Friday, December 16, 2016

 Nuclear is Not the Answer

George M. Woodwell

December 2016

            The remains of the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine have been sealed  recently with a giant steel cap constructed at a distance and moved into position over the still highly radioactive reactor core. The reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, more than 30 years ago.  The site and its environs, many square miles, were heavily contaminated at the time. The remains of the reactor are still a festering hazard and will be dangerous substantially forever. The site, now expensively covered to contain the radioactive debris, constitutes yet another segment of a finite and already densely occupied Earth, sacrificed to a failed industrial venture.   

            Ionizing radiation is a biological hazard because it breaks up molecules and makes them chemically active. Chromosomes are large and especially vulnerable. Human exposures of any intensity at all puts the integrity of the genetic structure at hazard. It increases the frequency of mutations, not an attractive or even acceptable circumstance. Exposures can be external as from an xray machine or from a segment of a reactor core after an accident, or from radioactive particles incorporated into tissues. Both routes are of continuing concern at Chernobyl and the giant cover is designed to contain all the hazards of the reactor site.  It does nothing of course to restore the vast areas contaminated with radioactive debris at the time of the explosion.

            Meanwhile, global industries struggle with the necessity for replacing fossil fuels as the principal source of energy driving an energy –dependent industrial world.  Nuclear power is attractive to some because it appears to offer large sources of electrical energy without releasing carbon dioxide or methane, both heat trapping gases and the cause of the climatic disruption. The industry also appears to be a mature in that there are now about 400 reactors operating in the world, presumably safely, despite the inherent dangers of radioactivity.  Those dangers, especially the hazards to the human genome, make the fuel cycle and operation of the reactors necessarily “closed” systems that, at least nominally, contain all wastes and other radiation hazards.

 “Closing” the system, while necessary, is difficult to the point of impossibility. There is leakage and a series of  hazards at virtually every stage starting with the open-air mining of the uranium ore, its transportation, refinement, and  continuing through to the disposal and storage of used reactor  fuel rods and associated equipment. Accidents are inevitable at every stage and the wastes accumulate and must be accommodated. The system, carefully monitored as it is, cannot be perfect.  Although it is the model of a closed industrial system, it is not closed and cannot be made so.

 Despite major efforts, the United States has not been able to establish a long-term burial site or other safe disposal for radioactive wastes.   Used fuel rods, highly radioactive, are now cooled continuously in special water-cooled tanks at each reactor, a “temporary” solution used for decades.  The long-term burial site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has proven unsatisfactory because of potential leaks and political objections.

While we do make compromises as a matter of necessity, we assume correctly that low exposures are safer than high exposures and carefully limit all exposures.  And we aspire to keeping the industry as a closed system, in fact the model of a closed system, thereby protecting the integrity of the human genetic system.

Closure must be perfect, but it cannot be so. Even containment is difficult. Worse, there is no way to avoid the possibility of using the enriched uranium designed for reactor use as the basis for developing bombs of various types ranging from a simple rain of radioactive debris in a ‘dirty’ bomb to a nuclear weapon.  There is no way of policing an increasingly crowded world of 7-10 billion people to keep the highly toxic wastes of a proliferating nuclear power industry safely contained.

            The attractiveness of large reactors is understandable, especially if one takes the perspective of an industry that generates and sells electricity.  A large central source of electricity distributed over extensive power lines to thousands of users is an attractive investment.  If fossil fueled plants are to be avoided, as is now clearly necessary, a nuclear-powered plant might confer some of the same advantages and feed the same delivery system.  So the arguments in favor of nuclear power emerge repeatedly despite the complexities of the industry. 

            One of the possibilities often advanced is the development of small “fail-safe” reactors that can be scattered over the landscape close to points of major demand. These reactors present the same set of issue, if smaller scale than large reactors.  Both, when operated, mark a spot on the earth that is from that moment on irrevocably committed to continuous care in protecting the public from radioactive debris, a very expensive “sacrifice zone” not available for any other use.

