A federal research facility’s prioritizing a politically connected darling of right-wing media over its own star scientist shows climate denialism’s lasting power.
Ben Santer, one of the world’s best-known climate scientists, announced this week he is severing ties with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory after the federal research facility invited a climate denier to give a book talk this Thursday.
Santer had planned to retire from the lab, where he has worked for 29 years, in September, but would continue his award-winning atmospheric research on a part-time basis and maintain his affiliation.
But in a blog post published Monday, the MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient said his employer failed to “adequately address” concerns he raised with hosting physicist Steve Koonin to speak about his new book, “Unsettled,” which sows doubt over the reality of human-causing global warming. Santer cast the decision to allow Koonin, a New York University professor, to promote his polemic at an official lab event as a betrayal of the research conducted there for decades.
“Writing and releasing this statement may be viewed by some as an act of disloyalty. I do not see it that way,” Santer wrote in a statement posted to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ website. “I chose to remain loyal to the climate science we have performed at LLNL for over three decades. I do not intend to remain silent while the credibility and integrity of this research is challenged.”
Santer hyperlinked the word “integrity” to an appearance Koonin made on an official podcast of the Heartland Institute, a far-right advocacy group that, in addition to promoting misinformation about climate science and cigarette smoking’s link to cancer, organized harassment campaigns against scientists.
Koonin “is not an authoritative voice on climate science,” Santer wrote, noting that the lab’s “climate scientists have devoted their careers to measuring, modeling, and understanding changes in the climate system. Professor Koonin has not.”
Santer’s dramatic statement this week highlights the lasting power of a political movement dreamed up in the conference rooms of the fossil fuel industry’s public relations firms and made real with the same kind of advertising campaigns that staved off smoking regulations for years after the health risks were clear. A co-author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1996 report, Santer wrote that year that: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” Those words made him the target of a harassment campaign that included everything from death threats to a congressional inquiry into his research funding.
The effects of climate change are today visible, and the solutions to all but eliminate fossil fuels ― electric vehicles, renewable electricity ― are cheaper and more widely available than ever before. Polls show a wide majority of Americans understand humans’ role in causing climate change and support government policies to mitigate it.
Tactics to delay the transition from fossil fuels have largely shifted. A Harvard University study published last week in the journal One Earth found that Exxon Mobil Corp. tweaked its rhetoric on climate change in recent years to deflect from systemic overhauls and instead focus on individuals’ lifestyle choices.
In undercutting the very conclusion that emissions cause climate change, Koonin represents a more traditional approach to denialism.
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