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Stephanie Novak/MEDILL Wallace Broecker, 81, at the annual Comer Conference on abrupt climate change. Comer became one of the leading funders of climate change research and enlisted Broecker to help mentor the effort. They traveled together on research expeditions.
Stephanie Novak/MEDILL
Wallace Broecker, 81, at the annual Comer Conference on abrupt climate change. Comer became one of the leading funders of climate change research and enlisted Broecker to help mentor the effort. They traveled together on research expeditions.

by Stephanie Novak
Oct 23, 2012

Many know climate scientist Wallace Broecker, 81, as the “father of global warming”—but he says he isn’t very fond of the title.

“They say I’m the first one to use those words in print,” Broecker explained during a break at this year’s Comer Conference on abrupt climate change, held in southern Wisconsin. 

According to Broecker, the accolade comes from a paper he published in 1975, questioning if the planet was on the brink of global warming. 

Still, he said, Charles David Keeling deserves the title often bestowed upon him. Keeling, a geochemist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was the first to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and later perfected the technique. The Keeling Curve brought awareness and solid science to rapidly increasing levels of CO2 and raised the alert that the buildup was linked to human activities. 

And CO2 levels, which continue to rise as people increase fossil fuel emissions, are a thermostat for a warming planet. 

“I don’t want to be remembered as the father of global warming. I want to be remembered for all the good science I’ve done” Broecker said. 

With or without the title, the man at the forefront of climate research since the 1970s has contributed innovative science to the field. He’s best known for his discovery of the ocean “conveyor belts” that play an important role in regulating the earth’s temperature. His 450 published journal articles and 10 books have also contributed to a greater understanding of the carbon cycle and the role of glaciers in regulating the earth’s temperature.

Broecker was born in Oak Park, Ill. After three years as an undergraduate at Wheaton College just a few miles west of his hometown, he transferred to Columbia University in New York and never left. He is currently the Newberry Professor of Geology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and a scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He joined the university’s faculty in 1959.

And it was at Columbia that the late Gary Comer, the founder of outdoor apparel company Lands’ End, sought out Broecker and became one of his biggest champions. After selling his highly successful company to Sears, Comer funneled millions of dollars into climate change research across the globe and enlisted Broecker to help pull together top scientists and cutting-edge funding prospects. Stephanie and Guy Comer carry on their father’s legacy through the Comer Science and Education Foundation in Chicago.

Broecker brings straightforward explanations to the complexities of climate cycles and the role human activities are playing in global warming. He relies on the science behind greenhouse gases.

“Our best knowledge of the physics of greenhouse gases tells us that it should warm the planet, it’s an amplifier,” he said.  “Physics says it should warm, and it is warming. You can argue ‘til kingdom come whether what we’ve seen in the last 50 years is due to CO2 or not. I mean it makes sense that it is, but we can’t prove” that CO2 has led to extreme weather changes such as drought and flooding, he added.

This year’s hot summer makes a convincing case for the fact that greenhouse gases are indeed contributing to overall warming. One thing that Broecker’s science can predict is that when the planet warms overall, dry areas will become warmer and dryer and tropical, rainy areas will get wetter. The Midwest can expect more heat and damaging swings between flooding and drought.

Broecker equates taking climate change seriously to getting a regular check-up with your doctor. In medicine, people understand the value of preventative care—eating well to prevent obesity and diabetes, for example. 

The way Broecker sees it, he and his fellow climate scientists are just like doctors, offering preventative care medicine for the earth’s climate.  

“Nobody wants our medicine,” he said. “So I think, you know, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

And Broecker also understands that completely stopping all CO2 emissions isn’t a practical, near-term solution in a world that depends daily on things from heaters and air conditioning units to automobiles and airplanes.

“The time between now and when we’re on another energy source entirely is at least 50 years from now. We’re moving, but we’ve gotta replace everything,” he said. A complete switch to alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power or a solution such as fusion could even be a century away.

So Broecker, along with his colleague Klaus Lackner at Columbia is backing another solution.

“I think what we should be doing is pulling the CO2 out of the air and burying it,” he said, noting that  Lackner is working on carbon capture system to do just that.

“I think it ultimately has to be that way,” Broecker said, explaining that the biggest backlash has come from oil companies, but also from some environmentalists. 

“Environmentalists can be their own worst enemy,” he said. Some climate scientists oppose the idea of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and burying it—in a nutshell, Lackner’s plan—because they say it encourages people to stop investing in other forms of energy and keep relying on fossil fuels. Broecker acknowledges this argument, but circles back to his point about massive alternative forms of energy being 50 years away.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere can be a temporary solution until we can completely stop using fossil fuels, Broecker said.

Broecker said governments and not individuals will have to think global warming is a critical issue—funding plans like Lackner’s—in order for real change to happen.

“People always ask me ‘What can I do?,’” Broecker said. “In small ways you can help…turn off your lights, drive a Prius, but the problem is at the government level. At this point we really need a world government that has teeth—at least in regard to climate.”

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