            Economic gradients favor common sense in this instance. Nuclear power plants are  expensive to build and require years for construction as well as extraordinary efforts in assuring safety. The energy involved in the mining, transport and refining of fuels, and  in virtually all other aspects of construction and maintenance, is fossil fuels, not a trifling matter   By comparison with rapidly emerging renewable energy sources that can be widely dispersed and require little maintenance, nuclear fails again.   As techniques for storage of electricity improve and the efficiency and variety of renewable sources of energy increase, the interest in and viability of nuclear energy will drop rapidly away.

            The nuclear power industry is an excellent model of a closed industrial system that is “clean by design” but can never be clean enough or even reliably safe. As a model for other industries that must also conform to closed-system standards, it stands alone, rich with experience and insights and endowed with more than 400 special sites globally that are sacrifice zones,  areas of an increasingly crowded earth available now for no other purpose. Nuclear energy is fascinating and rich in lessons, but it has no potential in resolving the crisis of climate. 

  Adapted from: G.M. Woodwell 2016. AWorld to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet. MIT, Cambridge               

Friday, October 21, 2016

George M. Woodwell

Building the NEW WORLD
Lessons from our Own Time

This election makes it very clear that it is time for a new hard look at objectives in government and economics and that we and our students should be leading the way. Here is an opportunity to have a look at what one ecologist can offer in a sense of optimism and hope for the next decades, a new world consistent with the transition away from fossil fuels and into a world of restored environmental integrity.  
The book: A World To Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision For A Plundered Planet is available for a short time from  MIT Press at a substantial discount. (30% discount at with digital discount code MWORLD30  through 11/30/2016)

New from the MIT Press:
             A World to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet
George M. Woodwell

A century of industrial development is the briefest of moments in the half bil- lion years of  the earth’s evolution. And yet our current era has brought greater changes to the earth than any period in human history. The biosphere, the globe’s life-giving envelope  of  air and climate, has been changed irreparably.  In  A World to Live In,  ecologist George Woodwell shows that the biosphere is now a global human protectorate and that its integrity of structure and function are tied closely to the human future. The earth is a living system, Woodwell explains,  and its stability is threatened by human disruption. Industry dumps its waste globally and makes a profit from it, invading the global commons; corporate interests overpower weak or nonexistent governmental protection to plunder the planet. The fossil fuels industry offers the most dramatic example of environmental destruction, disseminating the heat-trapping gases that are now warming the earth and changing the climate forever. The assumption that we can continue to use fossil fuels and “adapt” to climate disruption, Woodwell argues, is a ticket to catastrophe.

But Woodwell points the way toward a solution. We must respect the full range of life on earth—not species alone, but their natural communities of plant and animal life that have built, and still maintain, the biosphere. We must recognize   that the earth’s living systems are our heritage and that the preservation of the integrity of a finite biosphere is a necessity and an inviolable human right. And he outlines how to go about it.

George M. Woodwell is Founder, President, and Director Emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He is a member of the National  Academy of Sciences, a former president of the Ecological Society of America, a former Vice Chairman  of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the author of Forests in a Full World, The Nature of House: Building a World That Works, and other  books.

“Woodwell calls for a fundamental rethink to ensure the protection  of the global commons. . . [He] is to be commended for clearly outlining  the threats and sketching out a bold solution" —Julia Fahrenkamp‑ Uppenbrink, Scienc

Hardcover | $29.95 Trade | £19.95 | 978-0-262-03407-4 | 248 pp. | 6 x 9 in eBook | $20.95 Trade | 978-0-262-33367-2 | 248 pp.
for more information visit

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Of Money, Biophysics and Government

   Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money,  sets forth with frightening clarity and compelling detail how sinister the  problem of money in politics has become[i]. The issue has been amplified in various tracts \ , none more simply stated and powerful than Bill Moyers’ widely circulated essay deploring the concentration of wealth in the hands of one percent of the populace while the majority is systematically impoverished[ii] .   Mayer  deplores the conspiracy of the  Koch brothers and allies in advancing that transition and supporting the patently false proposition that the free enterprise capitalistic system assures the welfare of all without governmental interference or regulation. She shows how corporate interests have used tax-free "public interest" institutions to advance the 1980 Reagan mantra of  "getting government off the backs of the people".  Their efforts have produced the neo-conservative  congressional leaders who refuse to perform the duties of their elected offices. These same seditious officials have also frustrated efforts to correct corporate exploitation of environment for profit including in particular all efforts to control the climatic disruption now wreaking havoc globally. .  

