Ben Santer, one of the nation’s leading climate scientists, said he is cutting ties with a prestigious government-funded laboratory over its plans to invite a scientist who has spread climate denial to speak in a seminar.
Santer’s work has shaped much of climate science for the past 25 years. His work studying the “fingerprints” of climate change have informed decades of research and he was the author of a seminal sentence in a crucial 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that said the science showed “a discernible human influence on global climate.”
On Monday, Santer, who is affiliated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, sent out an emailed statement viewed by Earther and first published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in protest of a planned LLNL seminar with Steve Koonin, a well-known climate denier whose new book on how climate science is “unsettled” has attracted widespread praise from right-wing media and condemnation from basically everyone else.
In his statement, Santer didn’t mince words, alleging that Koonin is “not an authoritative voice on climate science” and that LLNL management had not adequately responded to Santer’s concerns about the seminar, which was scheduled to be held on May 27.
“Writing and releasing this statement may be viewed by some as an act of disloyalty,” Santer wrote. “I do not see it that way. 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.”
“Differing technical opinions are part of the scientific process,” a spokesperson for LLNL told Earther in an email. “Throughout its history the Lab has invited guest speakers whose opinions differ from those of the Lab and its workforce. It does not mean the Lab endorses those opinions. The Lab has a long and distinguished history in groundbreaking climate research — the Lab continues to advance and stand by that research.”
Koonin, a physics professor who worked at BP in the mid-2000s and who now is at NYU, is one of those dangerous figures who plays up the whataboutism that has plagued the conversation around climate science for decades. While he technically accepts the fact that humans are exerting some influence on the climate—which, in his opinion, does not make him a “climate denier”—his beef is with just how bad it’s going to be. These viewpoints—and the fact that he worked briefly in the Department of Energy under President Barack Obama—have made him a favorite among those who seek to further discredit climate science. Koonin was even tapped in 2018 by Scott Pruitt, the oil-and-gas serving, hotel lotion-loving, then-chief of Environmental Protection Agency, to lead the Trump administration’s theoretical exercise to try to discredit climate science, after Koonin authored a Wall Street Journal article proposing the idea. The exercise never came to fruition. (We’ve reached out to Koonin for comment on Santer’s letter and will update this post if we hear back.)
Koonin’s currently on a right-wing-fueled press tour for his new book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, which, as the title suggests, posits that the whole global warming thing isn’t that bad and relies on misinformation to make its points. Erroneous theories promoted by Koonin in the book include the idea that Greenland’s ice sheet isn’t melting any faster than it was 80 years ago (false) and that sea level rise isn’t accelerating (also false).
Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they were, sure, but they’re not at a planetary high, Koonin points out, so we should all just relax (he seemingly conveniently forgets that the last time carbon dioxide was this high, the Arctic was probably full of plants and ice-free). The Wall Street Journal—which routinely runs pro-oil propaganda and anti-renewable-energy screeds—simply loved the book, publishing an error-filled review written by one of its resident fossil energy boosters in April (that 12 climate scientists later took a red pen to in a major correction). Tucker Carlson also had Koonin on to claim climate science is “being used as a tool to scare young people, create depression.”
“It is simply untrue that Prof. Koonin is confronting climate scientists with unpleasant facts they ignored or failed to understand,” Santer wrote in his resignation letter. “The climate science community treats uncertainties in an open and transparent way. It has done so for decades. At LLNL, we routinely consider whether uncertainties in models, observations, and natural climatic variability call into question findings of a large human influence on global climate. They do not.”
Koonin has historically “taken potshots at the science, but doesn’t really get involved with scientists in a careful sense,” said Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois and a former researcher at LLNL, who knows both Koonin and Santer. “He publishes his comments in the Wall Street Journal—that isn’t exactly peer-reviewed literature.”
Wuebbles pointed out that much of the claims in Koonin’s book directly contradict exhaustively peer-reviewed science, much of which was covered in the Fourth National Climate Assessment produced by the U.S. government—and authored and peer-reviewed by dozens of top-level scientists—in 2017. Wuebbles said he talked with Koonin “a number of times” after the NCA was released about his scientific concerns.
“Several times, I pointed out that he was overstating things, and his response is he goes and writes a book,” he said. “That’s just not how science is done. There’s a peer review process. You want to write a peer-reviewed paper and say this wasn’t done right? Go ahead.”
LLNL is a pretty big deal in the climate space. Established by the University of California, Berkeley in 1952, the lab is currently funded by the Department of Energy and works on a wide range of issues related to energy and national security. That includes a lot of climate programming: LLNL is one of the nation’s leading climate modeling institutions, using data and complex calculations to predict how the planet might change with increased warming. Inviting someone like Koonin to LLNL to give a talk is kind of like asking a tobacco apologist to address the American Lung Association. Santer was set to retire from LLNL in September, but said he will have no further affiliation with the lab following his retirement.
Wuebbles explained that the bulk of work at Livermore is done on nuclear weapons, meaning that the lab as a whole is aimed mostly at working on non-climate issues. “You have a lot of people with strong physics backgrounds who don’t understand the atmosphere. [They] don’t know the nuances of the science, so you’ll hear the argument and say, huh, that sounds pretty reasonable, but what you don’t realize is that it’s a misrepresentation of the science, or there’s half-truths involved. You have to understand the details, the depths of the science to understand these arguments. In my community, everyone wants the truth—we don’t want to misrepresent the truth.”
In his statement, Santer seemed to be on the same page.
“We live in a democracy. Free speech is important,” he wrote. “It is important to hear diverse perspectives on issues of societal concern. It is equally important for U.S. citizens to receive the best-available scientific information on the reality and seriousness of climate change.”
Update, 5/24/21, 2:27 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Don Wuebbles.
Update, 5/24/21, 9:34 p.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It has also been updated to correct details of the lab’s founding.