Wally's World

Thirty-five years ago this week, Wallace Broecker predicted decades of dangerous climate change caused by humans. Unfortunately, he was all too prescient.

View a slideshow of Tibet's melting glaciers

On Aug. 8, 1975, geoscientist Wallace Smith Broecker published "Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?" in the journal Science, the first time the iconic phrase "global warming" was used in a scientific paper. Broecker -- known by all as Wally -- was already a prominent scientist by then, having served on Columbia University's faculty for 16 years. Today, at age 78, Broecker is recognized as one of the fathers of climate science, with more than 450 journal publications and 10 books to his name, ranging from paleoclimatology to chemical oceanography.

The past 35 years have also seen humanity answer Wally's question in the affirmative, running a radical experiment on the only planet we inhabit. Carbon dioxide levels have risen 40 percent to 392 ppm from preindustrial levels of 280 ppm, and the global mean temperature has risen 0.8 degrees Celsius, on 1.3 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. Humanity has produced 60 percent of that global-warming pollution since Broecker's paper was published. As a result, the planetary ecosystem has fundamentally changed -- weather has become more extreme, seasons have shifted, and global ice and snow are in decline -- with more rapid and radical change on its way.

Wally's seminal Science paper built upon decades of earlier work by scientists who had found natural cycles of planetary warming and cooling in Greenland ice cores (Dansgaard, 1973), developed a mean global temperature from meteorological records (Mitchell, 1963), modeled the greenhouse influence of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere (Manabe and Wetherald, 1967, 1975; Rasool and Schneider, 1971), and measured the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels (Keeling, 1973). Synthesizing the work, Broecker accurately predicted "that the present cooling trend will, within a decade or so, give way to a pronounced warming induced by carbon dioxide."

"To those who even today claim that global warming is not predictable," climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf writes at the peerless RealClimate blog, "the anniversary of Broecker's paper is a reminder that global warming was actually predicted before it became evident in the global temperature records over a decade later."

In fact, one can even go back to the 1896 work of Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, in which he predicted that the burning of coal could eventually double atmospheric CO2, leading to a temperature increase of several degrees Celsius, though he believed such a day was far into the future.

For the next 50 years, most scientists considered man-made climate change an unlikely speculation. In the scientific explosion following World War II, however, scientists began using new measurements and the era's new digital computers to revisit the effect of humanity's carbon dioxide pollution on the climate, and our modern understanding of the greenhouse effect developed through the work of pioneering scientists like Gilbert Plass, Hans Suess, Roger Revelle, and Bert Bolin (who became the first chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988). By the end of the 1950s, Frank Capra had made an instructional film on man-made global warming, and Revelle had testified before Congress about the "large-scale geophysical experiment" humanity was conducting with industrial greenhouse gas pollution.

The year 1965 marked the first time the threat of man-made global warming was brought to a U.S. president's desk, in an extended report for Lyndon B. Johnson by top climate scientists, including Revelle, Charles Keeling (whose measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide from Mauna Loa have become the most remarkable graph in climate science), and the young Wally Broecker. "By the year 2000," they wrote, carbon dioxide pollution might "produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the atmosphere."

In the years leading up to Broecker's global-warming paper, the field rapidly advanced with the launch of the first weather satellites (with instrumentation invented by Verner Suomi), the mathematical understanding of the nonlinear dynamics of atmospheric flow -- chaos theory -- by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Ed Lorenz, and the rise of physical oceanography. Several groups of scientists (including the team led by NASA's James Hansen) competed to test the limits of supercomputers with general circulation models that simulated the planetary ocean-atmosphere interactions that generate the global climate, a practice that continues to this day.

By the end of the 1970s, climate scientists around the world were coming to the consensus that Broecker's analysis was right -- the exponential rise in carbon dioxide emissions would overcome natural cooling cycles and the effects of aerosol pollution to dangerously warm the planet within decades. "Man is setting in motion a series of events that seem certain to cause a significant warming of world climates over the next decades unless mitigating steps are taken immediately," warned a 1979 report by top climatologists for Jimmy Carter's White House, recommending "[e]nlightened policies in the management of fossil fuels and forests" to "delay or avoid these changes." At the World Meteorological Organization's First World Climate Conference in 1979, the scientists agreed that rapid, CO2-driven warming was "plausible" and called on governments to "foresee and to prevent potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity."

