Friday, December 7, 2012




                      In the summer of 1970 a small group of ecologists and climatologists met as a part of a larger group assembled by Carroll Wilson of the Sloan School of MIT to consider the agenda of the first Earth Summit planned for Stockholm in 1992.  One of the most prominent topics was the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and its implications.   

                        It was a rich discussion. By then the trend of accumulation of carbon dioxide had been well established by David Keeling’s data from Mauna Loa and the South Pole. Infra-red gas analyzers had been in use for more than a dozen years.My colleagues and I had been using them to measure the metabolism of plants and plant communities, especially forests, and had watched the changes in the atmospheric burden in central Long Island over a decade.  But we had never had a chance to explore with climatologists what they saw as the implications. And here they were, climatologists from their own new, enviably nurturing institute, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.  I was delighted and found them wonderful friends and colleagues.

                        We talked. The story seemed clear enough to me. The heat-trapping capacity of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane is great enough that it can be used as the basis for measurements of those gases in air with precision,  virtually at the molecular level. By then we and others  had such measurements from many places in the world extending over more than a decade. The data were unequivocal. The concentrations of both gases in the global atmosphere were rising and the implications were that the earth would warm substantially in the coming years. To an ecologist there seemed to be no question of the implications: the earth would warm and the effects could be devastating.  The trend was alarming and we had an obligation to say so.

            My climatologist colleagues, much senior to me and distinguished specialists, were adamant. Yes the gases were accumulating but there was no evidence of an effect. There were no data showing a change in the temperature of the earth and we could not say then that we had a serious problem. They were scientists, fundamentally conservative,  sensitive, perhaps at that time to the unbridled barbs being aimed at environmental interests challenging industrial rights to poison the public realm.  
            I was astonished, even alarmed. For me at that time it was the equivalent of holding a hammer, finding a new large spike that needs to be driven to strengthen the scientific structure of civilization, and denying its use because, while it has in fact  worked on smaller nails, jt has never been used on larger ones. I found myself appalled and withdrew from the conference, more than disappointed.   

            The Conference produced a report, objective, reasonable, not alarming, although the information was from my perspective devastating.   There was a major challenge for science in developing effective techniques for measuring the temperature of the earth. It took more than another decade for enough measurements to accumulate that Jim Hansen would announce that he could show that the earth was warming. His announcement in a Congressional hearing brought ire from the Reagan administration and praise from all others.

            Since then as a result of the activities of scientists the Framework Convention on
Climate Change was signed in Rio in  1992 and ultimately ratified by all nations. The world  acknowledged the problem and agreed t o stabilize the composition of the atmosphere at safe levels. No progress has been made in those twenty years. The 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention is underway in Qatar at this moment. No further progress is expected from this meeting.. Meanwhile, the world is suffering grievous change with further prospects that are frightening.  

            The world of 2012 contains just twice as many people as the world of 1970. And we have set in motion a series of changes in global climates that systematically undermine the potential of the earth for supporting such a population. The prospects for the next decades are now well documented as the climatic disruption proceeds along predicted lines.

            There are many changes in the world when additional energy accumulates in the atmosphere. I emphasize but two of these for they are compelling. First,  the changes in climate are continuous, not simply a change to a new climate to which all life can adjust and continue under slightly different circumstances. There is no prospect of adaptation or accommodation to continuously accelerating and severe disruption.

            Second, the warming has built into it a powerful feedback system that will take over the climates of the earth and move the potential for control outside our reach. That transition is now in process.  It is the differential warming of the high latitudes  that guarantees that there will be a large and increasing release of heat tapping gases as the earth warms. While the total release possible is probably unknown, it  is far in excess of the current atmospheric burden. The current burden, if not reduced, is enough to have triggered the thawing of  Arctic soils and the initial stages  of the massive feedback releases from the northern forests and from the extensive Arctic tundra.

            The Antarctic is vulnerable, too, but the vulnerability extends less to climatic feedbacks than to sea level rise as the southern oceans warm and the continental glaciers  collapse, contributing to raising sea level by feet in decades. The now famous storms Katrina and Sandy have been early warning signs of the transition.  How much ADAPTATION can we afford at  $50 billion per storm and one coastal city at a time?

            Such is the transition of all of civilization at the moment as we proceed with allowing both the human population to expand toward 9 billion and the climatic disruption to devour resources in monster gulps as it devoured New Orleans and sections of New York and New Jersey.

