Ben Santer
Santer in July 2019 receiving honorary doctorate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K.

Scientist Ben Santer is widely recognized by his climate science colleagues around the U.S. and internationally as one of the most influential and admired in the field. Named in 1998 as a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and in 2011 as a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, Santer is known also as being one of the scientists most committed to publicly defending his research from what he sees as bogus attacks, and to defending the work of other climate scientists whose research he feels has been maligned.

That reputation carries with it some risks. He and Michael Mann of Penn State University for two decades have been frequently vilified by ardent climate contrarians, so much so that Santer in 2009 had to have security personnel from his federal government laboratory escort him to make a major presentation before the American Geophysical Union.

Just as Mann is closely identified with the iconic “hockey stick” graph, Santer is forever linked to the 1995 IPCC language for which he is principal author … the first scientific conclusion that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”

Santer has said “the vitriol that followed was both personal and malicious,” targeting his federal scientist career and also his family.

Not one to sit passively when it comes to defending his own or others’ peer-reviewed climate science, Santer found himself pretty much alone at his federally funded laboratory office this past New Years Eve. After numerous personal writings, speeches, and appearances over the years – including a February 2017 one-on-one explanation of climate science on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” – Santer wrote about his hopes for the new year. (Late-night network comedy programs are a highly unusual venue for most climate scientists, and his willingness to go there illustrates his commitment to outreach on behalf of climate science. The video of that discussion is no longer available on the NBC site, but is still available on the activist Media Matters site.)

Rather than despairing about the worrisome prospects for seriously addressing what he and many scientists see as an “existential” climate change problem, Santer chose to write about his optimism – or at least “hope” – about the outlook in this 2020 new year.

In his own words:

It’s quiet this last day of 2019. I’m probably the only person in Building 170 at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. My phone is not ringing; there are no meetings or urgent emails to deal with. No one is reminding me of overdue reviews. I can look out of my window and admire the last red and gold leaves clinging to the trees in the courtyard. I have a few peaceful hours to reflect on the events of the last year and to consider what might lie ahead in 2020.

I’ve done a lot of public speaking in the last year. I’ve talked about the scientific evidence that underpins findings of a “discernible human influence” on global climate. I’ve discussed the likely climatic outcomes if we do nothing to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. I’ve engaged in respectful discourse, even with audiences who mistrust me and everything I do.

Since I’m funded by the federal government, I believe it’s important to be accountable to the public. I have a responsibility to explain what we did with the research funding we received, what we learned, and why our findings matter to others. I take that responsibility seriously.

At the end of my public talks, during the question and answer sessions, I inevitably receive questions about hope. I am asked, “Where do you find hope? Knowing what you know about the science of climate change, where do you find optimism about our collective future? Are we screwed? Should I have children in a world facing serious climate disruption?”

I never feel satisfied with my answers to such questions. Today I have the “quiet time” I need to come up with better answers.

A growing signal in public understanding of climate science is one of the reasons I’m hopeful about the future. Over my lifetime, I’ve witnessed the emergence of that signal from the background noise of disinterest, preoccupation, ignorance, misinformation, and disinformation. Our changing climate is now part of daily public discourse. Each day brings new reporting on melting glaciers in Alaska, the impact of sea-level rise on megacities, methane release from thawing permafrost, and the behavior of massive ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Each week, our news feeds provide summaries of the latest scientific findings on changing fire seasons, atmospheric circulation patterns, extreme rainfall, and hurricane intensity. Each month there is new evidence of the ubiquity of human fingerprints on the climate system.

The on-the-ground reality of a rapidly changing climate diminishes the size of the echo chamber for climate change deniers. It’s tough to assert that we are simply witnessing normal cyclical fluctuations when rapid sea-level rise, more intense wildfires, and more extreme weather are already affecting millions around the world.

Most citizens of this planet understand that climate change is real, is serious, and is here today. This growing signal in public understanding is a positive development. It brings new opportunities to speak publicly about science, evidence, and the kind of world in which we want to live. When the president of the United States uses his pulpit to make the incorrect claim that “nobody really knows” the causes of climate change, there are opportunities to explain why the president is wrong. That’s a good thing. More scientists are willing to speak publicly about the reality and seriousness of climate change. That’s a good thing, too.

Young adults are another reason for hope. Catalyzed by the fearless Greta Thunberg, millions of young citizens of this planet are speaking science to power, flexing their political muscles, and demanding action instead of words and platitudes. Greta and her peers are not going away. Their voices are becoming louder, stronger, more numerous. Soon these young leaders will be voters. They will have the power to choose who represents them. Ignoring their voices is a singularly bad strategy for remaining politically relevant in 2020.

Bob Dylan’s words from 1964 seem apt and prescient:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

I’ve spoken publicly about climate change in over 35 of the 50 states. I’ve lectured to students in schools, universities, and research labs. I’ve talked to young adults in churches, Rotary Clubs, and scientific meetings. I’ve visited well-known universities and quiet academic backwaters. It’s been a real privilege to explore this country, to get a better sense of the things that are of concern to the next generation of scientists, teachers, artists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and leaders.

These encounters are another reason for hope. They’ve taught me that young people understand what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” They know human-caused climate disruption is fact, not fiction. They know we have a narrow window of opportunity to make major changes in the way we use energy. They know it’s time for action, not further decades of Conferences of the Parties. They are concerned, passionate, and capable. They know how to use social media to amplify their voices. They are a force to be reckoned with. It’s their time to do what our generation failed to do – figure out a more sustainable way of living on this planet. It’s their time to lead now; it’s their time to shine.

Topics: Communicating Climate