One of the essential questions facing the Biden Administration is how to combat the devastation of climate change. Effects are clearly visible in 2021. As average world temperatures climb, ice sheets are shrinking, oceans are rising at an accelerating pace, and storms and wildfires are growing more destructive. Atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, already higher than at any time in human history, keep nudging upwards by 2 or 3 parts per million each year, promising still more severe damage to the future worlds of our grandchildren and their children.
Strangely, there remains in this country an argument about whether climate change is even a problem. On one side are the great majority of climate scientists, who are united in their concern about a clear and growing threat, even as they debate the complex details of how it is evolving. On the other are denialists, who claim that climate science is murky but somehow know that there is no reason for alarm. This argument was highlighted three weeks ago in a talk at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by Dr. Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist who takes the denialist side of the argument. He also serves as a member of the Laboratory’s Board of Governors. We must keep burning fossil fuels to keep our economy healthy, Koonin says. Future generations can simply adapt to the results of climate change.
It’s a puzzle that the Laboratory should have given Koonin a speaking platform and the credibility that goes with it. He is not a climate scientist, and his message clearly contradicts the Biden Administration’s goal of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also at odds with decades of findings by actual climate scientists, including the Laboratory's, who created today’s clear picture of serious worldwide danger. Whatever the reason, Koonin’s talk might normally have gone unnoticed but for the courage of Dr. Benjamin Santer, the Laboratory’s best known climate scientist. Santer was so dismayed at the Koonin invitation that he announced his resignation in protest. The climate research world expressed its support for Santer, and the ensuing publicity subjected the Laboratory to national criticism.
If there has been a silver lining to the episode, it is in reminding us that we cannot treat climate change as an academic debate. We can’t go back to business as usual, while trusting that the world will somehow turn out well. Actions have consequences where climate is concerned. We must take steps now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What we do or fail to do in the next several years will help determine whether our grandchildren grow up in a healthy world.