            While the combination of sea level rise and the increase in severity of storms works on the coastal regions, the continental centers become increasingly arid.  The rich food basket of the continental US, despite the richest soils in the world and their  potential for agriculture, is vulnerable and already affected. Again, ADAPTATION? To what?

            Such is the transition underway. It is a transition to chaos and universal poverty. It is brought to us all by the grace of the fossil fuels industries that have allowed their greed to undermine systematically the facts of the transition and the reality of the threats to human welfare globally.

            There is one cure and one cure only. It is to make the TRANSITION, a change not to progressive impoverishment and global chaos, but to a fossil fuel free world, powered by renewable energy . The transition must start now. Immediately. While we have several helpful tools such as the management of forests and soot and other heat-trapping gases, the key is fossil fuels whose waste products can no longer accumulate in the atmosphere. 

            It must start in the US, which can offer both a model for the world and a massive program of assistance to others in making the transition globally,   It is necessary, the only course open, and it is an unbelievably  rich opportunity to turn the world to constructive pursuits in the interest of all.  The transition is the end of the fossil fueled age and the beginning of the Age of Renewable Energy and its host of new opportunities.     

George M. Woodwell
Woods Hole
 December 3, 2012


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Civilization: Is It Worth the Trouble?

Civilization: Is It Worth the

George M. Woodwell

            I n 1946 the world faced the troubling thought that the new weapon that had destroyed two Japanese cities had raised the potential stakes in warfare to mutual annihilation.  John Sloan Dickey left a high position and a brilliant career in the Department of State to take the presidency of Dartmouth College.  He opened that first post-war year with an address to the College under the title: “Cassandra Sits in High Places Today”. We have been successful now over nearly seventy years, albeit at prodigious expense, in preventing another intemperate use and restricting the hazard, however menacing, to mere threat. Meanwhile, a host of other changes have occurred in fact that have moved the world as a whole several increments toward the devastation we once envisioned as uniquely associated with a global nuclear catastrophe.

            Today’s daily global news is a triumvirate of major crises of government, economics, and environment. A world that was until recently thought to be large enough to sustain virtually any experiment in government or industrial economic development has suddenly proven vulnerable far beyond expectations or wishes of political or economic leaders. The crises are linked through environmental failures in ways that tax our best minds and assure that we are building a potentially new world of  misery and chaos.Worse, the changes are rapid, accumulating, and potentially irreversible in time of interest to those now living.  Seven billion of us today, nine billion tomorrow, are entering a new world that is increasingly unattractive.

            There is nothing subtle about the changes that are bringing this new world. They are Hurricane Katrina, strengthened by a super-heated Gulf of Mexico to the point of destroying New Orleans;  BP and its pollution of the Gulf  of Mexico,  the largest single pollution event in history and one of the most devastating; the destruction of the boreal forests of the Athabasca  Tar Sands of Alberta  for oil to drive the global fossil fuel-based  industrial world;  the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters that each removed thousands, possibly ten thousand, square miles of land from safe human occupation;  the sacrifice zone of the Southern Appalachians where coal has been mined, the mountains pushed into the valleys and the land left barren, useless in agriculture or as habitat for people,  the streams poisoned with acid;  the Bhopal Accident in central India that killed outright in one evening  2-3,00 Indians in December, 1984; the heat of summers that raises the death tolls of nations such as France and Germany in 2003 to a total of  as  many as 30,000; similar heat and drought is said to have killed 50,000 Russians in 2010 when fires in the boreal forest kept  Moscow under a cloud of smoke for weeks; and they include the lives of thousands of substantially enslaved Mexican  and other  workers trapped in menial jobs in a poisonous  industrial agriculture in the US for a lifetime. These are corporately generated waste lands, waste waters, and waste lives , sacrifices to a totalitarian trend in a political-economic system that is destroying itself while undermining the life support system of the planet and corrupting the  purpose and potential of a rich and advanced civilization.

            The entire earth is caught in this corporate scramble for profits. It is most conspicuous in dealing with fossil fuels. The raw materials are drawn from publicly-owned resources, extracted from the earthly crust using various techniques that affect the sites in various ways, often profoundly. Easily available oil and gas supplies have been exhausted. Newer supplies are sought now at greater depths and by new techniques such as high pressure fracturing to release both oil and gas from tightly-packed shales. This ”fracking” involves serious contamination of large quantities of water at great depths and on the surface as well as destructive surface activities. Hazards from spills are serious and spills are common as occurred in a deep water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Coal mining on the surface devastates extensive areas as does the surface mining of tar sands and oil-bearing shales. Those areas can usually never be restored, at least in time of interest to us.  They, too, are industrial sacrificial zones, impoverished, even poisoned in the extreme, that are released into public care, well off the accounting records of the industries.   Profits, of course, depend on avoiding as many costs as possible. Costs that can be pushed into the public realm increase profits.

