Wallace Broecker’s Last Words to Me on Climate Change

19 Feb 2019

 Wallace Broecker in a 2017 interview in Wisconsin. (KELLY CALAGNA)

 

Esteemed climate scientist Wallace Broecker, known for first bringing the world’s attention to the fact that CO2 is warming our planet, passed away on Monday in New York City. He was 87.

 

I interviewed Broecker, the “grandfather of climate science,” as a graduate student in 2016 and 2017. Though I was a young science journalist and he the renowned mind that coined the term “global warming,” he spoke to me with a seriousness and respect that gave a clear sense of the shared responsibility he felt between us for the future of our planet.

 

Our talks were forward-looking and he knew the future we were discussing did not hold him, but me, and my generation. With his passing yesterday, I revisited our conversations and want to highlight these key points he shared:

 

There’s no perfect solution to global warming and we don’t have time to wait for it

 

“The question should be, ‘What do we do about fossil fuel, CO2?’” said Broecker, as I was adjusting the lights to begin our second on-camera interview in October of 2017. “Yes, that’s the question I want to talk about, so don’t ask me another question,” he chuckled. He was a straight shooter. 

 

“Well, of course I have been watching the whole fossil fuel thing for 50 years, and there are obvious things we should do—we should be converting to non-fossil fuel energy—but that’s happening at a snail’s pace,” he said.

 

Broecker attributed our sluggish transition to sustainable energy to the unyielding influence of oil and gas companies. “They’re going to do everything in their power to [continue selling fossil fuels], just to satisfy their stockholders[…] and we can’t control that,” said Broecker. 

 

His focus, however, was on a solution that didn’t rely on upending the world’s most powerful industry—which he clearly saw as a nonstarter—but instead centered on temporary solutions, or “bandaids,” to buy us time for our sustainable technology to catch up to where we need it to be. 

 

Broecker said, “I would start to put SO2 in the stratosphere, now,”—a controversial solution that most environmentalists decry. SO2 particles reflect sunlight and, theoretically, could help cool the planet if enough of it was released into the atmosphere. However, SO2 particles are known to cause harm to human health and ecosystems, which leaves it far from ideal. 

 

But Broecker argued that “if we don’t start doing something like that, we’re going to experience a really serious warming.” Warming, he explained, that would harm the environment in irrecoverable ways, such as permanently losing land ice and coastal erosion due to sea level rise,  which would displace hundreds of millions of people. About 10 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters above sea level and 40 percent of the world’s population live within 60 miles of a coast, according to the United Nations.   

 

“We [have] to look at the big picture and say there are some terrible things that are going to happen, and we gotta think about preventing those. If we create some small problems, ok; there’s no environmental solution without side effects,” he said, “We’re going to see the worst of it in 50 years and we don’t think that way.”

 

Individual action can only do so much

 

“You don’t want to have people believe that they can solve the problem by switching to [a] Prius or a [beef-free] diet. That won’t solve the problem,” said Broecker, “Not that we don’t want people to be more efficient—of course that will help—but we don’t want people to believe if we do that, everything will be alright.”

 

A 2017 report from the Carbon Majors Database found that 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the top 100 producing corporate and state entities. The actions of individuals, while important, do not come close to fixing the globe’s CO2 crisis. 

 

“I think that’s the hardest thing for people to get in mind—just how immense [the CO2 issue] is,” said Broecker.

 

Broecker highlighted that our warming planet is a global issue, requiring global efforts and corporate responsibility. He suggested that individuals can limit their emissions, but that it only slows the leak—the boat will still eventually sink.

 

We need to work together

 

One of the biggest obstacles to taking action against global warming is that “we don’t have a powerful world government,” said Broecker. “To solve [global warming] I think we would have to have some global commission that would control energy use, CO2 removal, [use of] SO2—somebody that [would be] isolated politically and would do the best thing scientifically,” he said.

 

Since my first interview with Broecker, the United States has left the Paris Agreement and the immediate prospect of the world’s leaders overhauling our planet’s energy systems seems bleak. “And Trump going back to coal, that was a big step [back],” said Broecker. 

 

Broecker notably testified before Congress in 1984 alongside other scientists tasked with briefing the government on climate change. “It was the middle of July and it was hot as hell, and I wore sandals without any socks,” Broecker chuckled, remembering the moment he embarrassingly  realized that senators were looking at his exposed toes. “So I put my briefcase in front of my feet,” he laughed. “But they asked good questions,” he said, regaining his purposeful demeanor, “I really was impressed that they were serious [lawmakers] and really wanted to know [what was happening].” 

 

The scientists had hoped that presenting the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change would result in immediate action to be taken. Unfortunately, three and a half decades later, the issue is still being debated and the window for action is getting smaller. 

 

While Broecker was pessimistic that our current leaders would be the ones to confront global warming, he maintained hope that future generations could unite on the issue. The scientist dedicated his life to educating young minds and inspired many of the top experts in the field today.

 

“I wish I could live 50 more years. You’re going to see really—I mean this is… this is going to be big, big, big, big and it’s going to be big, big, big, big trouble,” said Broecker. “This is a vast problem that’s going to require a vast solution.”

 

 

 

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