Dr. George Woodwell, Climate Science Pioneer, Woods Hole Research Center

I spent 10 years at the Marine Biological Laboratory, and then, in 1985, I left to set up the Woods Hole Research Center. At that time, there was a great deal of interest in the climate issue in the scientific community. Around that time, I became persuaded that the scientific community should insist on there being a climate treaty.                                                                                                                                        

Fortunately, here in Woods Hole, I ran into a young Indian named Ramakrishna Kilaparti Ramakrishna, who had had a Fulbright fellowship at Harvard and then a year at the Oceanographic Institution. And before going back to India, his wife was working on a master’s degree in Boston, and he wanted to spend another extra year around Boston or at least in New England-- so I suggested he come and work for us and draft a treaty.

He had a background in international affairs, as well as in international environmental law. He had done a PhD dissertation on the UN system. So, he knew that system inside-out and he was familiar with the people, which was amazing to me. So, he agreed to come and work for us. I had no money, so he came without any salary initially. Over the course of several months, he produced, not a draft of the treaty, but a draft saying how to compose the treaty.

I asked that it be reviewed, and he set up a review panel which included, Sir Crispin Tickell, who was the British Ambassador to the United Nations and several other UN officials. They indeed reviewed the document sitting in my living room here in Woods Hole, and they all approved. One of the gentleman had written a little book about the carbon dioxide problem, and so he knew it inside and out.  They went back to the UN, and they managed to persuade the General Assembly to set up a committee to draft the treaty, which was to be chaired by Michael Zammit Cutajar of Malta. Rama would have been asked to be the secretary of that committee, except at that time the US was not paying its dues to the UN, there was no money, because Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina had refused to support the UN.

So, Cutajar wisely said to Rama “Well look, you know the issue, I know that you have experience, can you come and work for me, and we will get the treaty done.”  So, Ramakrishna did it, and we paid him, and a treaty emerged. While Rama had a big hand in it, certainly a lot of the initiative came from us, but I’m sure the treaty would have emerged otherwise. It just happened that we were on the scene at that moment. Anyway, that was the Framework Convention on Climate Change which was signed in Rio in 1992 and then subsequently over the course of the next year was ratified by all the (roughly) 196 nations in the UN at that time, including the United States.

This Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty said in sum that it is the intention of the nations of the world to stabilize the composition of the atmosphere at levels that will protect human interest and nature. But, unfortunately, it provided no mechanism for achieving its goal,  the stabilization of the Earth’s climate-- the creation of a mechanism was put off, being left to the Conferences of the Parties.

This mechanism, and enforcement powers were not established till COP5 in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. The so-called Kyoto Protocol treaty produced the clearest, really serious effort of implementing the treaty, and that was under the heavy influence of the US that substantially defined what the terms would be. And these were good terms, except that they could never be ratified by the US. The US Senate never offered the genuine international leadership that was required to get other nations to join, and instead voted 95-0 to reject the treaty, led by the fossil fuel Industry, specifically West Virginia Senator, Robert Byrd.  And so, while the agreement was a sound one, wisely put together, it could not pass the political test.  

Looking at the 25 years of COPs, there have now been 21 with our current COP21 in Paris, almost one every year. Some were outstanding, but none produced what was needed from the first.  This year in Paris, the nations decided they had to do something constructive, but, again, because the U.S. Senate, in this case led by the Republicans, refused to support a binding climate treaty, producing instead an agreement, which, unlike a treaty, only requires presidential approval, but has no teeth.

Now what they did was interesting and in many ways encouraging. It’s encouraging in the sense that all the nations recognized something had to be done, that the new world that can emerge in the post-fossil fuel age is not a black world, but potentially a very attractive world with cleaner air and much cleaner living for everybody. And having that recognition in the commercial world is a big forward step and very important.

On the other hand, the consensus of the group did not embrace the stabilization objective of the basic document, The Framework Convention on Climate Change. They embraced instead, business as usual, proceed as we are going, adapt as we can, and try to keep the rising temperature of the Earth to an average of 2 degrees C or less. Well, that from a scientific standpoint is outrageous. No scientist who knows this topic in any detail is going to agree that an average change in the temperature of the Earth of 2 degrees is safe, acceptable in any way, for a reasonable objective.

It doesn’t matter what one looks at like the melting of glacial ice, because it’s preceding already far less than 2 degrees average change in the temperature of the Earth, and it’s clearly causing higher tides, higher water year by year. But it has the potential for raising sea levels as much as 10 feet in a century or maybe even more. But, even if there’s a three foot rise in water levels, it can fill the subways of New York during a storm. That would cause some serious attention to simply the issue of sea level rise, I think. But it would also fill the tunnels of Baltimore and Boston and various other places.