            But then there are the wastes produced in the use of the coal, oil and gas.. The wastes are primarily, but not only, carbon dioxide and methane. These two gases are accumulating in the atmosphere and, through the warming of the earth, poisoning the world. The effects also are not part of the financial accounting of the industries.  And the industries, aware of the problem, want to keep it that way and have worked diligently to deny any problem.  Meanwhile profits accumulate and government, ever sensitive to the sentiments of business and run by politicians whose re-election hinges on money to run political campaigns, sustains the process. But the product, a degraded global biosphere, is clearly not what one might call sustainable use of the biosphere. The climatic disruption is especially acute in the Arctic where there are large deposits of organic matter accumulated over thousands of years in tundra soils and in marine sediments of the coastal zone.  The thawing of the Arctic increases the rates of decay of all organic matter and potentially releases the methane accumulated through slow decay over thousands of years. The total amounts available  are prodigious, enough to overwhelm any human potential for controlling the crisis of global climate.

            Civilization stands on a triumvirate of systems that must function together complementing one another in the interest of public welfare. They are:

            1. A Governmental System that assures the human birthright to clean air from the first breath forward throughout a lifetime, clean water, food and a place to thrive in peace and safety. That latter, peace and safety, has been protected in every culture by some form of the golden rule well known in our own          legal culture as the Principle of Sic Utere.  Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas.   Use what belongs to you in such a way as to protect the interests of others. 

            In the nominally democratic nations we elect, from the public, individuals to work  in government  to set the rules under which we live in equity with one another,  have equal access to resources, and to  protect the public welfare in general. (Some nations operate outside such norms with a “bunch of thugs in power”.     These ABOTIP nations are outlaws, not models.)   Protecting corporate profits at  the expense of human morbidity and mortality is not forthrightly a governmental  purpose.

            2. An Economic System that offers the tools for negotiating the necessities of  life in a finite world. The economic system requires firm regulation by government to deflect the persistent dream that the free market is adequate to protect human rights and common property such as air, water, and land as well as human aspirations. It is essential to realize and accept that the purpose of  business is profit, not human welfare. Many fail to realize that the free market system has produced slavery persistently in the past and produces it in the present  when allowed. It has also produced a chain of corporate disasters, all fed by         greed. It is entirely possible to establish corporate interests and businesses that serve, and are   required to serve, the public welfare. J.G. Speth in his recent book  America The Possible (Yale 2012) treats the topic in detail. He points to the lax  regulation of corporate purpose by pointing to a corporation chartered in Virginia  under the title: “License To Kill” with the purpose of using tobacco to kill  400,000 people a year.

            3. An Environmental System that is intact and functional in maintaining a  biosphere that is self-sustaining and stable as the habitat of all life. Such an   objective requires continuous insights from science as to what is functional and what  is not. 

            These requirements seem simple enough as the core expectations of civilization. But they are not now met, locally or globally. And the New World entrained and already emerging promises far more difficulties than we have seen so far….as the basic laws of a biophysically limited Earth  are compromised to accommodate political and economic interests.

            The core failure here is the corruption of  governmental purpose by political and economic interests largely focused on profits. The growth of the corporate culture now dominates. It has grown so large and wealthy as to  constitute what the political philosopher Wolin at Princeton has called “inverted totalitarianism” . The Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court only closes the loop and reinforces the trend. It has put the government in the hands of corporate interests whose primary purpose is financial profit, not the public welfare. Corporate interests argue in self-interest that  poisoning the world is a small issue, necessarily secondary to profits, for, of course, if profits fail, so does the business.

            Can we change this course from a cascading disaster to a New World we can admire and enjoy with pride as we pass it on to our children?

            We can.

           1.   The Wolin insight defining the inversion of structure as corporate totalitarianism is appropriate and, once identified, must be corrected. It is a fundamental change, essential in an ever tighter world. Money must be taken out of politics and the  core purpose of government restored. Sic utere applies at all levels.

