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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."
Why Broecker's prediction was all too prescient.
By Brad Johnson
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.