I’ve de­voted my life to climate sci­ence. It’s worth fight­ing for.

Re­searcher Ben Santer says the pres­i­dent is pow­er­ful, but the truth is stronger

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­post.com Ben Santer is a climate sci­en­tist and a mem­ber of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences.

I’ve been a moun­taineer for most of my life. Moun­tains are in my blood. In my early 20s, while climb­ing in France, I fell into a crevasse on the Mi­lieu Glacier, at the start of the nor­mal route on the Aigu­ille d’Ar­gen­tiere. Re­mark­ably, I was un­hurt. From the grip of the banded ice, I saw a thin slit of blue sky 120 feet above me. The math was sim­ple: Climb 120 feet. If I reached that slit of blue sky, I would live. If I didn’t, I’d freeze to death in the cold and dark.

Now, more than 40 years later, it feels like I’m in a dif­fer­ent kind of dark­ness — the dark­ness of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sci­en­tific ig­no­rance. This is just as real as the dark­ness of the Mi­lieu Glacier’s in­te­rior and just as life-threat­en­ing. This time, I’m not alone. The con­se­quences of this ig­no­rance af­fect ev­ery per­son on the planet.

Imag­ine, if you will, that you spend your en­tire pro­fes­sional life try­ing to do one thing to the best of your abil­ity. In my case, that one thing is to study the na­ture and causes of climate change. You put in a long ap­pren­tice­ship. You spend

years learn­ing about the climate sys­tem, com­puter mod­els of climate and climate ob­ser­va­tions. You start fill­ing a tool kit with the sta­tis­ti­cal and math­e­mat­i­cal meth­ods you’ll need for an­a­lyz­ing com­plex data sets. You are taught how elec­tri­cal en­gi­neers de­tect sig­nals em­bed­ded in noisy data. You ap­ply those en­gi­neer­ing in­sights to the de­tec­tion of a hu­man-caused warm­ing sig­nal buried in the nat­u­ral “noise” of Earth’s climate. Even­tu­ally, you learn that hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties are warm­ing Earth’s sur­face, and you pub­lish this find­ing in peer-re­viewed lit­er­a­ture.

You par­tic­i­pate in rig­or­ous na­tional and in­ter­na­tional as­sess­ments of climate sci­ence. You try to put aside all per­sonal fil­ters, to be ob­jec­tive, to ac­com­mo­date a di­ver­sity of sci­en­tific opin­ions held by your peers, by in­dus­try stake­hold­ers and by gov­ern­ments. Th­ese as­sess­ments are like noth­ing you’ve ever done be­fore: They are peer re­view on steroids, eat­ing up years of your life.

The bot­tom-line find­ing of the as­sess­ments is cau­tious at first. In 1995, the con­clu­sion is this: “The bal­ance of ev­i­dence sug­gests a dis­cernible hu­man in­flu­ence on global climate.” Th­ese 12 words are part of a chap­ter on which you are first au­thor. The 12 words change your life. You spend years de­fend­ing the “dis­cernible hu­man in­flu­ence” con­clu­sion. You en­counter valid sci­en­tific crit­i­cism. You also en­counter non­sci­en­tific crit­i­cism from pow­er­ful forces of un­rea­son, who har­bor no per­sonal an­imus to­ward you but don’t like what you’ve learned and pub­lished — it’s bad for their busi­ness.

You go back to the draw­ing board. You ad­dress the crit­i­cism that if there re­ally is a hu­man-caused sig­nal, we should see it in many at­tributes of the climate sys­tem — not just in sur­face ther­mome­ter records. You look at tem­per­a­ture from the top of the at­mos­phere to the depths of the oceans. You ex­am­ine wa­ter va­por and the height of the low­est layer of the at­mos­phere. Your col­leagues search for hu­man fingerprints in rain­fall, clouds, sea level, river runoff, snow and ice ex­tent, at­mo­spheric cir­cu­la­tion pat­terns, and the be­hav­ior of extreme events. They find hu­man-caused climate fingerprints ev­ery­where they look.

Your peers are your fiercest crit­ics. They are con­stantly kick­ing the tires. Show us that your “dis­cernible hu­man in­flu­ence” re­sults aren’t due to changes in the sun, or vol­canic ac­tiv­ity, or in­ter­nal cy­cles in the climate sys­tem. Show us that your re­sults aren’t due to some com­bi­na­tion of th­ese nat­u­ral fac­tors. Con­vince us that de­tec­tion of a hu­man fin­ger­print isn’t sen­si­tive to un­cer­tain­ties in mod­els, data or the sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods in your tool kit. Ex­plain the causes of each and ev­ery wig­gle in tem­per­a­ture records. Re­spond to ev­ery claim con­tra­dict­ing your find­ings.

