In Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Benjamin Santer, we examine what happens when access to science is denied, and the responsibility each of us has to resist disinformation and demand that reason and evidence inform the decisions that shape our world.
How well do we know our planet?
As climate disruption imposes more and more risk and cost—through extreme events, prolonged droughts, and disruption of ecosystems—it is increasingly important that we have the right metrics to understand the state of our planet, and its ability to efficiently sustain life. If we don’t understand what is happening, says Dr. Santer, “we’re not going to take good decisions.”
This raises the question: Are we getting to know our planet, and its life-sustaining systems, better than we ever dreamed we would? Dr. Santer says:
That understanding has been one of the joys of my scientific career… to observe an entire scientific community working collaboratively in order to better understand the Earth’s climate system.
How long will it take science to get back on its feet?
For a long time, the United States benefited from a national commitment to science. President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln, and the Academy’s supporters in Congress, understood that application of world-leading science was critical for building the capability of a nation and its people.
From January 2017 to January 2021, the administration of Donald Trump sought to dismantle the nation’s ability to conduct, verify, disseminate, and apply world-leading science. Not only were climate science findings removed from government websites, but scientists who resisted this interference experienced retaliation, and even pandemic preparedness programs were disbanded or defunded.
Dr. Santer describes the damage done:
Reality was whatever the President decided it should be waking up on any particular day… We can’t live in a world like that. That is a dangerous world—where facts, where science, where reality itself can be ignored for personal political gain, or for ego, or for business interests. We all lose if we live in the darkness of ignorance.
Climbing toward the light
Dr. Santer shared a very personal experience of struggling out of darkness toward the light. During a climbing expedition in the Alps in the 1980s, he fell into a crevasse. He was 120 feet below the surface, and looking up, saw nothing but a thin slit of blue sky. “The calculus was simple,” he said: “If I reached that, I would live, and if I didn’t reach that… there would be nothing; there would be darkness.”
He fought his way out of the crevasse, climbing toward the light. At the beginning of the Trump administration, that experience of survival came back to him. It felt like the nation was now facing this challenge: Could we emerge from the cold darkness of ignorance? Could we reach the light of knowledge and cooperative problem solving, together?
He describes the challenge we still face, this way:
Back then, I was fighting for my life. Now, in the last 4 years, I’ve been fighting for scientific understanding… I’ve been fighting against ignorance; I’ve been fighting against darkness, and I’m going to keep fighting against ignorance and darkness as long as I damn well can.”
What part of this responsibility belongs to each of us?
It is a common question: Climate change is such a vast and complex problem, what can any one of us do? The first thing—according to Dr. Santer, and also to other scientists and advocates, and by the reckoning of our Earth Intelligence team—is to get curious: Look into thing; investigate; learn the science; ask what it means to you, for your community; find useful, evidence-based answers to those questions.
We all live on the same fragile Earth. We need science to understand the consequences of action and inaction. Virtuous choices must be informed choices. Faking it is not an option.
If we are going to succeed, we must succeed together, on the basis of sound evidence and sound judgment. In our shared struggle toward the light, we must expect reason from each other, and do our part to ensure all people have ready and reliable access to evidence and to the benefits of the best available science.
Listen to Part 1 of our interview below. Read more about the science of climate fingerprinting here.