Friday, October 10, 2008

How much atmospheric CO2 can we live with?

That’s the question James Hansen, director of the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies, addressed on October 7 at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, in Houston, Texas.

His short answer is less than 350 parts per million—the level Hansen believes will preserve Earth’s ice sheets, mountain glaciers, and head off a devastating sea-level rise.

The fact that we have now surged past 387 parts per million of CO2, with no effective control in sight, is alarming. 

A state of emergency

“I believe we’ve reached a state of emergency,” Hansen said, “although it’s not easy to see. But if you look at the science, it becomes clearer and clearer.”

It’s enough of an emergency to force him to rethink nuclear power, an issue on which he’s previously been “an agnostic.” Renewable energy alone in sufficient quantities, he said, would be too costly.
Hansen walked the audience through the science—ice cores that reveal CO2 levels over the past 800,000 years, microscopic shells from under the sea floor that track ocean bottom temperature and salinity for the past 35,000,000 years, reconstructions of past glaciations and sea levels, the current rates at which the Earth is warming and its ice sheets disintegrating, and computer models of the climate system.

The bottom line is that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere drives Earth’s climate, and that we are driving CO2 off the charts.

“All we have to do is graph the greenhouse gas forcing over the past several hundred thousand years,” says Hansen. “When we choose the right scale, it’s a hand and glove fit. Humans are now completely in charge of the composition of the atmosphere. CO2 and methane are far outside the range they’ve been in for millions of years.”

We’re in charge but out of control

Did you catch that—“Humans are now completely in charge of the composition of the atmosphere.” In charge, but out of control, like airplane without a pilot.

We’re not even close to heading in the right direction. Even countries that signed on to the Kyoto Accord have increased their carbon emissions. There’s more CO2 in the atmosphere than at any time in the last 650,000 years, and the rate at which it’s increasing is itself increasing.

“The actual actions of countries worldwide are inconsistent with stopping the CO2 rise,” Hansen said. “Energy departments around the world are assuming we can burn all the remaining fossil fuel. That will double or triple atmospheric CO2.”

What that means, he said, is that unless global carbon emissions are cut drastically, and soon, we’re headed for “. . . a completely different planet than the one that’s existed in the past. Obviously, it would be an ice-free planet, warmer than it’s been in any of the recent interglacials.” 

Among other impacts Hansen foresees is the disappearance of glaciers in the Himalayas, Rockies, and Andes within the next few decades, threatening the water and food supplies of hundreds of millions of people. 

Hmm. Where would they go, and what kinds of upheavals would that kind of mass migration cause?

Irreversible tipping points

Hansen also warned about climatic and environmental tipping points, “where the dynamics of the system take over and you don’t need any more forcing and there’s the potential to lose control.”

One example is the disintegration of the ice sheets. “It takes thousands of years to build up an ice sheet from snowfall,” he said. “If we cause the West Antarctic ice sheet to disintegrate, that’s essentially irreversible.”

“I think that the metric for what is dangerous should be headed by these irreversible effects, such as the extermination of species,” he said. “We know that when there have been warmings of several degrees in the past, more than half of the species on Earth at that time went extinct.”

Remarkably, Hansen remains optimistic about our ability to push CO2 levels back below 350 parts per million and turn this looming catastrophe around. The keys are technology and public policy.

One necessary ingredient, he says, is to cut back immediately on the burning of coal as well as other fossil fuels. “We could say that we’ll only use coal at power plants where we will capture and sequester it,” he said.

Hansen also wants to see carbon emissions taxed. “The public has to understand that we have to put a price, a tax, on carbon emissions,” he said. “That has to be given back, so the person who reduces his carbon emissions more than average will make money.”

Hansen is now re-examining nuclear power. In principle, he says, fourth generation reactors can burn nuclear fuel far more efficiently than in the past, while generating much less--and less dangerous--waste.

“I think we should be doing the research on nuclear power and having a trial of fourth generation technology, because that may very well be necessary,” he said.

Crimes against humanity and nature

From Hansen’s point of view, business-as-usual versus re-stabilizing the climate is an intergenerational conflict with enormous moral and legal implications.

“It’s an inequity and an injustice for the young and the unborn,” he said. I think it raises ethical and legal questions about liability. There has been intentional misinformation of the public, which makes the companies that engage in that and fund the contrarians to misinform the public ethically and I think legally liable for what I call crimes against humanity and nature.”

