“Climate Change Invaded My Field”: A Conversation with Historian and Science Advocate Steven Leibo

January 16, 2014 | 5:51 pm
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

At the American Historical Association’s annual meeting earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Leibo, a professor of history, leader for the Climate Reality Project, and long-time UCS supporter. During the Q&A for a session on teaching history to STEM students, Professor Leibo remarked on the need for building better bridges between historians and scientists. After the talk, he graciously allowed me to interview him about why these bridges are important through the lens of his own work. Below is our conversation, edited for brevity.

DB: How did your work as a historian of international relations and foreign policy lead to your interest in climate change and your community-based work as an advocate for science-informed policy?

nasa satellite

NASA satellites collect global climate data to help scientists understand how the Earth’s climate is changing. The need for global data underscores the international nature of the problem. Image: NASA.

SL: I grew up in Silicon Valley. I went to high school with Steve Wozniak [Apple], and I was always aware of Al Gore being involved legislatively in helping to realize the Internet.  When he came out with the book Earth in the Balance, it was my reading of his environmental perspective that initially got me involved in the topic.

I never chose to be an environmentalist. I don’t think of myself that way. My field is modern international history and politics, and quite frankly, climate change invaded my field. Climate change is the single most important issue that faces humanity in the 21st century, and it was the environment invading international issues that really brought me into this, years after I had read Earth in the Balance.

DB: I like the way you put that – that climate change “invaded” your field. I haven’t heard it said quite that way before, but I think it captures how inescapable this issue is.

SL: As a regular public speaker and radio commentator, I was giving public talks on the international arena a decade ago and felt compelled to talk about climate change, but I didn’t have the science to deal with it, particularly when challenges came up in audiences. And so I had to re-tool, basically, to fulfill the obligations I felt in my own field.

A century ago, a lot of the issues historians and politicians and presidents dealt with tended to flow in large measure out of what we might call the social sciences – you know, everything from economics to foreign policy. But the challenges more recently — climate change, resource depletion – require a much more sophisticated scientific knowledge. And that’s something that only became obvious as we got more deeply into the 21st century. This is the century where a much wider range of people have to have scientific literacy.

DB: Do you think if there was a better understanding in the public sphere of the historical relationship between a stable climate and human civilization that there would be more receptiveness to understanding and accepting the science and proactively taking action?

Pliocene carbon concentrations

“On May 9, 2013, CO2 levels in the air reached the level of 400 parts per million (ppm). This is the first time in human history that this milestone has been passed.” Image and quote: NASA

SL: History has a fundamental role in all of this. The human species has been around much longer than human civilization, but civilization emerged during a period when the climate was stabilizing, and civilization itself, which is what historians study, is the product of a stable climate. The irony—that is not usually recognized—is that modern civilization is the product of burning fossil fuels, and so modern civilization is undermining the climate stability that created civilization itself.

I feel that historians are in some ways morally culpable for some of the confusion and the problems of dealing with climate change. Climate has had enormous impacts on the human experience throughout our history. But about a hundred years ago, after a period when historians had tried to explain everything either by race or by climate (they talked about people from hot climates and cold climates having particular temperaments, for example), historians basically walked out on a historiographical approach that took the effects of climate on human society into account. Probably appropriate for a number of reasons—not having the accurate ice core records we have today being just one—but then we educated a generation of historians who in large measure didn’t consider the role of climate in human experience at all. And the generations of students taught by those historians, particularly Americans, were trained to think about humanity moving through time without this very important variable.

DB:  Can you talk about what that means on a practical level in your everyday work? Given the political polarization around climate, how have you navigated misinformation and distrust of scientists as you’ve communicated about science to community audiences?

SL: Well, on the one hand, I have lots of advantages. I have fancy titles. I’m a good public speaker. But on the other hand – and I’ve given hundreds of public talks on this subject – there is the growing public perception that climate change is a problem. But not because of people like me. Frankly it is because everything is happening faster. It’s because of Sandy. It’s because of Typhoon Haiyan. It’s because of all of these extremes. It’s because of the disasters. Much of what the scientists who trained me were saying ten years ago about what would happen ten years from now is already happening.

DB: So you really haven’t had to confront skeptics in the ways scientists have – the harassment, the personal attacks?


UCS’s 2012 report A Climate of Corporate Control examines how some U.S. companies are using their influence to cast doubt on the science of climate change, adding confusion to the policy discussion and holding back or slowing down action on solutions.

SL: When I give my talks, sometimes people do express skepticism. In that setting, I use props and humor. I will hand people who interrupt me this massive global warming textbook from Oxford University filled with all sorts of scary charts and graphs, and I’ll say to them, “Your point is really very important, and we’ll get to that, but, here, while I’m talking, why don’t you take a look at this.” And I’ll drop this massive book on their lap.

My concern, though, in the work I do, isn’t so much the vocal but small minority of skeptics. It is the larger number of people that claim to get it but don’t have a sense of the urgency that we need to move at an appropriate speed to stave off the worst. It’s passive denial. It is those people out there who understand climate change is real and are not doing what they need to do to help us have a decent future for our children.

DB: To be fair, for a lot of people, maybe the thing is that they don’t know what to do—what they can do?

SL: One needs to be very careful because it’s easy to take people from denial to despair!

I like to remind myself that we are making, across the planet, enormous progress, in understanding carbon capture, in moving away from some of the worst fossil fuel techniques, in moving dramatically toward greener energy. Yes, it is true, we are not stopping the build-up of greenhouse gases, but we are already making incredible progress in terms of the things we need to do. The question is simply doing it faster.