Steve Running shared in a Nobel Peace Prize for his smarts on climate change, and that same knowledge helped him save a special event headed for disaster.
“I saved a wedding once with this theory. This is a fact,” Running said to some 80 students the first week of school.
The professor and founding director of the climate change studies minor program at the University of Montana had a neighbor whose daughter was getting married near Flathead Lake. The couple had planned a dance in a barn, but every afternoon, the big metal building turned into “an inferno.”
“They rented some air conditioners, and those feeble things droned away, and they got it down from 96 to about 94,” Running told the class.
Two days before the wedding, the father told Running he feared the dance would be miserable, and Running offered advice based on one of the same principles he would teach in UM’s “Introduction to Climate Change: Science and Society” course.
Simply put, energy heats up dry surfaces, like concrete and roof barns, but when energy hits a wet surface, the water evaporates.
“You know what I would try?” Running said to his neighbor. “Go get your lawn sprinkler and put it on the roof.”
The solution worked.
“That took it down 10 degrees, and I was the hero of the wedding,” Running said, grinning.
Then, the professor offered the rest of the story about the marriage celebration with a laugh: “I wasn’t invited.”
In 2009, UM started an academic program in climate change, and it counts itself as the first university in the nation to do so.
While enrollment at UM has seen a persistent decline in recent years, the interdisciplinary minor in climate studies was identified in a campus review as poised for growth. Enrollment in the introductory class has gone up 50 percent since it started.
In April, an external reviewer described the program as belonging “firmly to the unfolding future rather than the past.”
“While there are now a few other climate change minors in the U.S., yours remains a standout,” wrote SueEllen Campbell, a professor in the department of English at Colorado State University. “The closest match is at Cornell University, a somewhat larger and much richer school.”
Led by instructor Nicky Phear, director of the climate change studies program at UM, the course includes five scheduled lectures by Running, who shared in the 2007 Nobel prize as a lead author for a chapter of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
He’s in demand around the world, and he’s busy. He serves on the NASA Earth Science Subcommittee and the NOAA Science Advisory Board Climate Working Group, among others.
He only teaches one class from end to end, a graduate course, but he continues to lecture in the introductory class because students choose to be there; it’s an elective, not a requirement.
“They’re here because they want to know about this topic, and this is a topic that I speak about all over the world, so you’d think I could talk to our own students, too,” Running said after class during the first week of school.
He’s teaching the course in a coal- and oil-producing state where boosting extraction is part of the political debate, and the professor makes no secret of the side he’s on. In class, he tells the students that fossil fuels and deforestation are clear culprits in global warming.
Running, who has taught at UM for 36 years, is at the head of the class because he wants the next generation to have a solid foundation in the science behind climate change.
“Having them get started in the scientific principles is obviously quite important for them to ever understand first, the science, and then, the politics that go with it – and how irrational most of the politics are because the science is airtight,” Running said.
Running held the attention of the students for more than an hour with reams of data and illustrations and charts and digestible explanations.
This semester’s class represents 26 different majors, 20 states, and at least half a dozen countries. On Day One, the students filled in cards stating the reason they wanted to take the course. Running told them on Day Two he had his marching orders.
“At least one of the notes from Monday said, ‘I want to be able to argue with my father better,’ ” said Running, in navy shorts and sneakers. “So that’s my job, is to give you ammunition to argue with your father.”
In his lecture, he teased them, shared real world examples, and told them the power they have as a generation, one he’s more hopeful about than his own.
“You’re lucky to be taking this class now,” Running said.
Climate change has been an international policy topic for 15 or 20 years, he said, and last year, the conversation finally turned a corner.
“The Paris Agreement last year in December is a really big deal because we finally got every single country to acknowledge formally that global warming is a real scientific topic, that the trajectory of the Earth’s climate is very clear, and that humanity will be in trouble if we don’t start doing something, and big somethings,” he said.
Running said astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tired of people asking him if he believed in global warming, so he started countering with: “Do you believe in gravity?”
Instead of rehashing the scientific arguments, Running said the students in the class would be able to tackle the real work of reversing climate change. Clearly, he is looking forward to seeing the class members – most a fraction of his age – take leadership roles.
He envisioned the students handing aging professionals fishing poles and golf clubs – and then taking their jobs.
“I have to put most of the blame on my generation for the resistance that there is. It’s mostly old people,” Running said.
Climate change is a serious topic but Running used humor to drive home points.
Coal is in the crosshairs when it comes to the warming planet, he told the class, but one of the bright spots is the data showing the United States is no longer the largest carbon dioxide emitter, having handed off that role to China.
Also, he said, emissions in the United States have decreased every year for the last six years. On the other hand, people in this country are still much greater consumers per capita than anyone else in the world.
“We use about double the (fossil fuels) per person of the whole rest of the world, as Americans,” Running said.
“So think of that as you drive home tonight.’’
He paused again, smiled at them, and made a small circle above his head as he mimed his own commute.
“Now, I’ll be on my bicycle, so I’ll have this little halo on top of my helmet as I go home.”
Running is plain-spoken as he takes the students through some of the history of climate science more than 100 years ago.
When London started burning coal for power, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius wondered if the releases of carbon dioxide could warm the planet, Running said. Back in 1896, the question was purely intellectual, not political.
And Arrhenius came to a conclusion: “What do you know? If we got up to a billion people all burning coal for electricity and heat and things like that, it looks like that would be big enough to warm up the climate.”
He won a Nobel Prize for his findings.
“I find it really quite interesting historically that this guy figured out the basics of what we’re talking about 100 years ago,” Running said.
“Whenever someone says, ‘This is an unproven theory that scientists aren’t too sure of,’ that really is bulls---. We got this figured out a century ago.”
Running has been the most consistent voice on campus on the topic of climate change, Phear said. More than a decade ago, he came to a wildlife and civilization course she was teaching with just 20 students.
“A lot of people can’t talk about science in a way that is interesting or compelling or moving,” she said.
Sean McClure, a senior in communications, is taking the class for one overarching reason.
“I want to learn how to solve one of the biggest problems we have in our time,” he said of climate change.
He wants to be an environmental educator, and he wants to hasten paradigm shifts in his own thinking on the topic. McClure is also interested in the way people talk about the global warming.
“The science is sound regarding climate change and global warming, but we have not been able to communicate it effectively enough to change policy,” he said.
He believes people have to overcome apathy to grapple with the issue since it’s massive.
“I don’t know enough to know if there’s hope, but my teachers think that there’s hope, and that’s what I have to go with,” McClure said.
Indeed, Running sounds optimistic in his talk, and he is heartened by the power university students have and encouraged them to use it. To reverse global warming, people first need to address the use of coal, he said, and the move to divest has gained momentum.
“A number of the biggest coal companies in the world have had their stock price drop from $100 a share to $2 a share in the last half-dozen years,” he said.
Much of the momentum can be attributed to university campuses and students, Running said.
“You all individually don’t have much voice, but collectively, university students have an incredibly powerful voice in our society,” he said. “You’re all looked upon as smart, idealistic and motivated, and when you glom onto any topic and get organized, you make stuff happen.”
A campus group called Reinvest Montana has called on the UM Foundation to divest from coal, and Running has also said the foundation needs a strategic plan to do the same. So far, the foundation has maintained it has an obligation to students to seek maximum return on its investments.
In class, though, Running said students could make enormous changes, and he reminded them that his own generation shut down a war.
“We started tantruming in quite a big way, and by the end, we closed down the Vietnam War,” Running said. “So I really encourage you as university student body to recognize your latent capabilities and find the right topics and go to work.”