Driven into hiding by his notoriety as a contributor to Nobel Prize—winning research, Steven Running spends most of his free time in solitude.
Praised as a Nobel laureate one day and hammered by climate deniers the next, Running has had to live with the baggage that comes with his willingness to speak about global warming since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the award for its research six years ago.
So when he’s not researching global ecosystem monitoring for NASA and traveling the world to speak at conferences, Running is likely sitting alone in his house equipped with solar panels in Missoula or spending time at his “hideaway,” an energy-efficient cabin he owns on Flathead Lake.
“I’ve found that when I’m off duty I tend to like to stay out of the public eye,” Running said. “I’ve realized that that’s kind of a reaction to the toll it takes of being a public punching bag when you are in the public eye.”
A Regents professor of ecology at UM and a recent appointee to NASA’s Advisory Council Science Committee, Running’s career has confronted him with debates he certainly didn’t envision when he was planning his future back in grade school.
In sixth grade, he wrote an essay titled, “A Day in the Life of a Forest Ranger”, which had him rescue avalanche victims in the morning and wrestle grizzly bears in the afternoon.
“It was comical how dashing and glorious this day of this forest ranger was,” Running said.
But after spending a summer with the Forest Service in high school, he discovered that the hero of his childhood essay spent more time drinking coffee in an office than in the woods.
Disillusioned, Running registered as a physics major at Oregon State University.
“I wanted the biggest, roughest, toughest science there was,” he said.
That same year, Running took a tennis class and ended up playing against a graduate student in forestry who was working under the man Running now considers his intellectual godfather: forest ecologist Richard Waring, now professor emeritus at OSU.
Running switched his major to forestry and, under Waring, studied summer drought stress on trees.
His mentor remembers his analytical qualities.
“I found out that he has a natural ability that some might consider odd in the sense that, even when he was an undergraduate, he wanted to know why,” Waring said.
Running’s involvement with the U.S. space agency started in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan asked NASA to start thinking about “big science” questions. Waring recommended Running as a contributor, for his knowledge of ecology as well as his ability to build computer models, a rare skill at the time.
“I started getting invited to very high-level NASA planning meetings as an assistant professor. I was a kid,” Running said. “But I was the only ecologist there. I was delivering to them ideas of how to do ecology of the whole world.”
Working with NASA on global environmental monitoring launched Running’s international career, but also his reputation as a scientist involved in climate change.
He spent three years writing in overdrive as a lead author for the International Climate Change Panel’s Working Group II, which covered impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change for the fourth assessment. In 2007, the IPCC was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on the impacts of human-made climate change.
“It’s kind of funny because after that, any other award that you get is just kind of ho-hum,” he said, mimicking a yawn. “’Cause that one just trumps anything you could ever imagine.”
From that day on, Running was introduced as the Nobel laureate everywhere he went.
In some places, he wasn’t welcome.
On January 10, 2008, Running was scheduled to speak to high school students in Choteau, Mont., about climate change. But the school district’s superintendent, Kevin St. John, cancelled the lecture after several members of the small community’s school board had complained that his presentation would be one-sided.
The incident made national news and fostered a discussion between the school board and the high school students, who Running said were upset with the decision.
“As it all turned out with all the notoriety, nationally and internationally, it made Choteau look bad and other citizens of Choteau look bad,” he said.
Although there is scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused, Running has encountered a broad range in the degree to which people feel we need to act on warming, varying from gung-ho advocates to extreme climate deniers.
Climate change denial and inaction are disheartening, he said, especially for a man who dedicated most of his life figuring out how to monitor the environment at a global scale.
“At some point you have to reluctantly admit, those bastards are winning,” Running said. “But they don’t deserve to win, and humanity is paying a price for every year that ticks off that they keep winning.”