Livermore Lab atmospheric scientist to speak on climate change
By Lou Fancher
Independent of which side a person lands on in a debate about human influence on climate change, there’s no reason not to know the science involved.
Especially when there’s opportunity to hear from an expert scientist about the latest research behind the nature and causes of the hotly debated topic. On March 29 at Livermore’s Bankhead Theater, the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center and resident partner Rae Dorough Speakers Series will present Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Santer, who makes his position plain in an interview (more on that below), will deliver a swift, condensed outline of how human-caused warming signals are researched and understood by scientists.
“It’s a unique period,” says Santer. “We had an administration before this one that took the problem of climate change seriously. Irrespective of the administration in power, it’s my responsibility to enter the public arena. I’m grateful for the opportunity, although a (roughly 90-minute) talk is a short period of time to do justice to the wealth of research on the topic,” he says. “I’ll primarily talk about work we do here at the lab.”
A San Ramon resident, Santer grew up in suburban Maryland until his family moved to Germany and he was enrolled in a British Army school. There he recalls “sticking out like a sore thumb” because he didn’t know how to play soccer. “I learned it to fit in. My focus was on not being a Yank,” he says. “The science teaching was pathetic. Most students wanted at age 16 to drop and join the Army. I wish I could tell you there was a younger Ben epiphany, but instead, I see serendipity. Random experiences nudged me in a certain (science) direction.”
Among the nudges was becoming immersed with other students hungry to learn at college and studies involved in earning a doctorate in climatology from the University of East Anglia, England. Most notably in his early career, Santer and his colleagues’ early research led to an important 12-word phrase included in the pivotal 1995 “Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” The scientists reported: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
As a climate scientist, Santer has experienced intense criticism— ask him about yellow Hummers and the Wall Street Journal— and enjoyed accolades that include a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship 1998 and other awards. A love for mountaineering fuels his passion for protecting the environment.
Santer says that audiences he speaks to aren’t solely interested in climate science. Always and before anything else, they want to know if he’s trustworthy.
“What works is to declare my values. I tell them I’m a climber, spending my life in beautiful, fragile environments around the world. I’ll show pictures of places that have value to me. I’ve found changes in (those locations). We have to discuss what it means to lose them. That resonates and causes people to see me as more than one-dimensional.”
Similarly he says it’s important for people to recognize that climate science is multidimensional but in no way is a belief system. He says the danger of politicians and other people tossing the topic around as if it were a faux football is “trickle-down ignorance that dismisses scientific understanding as a hoax.” Repeated often enough, it makes it difficult to regard climate change as a serious issue, which it is, he insists.
“Part of my responsibility is telling people in English what we do with (federal) funding and the research we’ve done. I’ve felt that responsibility keenly for 22 years. I firmly believe we have to take decisions on what to do about climate change based on the best available scientific research. I’m not subject to the political whims of fortune.”
As examples he will introduce in his presentation involving human-caused “fingerprints” and climate model evaluation methodology, Santer speaks of atmospheric temperature change. Monitoring for more than 40 years the increasing levels of carbon dioxide, upper stratosphere warming and lower stratosphere cooling, he says the controlled studies demonstrate the impact of humans on the climate. Researching possible natural causes — El Nino years, volcanic eruptions, and others — reveals their impact is temporary, not ongoing as are human-caused factors. Another compelling example he cites involves increased water vapor.
“With lower atmosphere warming on the ocean surface, for every 1 degree Celsius moisture increase, we get a seven percent increase in amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. It’s bad because water vapor is a greenhouse gas.”
Santer finds that skeptical audiences are prone to see climate science through filters that distrust government, regulations and scientists. Younger audiences are generally more receptive.
“It’s as if they understand our actions are affecting their future. They want to understand how it will affect going climbing or exploring coral reefs.”
Regardless of audience viewpoint, Santer says respectful discourse is his responsibility and goal.