Ben Santer, the well known climate scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is self-quarantined after showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
Santer developed fever, weakness and a persistent dry cough after returning to the Bay Area from a scientific conference in Washington, D.C.
He was tested for a range of viruses by a masked and protectively suited nurse practitioner in a parking lot outside his doctor’s office.
The test found that he is infected with an influenza A H1 virus, he said in a telephone interview. Now he is waiting for the results of the slower coronavirus test that should reveal whether he also has COVID-19.
In isolation at home, pondering his illness, he has found parallels between the recent course of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and some of the scientific principles that underlay his climate research.
These parallels, he believes, expose dangerous flaws in current U.S. leadership.
He is angry at the dismissive nature of President Donald Trump’s remarks about a new disease that the medical community understood to be dangerous, a disease that is now killing people, sickening thousands and disrupting life across the country.
His thoughts appear this week in a column in Scientific American online.
As a scientist, Santer’s work has been aimed at trying to characterize and analyze major climate disturbances. These might be caused by natural events like volcanic eruptions, or by human influences like doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
As he sees it, the novel coronavirus that generates COVID-19 illness has generated comparable shocks to our system of governance.
Four basic lessons emerge. The first lesson, he wrote, is that “scientific ignorance can be fatal,” particularly if it starts at the top.
President Trump was “scientifically incorrect” to dismiss the coronavirus as no worse than seasonal flu, and “scientifically incorrect” to recommend “business as usual” in the face of a pandemic, he wrote.
“Dissemination of such incorrect information by the commander-in-chief helped to spread the novel coronavirus in America. Ignorance served as a potent disease vector.”
The second lesson is that a leader must accept responsibility for failure, as well as take credit for success. The President has not done so, rejecting responsibility for his administration’s “chaotic response” to the virus.
From a shortage of reliable tests to shutting down the National Security Council’s biodefense directorate, the President claimed that these issues were “not his problem.”
In the Trump Administration, Santer said, “the buck never stops at the top.”
The third lesson is that a leader must not “assume the mantle of expertise in areas where he or she has none.” The leader must “tell hard truths in times of crisis… (and be) more concerned with the well-being of all citizens than with bad poll numbers.”
Santer’s fourth lesson is that “America First is a singularly poor survival strategy in the middle of a global pandemic… (in which) a microscopic agent… can hitch a ride on any plane, ship, train or car.”
International alliances and cooperation are “far better way(s) of surviving a global health crisis than ‘going it alone,’” just as international sharing of research data has helped advance our understanding of the climate.
Santer is internationally known for pioneering methods of identifying the fingerprints of human contributions to climate change and distinguishing them from natural contributions.
He has won a number of prestigious awards for his work, from a MacArthur Fellowship, often called a Genius Grant, to an E.O. Lawrence Award to, most recently, the William Proctor Prize from the Sigma Xi scientific society.
For years, he has been committed personally to communicating the results of his research to a wide range of audiences, from public meetings here in the Tri Valley to interested professional groups around the U.S.
He has published several opinion pieces in the online Scientific American. His latest column can be read at https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/how-covid-19-is-like-climate-change/.