Internationally known climate scientist Ben Santer will leave Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the end of September, unhappy that the Laboratory where he has worked for nearly 30 years is providing a speaking platform for a critic who not only rejects the seriousness of climate change, but also disparages the efforts of climate researchers.

Santer announced his departure plans on Monday through the Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientific advocacy group of which he is a board member.

By chance, Santer’s name also appeared Monday as lead author of a scientific article suggesting that the world has warmed more in the past 40 years than was initially understood from past satellite observations.

The article appeared in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate.  It served to reinforce Santer’s view, and the consensus of the research community, in two respects: first, that climate change is real, dangerous and needs continuous investigation; and second, that climate scientists constantly reexamine and refine their past work. 

Ironically, LLNL issued a news release calling attention to the Santer-led study on the day that he announced his intention of leaving.  See page 10 for the news release.

On Tuesday, the Union of Concerned Scientists announced support for Santer, calling it “disturbing” that the Laboratory is offering a “platform to climate denialism.” 

Learning of Santer’s plan to depart the Laboratory over the issue, scientific colleagues around the country, from Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., to the Pacific Institute in Oakland, spoke up in praise of his scientific contributions and his character.

Believes in Free Speech

In announcing his planned departure from LLNL, Santer said he believes in “free speech” and “diverse perspectives” but feels that “it is equally important for U.S. citizens to receive the best-available scientific information on the reality and seriousness of climate change.”

The speaker he objects to, Stephen Koonin, has made false accusations against the climate research community, Santer believes.  Koonin explains these accusations in a recently published book, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.” 

The book asserts that climate scientists are not forthright about large uncertainties and have failed to compare their unnecessarily pessimistic projections with real life climate measurements.  It claims to be an effort to force climate scientists to confront the uncertainties. 

Koonin has received support from those who deny that climate change poses a serious threat, such as the Manhattan Institute’s Mark Mills, writing in the Wall St. Journal, and Marc Thiessen, columnist for the Washington Post.

At the same time, "Unsettled" has been panned as misleading, simplistic and downright inaccurate in more scientifically focused publications, like Scientific American.

Koonin is a theoretical physicist who made significant contributions in several fields including nuclear physics, astrophysics and high performance computing.  He has managed energy programs in the oil industry and at the U.S. Department of Energy.  He is a frequent advisor to national laboratories, including LLNL, on a range of scientific programs. 

Asked for a comment on Santer’s objection to the Koonin talk and his decision to leave, a spokesperson for LLNL responded by email: “Differing technical opinions are part of the scientific process. Throughout its history, the Lab has invited guest speakers whose opinions differ from those of the Lab and its workforce. It does not mean the Lab endorses those opinions.

“The Lab has a long and distinguished history in groundbreaking climate research -- the Lab continues to advance and stand by that research.” 

Stands for Itself

For his part, Santer declined to elaborate on his decision to leave the Laboratory, saying he wanted his written statement to stand for itself.

“Professor Koonin is not a climate scientist,” the statement notes.  He “is not an authoritative voice on climate science … LLNL climate scientists have devoted their careers to measuring, modeling, and understanding changes in the climate system. Professor Koonin has not.”

The statement expressed concern that, by offering Koonin a speaking platform to espouse a denialist point of view, the Laboratory will make it more difficult to recruit and retain “the best and brightest climate scientists. 

“More importantly, LLNL is participating in the dissemination of Professor Koonin’s incorrect views on climate science. This makes it more difficult for U.S. citizens to reach informed, science-based decisions on appropriate responses to climate change.”

Perhaps most annoying to Santer are Koonin’s claims that climate researchers do not acknowledge uncertainties, that they fail to compare their abstract computer projections with real world measurements and need to be forced to confront these realities.

“It is simply untrue that Prof. Koonin is confronting climate scientists with unpleasant facts they ignored or failed to understand,” according to Santer’s statement.

“The climate science community treats uncertainties in an open and transparent way. It has done so for decades.”

Support for Santer

Colleagues across the country, learning of Santer’s decision to leave the Laboratory, spoke up on his behalf.

In Oakland, Peter Gleick, co-founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, called Santer “a superb scientist, a brilliant thinker, a long-time well-respected leader in the field of climate science, and a man of principle.”

He declined comment on the Laboratory’s decision to offer Koonin a speaking platform but said that Koonin “has long been confused about the nature and severity and science of climate change.”

On the East Coast, Mike MacCracken, a retired former division leader who helped establish the LLNL atmospheric sciences program, wrote in an email that he is “really sad to hear that (Santer’s) time at the Lab will be ending.”

Over the years, Santer’s research findings “in every case have been found to be correct, while flaws have emerged in the publications of his critics.” 

Because his research findings have pointed to the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, Santer has had to “endure unfairly harsh and intrusive scrutiny of his research.”

Now, for a “non-climate expert and critic such as Dr. Steve Koonin, who has simply not done his homework, to be given the podium at LLNL is akin to the situation in Arizona where a non-expert entity has been brought in to do a recount of the votes….

“It is thus not surprising that Ben has taken a strong stand in reaction to Koonin coming to argue that climate change is not really a serious issue.”

Also on the East Coast, Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor who has written extensively on the history of climate research, called Santer “one of the most important climate scientists in the history of the field.

“He has done more than probably any other single individual to demonstrate the reality of man-made climate change.”

Noting that Santer has been abused and threatened for his scientific findings, she said that “In a rational world, Ben would be recognized as a hero for this work…But in the topsy-turvy world we live in, he has been repeatedly attacked….

“Yet, through all of this, he has remained true to his science and the values embedded in it.”

She was also critical of LLNL for its decision to host Koonin. “Now the government laboratory for whom (Santer) worked for decades has invited a deeply cynical man, a man who is not a climate scientist, to spread disinformation about the climate system.  Ben has rightly called that out.  The American people need to know that we can count on our government laboratories to do honest work.”