Interview

"It's Going to Make a Huge Mess"

The man who coined the term "global warming" looks back at 35 years of climate change.

View a slideshow of Tibet's melting glaciers

Wallace Broecker has written some 460 academic papers in his half-century-long career as a geologist. But this week, everyone seems to remember just one of them: an Aug. 8, 1975, paper in Science titled "Climate Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?" It was the first time anyone used the term "global warming," and his paper's predictions about planetary warming proved remarkably accurate.

Not that it makes him sleep any better. "I really feel that this is something we're going to have to do something about," he tells FP's Elizabeth Dickinson. "It's not going to make a disaster on the planet, but it's going to make a huge mess, and it's a mess that could be avoided or lessened if we started to take action."

Foreign Policy: Tell us a bit about how you came to coin the term "global warming" in Science magazine back in 1975.

Wallace Broecker: I came to Columbia University as a senior in college in 1952 and was immediately employed in the radiocarbon-dating lab. And I'm still here, 58 years later. I studied various aspects of the carbon cycle there, and [as we watched] carbon dioxide levels going up, physics said the planet should be warming. Yet between about 1941 until the early 1970s, there was no warming.

I wondered, "How could it be that we're not seeing a warming?" Then, in the early 1970s, one of the first long records of climate was released based on an ice core drilled in northern Greenland. I extrapolated [that data forward] and found that there [should be] a natural cooling between the 1940s and about 1980 -- half of an 80-year [warming-cooling cycle seen in the ice core]. So I said, "Aha!" Maybe what had happened is that, by chance, the carbon dioxide-induced warming that [physicists] expected had just been balanced by a [natural planetary] cooling. If that were true, we were in for a turnaround when the natural cooling became a natural warming -- which would join forces with the carbon dioxide warming. In Science, I argued that we were on the brink of a pronounced global warming, using that term. It was the natural [terminology] to use; I never thought I was naming something. It was only three or four years ago that people picked up on this and realized that I was the first to use it.

I taught a course in the carbon cycle in the spring term at Columbia, and I offered a $250 award to anybody who could find an earlier mention of "global warming." It didn't take much of a literature search to find it in the title of a Science article -- that would stand out like a sore thumb. My idea [with the reward] was to get it off my back! I've written 460 papers -- I hope I'm not remembered for two words in one title!

FP: How was the article first received? How did the scientific consensus about climate change emerge?

WB: In those days, we were intellectually interested in global warming. I don't think it had sunk in that it could be as much of a problem as we think of it being now. [I think] most people have gone through a similar evolution to mine. Now we're seeing a huge backlash of conservatives who don't want to spend the money to do anything.

I don't know how long it's going to be before people really wake up. I suspect we're going to have to wait until the impacts grow larger. So I'm not exactly unhappy that this is a record year for warmth.

One problem for all of us is that the natural fluctuations in climate have been on the same order of magnitude as the warming we've generated by putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So we can't prove that the warming of the last 35 years has been due to greenhouse gases -- it's legitimate to say part of it has been natural, or all of it has been natural. But on the other hand, physics says [that all that carbon dioxide] should be warming the planet up. We can't say for certain how much we're going to warm the planet, but it's going to happen.

FP: In the wake of the "Climategate" scandal, what role do you think that scientists such as yourself have in the politics of climate change?

WB: Well, I'll tell you one thing: We're not very good at it. Climategate was a tempest in a teapot. The scientists were using tree-ring evidence to say that the present warming is greater than that of the medieval warming, and that's where they got in trouble. I don't think we have the capability to determine whether the planet was warmer than it is now, and I don't think it matters. The point is that if we go to 700 or 800 parts per million of carbon dioxide [in the air], it's likely going to get a lot warmer than it has been and a lot faster than it's ever warmed before. The opponents of doing something are looking for a weakness in our armor, and they attack, and they're good at it. Very good at it. And we're not very good at handling it -- we're innocents. They're professionals.

This was a huge setback, no doubt about it; you can just tell by the polls. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose political future is not very clear, is the only world leader who's really been able to do anything. Germany is doing a lot to combat its own carbon dioxide emissions; maybe Iceland too. But that's small potatoes. Obama's heart is in the right place, but he doesn't have much of a chance of doing very much.

FP: You have written about tipping points in warming of the planet -- moments that shift the climate dramatically. What kind of benchmarks should we be looking for?

WB: Richard Alley [of Pennsylvania State University] created this analogy: It's like a blind man walking along a flat plain, but he's been told that in the direction he's going, there's a cliff. He's not sure whether to believe that's true, and he doesn't have any idea how far the cliff is. I think there may be tipping points out there -- you can't deny that. But since you can't identify them, we really can't say when we're going to reach one.

