A Nobel cause 

Q&A with UM climate guru Steve Running

Last spring, University of Montana ecologist and forestry professor Steve Running presented an abbreviated version of his increasingly popular lecture, “The Inconvenient Truth for Montana,” to a room full of environmental journalists.

Near the end of his keynote, Running outlined what he called his “Five Stages of Climate Grief.” Running’s adaptation of Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ groundbreaking “Five Stages of Grief” starts with stage one: denial that global warming exists. Denial naturally precedes anger: “I do NOT want to change my lifestyle.” Then stage three bargaining sets in: “Warming won’t be that bad.” Things get bad at stage four, depression: “It’s too late, we’re doomed.” But finally, if all goes well, you might get to the fifth and final stage, acceptance: “Okay, it’s real, now let’s get to work.”

One might suspect that Running pirated the theme of his presentation from former Vice President Al Gore, whose movie An Inconvenient Truth won an Academy Award in 2006, except for the fact that it was Running’s work, in part, which provided the background for Gore’s renowned documentary on the disastrous effects of global climate change.

In 2004 Running joined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where he was the lead author of a report analyzing North America’s contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide and its impacts on the global climate. Gore based much of the scientific evidence for his documentary on the IPCC report, and on Oct. 12 Gore and the IPCC committee won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

Running, as one of the key members of the intergovernmental panel, shares in that award, making him Missoula’s first Nobel laureate since UM professor Harold Urey received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1934 for his discovery of heavy hydrogen.

The Independent visited with Running after news of the award had some time to sink in, and the professor had a chance to catch his breath.

Independent: As someone who has spent a major portion of his professional career researching climate change and advocating for societal change, what does winning a share of the Nobel Peace Prize mean for you personally?

Running: There was of course a fair bit of buzz that Al Gore might get it. We were really just rooting for Al Gore to get it. That’s why we were all completely stunned Friday when the news started coming up that Al Gore and the IPCC committee had won the prize.

It didn’t sink in for us as individual authors until around 9 a.m. when I got an e-mail from the IPCC head office in Geneva, Switzerland saying, and I quote, “This makes each of you a Nobel laureate.” And that’s when I started going, “Whoa. Wait a minute here.”

Indy: What did it feel like to read those words from the IPCC office?

Running: Well, because this is a shared prize among 600 of us, I’ve kind of continued to oscillate back and forth between a thought that this is all almost kind of a funny game on the one hand, and on the other hand thinking quite profoundly that this is… I read in the last day or two that the Nobel Peace Prize is considered the biggest prize on earth about anything. You start thinking about that and start thinking even one six-hundredth of the biggest prize on earth is just…well, you’re left really speechless. It’s hard to have that sink in.

Indy: How long have you been studying climate change, and how have you witnessed Americans’ attitudes toward the issue evolve over time?

Running: I think in the scientific community we all got started back in the early 1980s—in a, you might say, politically innocent way—just simply realizing that we needed to start learning how to study the entire earth system. And so I go back to 1981 when NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] first called inviting me to start thinking about how to do earth system monitoring.

At that time there was no political tone to any of this at all. It was simply a scientific exercise in how to study, monitor and understand the whole earth.

When I think of it now, the issue started to get political in 1988 when Dr. James Hansen [director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies] announced to Congress that global warming had started.

Indy: What happened to the issue both politically and socially after Hansen brought the idea of global warming to Congress?

Running: Well, I think back then even the rest of us earth scientists were a little stunned to hear him say that. We knew by then what computer models suggested for some future, decades away, but even we thought it was a little premature to be talking about global warming starting in 1988.

It’s interesting. Now that we look back at the graphs over the last 20 years, we discovered he was right. Often in my public lectures I suggest that it seems like around 1980 is when the climate change trajectory we are now on started.

But even back in late 1980s and into the early 1990s, which is when [former vice president and then U.S. Senator] Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance came out, it started to become a political issue. In fact, in retrospect, the fact that Al Gore was pushing that, I wonder if that’s what started to turn it into a partisan political football right then. From the very beginning this seemed to be a political debate and not a science debate.

Indy: Significantly cutting back on carbon dioxide sources means reconfiguring entire economies. To some extent wasn’t it predictable that the issue would be hotly politicized when you consider that the primary source of global warming pollution stems from the activities of the some of the biggest corporations in the world?

Running: That’s probably right. The kind of people that were making money in the current energy and carbon emissions environment tend to be more Republican than Democrat. From the beginning it started to be politicized, and because of that politicization it was hard to have unbiased scientific argument.

Indy: It seems as though most people agree that climate change is a reality and that humans are, to a large degree, to blame. What does the Nobel committee awarding Al Gore and the IPCC the Peace Prize mean for this issue going forward?

Running: It definitely brings a whole lot of attention, and the topic has already had a lot of recent attention, of course. And Al Gore has had a lot of attention. This just piles it on even further.

Indy: Is that a good thing?

Running: Oh, I think so. I think the important thing is that it undercuts any remaining credibility of the denier crowd even further. I was a part of a committee discussion over in Helena just a month ago where one of these professionally paid deniers from the Heartland Institute [a conservative think tank tied to the tobacco and petroleum industries] was invited. I hear this group doesn’t even agree that smoking causes cancer, so that’s how far off to the moon this crowd is.

But this guy flew in from Florida to be the counterpoint to my testimony to the Environmental Quality Council [a bipartisan committee comprised of 12 lawmakers and four public members that convened in June to study climate change], and he just blew smoke right at the committee. He literally said falsehoods one after another about the climate. I think for the Nobel Peace Prize to go to Al Gore as an individual, and the IPCC message, makes people like that look even more ridiculous. It’s going to be harder for them to claim what they claim with a straight face.
And you’d like to hope it will be more difficult for the public to believe their claims after something like this.

And then we can get past the political part about, “Is this real?” and start focusing on “What’s our solution space and how do we chose the best solution to pursue and get to work?”

Indy: I’ve heard you lecture on your “Five Stages of Climate Grief.” Where does receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for your contribution to climate research fit into those five stages, and how might it move Americans—and the world—on that grief ladder.

Running: I hope this jumps everybody down toward stage five. It certainly should eliminate anybody from stage one. The whole theme of the “Five Stages of Climate Grief” is that we’ve got to get a high fraction of society to get to stage five before we can collectively agree to get to work choosing the kind of priorities and options we need to get moving.

This is a wholesale revolution of the energy basis of current society that we have to undertake in the next couple of decades.

As climate scientists we realize we’re not suggesting a minor activity here for society. We understand it’s a major challenge to the world. But we’re just trying to point out to the world that it’s a necessary challenge to step up to. And we’ve got to get everybody to stage five, or at least a majority of the voting public to stage five, before we can start moving ahead.
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