Benjamin Santer

A prominent Livermore climate scientist has renewed his call for the federal government to return to the principles of science as it makes crucial public policy choices — from responding to today’s coronavirus pandemic to protecting future generations from a rapidly warming climate.

Renowned climate expert Benjamin Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) noted that his request comes as COVID-19 spreads rapidly in the U.S., while the White House disputes the advice of medical experts on combating it. He further stated that the U.S. continues to carry out its plan to withdraw from the leading international agreement to slow climate change.

“Ignorance and wishful thinking are not effective response strategies in the face of a global pandemic or global climate change,” said Santer. “We need to restore science-based policy in government (and) … ensure that science is valued in public discourse and in all levels of our educational system.”

Santer was co-author of an open letter on climate change that has now been signed by more than 1,200 members of the National Academies of Science (NAS), the premier U.S. scientific society. It was signed in stages since 2016 — the year Trump’s threat to withdrawal the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord triggered concern.

The Paris Accord was reached after years of increasingly strong evidence convinced the scientific community that the world is headed for a climate disaster. It was ratified by 196 nations, including the U.S., in an effort to spur nations to work together to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Trump’s threat to withdraw alarmed Santer and three colleagues from the NAS — first for the

damage that the U.S. action would do to an embryonic international collaboration to protect the climate, and second as a sign that the Trump Administration was devaluing science generally.

Their open letter began, “Human-caused climate change is not a belief, a hoax or a conspiracy. It is a physical reality.”

Some 378 members of the NAS signed the open letter, warning that the Trump Administration’s move not only would be damaging to the Earth, but also would diminish U.S. standing in the world.

The years since then have reinforced and broadened their concerns.

“The decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord was symptomatic of a larger problem,” Santer said. “The current Administration has diminished the role of science and scientists in many areas of public policymaking — not just in areas related to climate science.”

As examples, he cited the failure to fill key scientific advisory positions, exclusion of scientists from government scientific advisory boards, rolling back clean-air and clean-water legislation, and the loss of critical scientific expertise from many government agencies.

The consequences have become tragically clear with the COVID-19 pandemic, Santer believes.

“The federal government has not provided the public with consistent, science-based guidance on the severity of the pandemic or on the required responses,” he said. “Relevant expertise at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and elsewhere has been marginalized or attacked.

“This inadequate federal response to one of the greatest public health challenges of the past century should be deeply concerning to all NAS members.”

He cited the NAS’s official mission, which is to provide “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”

NAS members clearly agree with Santer and his colleagues.

In the arena of climate change, one observation after another has affirmed that the climate is changing dangerously and at an accelerating pace. As for the pandemic, the U.S. has reported the highest number of cases and deaths on the globe, with 3.8 million cases and 138,111 deaths. The second most impacted country is Brazil with 2.1 million cases and 80,120 deaths.

Signatures on the original climate change open letter have risen above 1,200. More signatures were added after the writers approached NAS members who had been elected in 2019 and 2020 — too late to sign the 2016 original.

Nearly two-thirds of those approached have signed the 2016 letter, Santer said. That’s an impressively high fraction of “normally cautious scientists,” higher than the percentage who signed the original letter.

Santer believes the increased participation is due to “a better understanding that ignoring science is a singularly bad idea, particularly in the middle of a global pandemic” or while observing “the very serious consequences” of climate change.

The message from the new signatories, he said, is, “Yes, we agree; it is necessary to restore science to public policy making. We ignore science at our peril.”