A climate scientist fights ignorance

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 in 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, over 40 years later, it feels like I'm back in a different kind of darkness: that 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 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 statistical and mathematical methods to analyze 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 the earth's climate. Eventually you learn that human activities are warming the 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. You find human-caused climate fingerprints everywhere you 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 a wide variety of audiences, some of whom 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 with President Donald 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 the causes of climate change. These untruths and alternative facts 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 show "leveling off of warming" over the past two decades. The energy secretary tells us the fairy tale that climate change is due to "ocean waters, and this environment in which we live." 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 to 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 can 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 the 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 to this problem. Ignoring reality is not a viable survival strategy.

Trump has referred to a dark 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.

But 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.

Ben Santer is a climate scientist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Editorial on 07/16/2017


djigoo says...

Climate deniers have the blood of future generations on their hands.

Posted 16 July 2017, 9:41 a.m. Suggest removal

REV2018 says...

Since climate deniers believe ignorance is a virtue and science is a myth, I believe forming a club might be in order:

Posted 16 July 2017, 10:39 a.m. Suggest removal

DontDrinkDatKoolAid says...

"I've been a mountaineer for most of my life." The you have been in thin air to long.

Posted 16 July 2017, 9:07 p.m. Suggest removal

djigoo says...

There's some of that ignorance he wrote about.

"To long."


Posted 16 July 2017, 9:20 p.m. Suggest removal

carpenterretired says...

Well the flat earth people rejected the theory that the earth was round (Bible says earth has four corners and edges and any conservative can look at the sky and tell that the sun revolves around the earth ) and declared that science of round earth was false (last public school teacher fired for teaching round earth as fact was in Kentucky in 1926).

Posted 16 July 2017, 10:07 p.m. Suggest removal

RBear says...

Ha ha @ DDDKA. You made a funny. But seriously, some interesting points in this column. It is frustrating for those who have done the research only to be stifled by business interests who haven't done any research and are more focused on chasing the almighty dollar at the expense of environmental concerns. We are at a point where increased knowledge of this subject is critical. It will take time to turn back decades of abuse and destruction, but things are slowly changing.

Posted 17 July 2017, 7:33 a.m. Suggest removal

3WorldState1 says...

Always wondered why the right, which despises their gov so much, would believe paid-for bureaucrats before they would believe the scientific community. Really just shows what "state run" (Fox News) media can do to a population. The reason why Putin has 90% approval rating yet his economy has been tanking for years.

Posted 17 July 2017, 8:35 a.m. Suggest removal

Whippersnapper says...

The Climate Scientists only have jobs if there is a problem, and hence have a vested interest in claiming there is a problem. The IPCC (the UN top level climate science folks) admitted in their most recent science report that they overestimated the effects of human activity, underestimated the effects of natural variability, and that as a result their models were unable to match observations for the entire period of time they had been predicting warming.
Their solution? They have now gone through and modified HISTORICAL data sets to make it look like the warming is worse.

Posted 17 July 2017, 9:37 a.m. Suggest removal

ARMNAR says...

Citation for your assertion from a reliable source, Whipper?

Posted 17 July 2017, 10:31 a.m. Suggest removal

3WorldState1 says...

Whipper is absolutely incorrect. Especially about "they only have jobs if there is a problem". That's a completely ridiculous statement. Can't believe he even proposed it.
Whipper was already proven incorrect during his last attempt to discredit climate scientists. I remember because it was I that pulled that information. From the very papers he said proved otherwise.

Posted 17 July 2017, 1:04 p.m. Suggest removal

djigoo says...

Still waiting for that source, Whipper.

Posted 17 July 2017, 3:08 p.m. Suggest removal

Packman says...

With 12 first person references in the first paragraph alone the author exposes himself as a pure narcissist, meaning everything else he has to say is self-serving tripe.

Posted 17 July 2017, 3:24 p.m. Suggest removal

DontDrinkDatKoolAid says...

And Al Gore has purchased beach front property in California. No worry here.

Posted 17 July 2017, 8:18 p.m. Suggest removal

djigoo says...

Aaaaaaaaaaaand STILL waiting.

It's almost as if Whipper can't provide evidence for his claim.


Posted 17 July 2017, 9:40 p.m. Suggest removal

DoubleBlind says...

All those in favor of sending Whipper, Pack and their ilk to Mars to pave the way, say aye...AYE!!

Posted 17 July 2017, 11:05 p.m. Suggest removal

TimberTopper says...

Packy, maybe you need to pat attention to what is going on around you more. The weather has changed a great deal in my lifetime, as I'm sure it has in yours.

Posted 18 July 2017, 4:18 a.m. Suggest removal

GCW says...

Stop asking questions and tell your politicians to double our budget or else you are ignorant. It doesn't have to make sense.

Posted 18 July 2017, 6 a.m. Suggest removal

WhododueDiligence says...

Packman, the author used first person references because he was the only person down in that crevasse looking to climb 120 feet of ice with nobody there to help him. If the author had used second person references, that would be you in there with your head looking up your crevasse.

Posted 18 July 2017, 7:17 a.m. Suggest removal

Whippersnapper says...

1) "The long-term climate model simulations show a trend in global-mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2012 that agrees with the observed trend (very high confidence). There are, however, differences between simulated and observed trends over periods as short as 10 to 15 years (e.g., 1998 to 2012)."
2) "There is medium confidence that natural internal decadal variability causes to a substantial degree the difference between observations and the simulations"
3) "There may also be a contribution from forcing inadequacies and, in some models, an overestimate of the response to increasing greenhouse gas and other anthropogenic forcing (dominated by the effects of aerosols)."
All of those quotes are from the most recent Scientific analysis by the IPCC science group.
Number 1 says their models are wrong for the entire time they attempted to predict. Number 2 says they underestimated the impact of nature. Number 3 says they overestimated the impact of human activity.
And because I believe in science, I cite my sources.
ww w.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL . pdf

Posted 18 July 2017, 9:07 a.m. Suggest removal

Whippersnapper says...

...and more to remember:
Some scientists who think global warming might be happening (real scientists tend to avoid definitive terms like "is" or "must be") actually think that it could be beneficial for mankind, as it could turn large portions of currently uninhabitable land into productive farmland. You don't hear about that from Al Gore's crowd, but the actual scientific community is broken into several groups on this issue:
1) Those who think that warming is likely occurring and will likely be a bad thing
2) Those who think that warming is likely occurring and could be a good or bad thing
3) Those who think that warming is likely occurring and would likely be a good thing
4) Those who think that warming may or may not be occurring and that it would likely be a bad thing
5) Those who think that warming may or may not be occurring and that it would likely be a good thing
6) Those who think that warming is not likely to be occurring
Al Gore's people (and most liberals) fall into group 1 up above and insist (incorrectly) that groups 2-6 do not exist. I know, all of you global warming alarmists think that I must be making this up, so here's a peer reviewed article in the journal Nature where they conclude that 25-50% of the global vegetated area would likely have a better growing season due to global warming while less than 4% of the vegetated areas will experience a shorter growing season. The reason? CO2 is the best fertilizer in the world (according to this peer reviewed article in the scientific journal Nature)
ww w.nature. com/articles/nclimate3004.epdf

Posted 18 July 2017, 9:21 a.m. Suggest removal

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