            2.    In a finite world the basic laws of biophysics are immutable. We can return to   recognizing and defending the physical, chemical and biotic integrity of the biosphere. Several big changes are necessary, two immediately:

a.       Reverse the trend in climate and return over the course of the next century to the  1900 level of heat –trapping  gases in the atmosphere, about 300 ppm carbon dioxide.. (It can be done as I show below.).

b.      Correct trends in industrial activities that lead to chemical corruption             of the biosphere.  (Close industrial and municipal cycles to contain wastes specifically to preserve the physical, chemical and biotic integrity of the biosphere.) There can be no more sacrifice zones, giant mines, or callous industrial corruption of atmospheric or marine chemistry as we bring the fossil fueled age to an abrupt close.                          

            What will it take to reverse the climatic disruption?  At this late date it is a major challenge for a world that has so long steeped itself in the indulgence that nothing need be done.  Now, with a world crisis underway, the change is the only sensible course.

            Here is what can be done now.
            The annual accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere is between 4 and 5 billion tons. That is the amount to be removed from current emissions to stabilize the atmosphere at the present carbon dioxide concentration now approaching 400 ppm. That residue, 4-5 billion tons of carbon,  is about 50% of the total annual release of  10 billion tons as shown in the table below. It can be removed, reduced to zero, within a few years by global action in. The first step is clear and simple: stop further deforestation of primary forests, globally. Such a step desirable in any case for these forests are one of the earth’s great wonders. They have many functions in running the biosphere and should be passed intact to our successors.

            Second, reforestation of normally naturally forested zones to the extent of 1-2 million square kilometers will store a billion tons of carbon annually. Again, there is nothing but good for the world in such a change. That leaves at most  1,5-2.5 billion tons of carbon to be removed by reducing the use of fossil fuels immediately, a 20-33% reduction on a global basis.  It can be done almost immediately by firm steps in conservation without great harm to any aspect of human welfare and with many immediate advantages.
            Total Emissions of  Carbon into the Atmosphere Annually     ~10

            Components      Burning Fossil Fuels:                        ~8.5
                                      Deforestation:                                 ~1.5

            Residue accumulating in the Atmosphere Annually                   4-5

                        NB  about 50% of total emission is absorbed into
                        oceans and terrestrial vegetation..The residue
                        accumulates and is the current problem.

            Potential for Correcting

                                       Stopping deforestation:                               ~1.5
                                       Reforestation: 1-2  million. sq km                  1-2
                                       Residual to be removed from fossil
                                                 fuel emissions now to reach
                                                stability now:     1.5 – 2.5  or
                                                20-33% of  the remaining 7.5
                                                emissions under the least
                                                favorable assumption.

Table 1.  Annual Global Carbon as Carbon Dioxide in billions of tons of Carbon.


            Such a step will meet the objective agreed to by all the nations in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change .The Convention has been ratified by all nations including the US, so it is universal law.

            But we must go farther almost immediately to return over the next decades to the approximately 300 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that existed in 1900, only slightly above the 280 ppm that had existed for 800,000 years before we started the current excursion of atmosphere and climate. That means an abandonment of fossil fuels starting immediately and extending over the next very few decades with the objective of
reducing the atmospheric burden. Speed it important to deflect the Arctic carbon bomb whose fuse is already burning. There will be pains in such a transition, environmental, economic, and governmental pains. But the alternative is an open-ended, accelerating disruption of the earth with all the sequelae of drought, storms, heat, hunger, disease, sea level rise, civil unrest and human misery. The New World, if we reach for it effectively, will be a treasure.

            The transition will entail:

            -An immediate shift away from fossil fuels toward energy conservation and  renewable sources of energy using technologies already available.

            -Immediate steps to produce conveniently available solar powered hydrogen as a way of storing energy and moving it around.

            -A massive program to put solar hot water panels on every roof nationally and around the world to provide hot water for all purposes including heating needs.

             -A parallel program with solar electric panels and simple technologies for using the power.

- Developing fleets of solar charged small  electric vehicles for short-distance travel  including commuting.

- Develope local agricultural production along with local markets for food.

- Institute major programs for closing municipal cycles of water, wastes and energy.

The possibilities are  infinite and the pleasures, too, But the core change is in recognizing that the biosphere is, first, a living system, the product of evolution just as the rest of all life. And it requires our close attention and care.

           I came on a book by Diane Dumanoski recently.   She wrote, “For some, including the distinguished physician and science essayist Lewis Thomas, the picture taken of Earth from the moon left little doubt that it was a living whole that inspired reverence and wonder:  [Lewis Thomas wrote)  ‘Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the Earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground dead as an old bone. Aloft floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising Earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos… It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun’.