So, I really think that this is fantasy. And then looking at what happens to climate worldwide, it’s very clear that agriculture is put at enormous risk, and that our industrial agriculture is not the way we are going to be able to go in the future in any case. So, looking at the climatic changes that are the likely result of the Paris agreement, the major disruption will continue. What we have to do, if I look at this as a scientist, is to start a trend in the reverse direction, a cooling, with the objective of reaching the heat trapping gas content of the atmosphere that existed in 1900.

Before we continue looking at where we need to go in the future, I need to talk a bit more about Rio and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its purpose was to stabilize temperatures at levels to protect essentially everything, but we have long passed that level of course, which is a tragedy in itself. Now, the apparent decision of the political and economic interests is to proceed in the same direction without drastic and immediate change and without an objective that is currently appropriate.

The objective that they have defined is a warming of 2 degrees C s being the upper limit, but there’s no way to guarantee that if we allow this contemporary warming to continue, it can be stopped at 2 degrees. This is simply because the feedback mechanisms that go along with the warming are so powerful that they can quite easily slip beyond control.

Currently, control exists largely in reducing the use of fossil fuels, but could also exist if we would only amplify the normal flows of carbon through the biosphere as they existed for millions of years. Those flows are very large, roughly 90 to 100 billion tons of carbon per year flows into terrestrial plants and out again in respiration and an equivalent amount diffuses into the oceans and out again—these are truly  huge flows.

We could increase the area of forests on Earth by a significant amount. Roughly a million square kilometers of forest absorbs about a billion tons of carbon annually. The problem with carbon at the moment is about 4 to 5 billion tons are accumulating in the atmosphere annually. To stabilize the atmosphere you have to remove 4 to 5 billion tons per year from emissions. Total fossil fuel emissions are roughly 10 billion tons per year. But the net accumulation is only 4 to 5 billion tons, the remainder diffuses into the oceans or is absorbed by forests. Those are the two major sinks for carbon. 

And so, if we wanted to reach zero, that is stabilize the composition of the atmosphere as intended at Rio, which is the first step toward reversing the trend, we’d have to reduce that 4 to 5 billion tons to zero. We can do that; deforestation is producing about 1.5 billion tons per year of carbon yearly. Ceasing deforestation on a global basis is possible, but it won’t be easy.

We should start in the United States by deciding that all the forested areas that are under governmental control, and substantial land areas would be retained as forests, i.e., not harvested. Knowing that, we can restore forests on normally naturally forested land around the world to the extent of millions of square kilometers. A million square kilometers absorbs about a billion tons of carbon a year, so if we can restore forests on an area twice the size of Alaska (1.7 million km square), which is entirely possible on a global basis, we can store several billion tons of carbon annually in developing forests.

Well, those are clearly advantageous things to do, they don’t solve the whole problem but they are a large part of the solution. And then, we could reduce the total use of fossil fuels by 20 percent almost overnight. It would take some significant efforts but it can be done, and it can be done commercially and attractively in the sense that renewable energy is cheap, and we can and are developing it. Solar, for instance has lately averaged about an eight to ten percent price drop every year. Our home that I am sitting in at the moment, produces more energy than we use. And in the Woods Hole Research Center, we have a wind machine and solar panels. Initially when we set that up, we were an immense source of energy, now the center has expanded-- with cooling and big computers, we are producing slightly less than we use, but none the less we produce it ourselves, and that’s getting to be more common.

The city of Brattleboro, Vermont, is claiming to be entirely on renewable energy. This is to me remarkable, and will soon become more common. Renewable energy is cheap. I personally find that my investments in solar energy are yielding about a 10 percent return; isn’t that something? It may not be universally true, but none the less it is a very good investment here and now.


Let’s look at the threat of methane. Methane is leaking from fracking wells in relatively large amounts, as scientist Dr. Bob Howarth and others tell us. Further, it is one of the big hazards in the sense that there are potentially big sources of methane in the tundra in the Arctic and large sources in the shallow waters around the Arctic. And as those waters warm, that methane bank which is quite great, potentially enters the atmosphere where it stays in large part for about 20 years, breaking down into carbon dioxide as well which has a much longer half-life. Now the half-life of methane is on the order of ten or thirteen years, but that the half-life, it’s not all gone for about 50 years, which is a similar process as for radioactive (Uranium, C14, etc.) elements.