I think [tipping points are] a secondary concern -- the primary concern is just that we're going to warm the planet. That in itself is enough to worry about.

FP: Do you put faith in any of the carbon-reducing technologies being tested right now?

WB: We have a man here at Columbia named Klaus Lackner who is learning to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Let's say we were going to try to get the carbon dioxide that comes from our transportation fleet -- that's a third of all the carbon dioxide we produce, so that's an important part of it. There's no way to directly capture the carbon dioxide from an automobile, so why not take it back out of the air? Lackner has developed a unit now that would take a ton of carbon dioxide a day out of the air. That would compensate for 20 U.S. automobiles, and it would cost about the same amount as an automobile. [If there were] 70 million automobiles on the planet, you'd have build 3.5 million of these and install them. Well, we build many more automobiles than that a year, so if we really wanted to do it, we could do it. You'd have to operate them, and that would raise the price of U.S. gasoline maybe 30 or 35 cents a gallon. That's manageable.

[If we] think ahead 50 years, we could [use this system to] make artificial gasoline. Instead of trying to use hydrogen as fuel, Lackner proposes pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and then putting the hydrogen together with it to make gasoline. The South Africans have already done this. That would mean we could have automobiles forever without raising the carbon dioxide content of the air, because it would just be recycled.

One of the sad things is that Lackner spent something like $6.5 million on this in seven years, and that's what a well-known baseball player makes in one season. The government just doesn't know how to do these small things. Unless it's going to be some spectacular jump ahead that costs several hundred million dollars, there doesn't seem to be any interest in doing it.

There are only three ways to run the world on energy -- three major energy sources: the sun, nuclear, and carbon. People are uneasy about having a world run by nuclear, and the sun is still too expensive, so it's going to be a while. In the meantime, we're going to be stuck with carbon, so we'd better learn to capture and store. I think anybody that's got their head screwed on right is going to see this as a strategy that may be very important for 50 years or so.

FP: Are you going to do anything to celebrate this "35th anniversary" of global warming?

WB: No, I want to get rid of it! I'm still offering the $250 reward, and I will widen the thing to everybody who reads Science. I would like to unload it and put it on somebody else's shoulders.

David Breashears, Courtesy of GlacierWorks

Interview

Papandreou’s Odyssey

The Greek prime minister has gone from leader of the socialist party to wielding the axe against entitlements -- and his long journey has just begun. In an exclusive interview, George Papandreou looks to the future and talks to FP about the Herculean tasks ahead.

Since taking office in October of last year, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has already faced a decade's worth of troubles: near bankruptcy, a hard-won bailout, and anger over pension reform and an austerity program that has resulted in mass strikes, violent riots, and even domestic terrorism. But, he says, the trials of his grandfather and father -- both former prime ministers -- have prepared him for this moment in history. And, it could have been worse.

FP senior editor Benjamin Pauker caught up with the prime minister for a wide-ranging conversation on the severity of Greece's troubles, the future of Europe, and the dangers of treating global markets as gods. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: You have said that your country was "in a battle for survival." And violent protests in the streets of Athens seemed to bear that out for a time. But things have quieted down somewhat, even with the passage of the controversial pension reform. Where does Greece stand now?

George Papandreou: Well, yes, there was at times some violence, and though it gets a lot of media attention, I would say that it was the exception. But, obviously there's pain, and people are unhappy. But I would say the wide majority of the people realize that we needed to make changes that were long overdue in our country -- to make governance much more responsible, and the running of the country much more transparent. We all have to live up to our own personal responsibilities to this country.

I think that's a feeling that's quite pervasive, even though it's very understandable that there were demonstrations. A large number of citizens have to bear the burden, even though they were least responsible for the crisis. It was a crisis born of bad management and governance over the last six years: a lack of transparency, patronage and clientelism, even corruption. This, of course, was highlighted by the international financial crisis.

FP: You were born and educated, in large part, in the United States. And many of your closest advisers are American. Do you think the U.S. model of capitalism was in some way to blame for the crisis that Europe and Greece face today?

GP: Obviously, the problems began in the financial sector, with commercial paper being put on the market -- structured bonds and special vehicles, which were very simply fraudulent, even though they did have a triple-A rating. I think we see that markets are fallible, and we should not worship them as gods. Now, we have to see how to put them to best use to help our economies and our societies. But this is a question of, again, bad governance. Why wasn't this regulated? Why wasn't there transparency?