Hansen does not believe that the free market alone can or will solve this problem. “The profit motive seems to be so strong that I don’t think we can rely on their conscience to change things,” he said. “We have to rely on public policy.”

Hansen has consistently and courageously advocated on behalf of a stable climate and a viable future for our children. We need to make sure our leaders know he's not alone, and that this may be our last chance to act.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

McCain sucker-punches Obama

Remember the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby?

The rising star, Maggie Fitzgerald, is winning a crucial match against Billie "The Blue Bear," an older boxer with a nasty reputation. The bell rings at the end of a round. Both boxers lower their guard and turn toward their corners. But from out of Maggie's sight, Billie decks her with a vicious sucker punch. Maggie falls, hits her head on the corner stool, breaks her neck, and ends up paralyzed.

Minus the broken neck, that's pretty much what happened to Barack Obama today.

With Sarah Palin's luster fading and the economy in meltdown mode, Obama surged to a nine point lead in a Washington Post-ABC poll. At 8:30 this morning, Obama called McCain to suggest that, since they agree on many of the key issues, they issue a joint statement on the financial crisis. McCain called back six hours later and said sure, good idea, and went on to suggest that they consider suspending their campaigns until Congress passes a bailout bill. Obama said he'd need to think about that, and suggested that their staffs talk it over.

Obama put down the phone, turned away, and got to watch McCain go on national TV to announce that he, for the sake of the economy and the country, was suspending his campaign and proposing to move back the presidential debate set for this Friday.

It was a nasty but brilliant move, worthy of Carl Rove at his best. To say that it caught Obama flat-footed is a major understatement.

And, just to rub it in, McCain innocently announced that he'll still be happy to work on that joint statement.

In the movie, Clint Eastwood made sure that everyone saw the sucker punch in sickening detail, and despised Billie for throwing it.

In real life, McCain comes out looking like a great statesman, the one candidate who really cares about us.

Assuming that Obama gets sponged off and climbs back in the ring, let's hope that the next time around he won't be quite so naive, nor quite so quick to lower his guard and hold out his hand.

It's a lesson he urgently needs to learn if he's going to be President, and not just in dealing with John McCain.

APA backs out of the torture business

 It took several years of grass-roots advocacy and a rare vote by the entire membership, but the American Psychological Association (APA) have finally bowed out of the dark realms where torture is carried out.

 Following a long series of revelations about how American psychologists have wittingly or unwittingly abetted the Bush administration’s programme of coercion and abuse of prisoners in the war on terror, activists within the APA forced a ballot on an unequivocal anti-torture resolution.

 The mail-in balloting closed on 15 September. Nearly 60 percent of the 15,000 APA members who voted supported the resolution, which will take effect no later than the next APA meeting in August, 2009.

 The heart of the resolution forbids APA psychologists from working in settings where “persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.”

 By taking this stance, even belatedly, the APA have not only joined other professional associations worldwide in condemning torture and prohibiting their members from abetting it, but have taken the right side in the long historical struggle to end torture.

 In 1563, the Dutch physician Johann Weyer published his great work, On the illusions of demons and on spells and poisons, in which he argued forcefully against the witch-hunting madness sweeping through Europe and condemned the use of the torture to force suspected witches to confess to satanic acts and name others.

 It’s no coincidence that Weyer, a physician who believed in the Hippocratic admonition, “First, do no harm,” was one of the few voices of humanity and reason in a fear-wracked time not entirely unlike our own.

 The APA could have taken this stance earlier, as did the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, and still need to implement the resolution.

 Still, they deserve praise for joining the ranks of true healers throughout history who have refused to be associated with the practice of torture, however strongly advocated by the authorities of the day.

Robert Adler





Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sarah Palin--Black Swan rising

A Black Swan, according to philosopher/stock trader Nassim Taleb, is an intrinsically unpredictable, completely unexpected event with major consequences.

Based on a lifetime of studying and trying to deal with Black Swans, Taleb believes that in our highly dynamic, intimately interlinked, and intensely non-linear world, these rare but extremely potent bolts-from-the-blue actually dominate most human affairs, including economics and history.

We may be seeing a Black Swan in the making in John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States.

Given that the current race appears extremely close, and that McCain is 72 years old and has a history of a potentially life-threatening form of skin cancer, Palin is arguably a few key votes--or voting machines--plus a few rogue skin cells away from becoming the 45th President.