So you jump through hoops. You do due dili­gence. You go down ev­ery blind al­ley, ev­ery rab­bit hole. Over time, the ev­i­dence for a dis­cernible hu­man in­flu­ence on global climate be­comes over­whelm­ing. The ev­i­dence is in­ter­nally and phys­i­cally con­sis­tent. It’s in climate mea­sure­ments made from the ground, from weather bal­loons and from space — mea­sure­ments of dozens of dif­fer­ent climate vari­ables made by hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent re­search groups around the world. You write more papers, ex­am­ine more un­cer­tain­ties and par­tic­i­pate in more sci­en­tific as­sess­ments. You tell oth­ers what you’ve done, what you’ve learned and what the cli­matic “shape of things to come” might look like if we do noth­ing to re­duce emis­sions of heat-trap­ping green­house gases. You speak not only to your sci­en­tific peers but also to a wide va­ri­ety of au­di­ences, some of which are skep­ti­cal about you and ev­ery­thing you do. You en­ter the pub­lic arena and make your­self ac­count­able.

Af­ter decades of seek­ing to ad­vance sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing, re­al­ity sud­denly shifts, and you are back in the cold dark­ness of ig­no­rance. The ig­no­rance starts at the top, with Pres­i­dent Trump. It starts with un­truths and al­ter­na­tive facts. The un­truth that climate change is a “hoax” en­gi­neered by the Chi­nese. The al­ter­na­tive fact that “no­body re­ally knows” whether climate change is real. Th­ese un­truths are re­peated again and again. They serve as talk­ing points for other mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. From the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ad­min­is­tra­tor, who has spent his ca­reer fight­ing climate change sci­ence, we learn the al­ter­na­tive fact that satel­lite data shows “a lev­el­ing off of warm­ing” over the past two decades. The en­ergy sec­re­tary tells us the fairy tale that climate change is pri­mar­ily due to “ocean waters and this en­vi­ron­ment that we live in.” Ig­no­rance trick­les down from the pres­i­dent to mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, even­tu­ally fil­ter­ing into the pub­lic’s con­scious­ness.

Get­ting out of this metaphor­i­cal dark­ness is go­ing to be tough. The ad­min­is­tra­tion is pow­er­ful. It has ac­cess to me­dia mega­phones and bully pul­pits. It can ab­ro­gate in­ter­na­tional climate agree­ments. It can weaken na­tional leg­is­la­tion de­signed to pro­tect our air and wa­ter. It can chal­lenge climate sci­ence and tell us that more than three decades of sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing and rig­or­ous as­sess­ments are all worth­less. It can ques­tion the in­tegrity and mo­tives of climate sci­en­tists. It can halt satel­lite mis­sions and im­pair our abil­ity to mon­i­tor Earth’s climate from space. It can shut down web­sites host­ing real facts on the sci­ence of climate change. It can deny, de­lay, de­fund, dis­tort, dis­man­tle. It can fid­dle while the planet burns.

I have to be­lieve that even in this dark­ness, though, there is still a thin slit of blue sky. My op­ti­mism comes from a gut-level be­lief in the de­cency and in­tel­li­gence of the peo­ple of this coun­try. Most Amer­i­cans have an in­vest­ment in the fu­ture — in our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, and in the planet that is our only home. Most Amer­i­cans care about th­ese in­vest­ments in the fu­ture; we want to pro­tect them from harm. That is our prime di­rec­tive. Most of us un­der­stand that to ful­fill this di­rec­tive, we can’t ig­nore the re­al­ity of a warm­ing planet, ris­ing seas, re­treat­ing snow and ice, and changes in the sever­ity and fre­quency of droughts and floods. We can’t ig­nore the re­al­ity that hu­man ac­tions are part of the climate change prob­lem and that hu­man ac­tions must be part of the so­lu­tion. Ig­nor­ing re­al­ity is not a vi­able sur­vival strat­egy.

Trump has re­ferred to a cloud hang­ing over his ad­min­is­tra­tion. The pri­mary cloud I see is the self-cre­ated cloud of will­ful ig­no­rance on the sci­ence of climate change. That cloud is a clear and present threat to the lives, liveli­hoods and health of ev­ery per­son on the planet, now and in the fu­ture. This cloud could be eas­ily lifted by the pres­i­dent him­self.

For my own part, I don’t in­tend to spend the rest of my life in dark­ness or si­lently ac­cept­ing trickle-down ig­no­rance. I didn’t climb out of a crevasse on the Mi­lieu Glacier for that.


The Aigu­ille d’Ar­gen­tiere in the French Alps, where the au­thor es­caped from a fall in a glacial crevasse years ago.

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