Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Professor Steven Koonin and Professor Robert Socolow discuss climate change in a Wednesday debate.

March 17, 2023

Climate Scientists Debate Emissions Reduction in a Free Speech Event

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Whether or not climate science compels us to make rapid and large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions was the subject of a debate in Call Auditorium on Wednesday. Around 70 alumni, faculty and a few students attended the event in person, with an estimated 1,200 joining via livestream.

Professor Robert Socolow of Princeton and Professor Steven Koonin of New York University  were the participants in the debate. Both professors have conducted extensive research in climate science. The debate was co-sponsored by the Cornell Free Speech Alliance and the Steamboat Institute, in addition to around 20 other participating sponsors with missions of bolstering open inquiry and viewpoint diversity in universities nationwide.

The CFSA is an independent organization advocating for free expression and academic freedom at Cornell, mainly composed of alumni. The Steamboat Institute is an organization that promotes the freedom of speech and aims to provide opportunities for direct contact with leaders of conservative thought and policy.

The debate is part of the Steamboat Institute’s Campus Liberty Tour, which Steamboat Institute chairman and CEO Jennifer Schubert-Akin said aims to provide a forum of robust but respective debates on even the most contentious issues.

“When we go to a campus, it’s to show the students and everyone who attends how to think, not what to think,” Schubert-Akin said. “We don’t care what your opinion is on these issues, we care that you want to learn more. You should have the right to ask questions and to come to a better understanding on these issues. You should never be afraid to express an opinion or to ask a question. It’s all about learning.”

According to Steven Baginski ’80, who is a member of the CFSA, Cornell has been experiencing a free speech problem in the last few years.

“Students and faculty report almost a startling degree of self-censorship,” Baginski said, referring to a report on student and faculty opinions on free speech at Cornell conducted by CFSA. “As an older person, I can guarantee you that when we were at Cornell, there was no such thing. You never hesitated to say what was on your mind.”

The Sun was unable to verify all of the claims made in the CFSA report. However, several students and faculty who were quoted in the report told The Sun their statements were not made to the CFSA and were taken out of its original context.

Prof. Randy Wayne, plant biology, approached the Steamboat Institute to bring a debate on climate and energy to Cornell. Wayne believes that his students lack critical thinking skills and that this problem has gotten worse over his career.

“[Professors] don’t hold the truth, but we do know what evidence is and we do know what observations are. And we do know what analysis is,” Wayne said. “But I find that kind of critical thinking is rare — not just [at] this university, but almost all universities.”

Schubert-Akin said the purpose of holding this debate between two well-known climate scientists was to increase conversation on contentious issues at Cornell in a civilized manner.

Socolow — who argued that large and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are necessary — is a professor emeritus at Princeton University in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He was a co-principal investigator of Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative, a twenty-five-year project supported by British Petroleum. He is well known for his research into “stabilization wedges” — a framework to understand the tools already available that can drastically reduce carbon emissions.

Arguing that large and rapid reductions in emissions are not necessary was Koonin, a professor at NYU with appointments in the Stern School of Business, the Tandon School of Engineering and the Department of Physics. He served as the Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy under President Obama and was the Chief Scientist at BP from 2004 to 2009.

Koonin was a participant in the last three Campus Liberty Tours. In an interview with The Sun, Koonin named four reasons as to why he believes the world is moving too quickly in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — (1) the science around the Earth’s exact response to human activity is uncertain, (2) the economic impacts of a few degrees of warming are only a few percent, (3) fossil fuels are the most reliable and convenient source of energy for the developing world and (4) we simply do not have the technology to decrease emissions while maintaining affordability.

“For all those reasons, I think we need to slow down, think it through, develop the technologies and do it gracefully,” Koonin said in the interview.

As a nuclear physicist by training, Koonin believes that nuclear power — which currently generates about 18 percent of the U.S.’s electricity — should play a larger role in the national energy system, as it does in France, a country that receives 70 percent of its power from the source.

“[Nuclear is] not quite the most economically competitive — gas does better, and wind and solar are cheaper — but it is reliable, and it is emissions-free in terms of greenhouse gases,” Koonin said in the interview. “If the developed world is going to have an emissions-free future, [nuclear has] got to be a big part of the future.”

On the other hand, the CFSA event represented Socolow’s first-ever debate. As a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he said he wishes the budget for research and development in the United States included more funding for climate science.

“My problem is, ‘Why aren’t we including climate science in the research and development package?’ And the answer is, unfortunately, related to polarization,” Socolow said in an interview with The Sun. “On the left, people have this strong statement that we know enough science, that the science is settled. But what they mean is, it’s settled enough to act.”

One method of action that Socolow discussed was encouraging sustainable energy systems in developing countries, particularly in Africa, which he described as “the frontier” of development. Socolow noted that while fossil energy and renewables will both contribute to economic advancement, designing the energy system is far from easy.

“That’s why developing countries need our attention right now — they’re making investment decisions that are for the long run,” Socolow said in the interview. “They’re mostly trained by us — the leaders, the technologic leaders, the political leaders — and they have all our bad habits.”

During the debate, Koonin and Socolow presented cases for their respective sides. Both professors supported their arguments with scientific evidence, which they displayed on a series of slides. The opening arguments were followed by a rebuttal period in which Koonin and Socolow took turns responding to each others’ main points.

The debate then transitioned to questions and answers, first with a series of questions asked by moderator and Washington Examiner reporter Sarah Westwood, then with questions that audience members had submitted virtually. Audience questions included the reliability of climate models and the need for government subsidies to support energy technology, among other topics.