           “It is absurd:” she wrote “to insist upon the sanctity of humans while denying the sanctity of this larger life that enfolds us. Of the overarching process that gives the Earth its green vitality and has done so for a longer time than the human mind can conceive, is there not sacredness as well in the living Earth?”


[1] Edwin Way Teale Lecture, University of Connecticut, Storrs.  October 4, 2012

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Committee on The Future - July 2012


A Committee on The

July 2012

            I came back to my real life this morning from the relative isolation of a day on the farm in Maine to discover that the world had changed  quite suddenly and drastically. The front pages of the papers looked pretty much the same except that the Mayor of New York, Mr. Bloomberg,  was asking our two candidates for president just what they proposed to do about the widespread availability of guns like the automatic weapon used recently to kill and maim Coloradans at a movie. And both the candidates were bumbling about what a bad thing it was to treat Coloradans that way but without a single suggestion that anything might be done to stop such outrages.  And on the web Bill Moyers was pointing out that it was costing the nation billions, perhaps 75 billion, to kill tens of thousands of citizens with guns annually. And the gun lobby was saying the shooting might have been stopped if there had only been more guns around to stop him by, presumably, have a gun battle in the movie house.  All of this seems a bit beyond the edge of civilization.

            But then I turned to the OpEd page of the NYT where a major full column article asserted that the banks are too big to be regulated, a new thought. They have made a terrible mess internationally and have lied about their activities. Then they lobby the Congress and protect their rights to cheat the public and make large profits for their officers. The article, by Gar Alperovitz, a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, says the banks should be nationalized because “With high-paid lobbyists contesting every proposed regulation …big banks can never be controlled as private businesses.”  That explains a lot.  And I thought we had financial matters well worked out at his stage in the progressive development of civilization.

            Then daughter Caroline called my attention to Bill McKibben’s latest outburst on the climatic disruption in which he says all the things we scientists predicted thirty years ago and wrote about and delivered in testimony to the Congress as threats are now facts of our world and the sure cause of chaos yet to come unless we get quickly about the obvious solutions. But those who would cure demented murderers with more guns would cure environmental destruction and misery with more heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. McKibben proposes appropriately that a tax on fossil fuels would help.  If only we could extract such sense from political leaders who are heavily influenced by the wealth of the corporate lobbyists who have different objectives. McKibben suggests that  a systematic effort be made by universities and retirement funds to divest themselves of  investments in those rogue corporations. They are rogues because they are still promoting and profiting from oil and coal and gas and clearly wrecking the earth not only in mining but also by dumping their wastes into the atmosphere without corporate cost or consequence. The efforts at dis-investment  worked in changing the politics of South Africa and it might work now here. 

            Bill is  right on almost all points. But a careful scientist might say “He is probably wrong”  on the assertion that there is still room for more releases of carbon into the atmosphere. The present burden is already triggering significant further releases of carbon dioxide and, worse, methane,  from soils globally but especially from the extensive peat of Arctic and boreal forest soils. That statement is fact. Even the careful scientist would agree that release is likely to grow large enough to snatch the cure out of human hands and….. assure the collapse of this civilization. The probability of that event is great enough and the horror of it is sufficiently real that a shrill warming from science is appropriate. Bill needs to refreeze the Arctic!  Now. that objective has nothing to do with the dream that a 2 degree C rise might be tolerable. There is no safety in the 0.8 degree we have now.  We seem again to be allowing our corporate institutions and our governmental control to slip well out of the normal context of modern civilization.

            Then I stumbled into the discussion between Bill Moyers and Chris Hedges about Hedges new book. Hedges picks up in that discussion on the same theme: the corporate wrecking of the earth driven by greed and profits. The wreckage includes the gross and irreparable impoverishment of land and people.  He is rich with examples: the Southern Appalachians,  destroyed completely as a viable landscape by coal mining; Camden, New Jersey, once a thriving commercial manufacturing center, now a waste land with wasted people; the Athabasca Tar Sands, another landscape destroyed for energy.   He marches on:to the whole earth,  climates destroyed undermining all life, by greedy corporate interests allowed to mine and sell their products without any responsibility for their wastes that poison the atmosphere of the entire earth.

            The cure he says is a renewal of faith. Faith in people and their interest in treating others as they wish themselves to be treated.  The responsibility must apply as well to corporations whose systems must be closed to prevent poisoning or otherwise corrupting the interests of others.

