5, 2021. Retrieved August 14, 2021.
  11. ^ President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts
  12. ^ Energy.gov: "Dr. Steven E. Koonin – Director – NYU's Center for Urban Science & Progress and Former Under Secretary for Science" retrieved October 20, 2013
  13. ^ "Steve Koonin". Retrieved August 15, 2021.
  14. ^ "Steven Koonin". Department of Energy.
  15. ^ "Physics Research Conference – Speaker: Dr. Steven E. Koonin". California Institute of Technology, The Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. Archived from the original on 2010-06-23. Retrieved 2014-07-18.
  16. ^ Hirji, Zahra (May 15, 2018). "Here's The EPA Press Release Announcing The "Red Team/Blue Team" Climate Debate That Never Happened". BuzzFeed News. Retrieved August 14, 2021.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ a b Waldman, Scott. "Skeptics Are Being Recruited for an "Adversarial" Review of Climate Science". Scientific American. Retrieved 2020-12-20.
  19. ^ Eilperin, Juliet; Ryan, Missy (February 20, 2019). "White House prepares to scrutinize intelligence agencies' finding that climate change threatens national security". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 14, 2021.
  20. ^ Eilperin, Juliet; Dawsey, Josh; Dennis, Brady (February 24, 2019). "White House to set up panel to counter climate change consensus, officials say". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 14, 2021.
  21. ^ Koonin, Steven E. (September 19, 2014). "Climate Science Is Not Settled". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 16 May 2021.
  22. ^ "Climate Science is Not Settled" (PDF). Retrieved 2024-02-28.
  23. ^ Pierrehumbert, Raymond (October 1, 2014). "Climate Science Is Settled Enough". Slate. Retrieved May 16, 2021.
  24. ^ a b Yohe, Gary (May 13, 2021). "A New Book Manages to Get Climate Science Badly Wrong". Scientific American. Retrieved 16 May 2021.
  25. ^ National Post staff (2 September 2021). "The unalarmist: Steven Koonin's controversial climate contentions". National Post. Retrieved 2021-10-25.
  26. ^ Boslough, Mark (May 25, 2021). "A critical review of Steven Koonin's 'Unsettled'". Yale Climate Connections. The Yale Center for Environmental Communication. Retrieved August 14, 2021.
  27. ^ "Mark P. Mills". Manhattan Institute. Retrieved 2022-07-23.
  28. ^ Mills, Mark P. (2021-04-25). "'Unsettled' Review: The 'Consensus' On Climate". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660.
  29. ^ "Wall Street Journal article repeats multiple incorrect and misleading claims made in Steven Koonin's new book 'Unsettled'". Climate Feedback. May 3, 2021. Retrieved August 14, 2021.
  30. ^ Koonin, Steven (2021-05-16). "A bad check of climate facts". Retrieved 2023-03-13.