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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Wallace Smith Broecker, the ‘grandfather’ of climate science, leaves a final warning for Earth

Days before his death, Wallace Broecker urged scientists to consider deploying a last-ditch solar shield to stop global warming.

March 3, 2019, 5:34 AM EST

By James Rainey

After struggling with heart disease for decades, the renowned climate scientist Wallace Smith Broecker had made it clear he was acutely aware of his own mortality. So when he sat down in front of a video camera to record a final message to his fellow scientists in mid-February, the 87-year-old researcher knew his days were few.

The man who popularized the term “global warming” and first described the critical role oceans play on climate had an urgent message for 40 of the world’s top climate scientists. Humanity is not moving quickly enough to slow the production of carbon dioxide that is warming the Earth, Broecker said Feb. 11, his livestreaming image projected onto a big screen at Arizona State University, where researchers had met to discuss untested solutions to global warming.

It was time for humankind and the world’s scientific community to begin to seriously study more extreme solutions to the climate crisis, Broecker said. That included creating a massive solar shield in the Earth’s atmosphere, a tactic known variously as “geoengineering,” “the sulfur solution,” “solar radiation management” and the “Pinatubo Strategy.”

“If we are going to prevent the planet from warming up another couple of degrees, we are going to have to go to geoengineering,” he said. The price of continued inaction, he added somewhat ominously, could be “many more surprises in the greenhouse” known as Earth.

Broecker (pronounced “broker”) regretted he could not be at Arizona State’s first Planetary Management Symposium on Climate Engineering but said he was glad he could address his longtime colleagues remotely. Though he was using a wheelchair and breathing through an oxygen tube, he assured his colleagues that “my mind is running pretty smoothly.”

A week after his dramatic appeal, Broecker died of congestive heart failure, inspiring praise for his work as the “grandfather” of modern climate science. His death, and his final message to scientists, re-energized the debate over the sort of re-engineering of the Earth’s climate systems that Broecker and other academics had broached as early as the 1970s.

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