            The list goes on: the future is at risk and there is no clear course. It is time for an earnest reappraisal of just where we are going. What will work in keeping a civilization, not on the edge of collapse, but clearly developing onto an earth capable of supporting organized life indefinitely. It is a scientific challenge as well as a political and economic conundrum. But the biophysical requirements seem seriously in question. It is time to organize a high level scientific Committee on the Future. Right now.  




Sunday, June 17, 2012

Harper’s Canada Rips a Hole in the Global Ship of State

Harper’s Canada Rips a Hole in the Global Ship of

George M. Woodwell[1]
Woods Hole, Massachusetts

            Sometimes we have to ask just what the purpose of government is.  In the nominally democratic nations we elect our fellow citizens to public office to help define and defend the public welfare. In the normal course that welfare starts with establishing and defending rules under which we live with one another.  Rules provide equity in human affairs, including our dealings with each other,  and in access to essential resources, especially those resources that we take as a human birthright:  air, water, land, food and a place to live in peace.  The rights are embraced in every culture and commonly start with the golden rule: deal with others as you would have them deal with you.  Governments build elaborate laws around that purpose. Courts amplify the laws over decades. And the rules apply in a well-regulated world of thoughtful and responsible nations.

            As human numbers increase and technology expands, so do the interactions and points of friction. Corporate and national and personal interests compete. The frequency of interactions rises much more rapidly than the numbers of people. It rises in fact exponentially and the need for regulations protecting the interests of all soars with it.. Simple arithmetic puts the lie to the common assertions of  Tea Party conservatives in the US and of all others, including Canadians, who  claim that growth in all aspects of human affairs is possible with fewer regulations. Destruction of laws and regulations developed over decades is willful destruction of a nation and puts the nation on a rapid slide toward chaos. Commerce does not regulate itself.  Worse, wise regulation requires detailed insights from science as to how the world works, a continuing flow of insights as to what will work in defending welfare of the public.

            So it is at the moment in Canada as the Harper administration systematically destroys laws, regulations and institutions developed over a century to protect public resources.  Jim MacNeill, a well known Canadian diplomat and former OECD officer in Paris recently suggested to me that Canada is a model of what the Tea Party and the rabid right are trying to bring to the U.S.:

“….(Harper) is now …stripping the statute books of the environmental laws and regulations that we have fought for since 1968. He is eliminating one environmental program after another and reducing the environment department to a shadow of its former self.

“At first… he talked like a disciple of George W. Bush -- environmental protection is a burden on the economy which reduces economic growth and kills jobs…..
“A month ago his Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, on the eve of the environmental hearings into the Gateway pipeline to China, wrote condemning ‘environmental and other radical groups’ …(who were later called) ‘terrorists’”.

            Elizabeth May,  a brilliant and fearless Member of the Canadian Parliament and long-time conservation leader, wrote to me  recently. She could have been writing about our own House of Representatives which stripped our Science Advisor, John Holdren, and his Office of Science and Technology Policy:of funds:                       
“…One of his first decisions was to unburden himself of the Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. Dr. Arthur Carty…...  When his term ended, it was not continued, and the position dissolved.”
            The Harper administration also has been cutting budgets for climate science for more than a year.  March ended funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. A $110 million program over tend years for research on climate in Canada’s major universities has been eliminated. The entire Adaptation to Climate Change Research Group was disbanded along with the group within Natural Resources Canada  working on Arctic ice cores.  An 80,000 year climate record in ice cores is to be abandoned
            The Canadians have a long and distinguished and widely used record of research in the Arctic. The global scientific community was stunned to learn that the Polar Environmental and Atmospheric Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island is to close.  At 80 degrees north latitude, PEARL was the closest such lab to the North Pole
            The Canadians also have a unique background of experimental data on aquatic ecosystems largely through the efforts of a single scientist, David Schindler, who had the vision as to what should be done and led the way through his own distinguished career. Now a rich resource, the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario is to close. Fifty-eight fresh water lakes 250 kilometres east of Winnipeg have been the testing ground for freshwater research since the late 1960s. .In the House a week ago, the Parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Fisheries announced that it will be sold to private interests.
            The list goes on. The Yukon Research Lab at Yukon College in Whitehorse is to close.  The $2.7 million facility only opened last fall – October 2011- is to focus on research that is “business-led and industry-relevant”.The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is ending its national         contaminants programme. 75  scientists, many with long careers invested studying marine toxicology across Canada, are being laid off.   According to Dr. Peter Ross “The entire pollution file for the government of Canada, and marine environment in Canada’s three oceans, will be overseen by five junior biologists…” These cuts are being made as huge areas of the Beaufort Sea are being leased for oil drilling.
            The common assumption of such libertarian views is that the market system is adequate to protect essential resources and ration them to all users. But the failures of the market to protect the public welfare are legion and conspicuous around the world. The market system gave us slavery and will again, given the chance.  Management of human affairs and essential resources lies at the very core of governmental function. Harper’s minions and the US far right, including the Tea Party, deny the core purpose of government.      
G.M. Woodwell is Founder and Director Emeritus of the Woods Hole  Research Center in Woods Hole Massachusetts,  scientist, member of the NAS , author  and lecturer.