Palin, a 44-year-old self-described "hockey mom," attended a string of community colleges before earning a bachelor's degree in communications, with a minor in political science, from the University of Idaho. She was a very competitive basketball player in high school, the runner-up, and winner of the Miss Congeniality Award, in the Miss Alaska pageant of 1984, and worked as a sports reporter and in her husband's business before entering politics.

Her rise in the political world can only be seen as meteoric. She served on the Wasilla, Alaska city council for two terms, as mayor of Wasilla for two terms, and became the governor of Alaska on December 4, 2006.

Wasilla is a town of 7,025 inhabitants. As mayor, Palin oversaw a budget of $6 million and a staff of 53. Alaska is the largest state in the U.S. in terms of area, but the 47th in population, with fewer than 700,000 inhabitants.

Not surprisingly, not a lot is known about Palin's character or politics. She appears to be a deeply committed Christian conservative who appeals strongly to the Religious Right, a crucial voting block that McCain has had difficulty inspiring. She clearly is a powerful speaker who effortlessly conveys the common touch that so strikingly eluded Al Gore and has bedeviled Democratic presidential candidates from Adlai Stevenson to Barack Obama. At least some Alaskans see her as determined, even ruthless, in getting her way.

It's also clear that despite Palin's lack of national or international experience and, until now, visibility, she has dramatically energized the Republican base and sapped any momentum that the Democrats gained from their convention. Since Palin's nomination, McCain has surged ahead of Obama in national polls.

This commentary is not meant to criticize Palin or bemoan her candidacy. Rather, it is to alert readers to a Black Swan taking wing as we watch.

According to Taleb, totally unpredictable high-impact events--Black Swans--increasingly dominate economics, politics, and other aspects of human affairs. He argues that pretty much all of us, including key decision makers, blind ourselves to the existence and impact of these rare, but world-changing surprises. We blissfully go on making plans and predictions as if Black Swans didn't exist, leaving ourselves vulnerable to enormous unforeseen risks.

Even when a catastrophe like 9/11 shocks the world, Taleb notes, leaders may learn enough lessons to ward off an exact repetition, for example by increasing airport security, while learning nothing at all about the inevitability of future, equally unforeseen Black Swans, such as the mortgage meltdown that started here and is now rippling through the global economy.

So here we are, in September of 2008, with a planet full of problems from shaky economies to edgy international relatiions, with climate change and shortanges of energy, food, and water looming ahead. On January 20th, 2009, we may see John McCain take the oath of office, and, quite possibly within the next few years, Sarah Palin.

For Palin to take the reins of the most powerful nation on Earth would indeed be a striking Black Swan.

She might, of course, be a great president. The relatively inexperienced Harry Truman took office following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April, 1945, with World War II still raging. Truman had the grace to admit that he felt "like the moon, the stars, and all the planets" had fallen on him. Yet many historians now consider him one of America's best presidents.

Or, the McCain-Palin ticket may lose, and the U.S. will have a different, yet also relatively young and inexperienced President.

The point is not to try to predict who will be President, nor how good or bad he or she may be. It's to join Taleb in recognizing, really facing the fact that despite the best efforts of pundits, politicos and professors, the unfolding of history is truly unpredictable.

If Palin does become President, I'll certainly feel some satisfaction that I recognized a Black Swan before it was fully fledged, and may have helped alert others to it and to Taleb's fascinating--and frightening--view of the unpredictability of human affairs.

Still, as Taleb writes about how he felt when the stock market crash of October 19, 1987 shocked even the savviest of his fellow traders--"I felt vindicated intellectually, but I was afraid of being too right and seeing the system crumble under my feet. I didn't want to be that right."

Me neither!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bush and Cheney--lame ducks or dangerous dinosaurs?

Here’s a real-life scene worthy of a Hollywood thriller:

Three U.S. senators huddle over a document, closely watched by a team of White House lawyers. The senators have been granted a quick view of a zealously guarded report. They’re allowed to scribble a few notes before the papers are whisked away.

What could this eyes-only document be? A warning of an impending terror attack? The discovery of a killer asteroid plummeting towards Earth? The truth about UFOs?

None of the above. This scene, which took place in the U.S. Senate on 25 July, was just a skirmish in one of many battles that the Bush administration continues to wage as their final five months in power tick away--in this case furthering their program to derail any meaningful action on climate change.

For the lame ducks that they supposedly are, Bush et al. continue to show a lot of teeth and claws.

