The climate disconnect

Courtesy of Ben Santer

I’m a climate scientist. In June, I moved to the mountains I’ve always loved. My finger is now on the pulse of the seasonal cycle; I feel the gradual heartbeat of changes in weather and nature. I observe, listen and witness.

I’m surrounded by sagebrush and majestic Ponderosa pines. The local mountain lions leave remnants of their kills on the trails I explore. Raptors are my neighborhood watch, scanning their surroundings from silent perches high in the trees. Mule deer cautiously approach my kitchen window in the morning. A local woodpecker provides irregular wake-up calls.

It’s a beautiful part of the world — but a very different world from the safe, liberal Bay Area I lived in for three decades. This is wilderness.

Living in the wilderness brings both joy and sadness. There is joy at the proximity to Crater Lake; on a clear day, its surface is a sampler of the blue range of the spectrum. There’s joy in the silence of winter, in the untracked snow outside my back door. Joy in the heat of summer, in the sweet scent of the pine forest after the first autumn rains. There is child-like wonder at the sunlight filtering through the beveled edges of my stained-glass windows, refracted into miniature interior rainbows on the floor of my house. In this world, I have my own rainbows.

But there is sadness in the wilderness. It is lonely. Loneliness comes not only from the isolated physical environment, but also from the abrupt, painful ending of my 29 years as a climate scientist at a national laboratory, where my research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. And loneliness comes from the unfamiliar political climate in my new home — a climate that is unlikely to welcome my work.  

I am always watchful on my solitary afternoon hikes in the hills. I share this space with big apex predators. This was their home long before it became mine. It is exhilarating and concerning to be so close to them. I now carry a big, reassuringly solid hickory walking stick on my hikes. It gives me the illusion of protection.  

I retain some of this watchfulness when I go into town for groceries and my once-monthly haircut. On these visits, I’m sometimes asked what I used to do for a living. Conversations about my work in “climate fingerprinting” are approached cautiously. I view each exchange as an opportunity for listening and learning, not as the entry point for a science lecture.

During one conversation, I hear the myth that satellite temperature measurements show sustained cooling of Earth’s lower atmosphere — a myth my colleagues and I have been debunking for several decades. I push back against the myth, gently but firmly. Clearly, climate misinformation has long legs. If my new home is a representative sample, misinformation is firmly entrenched in small-town America, even in parts of the country that are already grappling with the consequences of more serious heatwaves, wildfires and flooding.

This disconnect is concerning. If your wells are running dry, or the Bootleg Fire is threatening to destroy your home, or you’re experiencing record-shattering heat — wouldn’t you want to understand how and why the world around you is changing?

My self-appointed task is to try to have these conversations. To talk about science in a respectful, non-threatening way, while still conveying the dangers of swallowing misinformation, hook, line and sinker. We all deserve to know the truth. Planetary warming is real, it’s happening on our watch, and it’s largely caused by human actions, even if certain slanted news outlets say otherwise.

The little mountain house I purchased in June had a 20-foot flagpole in the backyard. A metal figurine of a swooping golden eagle sits atop the pole. An American flag flutters in the breeze, its edges slightly tattered by the action of years of wind. Seen through the frozen stalactites that hang from the gutter of my roof, the red, white and blue flag appears to be threatened by daggers of ice. It is easy to view this image as a metaphor for the pervasive threats to two centuries of American democracy. The icy daggers pointed at the heart of democracy are daggers of ignorance. COVID-19 ignorance. Climate ignorance. Ignorance and intolerance of other viewpoints.

I’m here to melt the ice. 

Ben Santer, Ph.D., is a climate scientist and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow. He was the lead author of Chapter 8 of the 1995 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and has been a contributor to all six IPCC reports.

Tags Ben Santer Climate change climate messaging climate science Environment Global warming Science

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