Dr. Ben Santer, one of America’s leading climate scientists, defunded by Trump. The science of proving climate change and the powers of denial. Then historian Merle Eisenberg finds the two plagues before this one did NOT radically re-shape society. We talk pandemic myths and popular reactions to mass illness.
We saw today, January 6, one of those expressions of mass mental illness under the stress of runaway pandemic. The American Capitol building was invaded, and the legislators of Democracy chased away. Meanwhile, too many of you are grieving loved ones and valued members of the community taken by COVID-19. As we remember those lost in wars, we must not forget those lost in this heartless time.
When the survivors come out of these two years of fear, we yearn to wake in a new way – compatible with the natural world. Approaching Nature, what can we give, not take? Next week our feature guest will be one of the most famous climate scientists, Dr. Michael Mann. His new book covers the developing climate emergency, but without the doom. Stay tuned as we roll out the awful truth on the longest serving green radio program on Earth, Radio Ecoshock.
Are you quietly yearning for the big breakdown that will transform society, ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic? Don’t count on it. According to new research, most of what we think we know about these great storms of disease – is folk legend. But first this:
TAKING DOWN AMERICAN CLIMATE SCIENCE – BEN SANTER
Imagine the President of the United States throwing out any plan to save hundreds of thousands of Americans before a pandemic strikes. That happened. The same denial of science from the top beheaded the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy – and chased away some of America’s top climate scientists.
Our guest is a scientist whose work is cited by thousands of other scientific papers. Since declaring in 1995 that climate change was real and could be proven, Dr. Ben Santer has been hounded by climate cranks and fossil-funded voices. Even so, he continued his research, with a specialty of identifying human fingerprints on big changes from the oceans to snow, rivers, droughts, clouds, seasons, and the atmosphere.
Until September 2020, Ben Santer’s work was funded by the U.S. government’s Department of Energy. He worked out of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. On November 7, 2020, Ben published “An Open Letter to Joe Biden” in Scientific American. He warned American science was twisted into silence or worse, promoting fantasy instead of fact.
“we found human fingerprints in the temperatures of the atmosphere, the land surface and the world’s oceans. We detected signs of human influence on ocean heat content and salinity, snowpack depth, the timing of streamflow from snow-fed river basins, atmospheric moisture, drought behavior and clouds. We learned that human fingerprints on climate are not an isolated phenomenon. They are ubiquitous, present in dozens of independently monitored climate records.”
But this war on climate scientists has been going on for a long time. On May 16, 2014, Bill Moyers published “The Relentless Attack on Climate Scientist Ben Santer”. Science historian Naomi Oreskes wrote about the campaign against him in her book “The Merchants of Doubt”.
In 2018 SANTER PUBLISHED AN OPEN LETTER TO THE CLIMATE SCIENCE COMMUNITY
Climate scientists are being subjected to slanderous attacks by demagogues in high office and the global warming disinformation campaign. Climate Science Watch is posting here an “Open letter to the climate science community” by Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Santer says: “We are now faced with powerful ‘forces of unreason’—forces that (at least to date) have been unsuccessful in challenging scientific findings of a warming Earth, and a ‘discernible human influence’ on global climate. These forces of unreason are now shifting the focus of their attention to the scientists themselves. They seek to discredit, to skew the truth, to misrepresent. They seek to destroy scientific careers rather than to improve our understanding of the nature and causes of climate change.”
We are told that despite high winds in a hurricane, the big storm does not actually have any power to move. Outside steering winds drive it along. I wonder if the same is true of climate change. Can climate change itself “create” extreme weather, or does it only force what started by other means? I ask Ben Santer.
Here are two papers we discuss in the interview:
In 2018, Santer led the paper “Human influence on the seasonal cycle of tropospheric temperature”. In lay-persons’ terms, what did your team uncover about changes to the seasons when we alter the atmosphere?
In you co-authored paper in Nature Climate Change in August 2020, your team finds, quote: “The leading fingerprint… is characterized by global warming, intensified wet–dry patterns and progressive large-scale continental aridification…”
It is my understanding that Earth became much drier during the great ice ages, partly because available water was locked up in glaciers over the Northern Hemisphere. As we move into a hotter world, the warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. Ice at both Poles is melting. So why would progressive “large-scale continental ” drying happen, instead of a wetter world? Ben explains in the interview, and in this recent science: “Human influence on joint changes in temperature, rainfall and continental aridity” published July 2020 in the Nature Climate Change.
Ben Santer has been ranked as one of the most cited climate scientists on global warming. Almost a decade ago he was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. And yet in September 2020, Santer lost your position as a key research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I ask him what happened? But we don’t need to guess.
Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told the U.S. Senate, quote “over the past two decades satellite data indicates there has been a leveling off of warming”. Santer promptly published a paper in Nature Scientific Reports, where he refuted Pruitt’s assertion – principally with an analysis or rock-solid satellite data. Is it any wonder Donald Trump put him on some kind of “enemies” list?
Canadian climate science shrunk dramatically during the ten year rule of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who literally represented the headquarters of the Canadian oil and gas industry. Although we have some new young minds developing, Canada has not yet recovered it’s former role in world science. Can the damage done to American climate science be healed?