Neither author considers the biophysical limits of the earth as now limiting, if not defining, core political and economic objectives.  Growth of the human enterprise alone generates a soaring need for rules to protect not only public health and welfare but also corporate safety and welfare.  Here I am guilty of blatant self-promotion for I have written about these limits recently [iii].  I join in showing  that it is now essential  to invert the Reagan mantra and to restore the integrity of governmental function. The objective becomes building a government that works in assuring the full functional integrity of the global environment to accommodate growth in all aspects of the human endeavor.  We who thrive on growth travel a one-way street into a compelling need for regulation of human affairs in the interests of protecting welfare, including civil rights, as human numbers swell, corporate aspirations expand and the human undertaking intensifies.  There is no turning back to simpler times on this road into life in an ever tightening world whose core functions demand a delicately defined set of circumstances to support  all life.

These developments are products of biophysical reality,  ineluctable products of growth, not to be set aside by what amount to bribes from corporate interests aimed at turning governmental purpose to corporate advantage.   Roots of the changes required to correct these trends lie in the realities of the physical, chemical and biotic integrity the earth, whose continued function is ever more important to human welfare and challenged as never previously.    Answers lie not only in a new economy and  a restoration of responsibility and reason in government but also in using scientific insights into the elementary biophysics of  crowding a planet with 7-10 billion humans.

[i] Jane Mayer.  Dark Money. Doubleday, N.Y. 2016
[iii] George M. Woodwell. A World to Live In. MIT. Cambridge, MA. 2016

                                                                                                George M. Woodwell
Woods Hole,  MA         Sept. 11, 2016

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Warren on the Republican Defection

Elizabeth Warren on  the Republican Derogation of Duty

Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to solve a real, honest-to-God problem.

Our health care system was broken. 48 million people in this country had no health insurance. Women couldn't get access to cancer screenings. People with diabetes were denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. People with cancer hit the caps on their health insurance spending. And health spending in this country was growing far too fast.  

So we worked hard, we compromised, and we came up with a solution. A solution that will substantially improve the lives of millions of Americans because that's the way a democracy works.  

It's time to end the debate about whether the Affordable Care Act should exist and whether it should be funded.

Congress voted for this law. President Obama signed this law. The Supreme Court upheld this law. The President ran for reelection on this law. His opponent said he would repeal it and his opponent lost by five million votes. 

Right now, Republicans are taking the government and the economy hostage, threatening serious damage to both unless the President agrees to gut the Affordable Care Act. For days, they even tried to change the law so that employers can deny women access to birth control coverage.

I am the mother of a daughter and the grandmother of granddaughters. I will never vote to let a group of backward-looking ideologues cut women's access to birth control. We have lived in that world, and we are not going back. Not ever.

I see things like this and I wonder what alternate reality some of my colleagues are living in.

So let me be very clear about what is happening in the real world: The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. Millions of people are counting on it people who need health care coverage, people who need insurance policies that don't disappear just when they are sickest.

The law is here to stay, and it will stay.

Now the government is shut down. We haven't fixed the sequester because of all the obstruction. We haven't finished a budget because of all the obstruction. We haven't even passed a single appropriations bill because of all the obstruction.

The least we can do the bare minimum we can do would be to pass a "continuing resolution" to open the doors back up and turn the lights back on. We could ensure that over a million federal workers aren't staying home for no reason. We could end the government shutdown.

But the Republicans have refused to do even that. They have shuttered the government unless the President agreed to de-fund the Affordable Care Act.

The threats may continue, but they are not working and they never will. In a democracy, hostage tactics are the last resort for those who can't win their fights through elections, can't win their fights in Congress, can't win their fights for the Presidency, and can't win their fights in Courts. 

For this right-wing minority, hostage-taking is all they have left a last gasp of those who cannot cope with the realities of our democracy.

