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Climate Scientist Pens Open Letter To President-Elect Trump

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

2016 was the hottest year on record. That's according to an analysis out today by European climate scientists. Donald Trump has expressed skepticism that climate change is caused by human activity. Many climate scientists are urging him to reconsider that skepticism. One of them is Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California. He wrote an open letter to Trump and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

BEN SANTER: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Before you wrote this letter, Donald Trump had already nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency and former Texas Governor Rick Perry to run the Energy Department. Both of those men have questioned the science behind climate change. Pruitt has even sued the EPA on many occasions. So do you really think the Trump administration is open to persuasion at this point?

SANTER: Well, we've got to try. As a climate scientist, if you spend your entire career trying to advance understanding, you can't just sit by idly and say nothing when that understanding is incorrectly dismissed as a hoax, a conspiracy, bunk, a contrived, phony mess. You have some societal responsibility to set the record straight. And that was what my open letter attempted to do - to state in plain English - not in jargon - this is a real problem. And if we as a country back out of the Paris climate agreement, that would be a big mistake.

SHAPIRO: I want to talk about the Paris climate agreement in a moment, but first what is your fear about what will happen to climate science under a Trump administration?

SANTER: Of course, it would be bad if the incoming administration completely ignored this problem and argued that it was not a problem. It was not real. The United States didn't have to concern itself with it. And we would be embracing ignorance with open arms if we ignored this problem.

SHAPIRO: Be specific. What is your fear of what will happen if this administration ignores climate science?

SANTER: Well, if we ignore climate science, and if we back out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, other countries will say, hey, if the U.S. doesn't care about this, why should we?

SHAPIRO: Are other countries really making their decisions based on whether the U.S. does one thing or another?

SANTER: Well, we have a leadership role here. If we tell the rest of the world we don't care about this, you shouldn't either, that will make it much more difficult to get any kind of global effective agreement to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

SHAPIRO: China, for example, seems pretty committed to moving towards cleaner sources of energy whether or not the U.S. does. Do you think China would change its path if the U.S. goes more towards fossil fuels?

SANTER: No, I don't. I don't think China would. It's possible that other countries, perhaps India - they've been frequently mentioned as being sort of skeptical about whether or not to embrace the Paris climate agreement. I think China will decide to move forward. I think they are capable of seeing that this problem has economic opportunities, that folks who figure out and countries who figure out cheap, efficient ways of providing low-carbon energy will be the economic leaders of the 21st century.

SHAPIRO: You work at a lab that gets a lot of funding from the government. What would this mean for you if the government's funding priorities change?

SANTER: I have no idea, but I can tell you that I'm determined to continue to do my job to the best of my ability and to speak out clearly about our scientific understanding and about likely outcomes if we do nothing. That is my job, and if it is not possible for me to do that job, I will go elsewhere and continue to do it.

SHAPIRO: That's Ben Santer, a climate scientist with Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Thanks very much.

SANTER: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.