The Arctic is warming so rapidly that the soils melt and dump methane that’s been trapped over thousands of years into the atmosphere. Making the problem worse, these are all part of the feedback system which is underway and it’s serious and large enough that it could grab the whole issue away from any possibility of control. The really large hazard is the warming itself, as a rapidly warming Arctic releases increasing, but untold, quantities of methane from rapidly thawing soils and the ocean bottom in especially shallow coastal waters. 

Now you can’t prove that, all one can do is to realize that the possibility exists, and it’s a sufficient hazard that we don’t want to take that risk. If you can’t afford to lose a gamble, don’t gamble. But it seems that’s a gamble that the political and economic interests are making for us with our future, and they should not be allowed to do that. No question, we really should be raising sufficient concern that there’s no possibility that the warming of the Earth will continue. Even 1.5 degrees, let alone 2 degrees is taking a big chance. We are now at 1 degree C of warming, and look what’s already happening—BAD. But even WORSE, the warming is rapidly accelerating.

Everybody wonders of course where the tipping point might be or whether we’ve passed it. There are those that talk about melting of the glaciers in the Antarctic, glaciers sliding off the land, and saying it’s now irreversible. As the melting proceeds and a glacier slides, it becomes a float, and as a float, it melts.

So, I think that the hazards are real and with us now, and I think the scientific community would agree. Now I don’t know how big the scientific community is who would agree with the ideas I just expressed. There are pieces of the scientific community that don’t agree with that, and the scientific community is fundamentally conservative. They want proof before they act, they say. Well proof in this case is going to be a series of changes in the Earth that are irreversible, once made, we will wish we hadn’t gotten to that point. I think that when one sees that the car is headed for a cliff, the best thing to do is apply the brake and turn away from that course.

                                                                    End Sidebar

We should use the information we have to make a better world and that’s the whole issue. We’ve turned it over to the politicians and the economists who say “yes we’re going to work in the right direction”, but they don’t have a set of objectives that are yet appropriate. The appropriate objectives have to be cooling the Earth here on through the rest of this century. Getting back to a world that is something close to the 1900 level of CO2 in the atmosphere would ensure refreezing of the Arctic, if it happens early enough. Happening “early enough” is hard to define, but I don’t see any alternative. The atmosphere was 280 parts per million CO2 for a million years or more. It wasn’t above that for a very long time. One benchmark is the 1880s when it was 284 ppm.  If we could get it down to or near that 1880 number, we’d be in good shape.

That would mean the end of fossil fuels. But we’ve reached the point where fossil fuels must end. And the reason why it hasn’t ended is simple close mindedness and greed on the part of fossil fuel companies. Exxon knew what the problem was, I had money from Exxon when I set up the research program at the Marine Biological Laboratory, and I talked with those guys. They knew they were financing us, and they knew what we were saying and doing. They knew all about it, that was 1975. In ’75, I had support from Exxon to build the Ecosystem Center at the Marine Biological Lab, and they supported me through the next 10 years at about $25,000 a year, and they knew the whole problem. And when I left the MBL in ’85, I would have taken their grant with me, but they wouldn’t move it.

This is the point of a book we’ll publish in a month or so-- the turn away from fossil fuels has to be a turn toward recognition that the world is run, not by economic and political systems or by humans, but by the natural communities of the Earth, largely by forests because they’re so big, but also by the other natural communities which include grasslands, prairies, tundra, and the whole range of the normal structure of nature. The seriousness and the degree of integrity of the structure of the natural communities isn’t really recognized until we start to mix them up. We moved species around the world and discovered that we had messed up everything. The invasives destroy the structure of the forests, like kudzu growing all over everything in the South.

We now have in New England a plague of the bittersweet vine, totally uncontrolled and running over forests, killing trees, it’s just incredible. Apparently a hybrid between an Asian strain and an American strain, I’m not sure what its history is, but nonetheless, the integrity of the invaded communities is totally destroyed.  And that gives you an idea of just how important it is to have respect for the structure of the basic units of the biosphere, which built the biosphere and that continue to run it. And continuing to run it means it maintains the gas structure of the atmosphere, the chemistry of the oceans, the chemistry of lakes, rivers, and that chemistry determines what the structure of those communities is. They evolved in that set of circumstances, and they continue to depend on it. So the transition away from fossil fuels, if it’s going to be successful, has to achieve as well the need to preserve the basic biology of nature, because that’s what keeps a habitable Earth for us humans, and I suggest we have a vested interest in that.