Sixteen years ago in an interview with the New York Times, climate scientist Benjamin Santer said: “Even if New York were under 6 feet of water, there would be people who would still say, ‘Well, this is a natural event.’”

I had the chance to see Santer, one of the nation’s most respected climate researchers, speak at Sierra Nevada College’s Tahoe Environmental Research Center on Oct. 16. “We are now in the Anthropocene — the period where humans are no longer innocent bystanders in the climate, but active participants in it,” Santer told the standing-room-only crowd in Incline Village. A couple of weeks later, the surge of superstorm Sandy drowned New York and New Jersey, giving an uncanny clairvoyance to Santer’s 16-year-old newspaper quote.

Santer is a veteran climate researcher, a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” recipient, and a recent inductee into the National Academy of Sciences. But it is a single sentence he wrote 17 years ago in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that has come to define Santer’s career as a climatologist. Science, he said, points to a discernible human influence on climate.


“It’s funny to think 20 years later that, no matter what I do with my life, I will always be remembered for that sentence,” said Santer.

That one sentence has put Santer in the bull’s-eye of climate change skeptics, and has forced him to spend a large part of the past decade and a half fighting for the science of climate change and rebutting the uproar of conspiracy theories and fossil-fuel-funded challenges to his research.

The day after Santer’s presentation, I had the opportunity to walk up to the University of California, Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit with Santer and a group of scientists, researchers, and conservationists. There, snow hydrologist Randall Osterhuber talked about the temperature extremes the lab has been recording over the past several years, the earlier melt-off of the snowpack, and the air stations across the West Coast that are now detecting airborne soot spewed by Asian power plants.

From the lab, we all walked out into Van Norden Meadow, pausing at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to talk briefly about a rail company that burns an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of diesel fuel per year (second only in fuel consumption to the U.S. Navy), according to a 2009 Forbes magazine estimate.

Van Norden Meadow on Donner Summit is an example of the astonishing resilience of nature. From the earliest days of westward pioneer migration, wagon wheels have crunched across these meadow grasses, steam engines have hissed down the rails at its edge, and freeways and roads have cropped up along its border.

Standing in the meadow, with the willows rustling in the fall wind and an opportunistic hawk circling overhead searching for a breakfast of inattentive ground squirrel, I couldn’t help but think of this majestic Northern Sierra wetland as a microcosm of the planet. To deny the human impacts on this meadow would be naïve, at best, or willfully ignorant, at worst. Interstate fuel lines snake underneath the meadow’s delicate soil, smoke-spewing locomotives traverse the tracks laid across it, cars motor by on nearby Old Highway 40 where tons of sand are poured each year to make winter travel safe.

Our impact on the globe is even more indisputable. Clouds of pollution over China can be seen from space, the world’s oceans have been measured as 30 percent more acidic than pre-industrial levels, and heat records are being smashed with unprecedented regularity. But on a national and political level, the issues of climate change have become even less urgent than they were a decade ago.

I believe the lack of urgency has a lot to do with a lack of understanding about the connection between our consumption and its impacts on the climate. We consume coal power generated states away from our homes. Few of us have any connection to the Arctic ice that is melting away at unprecedented rates. The smoke from the factories that make the products we consume pollute the environment in the Chinese countryside a world away.

We have become divided into a nation of two parts: one half never seeing the consequences of our consumption, and the other half so economically dependent on resource extraction that fossil fuel support is a form of self-preservation.

After I walked out of Van Norden Meadow, my mind wandered into a fantasy, wondering what the world would look like if we could magically re-localize all of our consumption exactly like the Localvore movement has reconnected diner and farmer. Would our attitude toward climate change be different if every neighborhood got its own mini coal-fired power plant and pint-sized, open-pit coal mine? Would we think differently if gas companies fracked for natural gas in our neighboring open space to fuel all of the neighborhood’s furnaces? Would we drive as much if a few oil derricks and a nice little oil refinery popped up down the street specifically to fuel our local gas stations?

Santer called climate change a “truly inter-generational problem,” and said, “we have not seen inter-generational problems in a long, long time.”

It is that inter-generational nature of climate change — mixed with the scientific, academic, and abstract nature of the issue — that has made it so easy for us to kick the can down the road. Politically, we have shown ourselves virtually incapable of solving problems that are complex, nuanced, or don’t require immediate action — take Social Security, Medicare, and our spiraling debt, for examples.

But as easy as it is to become pessimistic about our abilities to confront climate change, or much less even recognize it as an issue, Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council, urges optimism.

Frisch, who worked with Capital Public Radio to bring Santer to Incline Village, introduced Santer to the crowd by saying, “Our mountains are the headwaters of the global environment.”

“We should look forward to the optimism that we really can make a difference,” he said.

Van Norden Meadows will be permanently protected this winter by a coalition of local and regional conservation groups. The massive meadow is an integral part of one of the state’s most important watersheds. As the planet warms, Van Norden Meadow will continue to act as a buffer to what scientists say will be shorter winters with more rain and less snow. The meadow’s intricate web of vegetation and stream systems absorbs winter precipitation and slowly releases it into the South Yuba River system during the warm, dry summers.

It’s one large, local success that in some small way addresses a daunting global problem. It is one step toward what David Roberts, writer for, said is the 21st century’s prime directive: “Be a good ancestor.”

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  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

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