[1] Woodwell  is Founder and Director Emeritus, The Woods Hole Research Center; Member, NAS; conservationist,  author, lecturer.

Monday, April 16, 2012

IPCC 2012 A Reasonable Objective-An Unfortunate Emphasis

IPCC 2012
A Reasonable Objective-An Unfortunate Emphasis

George M. Woodwell

            The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been regularly attacked by critics for representing the scientific community’s experience and data on the global disruption of climate as a global problem. Their treatments of that topic, however, have been scrupulously probing and objective despite the obvious threats to human welfare.  Their objectivity has been guarded by scientists who in my view have weakened interpretations of existing data, sometimes their own,  and limited their presentations unnecessarily to avoid criticism from more conservative scientists and from the political right, ever poised to leap on any sign of opinion. The entire process of publication is open to political review and criticism before publication, further extinguishing any flicker of bias or opinion.  The institution has done well in suppressing judgments and presenting well-defended data. One of the effects of that highly refined  approach has been to limit participants, excluding de facto potential scientific participants. Some scientists of whom I am one, are alarmed by the consequences of changing climates out from under all life. They are impatient and unwilling to concede ignorance of consequences that are known to be real, however unpopular with others.  Eliminating such perspectives introduces a clear bias never discussed.

            A new report appears in its title to abandon that carefully crafted objectivity. “Managing The Risks of Extreme Events and Disaster to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” can be interpreted as accepting the awkward but unfortunately popular conclusion that nations can muddle through by accommodating the climatic disruption…and the scientific community will help tell how. The report itself does little to alter that impression offering as it does a clinical dissection and interpretation of ‘risks’ in  500 page document. It might have been much more effective as well as appropriate to avoid the suggestion of  “adaptation” as a policy and emphasize “mitigation’ of both cause and effects throughout. Otherwise the merchants of poison appear to get all that they want.  Mitigation is in fact the only realistic objective, for the disasters discussed are unacceptably multiplying tragedies, however modulated in the dissection . A journalistic propensity for a balanced treatment might lead to a discussion of what can now be done to stabilize the composition of the atmosphere.  All nations have agreed to do so under the Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, a very important treaty that was virtually universally ratified and cannot be ignored. Such an analysis might reach even further to what might be done to reverse the trend, however difficult and long-term that process may be. 

            “Adaptation” to accelerating continuous climatic disruption as a policy is optimism run wild. Those advocating it set conditions that make it sound reasonable: ‘we must accept the changes already induced and correct for them”; “we shall continue to work to halt the trend and reverse it, but meanwhile, we must adapt”. Alas, those palliatives are attractive but misleading. This document unfortunately suggests the acceptance of a decision to allow the continued accumulation of the tragedy. Such an acceptance would be a confession to the industrial world that we shall continue on a suicidal course and the scientific community will help. Surely, the IPCC can emerge with a more powerful statement of the most serious disruption of life on earth short of social and political collapse into universal war.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Upper Amazon: February 21, 2012

The Upper Amazon: February 21, 2012

            The following is a brief word from Foster Brown, the WHRC’s staff member and decades-long resident of Rio Branco in the southwestern Brazilian Amazon Basin. He offers a glimpse into the future of climatic disruption’s ramifications. GMW

Here in the southwestern Amazon we are undergoing floods of historic proportions.   Already more than five thousand displaced persons are living in public shelters.  The flooding in the Peruvian border town of Inapari extended more than an kilometer from the normal banks,  a flood exceeding all previous floods in living or recounted memories.   I had the strange experience of cruising up main street in a civil defense boat, watching our wake lap against shopping windows.

We are anticipating that the flood crest of the Acre River should peak today in Rio Branco, which is already at the second highest level in 40 years.    My job has been to help implant a early warning system for flooding; the system  worked but needs improvements.   However, since everyone in the region has been hit with the metaphorical two-by-four to get our attention,  my guess is that we will have a better system working shortly, just in time for the fires of the dry season.

