UD hosts climate debate sponsored by The Steamboat Institute

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On Oct. 26, the University of Dallas hosted a debate on climate science sponsored by The Steamboat Institute. 

Jennifer Schubert Akin, CEO and cofounder of The Steamboat Institute, introduced the debate, the resolution of which was “climate science compels us to make large and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” She said, “It’s one of the most hotly contested topics of our time.” 

The debate was moderated by Tom Rogan, writer and editor at the Washington Examiner, who was the first Steamboat Institute Tony Blankley Fellow for Public Policy and American Exceptionalism in 2014. Dr. Steven Koonin, Director of NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress and professor of information, operations & management sciences at New York University Stern School of Business, argued the negative, and Dr. Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School, the positive.

Koonin has been involved with the group JASON for 40 years, which advises the government on various matters involving science and technology, and during the 1990’s he worked on climate modeling for the Department of Energy. 

“I got to meet a lot of the prominent climate scientists at that time. And, you know, physicists like to poke their nose into anybody’s business so I learned a good bit about climate modeling,” he said.

Koonin was a professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology until 2004 when he became the chief scientist of BP Energy. He also served as Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy under the Obama administration. 

“I’m a professor at heart. I was a professor for 30 years at Caltech and now another 10 years at NYU. And one of the joys for me is opening up people’s minds,” Koonin said.

Wagner served as an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit energy advocacy organization, from 2008 to 2016, and in 2015, published his book “Climate Shock.” He became a senior lecturer at Columbia University after teaching at NYU, Harvard and Columbia. 

When Wagner graduated from college in 2002, climate studies and economic studies were considered separate, although that changed over time as understanding of the two developed.

“Fast forward a couple of decades, and it’s pretty obvious that misguided market forces are the problem. Of course they are. What’s the solution? Guiding them in the right direction, and that’s climate economics right there,” he said. 

During the debate, Koonin took the position that the issue of climate change is complex and changes in policy are not to be taken lightly.

“Ill-considered changes in the energy system will be very disruptive, and I want to make sure that the country doesn’t go down the way that Germany has gone, for example,” he said. “I try to say everything that’s right out of the reports or is backed up by facts, I don’t make stuff up, and that’s why I’m out here talking.” 

Arguing the opposite, Wagner asserted that the debate surrounding climate and policy has changed over time.

“It’s just not a science debate. I am, in many ways, glad that, frankly, climate scientists left and right decline these debates, declined to debate Steve Koonin — who is basically saying the same thing he said 20 years ago, 10 years ago — because the debate has moved on. This isn’t a scientific debate, it’s an economic one. It’s about climate economics. It’s about climate policy,” he said. 

“It’s important to burst the bubble,” Wagner said. He argued that there is a system in place that uses massive amounts of fossil fuel money to support the free market, and that many who are in favor of it use arguments about climate science to distract from critical issues. “Often, just by virtue of having the debate, it seems like there is uncertainty here, that there is something to discuss, as a delaying tactic, essentially.”

Koonin, conversely, hoped to emphasize the nuances of climate science. 

“There are other considerations, you can’t do it so fast, what about the poor people in the world, etc. And I think the more people, students in particular, understand the nuances of that, the better they will be as voters or as decision makers, whether in the government or the private sector,” he said.

It can be difficult to have an honest conversation about controversial topics in the sphere of public debate. 

“I think there is, certainly in media, which is my most significant experience, but generally across the country, too much calcification in terms of people just sitting in their own ideological groups and not engaging with each other, and in that, forming animus,” Rogan said.

Debates like this one are critical for fostering a healthier dialogue surrounding the most important and controversial topics.

 “If you can have a fiery debate, as I think this debate was, where emotions do run high but there’s an exchange of views and people shake hands at the end, that is in the finest tradition of American civil society, and it’s something we should absolutely treasure,” Rogan said.

11/03 Correction: The article incorrectly stated that Dr. Koonin argued the positive and Dr. Wagner argued the negative. Dr. Koonin argued the negative and Dr. Wagner argued the positive. This has been corrected.

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