The time has come for those legislators who cannot cope with the reality of our democracy to get out of the way so that those of us in BOTH parties can get back to working on solving the real problems faced by the American people.

We have real work to do.



Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Circle Closes

. The Circle Closes.

            The NY Times closed its environment desk but Tom Friedman has not stopped thinking. Here is one of the most important political insights in recent months. It flings a challenge to science, both in defining the problem and in opening channels for solutions. But governments have to be able to hear, to understand, and to respond. Never previously has the basic knowledge of the biosphere been so important or so forthrightly challenged.  GMW

Mother Nature and the Middle Class

Published The New York Times: September 21, 2013 14 Comments
IF you fell asleep 30 years ago, woke up last week and quickly scanned the headlines in Iran and Egypt you could be excused for saying, “I didn’t miss a thing.” The military and the Muslim Brotherhood are still slugging it out along the Nile, and Iranian pragmatists and ideologues are still locked in a duel for control of their Islamic Revolution. So go back to sleep? Not so fast. I can guarantee that the next 30 years will not be the same old, same old. Two huge new forces have muscled their way into the center of both Egyptian and Iranian politics, and they will bust open their old tired duopolies.
The first newcomer is Mother Nature. Do not mess with Mother Nature. Iran’s population in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution occurred was 37 million; today it’s 75 million. Egypt’s was 40 million; today it’s 85 million. The stresses from more people, climate change and decades of environmental abuse in both countries can no longer be ignored or bought off.
On July 9, Iran’s former agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, an adviser to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spoke to this reality in the Ghanoon newspaper: “Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran,” said Kalantari. “It is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. ... Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.”
He continued: “I am deeply worried about the future generations. ... If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.” Kalantari added: “All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others.” Kalantari concluded that the “deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. ... If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”
In Egypt, soil compaction and rising sea levels have already led to saltwater intrusion in the Nile Delta; overfishing and overdevelopment are threatening the Red Sea ecosystem, and unregulated and unsustainable agricultural practices in poorer districts, plus more extreme temperatures, are contributing to erosion and desertification. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing Egypt 5 percent of gross domestic product annually.
But just as Mother Nature is demanding better governance from above in both countries, an emergent and empowered middle class, which first reared its head with the 2009 Green revolution in Iran and the 2011 Tahrir revolution in Egypt, is doing so from below. A government that just provides “order” alone in either country simply won’t cut it anymore. Order, drift and decay were tolerable when populations were smaller, the environment not so degraded, the climate less volatile, and citizens less technologically empowered and connected.
Both countries today need “order-plus” — an order that enables dynamism and resilience, and that can be built only on the rule of law, innovation, political and religious pluralism, and greater freedoms. It requires political and economic institutions that are inclusive and “sustainable,” in both senses of that word. Neither country can afford the old line that Hosni Mubarak used for so many years when addressing American leaders: “After me comes the flood, so you’d better put up with my stale, plodding but stable leadership, otherwise you’ll get the Muslim Brotherhood.”
That is so 1970s. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, puts it: In the Middle East today “it’s no longer ‘After me, the flood’ — Après moi, le déluge — but ‘After me, the drought.’ ” Syria’s revolution came on the heels of the worst drought in its modern history, to which the government failed to respond.
Iran’s Islamic leadership seems to realize that it cannot keep asking its people to put up with crushing economic sanctions to preserve a nuclear weapons option. Mother Nature and Iran’s emergent middle classes require much better governance, integrated with the world. That’s why Iran is seeking a nuclear deal now with Washington.
And that’s why two of the most interesting leaders to watch today are President Rouhani of Iran and Egypt’s new military strongman, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Both men rose up in the old order, but both men were brought into the top leadership by the will of their emergent middle classes and newly empowered citizens, and neither man will be able to maintain order without reforming the systems that produced them — making them more sustainable and inclusive. They have no choice: too many people, too little oil, too little soil.
And pay attention: What Mother Nature and these newly empowered citizens have in common is that they can both set off a wave — a tsunami — that can overwhelm their systems at any moment, and you’ll never see it coming.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Science Leads Government!


Science Leads Government!

