Climate is indeed an angry beast

Oct 17, 2012

Global warming promises to be among the most immense challenges to human adaptation in history, as big as social media. But the climate topic has been overshadowed in recent years by the recession. Just as the Dow Jones can’t be described by the fluctuations of a single decade, climate science is not defined by periods less than centuries.

Close-up of Santer talking with hands moving
These thoughts were shared at a breakfast Oct. 16 at UC Davis hosted by Capital Public Radio. The speaker: Ben Santer, MacArthur Fellow (1998), National Academy Member (2012), and atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Santer said that when he hears about the tragedy of burdening youth with the national debt, he would like to hear more about the burdening of youth with global climate change. The verbal references have vaporized.

It was appropriate that Santer opened his talk with a graphic depicting changes in global water vapor, the greenhouse gas that Earth relies on to sustain its water cycles. This greenhouse gas inspired 10,000 years of human supplication to climate gods that could meet their need for rain. But he didn’t come to talk about the largely unpredictable weather (he calls this noise), except as an indicator of a more predictable long-term climate trend (he calls this the signal). Scientists have methods to work out the signal to noise ratio and finding the major trends among frequent short-term fluctuations.

Santer has been involved with the IPCC since 1990. It wasn’t until 1995 that this international mouthpiece of global climate science announced that the evidence suggested that there was a human influence on global climate.  

To his surprise, Santer spent the next year and a half defending that cautionary statement, and his research role turned into that of a messenger. Two more IPCC reports and 17 years later, he is still confirming human influences through testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Global Warming (2010). His message remains the same, “Climate science is not a scam, a hoax, or a conspiracy.” It is not a belief system, so he doesn’t have to “believe in it.” He does believe in scientific facts, and proving hypotheses. His graphics make a strong case for the science, but his research problem is one of communication. He resolved to talk to everyone he meets about it.

His advice, when asked this question from the audience, would be to make the U.S. a leader in solutions rather than a leader in finger pointing. He believes that the leaders who make economic decisions based on climate science will be better able to adapt and manage the impending change, however placing blame on other nations is counterproductive to this goal.

What can we expect from the next IPCC global climate report? Santer predicts that there will be a downsizing of scale to regional scenarios. Following sage advice, if the problem is too big, break it down. His last word, a quote from climate scientist Wally Broecker, “Climate is an angry beast and we are poking it with a sharp stick.” 

By Suanne Klahorst
Author - Grant Writer