“It’s Going to Make a Huge Mess”

The man who coined the term "global warming" looks back at 35 years of climate change.

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Wallace Broecker has written some 460 academic papers in his half-century-long career as a geologist. But this week, everyone seems to remember just one of them: an Aug. 8, 1975, paper in Science titled “Climate Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” It was the first time anyone used the term “global warming,” and his paper’s predictions about planetary warming proved remarkably accurate.

Not that it makes him sleep any better. “I really feel that this is something we’re going to have to do something about,” he tells FP‘s Elizabeth Dickinson. “It’s not going to make a disaster on the planet, but it’s going to make a huge mess, and it’s a mess that could be avoided or lessened if we started to take action.”

Foreign Policy: Tell us a bit about how you came to coin the term “global warming” in Science magazine back in 1975.

Wallace Broecker: I came to Columbia University as a senior in college in 1952 and was immediately employed in the radiocarbon-dating lab. And I’m still here, 58 years later. I studied various aspects of the carbon cycle there, and [as we watched] carbon dioxide levels going up, physics said the planet should be warming. Yet between about 1941 until the early 1970s, there was no warming.

I wondered, “How could it be that we’re not seeing a warming?” Then, in the early 1970s, one of the first long records of climate was released based on an ice core drilled in northern Greenland. I extrapolated [that data forward] and found that there [should be] a natural cooling between the 1940s and about 1980 — half of an 80-year [warming-cooling cycle seen in the ice core]. So I said, “Aha!” Maybe what had happened is that, by chance, the carbon dioxide-induced warming that [physicists] expected had just been balanced by a [natural planetary] cooling. If that were true, we were in for a turnaround when the natural cooling became a natural warming — which would join forces with the carbon dioxide warming. In Science, I argued that we were on the brink of a pronounced global warming, using that term. It was the natural [terminology] to use; I never thought I was naming something. It was only three or four years ago that people picked up on this and realized that I was the first to use it.

I taught a course in the carbon cycle in the spring term at Columbia, and I offered a $250 award to anybody who could find an earlier mention of “global warming.” It didn’t take much of a literature search to find it in the title of a Science article — that would stand out like a sore thumb. My idea [with the reward] was to get it off my back! I’ve written 460 papers — I hope I’m not remembered for two words in one title!

FP: How was the article first received? How did the scientific consensus about climate change emerge?

WB: In those days, we were intellectually interested in global warming. I don’t think it had sunk in that it could be as much of a problem as we think of it being now. [I think] most people have gone through a similar evolution to mine. Now we’re seeing a huge backlash of conservatives who don’t want to spend the money to do anything.

I don’t know how long it’s going to be before people really wake up. I suspect we’re going to have to wait until the impacts grow larger. So I’m not exactly unhappy that this is a record year for warmth.

One problem for all of us is that the natural fluctuations in climate have been on the same order of magnitude as the warming we’ve generated by putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So we can’t prove that the warming of the last 35 years has been due to greenhouse gases — it’s legitimate to say part of it has been natural, or all of it has been natural. But on the other hand, physics says [that all that carbon dioxide] should be warming the planet up. We can’t say for certain how much we’re going to warm the planet, but it’s going to happen.

FP: In the wake of the “Climategate” scandal, what role do you think that scientists such as yourself have in the politics of climate change?

WB: Well, I’ll tell you one thing: We’re not very good at it. Climategate was a tempest in a teapot. The scientists were using tree-ring evidence to say that the present warming is greater than that of the medieval warming, and that’s where they got in trouble. I don’t think we have the capability to determine whether the planet was warmer than it is now, and I don’t think it matters. The point is that if we go to 700 or 800 parts per million of carbon dioxide [in the air], it’s likely going to get a lot warmer than it has been and a lot faster than it’s ever warmed before. The opponents of doing something are looking for a weakness in our armor, and they attack, and they’re good at it. Very good at it. And we’re not very good at handling it — we’re innocents. They’re professionals.

This was a huge setback, no doubt about it; you can just tell by the polls. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose political future is not very clear, is the only world leader who’s really been able to do anything. Germany is doing a lot to combat its own carbon dioxide emissions; maybe Iceland too. But that’s small potatoes. Obama’s heart is in the right place, but he doesn’t have much of a chance of doing very much.

FP: You have written about tipping points in warming of the planet — moments that shift the climate dramatically. What kind of benchmarks should we be looking for?

WB: Richard Alley [of Pennsylvania State University] created this analogy: It’s like a blind man walking along a flat plain, but he’s been told that in the direction he’s going, there’s a cliff. He’s not sure whether to believe that’s true, and he doesn’t have any idea how far the cliff is. I think there may be tipping points out there — you can’t deny that. But since you can’t identify them, we really can’t say when we’re going to reach one.

I think [tipping points are] a secondary concern — the primary concern is just that we’re going to warm the planet. That in itself is enough to worry about.

FP: Do you put faith in any of the carbon-reducing technologies being tested right now?

WB: We have a man here at Columbia named Klaus Lackner who is learning to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Let’s say we were going to try to get the carbon dioxide that comes from our transportation fleet — that’s a third of all the carbon dioxide we produce, so that’s an important part of it. There’s no way to directly capture the carbon dioxide from an automobile, so why not take it back out of the air? Lackner has developed a unit now that would take a ton of carbon dioxide a day out of the air. That would compensate for 20 U.S. automobiles, and it would cost about the same amount as an automobile. [If there were] 70 million automobiles on the planet, you’d have build 3.5 million of these and install them. Well, we build many more automobiles than that a year, so if we really wanted to do it, we could do it. You’d have to operate them, and that would raise the price of U.S. gasoline maybe 30 or 35 cents a gallon. That’s manageable.

[If we] think ahead 50 years, we could [use this system to] make artificial gasoline. Instead of trying to use hydrogen as fuel, Lackner proposes pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and then putting the hydrogen together with it to make gasoline. The South Africans have already done this. That would mean we could have automobiles forever without raising the carbon dioxide content of the air, because it would just be recycled.

One of the sad things is that Lackner spent something like $6.5 million on this in seven years, and that’s what a well-known baseball player makes in one season. The government just doesn’t know how to do these small things. Unless it’s going to be some spectacular jump ahead that costs several hundred million dollars, there doesn’t seem to be any interest in doing it.

There are only three ways to run the world on energy — three major energy sources: the sun, nuclear, and carbon. People are uneasy about having a world run by nuclear, and the sun is still too expensive, so it’s going to be a while. In the meantime, we’re going to be stuck with carbon, so we’d better learn to capture and store. I think anybody that’s got their head screwed on right is going to see this as a strategy that may be very important for 50 years or so.

FP: Are you going to do anything to celebrate this “35th anniversary” of global warming?

WB: No, I want to get rid of it! I’m still offering the $250 reward, and I will widen the thing to everybody who reads Science. I would like to unload it and put it on somebody else’s shoulders.

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