Home Posts After Inviting A Climate Denier To Speak, A Top Scientist Severes Ties With A National Lab.
After Inviting A Climate Denier To Speak, A Top Scientist Severes Ties With A National Lab.
Climate Change

After Inviting A Climate Denier To Speak, A Top Scientist Severes Ties With A National Lab.

Ben Santer, one of the world's most well-known climate scientists, announced this week that he is ending his affiliation with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory after the federal research facility invited a climate denier to give a book talk this Thursday.

Santer had planned to retire from the lab, where he had worked for 29 years, in September, but would continue his award-winning atmospheric research on a part-time basis and remain affiliated.

However, in a blog post published Monday, the MacArthur "Genius" grant recipient claimed that his employer failed to "adequately address" concerns he raised about hosting physicist Steve Koonin to speak about his new book, "Unsettled," which casts doubt on the reality of human-caused global warming.

“Writing and releasing this statement may be viewed as an act of disloyalty by some, but I do not see it that way,” Santer said in a statement posted to the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I chose to remain loyal to the climate science we have performed at LLNL for over three decades, and I do not intend to remain silent while the credibility and integrity of this research is called into question.”

Santer linked Koonin's work "integrity" to an appearance on an official podcast of the Heartland Institute, a far-right advocacy group that, in addition to spreading misinformation about climate science and the link between smoking and cancer, organized harassment campaigns against scientists.

Santer wrote that Koonin "is not an authoritative voice on climate science," pointing out that the lab's "climate scientists have devoted their careers to measuring, modeling, and understanding changes in the climate system, whereas Professor Koonin has not."

Santer's dramatic statement this week exemplifies the long-term power of a political movement conceived in the conference rooms of the fossil fuel industry's public relations firms and realized through the same kind of advertising campaigns that delayed smoking regulations for years after the health risks were obvious. Santer was a co-author of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 1996 report.

The effects of climate change are now visible, and the solutions to all but eliminate fossil fuels – electric vehicles, renewable electricity – are cheaper and more widely available than ever before. Polls show that a large majority of Americans recognize humans’ role in causing climate change and support government policies to mitigate it.

A Harvard University study published last week in the journal One Earth found that Exxon Mobil Corp. changed its climate change rhetoric in recent years to deflect from systemic changes and instead focus on individuals' lifestyle choices.

Koonin exemplifies a more traditional approach to denialism by undermining the very conclusion that emissions cause climate change.

Koonin, a 69-year-old theoretical physicist trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spent five years as BP's chief scientist before joining the Obama administration's Department of Energy in 2009. He left after less than three years to work for a national security think tank before taking his current position as director of New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress.

As public awareness of the threat that global warming poses to society grew over the last decade, Koonin transformed himself into a right-wing media contrarian darling, publishing routine diatribes against the proven link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming in pages notoriously loose with facts that challenge conservative ideologies.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published in 2014, Koonin argued that climate science was “not yet mature enough to usefully answer the difficult and important questions being asked of it.” In 2017, he drew the attention of the Trump administration with his proposal to hold a “red team-blue team” debate on climate change, a proposal that received so much internal criticism that it failed to gain serious traction.

His nearly 30-month tenure in the Obama administration provided him with unique credibility with conservatives, who see apparent converts to their cause as evidence that the scientific consensus on climate change is more of a global conspiracy than empirical reality. Michael Shellenberger, an environmentalist turned climate contrarian, has become a similar fixture in the right-wing political universe.

An interview request was not returned by Koonin.

John Holdren, the Obama administration's chief science adviser from 2009 to 2017, dismissed the notion that science is ever "settled," but warned that Koonin was engaging in "a mishmash of seemingly cherry-picked data and apparent misunderstandings of current climate science," rather than "the healthy, informed skepticism on which all science flourishes."

According to him, the spread of such misinformed skepticism is a threat to public understanding and prudent policymaking.

“Predictably, Koonin’s views have been welcomed by the usual defenders of climate-change complacency at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page,” he wrote in an op-ed published Monday in The Hill.

The consistency with which Koonin has made the same, widely debunked arguments for the past seven years shows that he has “learned nothing between 2014 and 2021,” according to Susan Hassol, director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit that assists scientists in translating climate science into plain language.

“Someone who cannot update their thinking with new information and new understanding is not acting like a scientist,” Hassol said. “Koonin is not a climate scientist. He is a theoretical physicist. He has never published a single peer-reviewed paper on climate science.”

“It is absurd for a national lab to invite someone who is not even in that field, has never published in that field, and only airs his ideas in right-wing media,” she continued.

What Koonin lacks in climate science credentials, he makes up for in political connections. In 2012, he was appointed to the independent board of governors of the Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC, a contracting company that works on nuclear security issues for the eponymous laboratory, and he still serves in that capacity today, according to the lab's website.

Someone who is unable to update their thinking in the face of new information and understanding is not acting like a scientist.

Climate Communication Director Susan Hassol

A source with knowledge of the talk confirmed to Stardia that it was Brad Roberts, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Center for Global Security Research, who invited Koonin to speak. Neither Roberts nor spokespeople for the laboratory responded to emailed questions and interview requests sent Tuesday morning.

“Throughout its history, the Lab has invited guest speakers whose opinions differ from those of the Lab and its workforce; this does not imply that the Lab endorses those opinions,” the spokesperson explained. “The Lab has a long and distinguished history in groundbreaking climate research — the Lab continues to advance and stand by that research.”

Different points of view are one thing, but Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois who spent 20 years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and worked with both Santer and Koonin, believes this is a matter of facts.

“Koonin had plenty of opportunities to actually do legitimate discussion of the science within the science realm. He never would,” Wuebbles said, “rather he took potshots at what we were researching in the Wall Street Journal. I think Steve Koonin mostly cares about Steve Koonin, and doesn’t care about the world.”

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