Nov

15

LectureHop: Apocalypse Now: A Conversation with Wallace Broecker

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* dramatization

On Tuesday, the Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life presented the third part of its yearlong series, Apocalypse Now: End Time and the Contemporary Imaginary. Seated in front of a small audience old enough to remember the first global climate shift, Wallace S. Broecker (aka the “Grandfather of Climate Science”) expertly addressed just how bad things really are. Lecture-hopper extraordinaire, Zachary Hendrickson, was in attendance to capture every terrifying insight.

                “It’s really hopeless. I don’t think we’re going to do anything because there is no will to do anything.” These final, incredibly depressing words provided the perfect cap on the evening. Delivered by Broecker in response to a question from the audience about whether or not human beings would “make it,” this quote could pretty much sum up the entire night. For someone can say that they first coined the term ‘global warming’ nearly 50 years ago, it must be incredibly frustrating to see that, even as your predictions come to life with devastating consequences, there are still individuals out there who believe that climate change is not a serious issue – or worse, don’t believe it exists at all.

This is a frustration that could be felt in nearly every point that Broecker (who is, by the way a professor at Columbia in the Earth and Environmental Science Department) delivered. Another cloud over the conversation was, of course, Hurricane Sandy. This is where the night started off. Broecker was hesitant to say that Sandy was a direct effect of climate change because it was a “freak storm.” He made the point a number of times that scientists don’t often, or at least shouldn’t, comment on what they haven’t directly studied, and when it comes to specific meteorological occurrences there are simply too many factors at play to say that x directly caused y. However, he did acknowledge that because of climate change there were bound to be more freak instances. “What Sandy tells us is that a lot of what’s to come is going to surprise us,” Broecker proclaimed.

All this talk of super storms and the end of the world had me interested, sure, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the Grandfather of Climate Science thought could save us. Surely he had to know of some great scientific scheme that would fall to Earth like the word of God to Moses and spell things out so clearly for the world that there was no possible way anyone could manage to screw things up… His proposal may surprise you.

Broecker does not see wind energy, or biofuels, or replanting the forests, or even a halt on the consumption of fossil fuels as a viable solution to our current environmental crisis. Rather, Broecker believes that we should focus our efforts on a technology that can pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere and bury it deep underground. When asked whether or not he thought that this was bad because of the way it perpetuates the use of fossil fuels, he said this in response. ”Ten years ago I would have said yes, but now it’s an emergency.” He believes that we have reached a point where the world has a decision to make. We either start pumping the problem out of the air, or we accept a future with double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and all its disastrous consequences.

Luckily, such a technology is being developed – and right here at Columbia! (Roar, Lion… sorry) The device should theoretically trade CO2 for Oxygen, 1 ton of CO2 to be exact. 1 ton of CO2 is roughly how much is produced by 20 automobiles… Imagine a bunch more mathematical mumbo jumbo in the middle here… SO, essentially, we would need 10 million of these things to account for the total energy use of the world. That sounds great! The only problem is that the total amount of money being spent towards its creation is roughly $15 million, according to Broecker. It sounds like they need to check out Kickstarter.

But what if you’re not a fan of Carbon collection? Well, according to Broecker, there is one other option, but it’s a little out there. We could just let the planet overheat then send up SO2 into the stratosphere, just like a volcano does. We’d need to send just enough so that about 2% of the sun’s rays are reflected back out into space, it would require about the same amount of SO2 that was released by the great volcanic eruption of Pinatubo in 1991, and the effects would only be temporary so we would need to constantly be pumping more SO2. But on the bright side, if there were any terrible and unforeseen consequences we would only have to wait about a decade for things to get back to normal.

In case you haven’t noticed, things are grim, and they’re only getting worse. Of course, a portion of the discussion as well as some of the questions were aimed at the role of average people and where do we go from here, but there wasn’t really any hope to be found in Broecker’s answers. When asked about public fear, Broecker had this to say, “Hopefully, fear will develop.” What has been our biggest success: “The Prius is probably the biggest step we’ve taken.” Can we do little things to impact the world: “I don’t think ten little things are going to solve the problem. I think there’s got to be one big guy doing most of the work.” What’s it going to take to make people wake up and see the problem: “It’s going to take more Sandys.”

After two hours, I suppose there was one high note that I could leave you with. Wallace S. Broecker is still kicking at the ripe old age of 81, but he is confident that by the time the world goes to Hell, “I won’t be here. Thank God.”

Bleak future via Shutterstock

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous  

    Unfortunately, much of the ignorance surrounding "global warming" stems from the semantics of it: the rebuttal of the chorus of those who insist that it's some kind of liberal construct often boils down to "well, if the Earth is getting warmer, how come it's so gosh-durn cold?" There's no number of Sandys or freak storms that can uproot entrenched stupidity: you can only hope that whatever manages to survive in the shifting climate is slightly smarter than its predecessors.

  2. Ruddiman  

    Put me down wally, put me down!

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