The much-fought-over document is a report on the impacts of greenhouse-gas-driven climate change on the U.S. It was grudgingly prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the agency to determine if greenhouse gas emissions threaten public health or the environment.

The study reportedly corroborates what most of the world has long accepted—that the world’s climate is changing in response to greenhouse gas emissions, that future emissions will exacerbate climate change, and that those changes will impact the U.S.—not to mention the rest of the world—to such a degree that unchecked emissions are likely to endanger public welfare.

Those conclusions are far from radical today, but remain anathema to President Bush and especially Vice President Cheney—who has strenuously pushed the agenda of the most reactionary of the petrochemical and coal behemoths on energy and climate issues.

If the EPA findings were to become official policy, the agency could be mandated to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. To an administration that has done everything in its power to block public awareness of climate change in the U.S., and, a fortiori, official studies, recognition of the problem, or—heaven forebid—national or international action, the report had to be derailed.

So, when the EPA emailed the report to the White House in December of 2007, Bush et al. finessed the potential threat by the remarkable ploy of simply refusing to open the email. Remember those hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys?

That report is not the only casualty in the administration’s climate-and-energy war. Last October, for example, John Marburger, the President’s chief science advisor, reportedly gutted a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on the health effects of climate change. In December, Stephen Johnson, who heads the EPA, overrode his own staff recommendation, and scuttled California’s attempt to regulate its own greenhouse gas emissions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have also run into the administration’s climate-change firewall.

On the international front, this administration has consistently sabotaged attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and other meaningful steps to head off potentially catastrophic climate change at meetings of the G8 and at the UN climate summit at Bali, Indonesia, in December, 2007. As the world tries to craft a successor to the Kyoto accord, the U.S. continues to push any numerical caps to carbon dioxide production into the distant future.

The conventional wisdom in the U.S. and much of Europe right now has it that Bush and Cheney are lame ducks waddling towards the door, and that the world should look past them to a hopefully more enlightened administration.

That would be fine if action on climate change were not so urgent. A series of recent studies in leading science journals has made it clear that the pace of climate change is accelerating to a degree that is surprising and alarming to many climatologists. Runaway ice melt, carbon-dioxide-bubbling permafrost, methane-belching seafloors, and changing ocean currents are just a few of the dangerous tipping points that Earth's climate could soon cross.

Testifying before Congress on 23 June, 2008, NASA climatologist Jim Hansen redlined six “tipping elements” that Earth’s climate is likely to crash through unless we cut atmospheric carbon dioxide from the current 385 parts per million to 350 or less. This is crucial, Hansen writes, “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”

Even economists have started to sense the same urgency. Rajendra Pachauri, an IPCC economist says—"If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

The community of nations is now preparing to negotiate the agreement that will replace Kyoto. That new accord, which needs to be in place by December of 2009, looks to be our last best chance to head off catastrophic climate change.

If this is in fact “the defining moment” for Earth’s climate, then the Bush administration’s continued determination to block or delay any meaningful domestic or international action until they are ushered from the White House makes them look a lot more like velociraptors than lame ducks.

The U.S. Congress needs to be encouraged to redouble its efforts to reign in this still dangerous administration and act forcefully on climate change, and the international community needs to do everything it can to ensure that the next president is committed to getting the U.S. up and running on this vital issue from his first day in the oval office.

If instead we let the dinosaurs continue to run the world, we should not complain when we find ourselves back in the Cretaceous.

Robert Adler

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pinko Polar Bears

On May 22, columnist George Will recast the U.S. government's reluctant decision to protect polar bears as part of a supposed war against all things good, true and American by the "green left," which he then equates with the "red left." He makes a big deal over some worries about global cooling that appeared three decades ago. You can read his rather slimy diatribe here. The institute's response follows:

Dear George,

I think you confuse the assiduous work of the scientific community
with a leftist agenda to establish complete government control.

If you would read the data and reports of the scientists instead of
relying upon your ideological perspective you might find that the
international community has come up with a broad consensus and a few
articles from 33 years ago do not prove them wrong.

When large insurance (and reinsurance) companies, most of the Fortune 500, every
other industrial nation, financial institutions, and stockholders such as
the Rockefeller family agree that climate change/global warming is a
threat that needs to be attacked immediately, one has to wonder why
all of these entities with their own scientific teams have decided
one way, and you with a seemingly impermeable ideological bent have
decided the other.

Perhaps, George, the experts--including the 1700 leading scientists who just published yet another urgent warning on climate change--are right and you are wrong.