Science and the Purpose of Government
A  Crumbling Biosphere  II

          The purpose of government is rarely debated yet it is before us daily in legislatures, committees, boards of selectmen, our courts and in all the news. And purpose changes profoundly with time, with the growth of the human population, with technology and with experience and aspirations.  There is no doubt: the purposes of government are manifold and complex and ever mutable. And they are tested ever more intensively as  the biosphere comes under greater pressures.  For the moment, however, for simplicity I focus on civil rights, the protection of each from the activities of all, and all from the activities of each. The golden rule in some form has been the core of governmental purpose for all of time in every civilization worthy of respect. It has many formulations. Much of the world recognizes it as the principle of Sic Utere  (Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas)“Carry yourself in such a way as not to interfere with others”

            That charge has stood the tests of time and continues to emerge as the core of civil rights whose protection we steadfastly assign to governments the world over.

            Yet the world of the 21st Century is a new world,  crowded beyond precedent with 7 billion humans whose numbers continue to expand. It is changing drastically as humans disrupt  climates globally and change the chemistry of air, water and land, and invent ever new ways of interacting and communicating with one another. The mechanical demands of life in this new crowded world are ever more stringent, esoteric, difficult to interpret, let alone to see through to a just conclusion protecting the interests of all.

            That point became abundantly clear in the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s as  the world recognized for the first time that humans had made an indelible mark on the earth with radioactivity and a global contamination with agricultural poisons and industrial chemical wastes.  The US government responded wisely with famous legislation that became a model for the world. We established the Environmental Protection Agency and a series of laws designed to protect air and water and land and people from industrial and other poisons.    Recognizing the technical difficulties, the Congress also established within itself and for its own support in legislating, a special Office of Technology Assessment in 1972. The office accumulated a superb staff of specialists who functioned in helping the Congress develop insights and laws in a more and more complex world, quite beyond the ken of most citizens and lawmakers. It was a brilliant move and a very valuable agency until short sighted, conservative interests in the Congress in 1995 managed to snuff it out in favor of allowing industrial interests greater license to intrude on human welfare for profit. 

            Meanwhile, the issues become more intensely threatening, more complicated, more subtle. Large corporations have money enough to control government at the cost of the public welfare. Corporations can effectively claim and use the entire global atmosphere for their wastes and extract a subsidy from the global public in the form of  a disastrously eroding climatic system. The exploitive interests thrive on public and governmental ignorance.  And government, too, becomes an offender as various agencies pursue their missions with narrow purpose. The Navy, for instance, enters the oceans with very high energy, low frequency sound used to detect submarines, and kills marine mammals over large areas. . There are many other effects of that intrusion , difficult to determine, but real enough.  The counter-pressures in the public interest come from non-profit, non-governmental agencies such as the conservation law groups, some, such as the NRDC and  the EDF, brilliantly staffed with  scientists and  lawyers  who struggle with the  politically possible moment by moment. They cannot change the context, only modify the direction at the moment. Changing the context requires much more fundamental insight, scientific power, and persistence in advancing basic ecological facts..

            I use these as examples of the complexity and range of interests in  environment that emerge as the human occupancy of the earth intensifies. There is no easy flow of information on how the world works supporting legislators, who, no matter their academic experience, are bound to be behind the frontiers of demand for information. Their sources are limited. By far the bulk of the scientific community resides in universities whose purpose, not surprisingly, is to offer students as wide and interesting a menu in education as possible. It is not focused specifically on issues before the government, although universities can do anything they wish. But the point is that the university has an educational mission, not a public service mission in government, whatever the needs of government at any time.

            There is a new and urgent need for science in the public service, specifically aimed at protecting the public welfare.  Although buried in confusion and complexity, respect for the golden rule persists and requires well focused attention in the context of biophysics. That realm is the scientific world of environmental research, ecology, and it sets the requirements for governmental effectiveness. . It is, or should be,  the realm of the national laboratories with specialized missions such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the one-time Nuclear Energy Laboratories of the Department of Energy, the NOAA laboratories and the EPA research programs.

