In 1973, Ben Santer was an undergraduate in the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA, a position I now find myself in. Back then, Dr Santer could never have predicted that over 45 years later he would be returning to receive an Honorary Doctorate of science, for his service to advancing climate change evidence, but his persistence and sheer grit made this so. As an eminent climate scientist operating in the political sphere in America, Santer has been at the forefront of the fight for climate justice, particularly since his defining chapter in the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conclusively showing human activity is causing global warming. It only takes a brief Google search to see the overwhelming amount of criticism Santer has encountered over his scientific and political career, coming usually from what Santer describes as, “powerful forces of unreason antithetical to science”. Despite this plaguing of his work by a few of the most powerful people in America, he fights undeterred for, “a clear public understanding of the reality and seriousness of climate change”, a cause his life’s work has proven, “is worth fighting for, worth struggling for.”
As someone who has come from the same humble beginnings we as UEA students find ourselves in now, I asked Santer about the wisdom he’s accrued over the last 50 years of working in climate science. The first thing Santer said was, “it’s not going to be easy”. Not the most optimistic statement, but his tone revealed a call to action, “sometimes you’ll have to fight for what you believe in and defend scientific understanding”, against critics who “want to manufacture their own alternate reality, one that is not fact based”. The best thing science students can be doing now is exactly what they are, “informing themselves and understanding the science,” so they can “go into the world and act as an agents of change.” Equipped with the tools to have, “respectful discourse with those who maybe don’t get it, those that are perhaps skeptical of the realities and seriousness of what we face”.
Despite this, not everyone is a scientist. The importance of the arts, media and humanities in this realm is not to be underestimated. Santer believes, “there are many different ways of using your voice” and you need not be a scientist to care about the profound impacts of climate change on humanity. “You can tell stories, with videos, with images, with art and with your words, tell stories about the changing planet and how these changes are profoundly impacting people’s lives. If you have training in storytelling it is important to capture the experiences of others and tell these stories”, whether the issue be access to clean water, food shortages or the fact that millions of people are now climate refugees, the importance of sharing this harsh reality is insurmountable.
Santer ends our conversation with his fond memories of UEA, saying, “if I had a do-over, I would come here again”. As someone who has worked around the globe, he highlights “ the quality of the teaching, the passion of the staff I encountered was extraordinary, I haven’t seen anything like that in America, in the prestigious institutions around the world”, something we could all do with reflecting on as we move on from UEA and continue our journey’s.