About 200 Haitians in Inapari have suffered a double whammy of being barred from entering Brasil and then flooded out of their temporary refuge in a Catholic church.  I  have met several who manage one meal a day, if they are lucky."

            It is becoming virtually impossible to write realistically, or to report honestly, the details of  systematic global disruption now underway without appearing to be slipping into hyperbole. The statement below on “Adaptation” for instance  was rejected recently by Bruce Alberts, Editor of Science, as “unbalanced”. One wonders what “balance” might be and just how objective perspectives are even at Science.GMW

Monday, February 6, 2012

ADAPTATION: Adrift in a Cloud of Fantasy


ADAPTATION: Adrift in a Cloud of Fantasy

January 2012

            There is virtually no aspect of human affairs that is not affected by the cloud of uncertainty enveloping the earth as the climatic disruption proceeds. The density of the cloud varies with the beholder. At one end there is imaginative and vigorous denial based  on financial interests in the commerce of  energy. Among  scientists, too, there is a range of views from skepticism to hyper-objectivity bordering on denial, to deep concern. Many of these latter recognize that changing climate out from under all life, including oceans, forests and agriculture, presents a lethal threat to this civilization in the short term of years to decades. They understand that the current slide can easily become a cascade into a chaos that will reduce the human population to a fraction of its current  seven billion. That slide may be anticipated as the large pools of carbon stored in the Arctic peats and in the trees and soils of the Boreal Forest are mobilized by the warming and cook the planet. The fuse of the potential carbon bomb of high latitudes in the northern hemisphere is now lit.  The only sure cure is stabilizing, and then reducing, the temperature of the earth.

            The most common response appears to be exasperated cries for “realism” and for simply adapting to the changes as they occur: business as usual.  “Realism” as envisioned by economists and an increasing number of scientists asserts no chance of success in abandoning fossil fuels. In that view there is the necessity for adaptation, accepting the changes already experienced and anticipating more. That process becomes the policy, sustained by the hope of muddling through.  But the “policy of adaptation” is blind to the lethal feedbacks that take the climatic disruption to new and unacceptable extremes.  A limit on the extent of the warming has already been established in the public eye as a two degree C rise in the average temperature of the earth. That limit was a compromise established as a political and economic convenience, not a scientific consensus. The possibility of allowing the earth to warm to that level and not higher has never been established, only asserted on the basis of dreams supported by wishful thinking. The warming that has already occurred is at least marginally controllable by bold action now.  Would control still be possible after an average change in the temperature of the earth of two degrees and the Arctic warmed by as much as 4-6 degrees?  Almost certainly not.

            Despite the success of the Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in Rio in 1992 and subsequently ratified universally, seventeen Conferences of the Parties have failed to produce progress.  Progress would constitute effective action toward  stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere with respect to the heat trapping gases, especially carbon dioxide.  Over the years immediately following such a success, emissions from fossil fuels would have to be reduced further to maintain the equilibrium and, if the concentration in air were to be lowered further as it should be, fossil fuels would have to be substantially abandoned over several years.

            While an honest judgment may require skepticism as to the possibility of political action in abandoning fossil fuels, this skepticism should not be confused with skepticism  towards the evolving facts of climate science.  Basing policy on political or corporate opposition and the myth of adaptation amounts to an abandonment of hope and is a commitment to runaway climatic disruption. The response to such an assertion is, of course, denial: “we shall take every opportunity to reduce emissions and deflect the course of the warming”. Meanwhile, that policy accedes to the skeptics’ position and reduces substantially to zero any possibility of success in deflection. It assures the economic, social and political chaos of environmental collapse.

            The only viable stance for scientists and politicians is persistent, relentless optimism supported by imaginative and equally relentless efforts in research  and public affairs: insistence that the remaining primary forests globally be conserved as is, that 1-2 million square kilometers of  normally naturally forested land  be reforested with natural forests, and that fossil fuels be systematically abandoned within the decade before 2020. The transition can be to a new world, one our children can, and will want to live in. It will not be the analog of Haiti and Somalia of this moment, but  a variant of  new “green cities” and “transitional towns” set in an environment  wherein forests and fertile soils and all other life are as protected as in a park. We must envision, design and start building them now. There is no other way.

                                                                                    George M. Woodwell
                                                                                    Woods Hole, Massachusetts
                                                                                    January 2012