To conclude the debate, each professor gave their closing remarks, starting with Koonin.

“Large and rapid reductions are an overkill — they risk far more damage to humanity than any conceivable impact from climate change,” Koonin said. “But there is also a sensible path forward that will moderate human influences on the climate while simultaneously responding to the growing demand for reliable and affordable energy.”

According to Koonin, he and Socolow have been “very good friends” for 20 years. Socolow told The Sun that their relationship consisted of two research collaborations. In Socolow’s closing argument, he noted his relationship with Koonin before urging him to stop encouraging others to “sit back and wait,” a problem-solving approach that Socolow said neither he nor Koonin himself believes in.

“We do want to get involved. We want to change the probabilities. We want to do something in our own lifetimes that makes these [climate disasters] less probable,” Socolow said. “That’s what gets us going. That’s what builds momentum. That’s what makes ‘large and rapid’ mean [movement] compared to stagnation.”

Prior to and following the debate, the audience — both in-person and over livestream — was asked to fill out an online poll on their thoughts on the prompt: “Climate science compels us to make large and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” Originally, 37 percent voted for the affirmative, 47 percent voted “no” and 16 percent said they were undecided. Following the debate, the negative position received slightly more support, with 31 percent voting “yes,” 63 percent voting “no” and six percent undecided. At the time of publication, the Steamboat Institute has not yet posted the official polling results or the number of polling participants.

New York University Professor Steven Koonin speaks at The Steamboat Institute Campus Liberty Tour debate about greenhouse gas emissions. (Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor)

Socolow believed the strong support for the negative position may have been due to the composition of the audience.

“For better or for worse, the Steamboat Institute has a mailing list of people who are interested in their agenda. It’s not an environmental activist community — in fact, it’s probably pretty much hostile to that,” Socolow said. “Their mailing list led to the people online and in the room, for the most part. So the fact that 37 percent in the first vote were inclined to go fast with climate change policy and technology — that was a pretty high number.”

A few students attended the debate — mostly those who study climate science at Cornell. Most students who spoke to The Sun said they believed large and rapid reductions in greenhouse gasses should be a top priority.

Danielle Mangini ’23, who is majoring in Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell and is planning to go into climate science research, said she left the debate feeling “bewildered.”

“I was frustrated because the majority of people seemed like they agreed with [Koonin], which was really concerning to me, especially since I know the science behind climate science,” Mangini said. “It makes sense with the demographics in [the room], mainly a lot of older people whose future already is now.”

Another senior in the department of Earth and atmospheric sciences, Rebecca Foody ’23, said she is hoping to advance a career in climate policy. She felt frustrated that there were topics that were not addressed, such as the environmental impacts of fossil fuels beyond climate change, like oil spills from transporting oil or chemical spills from fracking.

“I feel like [Koonin] was extremely firm and making a lot of more morality claims with answering the questions, which was kind of frustrating, whereas [Socolow] seemed a little bit more open to actually meeting in the middle — but a lot of the science shows that there should be action,” Foody said.

One student, Victoria Baker ’25, does not study climate science at Cornell and said she was still torn on the proposition following the debate. She enjoyed hearing both speakers’ perspectives on fossil fuel use in developing countries.

“If you are [a leader] in a country that is much less developed, a priority would be the wealth and health of your citizens, and that’s a priority that makes sense,” Baker said. “But part of me is like well, obviously you want [developing countries] to develop sustainably.”

The event was also attended by faculty and alumni, who had more mixed opinions of the debate.

Robert Shwab ’80 is a member of the CFSA and came from Cleveland, Ohio to watch the debate in person, describing it as “much better than cable TV.” Shwab said he went into the debate undecided on the issue at hand and left also in the undecided category.

“I learned a tremendous amount from both of them,” Shwab said. “I did think that Steve Koonin was a little more convincing to me, slightly more convincing — I already kind of lean that way. But Dr. Socolow gave me ideas I’ve never considered.”

Prof. Bill Miller, horticulture, said that while he promoted the event to his class, he saw only one of his students at the debate.

“I thought it was a fantastic debate. I thought it was very informative. But you know what, there weren’t enough students,” Miller said. “I would have loved to have had 200 undergraduates there. This is a big topic for undergraduates.”

Others felt the debate wasn’t as informative. Prof. Joyce Onyenedum, plant biology, said she felt Socolow did not treat the event as a debate.

“The affirmative, in my opinion, didn’t present an argument, but rather an encouragement to change the dialogue. So I didn’t receive any argumentative points that could convince me in that direction,” Onyenedum said. “Koonin presented a debate and his points and he argued them, and I didn’t get the same from the other side. Which doesn’t mean that either side is right. It’s just that I don’t feel more informed actually, as a result of one person debating, and the other person not debating.”

In his interview with The Sun, Socolow said that rather than debating — arguing a certain side to persuade the audience — he was more interested in discussing solutions that people from both sides can agree on, what he calls “middle-building.”

Prof. Michael Hoffmann, entomology, said that he attended the event to understand where others were coming from. Hoffman, however, is sure of his position, “absolutely” supporting the proposition.

“The science is solid — there’s no question about it. There’s no need to debate it,” Hoffmann said.

Despite mixed opinions from the audience, the debate accomplished its goal of getting people to talk about climate change.

“There’s a lot to discuss on the topic of climate change,” Baginski said. “Ultimately, it’s complicated, which is the reason to have a debate.”