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