But this was not simply within U.S. borders but around the world. Europe too was hit, having bought up so much of these toxic bonds. The developing world was hit; emerging markets less so. But this shows we need much more coordinated action in the world, and more world governance. The G-20 may not be the best of institutions, but the fact that there is an attempt now to coordinate action is, I think, important -- as long as we move to implementation and not simply pronouncements.

FP: A number of analysts, Nouriel Roubini among them, have argued that Greece still faces an unsustainable public debt-to-GDP ratio, and that emergency loans and austerity measures are just prolonging an inevitable debt restructuring -- bankruptcy, in a word. Why not liquidate the debt burden, punish the institutional investors who played down concerns for so long and who profited, and force financial rigor on the state sector?

GP: There were two options -- one was to default, the other was not to default and take a different path. The latter is what we have decided -- not only Greece but also the European Union. There are many negatives in a default situation. Our banks would have been hit; not only ours, but also in Europe. This could also have been a self-fulfilling prophecy of a contagion to other countries. And that would be a much worse situation.

We have this big support mechanism of loans, which we have to pay back, but loans at a better interest rate than we could have got at that time on the market. That has allowed us the time to make the necessary reforms. Secondly, we have the problem of a large shadow economy, or underground economy if you like -- tax evasion, corruption, and so on -- which I believe could also alter the outlook for Greece's future. This will take some time to fix but we're committed to this. My government, for example, has now brought in laws such as total transparency in all signatures in the public sector, putting more and more tax reform resources and contracts online. This will make things much more transparent, and I believe this will help bring the shadow economy out into the open. That will bring an important sense of confidence that we can deal with this long-term debt.

FP: On a personal level, what has it been like to lead this nation in a time of crisis? I imagine you could not have anticipated the severity the problems when you entered office.

GP: First of all, we knew there were problems, chronic problems, and we had actually pinpointed their basic nature even before the elections. We said that our country was not well-run: There was a lack of transparency; there was a lot of money that was lost, wasted, through huge bureaucracy, a clientelistic system, patronage, money put to the wrong purposes, and then of course the problem of graft. We knew these things would have to change, and changing them would make our economy much more efficient and competitive, particularly in the public sector.

I don't think anyone anticipated the almost violent reaction of the markets as time went on. If the markets were not as violent in the reaction [to the level of Greek debt], I think we would have had more time to make these changes with less pain, if you like, less drastic measures. And these have obviously hit some of the richer in society, but also some of the middle class and the poor, which we have to compensate for in many ways.

One other lesson here is that we're a small country -- and markets, particularly the derivative markets, can play around with countries and governments and with every policy we take. Even though there was an initial positive reaction by the markets, a few days later, one analyst, one statement, one banker, or somebody playing around in derivative markets, changed that opinion, turned it around. You can get a psychology in the markets that is not rational, and that can become a mob psychology, which can go in a positive direction, creating bubbles, or in a negative direction, creating catastrophes in countries.

FP: You studied sociology as an undergraduate at Amherst College and as a masters' candidate at the London School of Economics. How has this background, your intellectual training in sociology, helped you deal with this crisis?

GP: Well, I see a lot of discussion now amongst economists and it's in some sense, for me, peculiar -- even in the United States, which is so cross-pollinated in liberal education. What I've appreciated in the United States is the fact that you can have a liberal education, a wide-ranging approach to different things, and learn from different scientific fields. Economists are now discovering "animal spirits," they're discovering psychology, they're discovering sociology as interpretations for behavior which is not this sort of atomized, self-centered, self-interested, rational, market kind of psychology. That's not what human beings are. We're not that simple-minded, nor are we computers to be able to understand these mathematical models as they are running our lives.

FP: Your father was imprisoned twice and your grandfather six times. They were exiled. How have their struggles informed your fight for Greece's future?

GP: My experience is actually a Greek experience: living abroad, diaspora, possibly exile, refugee, migrants, going through dictatorships, jails, persecution -- these are things which pretty much every Greek family has had some relative go through. One thing you hear in Greece is, "Yes, this is a crisis, but we have gone through difficult times before. Let's huddle together and work it out."

FP: Do you think the Greek populace, though, feels that this is somehow out of their control? You mention these larger forces at work.

GP: I think this is a paradox we're all living through around the world. Of course, what we've been doing, as systematically as possible, is give citizens exactly this sense of being in control, of dealing with the crisis.