The late Stephen Schneider said science is a contact sport. Ben Santer told one interviewer that speaking publicly to defend science makes him uncomfortable. But here he is, a reluctant warrior for science, sharing his time with Radio Ecoshock listeners.
The whole episode of the last four years reminds me of twisted science under Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin. They invented a new theory of genetics and made everyone swear it was true. That damaged Soviet agriculture. I never dreamed U.S. science could fall so far as fast as it did. Did Trumpian anti-science just boil up out of a long period of American anti-intellectualism, or did the fossil fuel industry sacrifice our future for profits?
There is an old saying from the famous German scientist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” I am seeing a large wave of young climate scientists, including now in universities a majority of women I’m told. That is my hope to get out of the pit of denial.
LEARNING FROM THE PLAGUE – MERLE EISENBERG
Merle Eisenberg is a post doctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) at the University of Maryland. He publishes in top journals. One of Dr. Eisenberg’s specialties is the so-called Justinian Plague that struck the late Roman Empire around the year 541 of our common era. Merle also works on how societies act in pandemics. You can learn a lot from his podcast “Infectious Historians” with Hebrew University scholar Lee Mordechai.
Dr. Merle Eisenberg, University of Maryland
First we have to be clear: the COVID-19 virus is NOT the same as the Plague. The Yersinia pestis bacteria and COVID-19 are very different micro-organisms. The plague is caused by a bacteria, which like us has a full DNA. COVID-19 is a virus which only has RNA, meaning it cannot reproduce itself outside the host organism.
It seems common knowledge that a plague caused the final downfall of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Justinian, ruling from Byzantium, was unable to hold parts of Italy and North Africa, because of sickness and death we were told. But thorough investigations by historians find no proof of this. There are no signs of the kinds of mass death that struck Medieval Europe in 1350 and beyond. I highly recommend reading this article: “The Justinianic Plague and Global Pandemics: The Making of the Plague Concept “ – Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordechai in The American Historical Review. It will tell you a lot about how our ancestral fear of the Plague has colored our view of the Coronavirus Pandemic. In the authoritative Proceedings of the National Academy, December 2019, Eisenberg, historian Lee Mordechai and others suggested the Justinianic Plague might be “an inconsequential pandemic”.
During the Middle Ages, North Europeans learned to live with the plague over several hundred years. I expect we will be struggling with this Coronavirus at least until the end of 2021. It may pop up from time to time, due to unvaccinated people, at home or abroad.
PLAGUE AND CLIMATE CHANGE
There have also been myths in history about relationships between the plague and climate change. At first historians explained the hotter and more humid conditions of the mid-500’s cause the lice which transmit the plague to breed more. Then a new timeline of climate over the last 2000 years emerged, and it turns out it was actually a cooler time. Some tried to argue the cooler weather helped the plague. In the end, for once, there doesn’t seem to be a direct climate driver between the plagues of old and climate change.
Another “truth” we inherit was the “great leveling” in Medieval Europe, when the Black Death took out swaths of the social fabric, from Lords to serfs. Some suggest the “Middle Class” began because of that plague. But according to Mordechai and Eisenberg, there is no evidence of that either. Really, according to extensive searches of manorial records, church records, graves, and a lot more – the plague did NOT change society all that much. I’m not sure what that means for the impacts of our current pandemic.
FEAR OF FOUCAULT
The French author Michel Foucault pointed to continuing plague attacks in the Middle Ages – as the cause of rising civil authority over all our lives, in order to control the disease. I see a danger of that being used to support Trump’s protesters against virus controls and public health. Yet, I deeply respect Richard Horton, long-time Editor-in-Chief of the Lancet, one of the world’s top medical journals. In an article published October 31, 2020 Horton worried about mixing medicine with politics. Horton cited Foucault’s warning that legitimate public health could lead to authoritarian government.
Horton also examines the links between social inequality and deaths in a pandemic. In fact, he said the COVID-19 outbreak is not a “pandemic” but a “syndemic” – a combination of conditions. This demands we look at health disparity, poverty, and structural violence as players in our Coronavirus tragedy.
With Lee Mordechai, Eisenberg co-hosts a podcast called “Infectious Historians”. Speaking of social leveling, their Episode 6 in April 2020 looked at “COVID-19 and Inequality in the United States today.”
With climate models, we use past data and current processes to project the future. That might help us know what to do or not to do. Why doesn’t the study of history help us project things like future pandemics? Or are we changing too fast for history to help us at all?
Climate change surely initiated it’s own myths in our myth-creating minds. People of the Book have Noah’s floods and Christians have John’s prophetic visions. The end of the Greenland settlements created myths of global cooling. In the Greek myth of Atlantis we have the sea taking back an island and all it’s civilization with it. But we do not have a historical echo for cyberspace, artificial intelligence, airlines or space travel. Can we learn about the impacts of television by studying the Gutenberg Revolution of the printing press?
Merle and Lee use historical tools like old documents, graves, and so on. But can they now marry into their craft things like paleogenomics or other medical analysis? What are the new tools revealing who we really are, beyond all the things we believe and say about ourselves?
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening this week, despite all the troubles and tumult in the world.