Set To Retire, UM's Steve Running Talks Climate Wars, Activism And Nobel Prize Win

Aug 21, 2017

Faced with declining enrollment and a budget deficit, the University of Montana is offering early retirement buyouts to some faculty members. Well-known, climate science Professor Steve Running accepted the offer and is set to retire.

Running was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team, which was collectively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its broad report on the connection between human activities and global warming. Running was a lead author for one of the chapters in the IPCC report. He's also on the NASA Advisory Council Science Committee and has taught at the University of Montana for 38 years.

MTPR’s Katie Riordan spoke with Running about his decision to retire and his future plans.

Katie Riordan: I think your retirement was a surprise to many, but was it a surprise? Would those closest to you think it was a surprise?

Steve Running. File photo.

Steve Running: I was contemplating retiring for about a year ahead. In a way, the buyout did exactly what they wanted it to do, it was get those of us kind of sitting on the fence to go ahead and jump. To tell you the truth, the thing that pushed me more than anything was the Trump election because I've been fighting the climate wars now for 15 years anyway, and we were starting to think we had some momentum. I won't say we had won the war, but we had some momentum and could ease up a bit. And suddenly here we go again. And I thought, whatever energy I have left I'm going to have to save for the climate wars.

KR: To go back to your retirement, you’ve been at the University 37 years, I’m sure you've seen it weather some troubling times. How do current financial woes and these buyouts compare? Is it disappointing to be retiring at such a low point?

SR: Well, yeah, it is. As we went into an enrollment decline that, instead of being a couple of a year blip, it just has continued. U of M, and Missoula and Montana should be a huge sell to students around the country, and the university probably needs to do some substantial restructuring. There's programs that don't have many students anymore, and it's hard to redirect if you don't do some cutting. This is where me, in effect, handing in my salary, does the most good.

KR: You were famously a part of the team in 2007 that won the Nobel Peace Prize, a part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Is that as good as it gets? Is that the career highlight?

SR: Yeah it's kind of hard to beat that, actually. And that morning started just the way you see in the movies. One of my best friends called me at 6 a.m., and said, ‘Hey Running, I think you just won the Nobel Prize.’ And I go, 'Yeah all right. All right, sure.' And he says, ‘Get on the internet right now.' And there it was, and so off that day went. It's hard to imagine any highlight higher than that.

KR: When you refer to these climate wars, who is fighting whom?

SR: There is a very quiet, orchestrated effort to generate uncertainty and disinformation about climate. It's real clear that the endgame of this has to be to quit using fossil fuels. So everybody in the fossil fuel industry automatically has resistance to that conclusion. We all know totally what's going on and why. And it's a matter of those of us on the climate and preservation of the world end of this stick realize that we can't give up because the world is going to be in big trouble by the end of this century if we don't make a substantial change in direction.

KR:  In 2008 in Choteau, the superintendent — if I get this correctly — canceled a speaking engagement for you. Was that like a one-off incident or has that happened since?

SR: That was probably the most amusing incident of, I'll say my newfound fame back then. A brief recap of that: the Choteau High School invited me to come talk to the high school students months ahead. And then about a week ahead of time, the superintendent calls me up and says, 'Boy I'm really sorry, but I am a new superintendent here, and our school board are a bunch of conservative, old ranchers. And when they heard that this liberal climate guy from Missoula was coming, they blew a gasket. I'm new here, and I just feel I've got to back out of this invitation. But you still can come speak in the evening public event. You just are dis-invited from speaking to the high school students.'

One of my friends in Helena was relaying this story. What I didn't know was that a New York Times reporter was in earshot and heard the whole thing. Well, he quietly went to Choteau the next day and heard this whole thing. And sure enough, I did not speak at the high school, and I did speak at the public evening event, and everything seemed pretty normal until he wrote, 'Nobel Prize winner cancelled from Choteau High School' in the New York Times, and that's when that blew high as a kite. So it was to me, amusing. The high school students heard what happened, and they were quite upset that their parents had so little confidence in their ability to decipher fact from fiction. They had a discussion for months afterward—I heard later—in the community about the role of free speech and controversial ideas and hearing from all sides and things like that.

KR: Critics would say about that though, you are crossing a line into activism. Is there a line there, and do scientists do harm to their work if they do cross that line?

SR: Absolutely, forty years ago we were trained, and we by personal preference, I think, stayed out of the public eye and particularly stayed out of overt activism. Now we can't afford to do that anymore—writing quiet papers to the research journals. The world is in trouble; and not enough people understand how big of trouble. We have a moral and ethical duty to be more activist than we ever imagined when we started our careers.

KR: I spoke to some of your students, and they said one of the most inspiring things about you is that you live your values. They cited always seeing you on your bike and pushing the university to divest [from fossil fuels]. What can reasonably be expected if you're looking to limit your climate impact?

SR: I am almost at 3 million miles with Delta Airlines. When you're a global scientist you have to go around the world doing your science. The brief simple answer is, I very much separate my private carbon footprint — you know with our solar panels and our electric car and riding my bike and all that stuff — from my professional footprint of having to do what I do where it needs to be done. And certainly, global science needed to be coordinated globally. There's no doubt that airline travel is the one thing that I do not understand what other options we're going to have. In just about everything else I look at, we already have lots of options that can drive our carbon footprint way down.

KR: You've also said that one of the most threatening impacts of climate change is going to be, globally, is the rise in sea level. For a Montanan, that can seem very far removed. And so, how does your approach differ when looking at the global versus the local, and is one easier to talk about than the other?

SR: The most damaging, costly impact of climate change will be sea level rise. And so when you're in the right venues, I'll emphasize that. But then when I speak in the Rocky Mountain West where that's really not so relevant, I do point more at 'accelerating disturbances' is what we call it. And what that really means is the big bug epidemics, and from a human vulnerability point of view, then, wildfire. There's fires burning all around us right today as we speak. We could have some giant wind events like in 1910, and we could burn a million acres and in a day just like it did then.

KR: So what's next? If we were doing this interview in 10 years, what would I be asking you?

SR: There may still be some climate denial around. It’s withering bit by bit as the evidence just becomes more obvious to more people. We've actually had some amazing successes that we forget about. LED light bulbs are huge. You know there's something like a trillion light bulbs in the U.S., and if every one of those is changed from old ones to LEDs, that right there would shut a 100 coal plants. Ten years ago, nobody took seriously electric cars. And now we've got one in our garage. Apart from the national politics; in the real world , we're actually making some pretty substantial foundational progress. And those are things that would not have ever happened if climate scientists hadn't blown the warning signals.

Retiring University of Montana climate science professor Steve Running. He spoke to MTPR’s Katie Riordan in Missoula.