Climate science in the United States is in an existential crisis. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to cut funding for Earth science, and the Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives will probably make good on those promises. The broader scientific community has mostly stood in solidarity with climate researchers assaulted by denialism.
They are right to do so. An attack on one branch of science hurts all science in the eyes of the public. Besides, no discipline is safe from politics forever—just ask an evolutionary biologist, or maybe just read some Galileo. But, in one major way, the scientific institutions have failed to support those who study climate. And it is probably the best institution to send a clear, unambiguous message of solidarity: Nominate climate scientists for the Nobel Prize.
This wouldn’t be shoehorning. Climate science is rooted in physics and chemistry—weather is energy, and the atmosphere is a stew of molecular interactions. Nor would it be charity: As far as scientific pursuits go, the processes that sustain life on Earth deserve just as much recognition as black holes or DNA.
Still, maybe climate science doesn’t feel Nobel-worthy. That’s probably because the prize usually goes to discoveries that push the fundamental boundaries of physics or chemistry—black holes and DNA. Usually, but not always. In 1912, a Swedish inventor won the Nobel Prize in physics for groundbreaking work on … lighthouses. Gustaf Dalén invented a neat little device that would, when heated by the sun, pinch off the gas suppling a lighthouse’s beacon. This saved fuel, which meant the lighthouses would last longer—saving ships from fatal outages.
Maybe this seems humble alongside other winning physics breakthroughs: radiation, quantum mechanics, semiconductors, the Higgs boson. However, any chuckles you have at Dalén’s expense are thanks to hindsight. In 1912, maritime shipping relied on gas lighthouses. So then did much of the global economy. Dalén’s invention saved the industry a lot of money. It also saved lives. And in doing those things, it met the Nobel Committee’s requirement for being an outstanding contribution to humankind in the field of physics.
And more than that, Dalén’s sun valve was physics. It used the same mathematics, the same foundational theories, the same scientific methods used by the Curies, Heisenberg, Bardeen, Brattain, Shockley, and Higgs. These are the same math, theories, and methods climate scientists use to support research showing that the Earth is warming.
The Nobel committees have even dabbled in climate science before. In 1947, Edward Victor Appleton won the physics prize for his work on the F-layer of the ionosphere. In 1995, Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina, and Sherwood Rowland split the chemistry Nobel for showing how human-made chemicals created a hole in the ozone layer.
Now is the time to act. In September, the Nobel Committee sent out invitations to thousands of academics and laureates. These qualified nominators have until Jan. 31 to submit Nobel-worthy research in climate science. Admittedly, this is a huge ask. Nominators would be passing over huge backlogs of Nobel-worthy traditional physics and chemistry—like the LIGO team for confirming the existence of gravitational waves and Mildred Dresselhaus’ long overdue work on carbon nanostructures—for interdisciplinary research they are unfamiliar with, done by people they’ve never heard of.
So, here are some suggestions to get them started: For chemistry, how about Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who, in the 1970s, discovered the warming potential of CFCs, and in doing so overturned the notion that carbon dioxide was the only gas capable of causing global warming. Or, Lonnie Thompson, whose work analyzing the chemical composition of ice cores established the past atmospheric conditions of the Earth—important for establishing that industrialization is the cause for the Earth’s current warming.
Wallace Smith Broecker deserves two damn prizes. One in physics for his work on how ocean circulation plays a role in the Earth’s energy budget, and another in chemistry for his work with carbon isotopes stored in ice caps. And that’s the least the Nobel nominators can do for letting Charles Keeling die without recognition for his Mauna Loa measurements establishing the current carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere have almost certainly doomed this planet to at least a degree of warming.
Need more? The National Renewable Energy Lab has dozens of scientists who deserve recognition for contributing breakthroughs in solar panel efficiency. A similar dragnet at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory would yield plenty of genius-level fluid dynamicists responsible for computerized models of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Once the nominators submit those, or other climate science innovators, to the Nobel Committee, it is up to that committee to pass those names along to the Nobel academies. Come next October, the academies’ choices in awardees will show whether they truly stand in solidarity with climate scientists and recognize their work as being just as rigorous as—not to mention rooted in—physics and chemistry.
Climate science isn’t just physics and chemistry. Of course it’s not. It is geology, ecology, meteorology, economics, and many other disciplines rolled into one. Unfortunately, it is also politics. Same as every other science—even the ones that haven’t been under assault for the past few decades. And perhaps more than any other discipline, climate science is making outstanding contributions to humankind—if only humankind will listen. That is Nobel-worthy.