April 7th, 1980 – scientist tells politician that “the clock is ticking away”

Wally Broecker is a bit of a legend – an oceanographer and thinker who has been at the forefront of climate science since the 1970s.  According to Spencer Weart’s magnificent ‘history of climate science’ work…

In 1980, the prominent geophysicist Wallace Broecker, who had spoken out repeatedly about the dangers of climate change, vented his frustration in a letter to a Senator. Declaring that ‘the CO2 problem is the single most important and the single most complex environmental issue facing the world,’ and that ‘the clock is ticking away,’ Broecker insisted that a better research program was needed. ‘Otherwise, another decade will slip by, and we will find that we can do little better than repeat the rather wishy washy image we now have as to what our planet will be like…’
– Broecker to Sen. Paul Tsongas, 7 April 1980, “CO2 history” file, office files of Wallace Broecker, LDEO.

Two things to note;- the framing of it still as the “C02 problem” – it would be another 5 years until the other gases were properly factored in, just before the Villach meeting- this letter came just after Tsongas was on a CBS news clip introduced by Walter Cronkite.  That clip was based on a Senate hearing that was the result of leg work done by Rafe Pomerance.  See Daniel Yergin’s book, as fact-checked here.

Rafe Pomerance, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, was reading an environmental study when one sentence caught his eye: increasing coal use could warm the earth. “This can’t be true,” Pomerance thought. He started researching the subjective, and he soon caught with a scientist named Gordon MacDonald, who had been a member of Richard Nixon’s Council on Environmental Quality. After a two-hour discussion with MacDonald, Pomerance said, “If I set up briefings around town, will you do them?” MacDonald agreed. […]

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