            It is also an array of non-profit laboratories and agencies that address specific environmental topics from energy and basic ecology to the global oceans.  Laboratories in Woods Hole fit that class, especially The Woods Hole Research Center,  The Ecosystems Center, and The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution,  for examples. The Carnegie Institution of Washington has long served that function, although its recent programs have been more limited than in the earlier years when they made major advances over decades in basic ecology, agriculture and land management.  The Rocky  Mountain Institute serves those purposes in energy magnificently. These scientific enterprises define purpose, methods and success in government. Economics and politics are tools, not objectives  per se.

            Once again there is a screaming need for insights into the issues of ecology now emergent as issues of global human welfare. The most important is the restoration of the integrity of function of the biosphere as a whole. That array of topics requires the development of experts cultured deliberately over time. It may take private financing for they will be challenging corporate interests at every turn, forcing the government to do its core job in protecting the public interest over corporate interests. This argument is not for the fusion of such interests into the university structure. Quite the opposite. It is for the proliferation and encouragement of such independent laboratories operating with the  express purpose of providing scientific insights into global biophysics. It is a tragedy that we do not have arguments raging at this moment and searing the skin of political leaders who are reluctant to take the steps needed immediately to reverse the climatic disruption. The scientific community should be up in arms and offering the steps to effectiveness. Instead they are wilting into a suicidal policy of Adaptation. The industry could not ask for more!

            The human future now entrained assures the melting of all the ice in the world and a sea level rise of 225 feet. No one knows for sure the time schedule. The melting is proceeding far more rapidly than anticipated as are other transitions. Problems exist now and will only be intensified in years to decades. There are not many who would set that transition as an acceptable objective for the common purposes of mankind, already challenged by seven billion people. Avoiding it requires action now, concerted action in reversing current global trends. Science has defined the problem and must be engaged in developing a plan for a New World that can assure support for a vigorous human presence into the foreseeable future. Defining that world and how to build it is an urgent mission. It will not flow easily from the free-enterprise science of the university system. Nor will it flow from conservation interests focused on “biodiversity” in all of its myriad meanings and forms commonly preserved in parks and refuges. It must become a core purpose of government, assigned as a responsibility to each nation to preserve the functional integrity of its land and water in the interest of preserving a biosphere as the habitat of all life. Success is not simply defined for the chemistry required is in fact detailed and demanding.  Many industrial processes rely on dumping wastes that are inconsistent with these interests and must be abolished or changed fundamentally.   

            Science has s big role in defining purposes, methods and tools of government in meeting its obligations in protecting the public welfare, now and into the future. That role is not the business of universities, although they can and do claim it on occasion. And it  does not necessarily flow automatically from government or governmental agencies which become from time to time political tools and must be redirected.  There is now a new,  soaring need not only for non-governmental environmental action agencies pursuing conservation law  (NRDC, EDF, CLF) but adjunct agencies defining the essential qualities of the biosphere and how to restore and protect them. Those are biophysical essentials, some esoteric such as pheromones and some as common as bees and pollination.    

            Scientists have a large new job to pursue on an emergency basis. Our institutional  job is leading that transition. Well defined  it will be well supported with private as well as public funds.

                                                                        George M. Woodwell
                                                                        Woods Hole
                                                                        August 8,  2013

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Saving the Earth from Climatic Disruption

Saving the Earth from Climatic Destruction

George M. Woodwell* and Richard A. Houghton**

The annual tax on GDP around the world from the climatic disruption has now reached well into the hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of early deaths. While economists have hardly led the world in acknowledging the emergency and in deflecting it, their recent annual field day in Davos produced some lucid and welcome insights. They had a World Bank report and a new World Bank president calling for immediate action.[1]  Christine Lagarde of the IMF was unequivocal in her response to a question:  “Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”[2]   The question is what to do.