The field of climate science has continued to advance since Broecker's global-warming paper, with breakthroughs in ice age theory (Hays et al., 1976), computational modeling (Manabe and Stouffer, 1979), ocean dynamics (Luyten et al., 1983), the paleoclimate record (Bradley and Jones, 1993), meteorological impacts of global warming (Trenberth, 1999), and ice-sheet dynamics (Schoof 2007), to highlight just a few of the thousands of papers that have built our understanding of our planetwide "experiment."

Increasingly, the scientific enterprise has shifted toward the measurement of the changes wrought by global warming in every corner of the world and toward a new emphasis on civilizational risk management and public engagement. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, since its founding in 1988, has been a unique endeavor of scientific synthesis to inform policymakers, some of whom have decided to heed the volunteer organization's work, making investments in sustainability instead of waiting to incur irreversible damages.

However, the interface between research and policymaking has been poisoned by the influence of corporations and individuals opposed to any restrictions on carbon pollution (even ones based on free market principles). Using lessons learned from the tobacco industry's efforts to deny the dangers of its product, global-warming polluters have poured their vast resources into a long-running campaign of deceit to corrupt efforts to make policy at local, national, and international levels. Today's global-warming scientists -- whose ranks now include field biologists, economists, medical doctors, architects, and genetic ecologists -- face intimidation, slander, and even threats of criminal prosecution for their work to illuminate a way to preserve the human experiment on our burning planet.

After Wally Broecker coined "global warming" in 1975, the 1980s followed as the hottest decade on record. The 1990s were even hotter, and the 2000s hotter still -- at an increasing rate despite a natural cooling cycle, just as Broecker predicted. The past 12 months have been the hottest in history, bringing continentwide heat waves, freak storms, and unprecedented rains that have devastated millions from Nashville to Moscow, from Oklahoma City to the French Riviera. Having predicted this future, Broecker now investigates potential triggers for abrupt climate change and researches methods to capture carbon dioxide pollution, because, he says, "We are going to need some way to bail ourselves out."

Mikael Miettinen / Flickr.com


Bury the Graveyard

If you want to figure out a way forward for Afghanistan, fake history is not the place to start.

It's the mother of all clichés. Almost no one can resist it. It's wielded by everyone from thoughtful ex-generals to vitriolic bloggers. It crops up everywhere from Russia's English-language TV channel to scruffy Pakistani newspapers to America's stately National Public Radio. The Huffington Post can't seem to live without it, and one recent book even chose it as a title. Afghanistan, we're told, is "the graveyard of empires."

The Victorian British and the Soviet Union, the story goes, were part of a long historical continuum of arrogant conquerors that met their match in the country's xenophobic, fanatical, trigger-happy tribesmen. Given a record like that, it's obvious that the effort by the United States and its NATO allies to stabilize the shaky government in Kabul is doomed to fail.

Look, failure is always a possible outcome, especially judging by the way things have been going lately. But if the United States and its allies end up messing up their part of the equation, blame it on their bad policy decisions. Don't blame it on a supersimplified version of Afghanistan's history -- especially if you prefer to overlook the details.

As Thomas Barfield pointed out to me the other day, for most of its history Afghanistan has actually been the cradle of empires, not their grave. Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University, has been studying Afghanistan since the early 1970s, and he has just published a book -- Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History -- that takes issue with the hoary stereotypes that continue to inform our understanding of the place.

One of those myths, for example, is that Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable thanks to the fierceness of its inhabitants and the formidable nature of its terrain. But this isn't at all borne out by history. "Until 1840 Afghanistan was better known as a 'highway of conquest' rather than the 'graveyard of empires,'" Barfield points out. "For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody's empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C."

After the Persians it was Alexander the Great's turn. Some contend that Alexander met his match in the Afghans, since it was an Afghan archer who wounded him in the heel, ushering in a series of misfortunes that would end with the great conqueror's death. Ask anyone who believes this is why Greek coins keep cropping up in Afghan soil today -- in fact, Alexander's successors managed to keep the place under their control for another 200 years. Not too shabby, really. And there were plenty of empires that came after, thanks to Afghanistan's centrality to world trade in the era before European ocean fleets put an end to the Silk Road's transportation monopoly.

