Two decades ago, Benjamin Santer chose 12 words that changed his life forever: "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate."
That statement was part of the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report, and it was the first time the international scientific organization had linked human activity to climate change. Santer, a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, led the team that wrote those words.
As a result, Santer became a favorite target of people who deny that human-caused climate change is happening. He was accused of "political tampering" and "scientific cleansing" by deniers, his research funding was questioned by a Republican Congress, and he was hounded on Internet forums for years.
"I had no idea how profoundly those 12 words would change my life," he said last week at a meeting here sponsored by the American Geophysical Union.
Twenty years later, Santer and other scientists at the front lines of anti-science wars in the United States shared the lessons they had learned along the way at the AGU meeting. Santer stressed that his life has not been a tragedy.
"[The media] want to portray me as a tragic figure who has had terrible things happen to him," he said. "I don't feel tragic at all."
He stressed that scientists have to pick their fights. He chose not to talk about personal attacks he has suffered that have been launched by deniers. It would simply make him too angry, he said, and he questioned the utility of reliving that hostility.
"There are other people who are brave and willing to speak out in public [about attacks], and I applaud them, and to me, that's uncomfortable," he said.
Instead, he focused on communicating the science. Following the 1995 report, he realized that he had unwittingly become the focus of public attention, and that he had a voice. He saw his position as one of privilege and realized that he could debunk anti-science propaganda of the sort that surrounds climate change.
The story of how organized climate deniers, well-funded by industry, sow unwarranted doubts about science in the minds of the public is portrayed in the book "Merchants of Doubt" by Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes.
Hoping such deniers will go away by themselves is futile, Santer explained.
So he sacrificed his preference for solitude and nature for a life as a public figure debunking climate science myths, he said. And when he communicates on climate, he reveals his core values, primarily his love for the outdoors. This helps people know where he comes from.
"Climate scientists don't have the luxury of remaining silent," he said. Climate scientists can also learn from anti-science attacks in the past, such as from the tobacco industry, said Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University.
Is climate change caused by freedom of choice?
A prevailing belief about climate change is that all of humanity—all 7 billion of us—is collectively responsible for industrial greenhouse gas emissions. But that is not strictly true. About 63 percent of all industrial emissions since 1854 have come from 90 companies, many of them coal and oil and gas producers, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Proctor said that industry's idea for hoisting responsibility for the climate problem onto individual shoulders was derived from the tobacco industry. In the '90s, tobacco companies ran media campaigns that equated smoking with freedom of choice. This placed responsibility for their addiction on individuals rather than on industry.
This perception can be flipped, and industry can be denormalized and shown to be dishonest, Proctor said. This is akin to divestment campaigns in which universities are being prodded by their student bodies to divest in fossil fuel companies.
"You can do the same thing with global climate change," he said.
Lessons can also be learned from fighting creationists and their anti-evolution messaging, said Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University who has been caught up in anti-evolution wars.
Various studies have shown that people's belief in climate change often correlates with their ideology and their religious and cultural beliefs. So, too, does belief in evolution and the Big Bang (ClimateWire, July 24).
Confirming this body of research, Miller has found that attacking people's core beliefs is not useful for communication.
"If we assume that core beliefs are the problem and attack those beliefs, unaware of the culture in which they exist, we will fail," he said.
Instead, he provides ties between science and religion, showing both can coexist, he said. For example, the scientist who laid the mathematical foundation for the Big Bang was Georges Lemaitre, who was also a priest. And at least two popes have voiced their support for evolution.
Miller stressed that scientific reasoning is not antithetical to religion, a finding borne out by research showing that scientists can remain religious.
"God is not the antithesis of scientific reason but the reason why it works in the first place," he said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500