There was a moment of almost terror, being terrorized by the markets every day, being told by the Greek and international press, and all kinds of gurus on the economy, that you will lose your money, your euro, your savings, there will be catastrophe, and so on. So we had to steer through this psychology. It was very difficult, of course, but this is where people expected us -- both me and my government, and leaders in the country -- to chart a stable course.

But because these problems are global, because they're interconnected, because they're interdependent, people feel disempowered, and that's a problem around the world. And that sense of disempowerment is going to create more insecurity, more mistrust in political institutions -- and that could range from apathy to violence, from fundamentalism to populism. This is a deeply democratic question: How do we make sure our democratic structures function in a world so interconnected? Yet as far as governance is concerned, we are still national and not international. How do we deal with these issues? That will be a crux of the problems of our planet over the coming months and years.

When the banking crisis hit, we all heard numbers that we had never ever dreamt of before -- trillions and billions. You have tax havens, the movement of capital which can be very quick and uncontrolled, and countries can be exposed. But this is also true for the environment, for pandemics, for refugees, for communications -- these are things that have great capabilities but also great potential to be uncontrolled and dangerous in a way you don't want.

We need to find global governance and we need to find it based on some common values on which we can agree -- democratic values. And I think that's going to be a big challenge.

FP: Do you think multilateral, international institutions are the answer? Or do strong nations still need to lead?

GP: I think we need countries that will lead, but lead in establishing a more multilateral system. This is where the United States and the European Union can be useful in order to engage countries like China or other emerging countries into multilateral institutions. But sometimes leading nations, large nations like the U.S., want to lead, but don't necessarily want to be restrained by these multilateral institutions. So there's a dilemma there.

Strengthening regional cooperation is very important because that is a way to get representation of different parts of the world in an organized fashion. And the EU is, I think, one of these models, a model of peace. It could also become a model for a globalized society -- that is, we are sovereign nations, but we've given up some of our sovereignty to a higher body, and we've done so peacefully. We are different countries with different languages, with different cultures, and yet we've found a way to work with each other.

FP: What would you say to the citizens of Germany, France, and other EU nations that have griped that they are going to face an increased tax burden due to Greece's problems?

GP: I would say that if there is going to be a tax burden, it's not going to be because of Greece. We will be paying back these loans with a high interest rate, so these countries are going to gain money from us, if all goes well, and we hope all goes well.

But I would say that in Europe, we don't need "austerity" -- it's not the right word. We need more responsibility in governance. That is why we want to make our governments and our pension systems more efficient. We also need growth, investment in education, innovation, and green energy, and we also need to capture some taxes which are being evaded -- not only by citizens but by the financial sector. I don't think that is sustainable in a democracy. That money could go to the European budget, to infrastructure development, to the greening of our economy, and so on.

FP: One of your campaign slogans was "roll up your sleeves." With six general strikes in the past few weeks, air traffic controllers shutting down airports, and farmers blocking the border, how do you intend to get the Greek public to roll up their sleeves?

GP: These are big challenges and obviously they're not easy. First of all, I think we need to show that the government is acting responsibly. And I think that will resonate positively. As people start seeing more and more that everybody is paying their dues, they'll feel that there is a collective responsibility. That sense was lost.

One of the things that has been discussed is how lazy Greek workers are. I actually went into the statistics of the OECD, and among the European countries, we have the highest number of working hours -- number one -- in Europe. Not number two, number one. The highest number of working hours in Europe. Number two is Hungary, number three is the Czech Republic. France and Germany are way down there. So we're a productive nation despite all the stereotyping.

FP: What do you see, looking down the road five or 10 years, for Europe? Will the Eurozone continue to grow? Will the EU bring in new members? Five years ago, we thought that Turkey would already be a member of the EU.

GP: What we've seen in this crisis is that we need more Europe, not less. I also see that the more we're coordinated, the more we work together to solve these problems, the quicker we can deal with crises. We were pretty quick by European standards -- but not so quick by market standards -- and the crisis almost became a contagion.

But when we did intervene into the markets with this rescue package -- not only the Greek package but the wider package, too -- then that immediately calmed things. Not completely, but it was effective. That's why we need more coordination on governance and growth strategies. That will, I think, stabilize the Eurozone in a way that will make it more attractive. And there are countries that still want to become part of the Eurozone. We only recently brought in Estonia, so this is important. But we have to move down a path of deepening our integration. Otherwise, we risk the prospect of moving back to more nationalistic, more self-centered policies -- greater insecurity, easier stereotyping, and scapegoating amongst ourselves. And that, I think, would be very sad after what we've been able to achieve in Europe over these last decades.

GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images