What about the popular accounts that insist, awe-struck, that even Genghis Khan was humbled by the Afghans? Poppycock, says Barfield. Genghis had "no trouble at all overrunning the place," and his descendants would build wide-ranging kingdoms using Afghanistan as a base. Timur (know to most of us as Tamerlane) ultimately shifted the capital of his empire from provincial Samarkand to cosmopolitan Herat, evidence of the role command over Afghanistan played in his calculations. Babur, who is buried in Kabul, used Afghanistan to launch his conquest of a sizable chunk of India and establish centuries of Muslim rule. Afghans seemed pretty happy to go along.

In fact, Afghan self-rule is a relatively recent invention in the full sweep of the country's history, dating to the middle of the 18th century -- and it took another century for Afghanistan to earn its reputation as an empire-beater. That's when the Afghans trounced a British invasion force, destroying all but one of 16,000 troops sent to Kabul to teach the Afghan rulers a lesson.

But context is everything. Everyone tends to forget what happened after the rout of the British: In 1842 they invaded again, defeating every Afghan army sent out against them. True, they didn't necessarily achieve their aim of preventing Tzarist Russia from encroaching on Central Asia; that had to wait for the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), when they succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. Then there's the fact that the First Anglo-Afghan War preceded the end of the British Empire by more than a century. London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain's foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.

And what about the Soviets? To be sure, the quagmire they faced in Afghanistan -- with all of its economic, political, and psychological consequences -- was a major factor in the collapse of their political system. But even the most skeptical historians concede that around 1984 or so, the Soviets were actually getting the better of the mujahideen. It was the U.S. decision to send shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance, which robbed the Russian helicopter gunships of their superiority, that allowed the guerrillas to stage a comeback.

The bottom line, though, is that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan represented a radical break with the country's past, not an extension of it. The Soviets and their Afghan communist allies wiped out entire communities and devastated wide swaths of the countryside, sending millions of refugees fleeing across the borders. They systematically targeted traditional institutions and elites, leaving behind a power vacuum that was eagerly seized upon -- but never quite filled -- by a new brand of revolutionary Islamists, promoted by Pakistan and abetted from afar by eager cold warriors in Washington.

These communist attempts to impose utopian designs on a deeply traditional society triggered what Barfield describes as Afghanistan's "first national insurgency" -- one that transcended old dividing lines of tribe and ethnicity. As Barfield points out, the war against the Soviets was sharply different from previous rebellions in Afghanistan's history as a state, which were relatively fleeting and almost always local affairs, usually revolving around dynastic power struggles. "From 1929 to 1978," he says, "the country was completely at peace." In some respects, one might hazard, the current insurgency -- as an almost exclusively Pashtun affair -- harks back to an earlier, more fragmented pattern of Afghanistan's history. But that, by itself, doesn't make it an insurmountable problem. Just the opposite, in fact.

Unfortunately, popular views of the place today are shaped by the past 30 years of seemingly unceasing warfare rather than substantive knowledge of the country's history. Anti-war activists routinely blame the post-2001 Western military presence in the country for the destruction of national infrastructure and the widespread cultivation of opium poppies -- both of which actually date back to the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed. Others play up the notion of Afghanistan as inherently immune to civilization: "We are not going to ever defeat the insurgency," said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on CNN in 2009. "Afghanistan has probably had -- my reading of Afghanistan history -- it's probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind."

Barfield contends that the Afghans have long understood the tendency of foreigners to view them as untamable savages and have been happy to leverage the stereotype to their advantage. "The Afghans use hyperbole of history to exaggerate [their] strengths in order to deter invaders," he says. "In this case, a poor knowledge of their history goes a long way to convincing others to stay away, but it can be a dangerous illusion." Back in 2001, Barfield says, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden recycled the myth to themselves -- only to watch Taliban rule, and al Qaeda's safe haven, collapse under U.S. bombing.

I made my first visit to Afghanistan that same year. The Afghans I met were neither xenophobic nor bellicose. What they wanted most of all was peace, and they didn't trust their own leaders to bring it. "We're sick of fighting. We hate war. We want to have a free election," one grizzled -- and illiterate -- warrior told me. "And let's have the United Nations come in and make sure it's fair, so the warlords don't interfere." I heard similar views from many Afghans. Nowadays that vision sounds a bit like a dream, and it's hard to say precisely how many of his compatriots shared it for real, but I can't help recalling the sentiment. One thing is for sure: If we really want Afghans to attain the future they deserve, clinging to a fake version of their history won't help.