The popular discussion seems to revolve around accepting a two-degree C rise in the global temperature as tolerable and controllable. The suggestion is that the two-degree goal has been blessed as safe by a consensus of science. It is not a consensus of scientists nor is it correct that a rise to two degrees would be benign. The two-degree threshold was emphasized in the negotiations during the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009.  It was an economic and political compromise that appeared to offer some room to establish effective action in reducing emissions globally. It does not have a scientific consensus behind it. It is, unfortunately, an attractive trap in that the current atmospheric burden exceeds the 1992 agreement under the Framework Convention to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.
The warming to date has been about 0.8 degree C and the effects are conspicuous. The glacial melting in particular is moving more rapidly than most scientists had anticipated and considerably more rapidly than assumed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[3]  A thoroughly detailed report by the US Geological Survey compiled over years and dealing with the world’s glaciers observes that “… since the late 19th century, all of Iceland’s glaciers have decreased in area and thickness…. Since 1995…the decrease has been quite dramatic…. [They] will virtually disappear by 2200.”[4]   The Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps are also melting much more rapidly than earlier predictions. They contain in total as much as forty feet of sea level rise.[5]  A continuation of the accelerating rise in temperature will melt all the glacial ice and raise sea level by 75 meters, more than 225 feet.

The big issue that forecloses limiting an increase in mean global temperature to 2 degrees C, or even the present 0.8 degree, is the warming itself, most threatening in the Arctic.  It is a double threat in that the warming is greater in the higher latitudes than elsewhere and the Arctic contains a massive quantity of carbon potentially vulnerable to release as carbon dioxide and methane. The largest carbon pool is in the soils and peat of the tundra. There is also a significant pool in the soils and vegetation of the boreal forest. Both are circumpolar. Much of the peat in these landscapes is several too many feet deep. Some of it, containing an estimated 1700 billion tons of carbon,[6] twice the current amount in the atmosphere, has been frozen in permafrost for thousands of years.  Thawed, the carbon in peat and mineral soils is vulnerable to decay with the release of both carbon dioxide and methane.  Substantial quantities of methane have accumulated through slow decay over thousands of years in frozen soils and are released as the thawing proceeds.[7] Some is in crystalline form in shallow coastal waters that are also vulnerable to the warming. The total quantities of carbon dioxide and methane available from these sources are uncertain. They are, however, large enough to affect the current atmospheric burden and to be a major factor in the array of positive feedbacks associated with the warming.[8] 

While the Earth has warmed by less than 1 degree C, the Arctic has warmed by 2-3 degrees, more in some places, and the process of thawing long frozen soils is underway. The thawing of soils is a significant immediate source of methane. If organic decay is also stimulated, it has the potential for flooding the Earth with carbon dioxide far beyond any capacity we have for controlling it by reducing human emissions. 

The alternative is an overt, immediate, effort to stop the warming and ultimately to re-freeze the Arctic.  The first step is a rapid stabilization of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as agreed to by all the nations in 1992 when they signed and ultimately ratified the Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The action now requires reductions in human emissions from deforestation and combustion of fossil fuels.  Ultimately, a reduction in the heat-trapping gas content of the atmosphere will require abandonment of fossil fuels and a major effort at reforestation of the earth to sequester as much carbon as possible over the next decades.

It may not be possible. The Arctic release may not be controllable at this late date.  There is no alternative to attempting to check the process by cooling the earth now with the most powerful and safe methods.

The following are the facts. The total current releases from human activities are more than 10 billion tons of carbon from burning fossil fuels and from deforestation and degradation of, largely, tropical forests. The deforestation is contributing more than one billion tons of carbon. Burning fossil fuels is the rest, about 9.5 billion tons in 2011.[9]

Of those ten billion tons between 4 and 5 billion tons accumulate in the atmosphere. This accumulation is the immediate problem. It is rising. In the past year it was more than 5 billion tons, the second highest ever.[10]  The remainder of the 10 billion ton release is absorbed into the oceans and into terrestrial vegetation, largely forests. Those marine and terrestrial “sinks” amount currently to about 5 billion tons of carbon annually.  They are vulnerable, of course. Forests are vulnerable to disease and fire and drought as temperatures rise. The oceans absorb less carbon dioxide as the surface waters warm and become more acidic. And yet, we can, at this moment take advantage of the present circumstance to, first, stabilize the atmospheric composition, and, ultimately, to reverse the trends in climate.

