Q&A with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Scientist Ben Santer
A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist speaks out on the evidence of a warming planet—and the need for action.
by George Kitrinos
In the clamor of op-eds, protests, and alternative facts, one voice has risen above the rest in defense of science: Ben Santer, who has spent more than 25 years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory studying climate change.
After writing the landmark chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1995 report that first linked human activity to climate change, the San Ramon scientist has spent the past two decades explaining in a variety of forums the science and the actions we can take to address climate change, including a recent appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Diablo sat down with Santer to discuss his time at the Livermore Lab, the science and politics of climate change, and the challenges ahead for our changing world.
Q: You were part of the group of scientists in 1995 that connected climate change to human activity. What was that experience like?
A: Our bottom-line finding was this one sentence, 12 words: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” It really was the first time the international scientific community had spoken with one voice.
Even though that statement was suitably cautious back in 1995, a lot of powerful people didn’t like it. I quickly realized that it was not possible to curl into a fetal position, close the door to my office, and hope all the bad stuff would go away. I needed to push back and tell people in plain English, “This is what we did in putting together the report; this is the scientific evidence supporting the finding.”
To me, that’s what you do. You do the research, speak publicly about scientific understanding, and speak truth to power. You don’t let powerful people dismiss scientific understanding as a hoax.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Trump administration’s approach to climate change so far?
A: My scientific career has been about trying to understand the nature of climate change. My job, and the job of my colleagues, is to do signal separation—separating the human components from the purely natural factors. The bottom line [is that] natural causes alone don’t convincingly explain what we’ve observed, measured, and monitored.
So, imagine you spend your whole life doing that [research] to the best of your abilities. Then, someone comes along—someone powerful—and dismisses everything you’ve done as a hoax, as worthless, as a contrived phony mess.
In my opinion, you have a clear choice: You can either watch silently as that understanding is dismissed as worthless, or you can push back. In the words of my son, Nick, it would be an “epic fail” to just watch everything you value and hold dear incorrectly dismissed.
Q: In early June, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change. What impact will pulling out of the agreement have on climate change efforts?
A: This concerns all of us. This is not President Trump’s climate system; it’s not the Republicans’ or Democrats’ climate system. It’s part of the global commons, and all of us have some say in what happens to it. And we’ve got to make our voices very clear to the folks in power.
Even if one leaves aside the climate implications of this decision, it makes no sense whatsoever. We are relinquishing leadership to other countries. They will make a lot of money [and] employ a lot of people. From a business perspective, this is crazy.
Q: Many scientists, including yourself, have been outspoken against the Trump administration. Do you feel your efforts have made a difference?
A: I do. Look at all the extraordinary stuff that [happened in April]: scientists marching in Washington, D.C., scientists marching all over the world, the People’s Climate March. These are extraordinary events for cautious scientists who are happiest when they’re in their office. This is an international scientific community that senses we’re at a planetary crossroads, and the decisions we make over the next few decades will have huge implications for the shape of things to come, for the kind of world our kids and grandkids will grow up in and live in.
Q: What steps has the Livermore Lab taken to combat climate change?
A: The lab has been involved in a lot of alternative energy research: hydrogen fuel cells, fusion. There’s also been research on nuclear energy, on more efficient and safer nuclear reactors.
Q: President Trump has proposed budget cuts for climate science. How will that affect the Livermore Lab?
A: Unclear. One thing that has been mentioned [to face cuts in funding] is international activities, which is concerning to me. The atmosphere is not a respecter of national boundaries. You’re not one researcher at one lab using one model or one satellite. You’re in this generous, vibrant community of thousands of scientists all around the world, all trying to understand this strange and beautiful world in which we live.
So, saying, “We don’t want you guys and gals to work with the international scientific community anymore”—it’s crazy. It would make it difficult for me to do my job at [the lab]. I would have to find another job.
I hope that doesn’t happen. Even though I’ve been there for 25 years, I still have fire in the belly. We’ve worked for 25 years to help the Livermore Lab become one of the preeminent labs in terms of studying the nature of climate change.
Q: What does the future look like with climate change?
A: If we’re even in the ballpark with our scientific understanding of the things to come, we face a warmer planet, rising sea levels, changes in extreme events and their intensity and duration, and changes in rainfall patterns. We face things that will change every aspect of our lives. Climate change is already affecting food security, food production, and even migration. By conservative estimates, we’re looking at a couple of feet of sea level rise by 2100. That’s a different planet.
Q: With the exception of areas in Southern California, Governor Jerry Brown recently declared the end of the drought for the state. Are we in the clear?
A: Even if there were no humans on the planet, there would be natural fluctuations in the climate year to year, decade to decade. But our best understanding is that by continuing to burn fossil fuels, we’re going to warm, and that warming will have profound implications for our snowpack. There will be these fluctuations in rainfall and snowpack, but the long-term outlook is a decrease in the extent and depth of the snowpack. That will have significant implications for water here in California.
Q: What advice do you have for those who want to make a difference?
A: The best thing people can do is to inform and educate themselves. Not just go to some blog or one particular TV channel, but really try to understand, to read reports from authoritative sources—the National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society, National Climate Assessment.
In the end, if citizens don’t understand what’s at stake here—what the basic science tells us, what the likely outcomes are—we’re not going to make smart decisions on what to do about it. We’re going to elect people who deny basic science. We’re going to elect people who believe it’s more important to advance the interests of fossil fuels.
Go to some of these wild places, and see for yourself. Go to the Juneau Icefield. Go to the Great Barrier Reef, and witness the bleaching of over two-thirds of it. Think about what it means to lose something like that, to have it no longer be there. llnl.gov.