We need climate science to achieve a livable future

In our two-part Earth Intelligence interview with Dr. Benjamin D. Santer, we explored the precision and certainty of the scientific consensus on the climate crisis. In Part 1, we focused on the hard science, and what we know about the stakes. In Part 2, we focused more on our shared struggle out of ignorance into a better future enabled by knowledge of Earth systems. 

Listen to Part 1 here: 

We caused climate change; we can stop it. 

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ratified under the elder Pres. Bush, enlisted nearly 200 nations in a mission to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Dr. Santer set out to find the “fingerprints”—the clear readable evidence of what was driving rising levels of heat-trapping gases in Earth’s atmosphere. 


In 2019, Dr. Santer and a team of scientists reached a conclusion based on a complete analysis of all relevant data, and found to a “five sigma” level of certainty that human activity was causing climate change, primarily emissions from fossil fuels and land use. The five sigma “gold standard” means only 1 out of 3.5 million times could the observation in question occur by chance. 

Endangerment is pervasive; we need to step up climate protection.

 In 2013, the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (AR5) found that fingerprints of human-caused climate disruption were ubiquitous. The AR5 also found that serious climate impacts were already pervasive and having “widespread impacts on human and natural systems”.

These widespread extreme and costly impacts help explain why financial institutions and regulatory bodies are increasingly alarmed by and taking action to mitigate existential threats to everyday business operations and long-term investment prospects. 

A recent landmark ruling from Germany’s Constitutional Court found that climate protection is a basic, and universal, human right. The ruling also held that mitigation of dangerous climate-destabilizing emissions must be enshrined in law, not only as an outcome of enabling policies. 

The ruling is historic in its recognition that the state is bound by law to:

safeguard the freedom protected by fundamental rights over time … [and] … treat the natural foundations of life with such care and to leave them to posterity in such a condition that future generations could not continue to preserve them only at the price of radical abstinence of their own.

In other words: We must act quickly and ambitiously to avoid imposing unfair, undue, and preventable harm on future generations. 

We cannot succeed by faking it.

As climate disruption imposes more and more risk and cost—through extreme events, prolonged droughts, and disruption of ecosystems—it is increasingly important that we have the right metrics to understand the state of our planet, and its ability to efficiently sustain life. If we don’t understand what is happening, says Dr. Santer, “we’re not going to take good decisions.”

Listen to Part 2 here:

President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln, and the Academy’s supporters in Congress, understood that application of world-leading science was critical for building the capability of a nation and its people.

Under the previous administration climate science findings were removed from government websites, scientists who resisted this interference experienced retaliation, and even pandemic preparedness programs  were disbanded or defunded. Attacks on science put people, Nature, economies, and nations, at risk. 

We must protect the role of science & reason. 

If we are going to succeed, we must succeed together, on the basis of sound evidence and sound judgment. In our shared struggle toward the light, we must expect reason from each other, and do our part to ensure all people have ready and reliable access to evidence and to the benefits of the best available science.

Dr. Santer talks of struggling out of a glacial crevasse toward the light and how we must now do this in the protection of public access to science.

A few core takeaways: 

  1. Science has confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that human activity is driving climate change.
  2. The world has already formally agreed “to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.
  3. We cannot fake our way out of climate emergency; we need to know whether our actions work with or against the Earth system. 
  4. Both the protection of our basic rights and our future wellbeing depend on effective application of climate science. 

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