There is no escape from reducing the use of fossil fuels. On the other hand, management of land and forests to conserve carbon is essential and will be significant. The first step is to stop further degradation and destruction of primary forests globally.[11]  That single step would remove more than 1 billion tons of carbon from the current emissions and from the annual accumulation.  Second, natural forests can be restored to deforested lands in the normally naturally forested zones.  A newly forested area of 2-4 million square kilometers stores, conservatively, about a billion tons of carbon annually during the phase of maximum growth of trees. Such an area or more can be found globally. Those two steps, desirable in any analysis of beneficial land management policies, would account for more than 2 billion tons of carbon annually from the 5 billion tons in excess currently. Thirdly, in an emergency, harvesting of secondary forests globally could be curtailed to avoid carbon releases during a transition period to ease pressures on use of fossil fuels. The combined effects would absorb and store in plants and soil 3-5 billion tons of carbon, annually, a major increment in starting the return toward the 300 ppm of the atmosphere at the beginning of the 20th century. Simultaneously, reductions in use of fossil fuels are essential, beginning at once.

Those steps would constitute a totally appropriate recognition of the urgency of stabilizing the biosphere, opening a new era in the industrial age with new industries with local foci, new jobs and new economic opportunities globally. There is no question that the human enterprise can be operated successfully and beneficially on renewable energy.  Within the last five years the cost of wind and direct solar energy has dropped to make it attractive in many circumstances on the basis of price alone. The transition must be now and rapidly advanced to deflect the drain on national GDPs from climatic disruptions now underway.  Uncorrected, environmental chaos will consume the last vestiges of global GDP and the world will be redefined by cascading environmental, economic and political catastrophes.[12]  

Notes and References

[1] J.Y. Kim, president of the World Bank, offered a strong statement based on the report:

[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.   Rahmstorf, S., Foster, G., Cazenave, A. 2012. Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011. Environmental Research Letters 7:044035. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044035

[4] Williams, R.S., J.G. Ferrigno, B.H. Raup., J.S. Kargel. 2012. Glaciers: The Earth’s Dynamic Cryosphere and the Earth System. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386-A. Washington, DC.

[5] USGS. 2012. State of the Earth’s Cryosphere at the Beginning of the 21sr Century: Glaciers, Global Snow Cover, Floating Ice, and Permafrost and Periglacial Environments. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386-A. Washington, DC. A 461.

[6] Hugelius, G., Tarnocai, C., Broll, G., Canadell, J. G., Kuhry, P., and Swanson, D. K. 2013. The Northern Circumpolar Soil Carbon Database: spatially distributed datasets of soil coverage and soil carbon storage in the northern permafrost regions. Earth System Science Data. 5:3-13, doi:10.5194/essd-5-3-2013

[7] Anthony, K.W., P. Anthony, G. Grosse, J. Chanton. 2012. Geologic methane seeps along boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw and melting glaciers. Nature Geoscience 5:419-426. doi:10.1038/ngeo1480

[8] Woodwell, G.M., F.T. Mackenzie, R.A. Houghton, M.J. Apps, E. Gorham, E.A. Davidson. 1995. Will the Warming Speed the Warming? in  G.M. Woodwell and F.T. Mackenzie (Eds). 1995. Biotic Feedbacks in the Global Climatic System. Oxford University Press, New York. p 406.

[9] Le Quéré et al. 2012. The global carbon budget 1959-2011. Earth System Science Data Discussions 5:1107-1157.

[10] Feb. 2013.

[11] The World Commission on Forests examined that question extensively and found that at that time (the late 1990s) there would be no serious influence on the availability of timber or fiber globally. 1999.  Our Forests Our Future: Report of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. While growth in all aspects of the global economy may have changed that conclusion, the need for action on climate has become acute.

[12] Oreskes, N., and E.M. Conway. 2013. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. Daedalus. Winter. p 40.  See also Ehrlich, P R., and A.H. Ehrlich. 2013. Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280(1754):20122845.

*G. M. Woodwell is Director Emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center and currently Distinguished Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011.

**Richard A. Houghton is Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center, 149 Woods Hole Road, Falmouth, MA 02540.