Lou Miller, PhD

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

To catch a failing star

For the first time in history, astronomers have caught a supernova—a star blowing itself to bits at the end of its life—at the instant of detonation.

The unprecedented new observations flowing from this discovery are giving astronomers a deeper understanding of just what happens when a star explodes.

Credit: NASA/Swift Science Team/Stefan Immler.

On January 9, Alicia Soderberg, an astronomer at Princeton University, was using NASA’s SWIFT satellite to study x-rays from an earlier supernova in the galaxy NGC 2770, 90 million light years from Earth, in the constellation Lynx.

What she had the amazing luck to witness instead was a brilliant burst of x-rays so intense that they overwhelmed the satellite’s detector.

“I truly won the astronomy lottery,” Soderberg says. “A star exploded right before my eyes,”

She instantly realized that the blast was the long-sought signature of the birth of a supernova. Within minutes she alerted astronomers around the world, allowing them to observe the first hours and days of a supernova for the first time.

Until now, scientists could only study supernovas when visible light from dust and gas around the star reached Earth. But since that light arrives days or weeks after the actual explosion, the scientists were left in the dark concerning supernovas’ first days.

Astrophysicists have a working theoretical understanding of how a star dies and creates a supernova. When a massive star runs out of its nuclear fuel, its core collapses under the pull of gravity. The infalling material can reach a speed of a quarter of the speed of light, and a temperature of 100 billion degrees. When the core has collapsed as much as it can, into what’s known as a neutron star, it rebounds, creating an incredibly powerful shock wave. When that shock wave hits the dying star’s surface, it generates an intense blast of ultraviolet light or x-rays.

It was those long-predicted x-rays that Soderberg detected, for the first time.

Now scientists can start to check their theories against real data.

Supernova 2008 D, as Soderberg's discovery is now known, is already the most studied supernova in history. Her incredibly good luck has become astronomy’s great gain. It will let astronomers and astrophysicists fill in the gaps in their understanding of the sudden death of massive stars and the fiery birth of neutron stars and black holes.

Robert Adler

Friday, May 16, 2008

Obama or Clinton, prepare for the worst

We'd like to be hopeful about the 2008 elections, but the right-wing spin machine remains extremely powerful. Between the spin-masters in the White House and the Pentagon and their sycophantic echo chambers in the media, the current exponents of the big lie have had their way with the American people for at least the last eight years.

If they can take a total slacker and make him president--twice--
and if they can take a genuine war hero and swiftboat him,
then they can turn any truth into a lie
and any lie into the truth.

No matter who wins the nomination, it's going to be brutal campaign.

the institute
May 16, 2008

Thursday, May 08, 2008

America, 14,000 BP

The Monte Verde archaeological site, in Chile near the tip of South America, continues to provoke new questions about when and how people first came to the Americas.

In a paper in this week’s Science, Tom Dillehay, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and his colleagues report that previously un-analysed soil samples from Monte Verde yielded nine kinds of algae that the prehistoric people who lived there used for food and medicine. The team radiocarbon dated these organic remains to 14,000 to 14,200 calendar years ago.

Excavating the Monte Verde site

These dates add weight to Monte Verde’s standing as the site of the oldest proven human presence in the New World. The now clearly established fact that people were living deep in South America more than 1000 years before the oldest Clovis site should, as Dillehay points out, place a tombstone on the grave of the hoary Clovis-First theory. The Clovis big-game hunters were clearly not the first people to occupy the Americas, although they did scatter their characteristic fluted spearpoints across much of North America as early as 13,000 years ago.

What’s new and more interesting is how sophisticated the residents of Monte Verde appear to have been. In their Science paper and an accompanying teleconference, Dillehay and his Chilean colleague, Mario Pino, noted that much of the algae they found came from beaches that were then some 60 miles from the inland settlement. In their press conference, they added that the Monte Verde site has also yielded medicinal plants that came from the Patagonian plains far across the Andes from Monte Verde.

Just in the area of food and medicine, says Dillehay, they found " . . . more than 72 plant species that have economic uses, not only from the coast and estuary, but also a wide range of food and medicinal plants that come from the [upstream] forests, the foothills of the Andes . . . and two plants that are medicinal that come from the other side of the Andes, from present-day Argentina.”

The implication is that the 20 or 30 people who sheltered, cooked, treated their sick, and left their footprints at Monte Verde more than 14,000 years ago, were not just an isolated band. According to Dillehay, they had an intimate knowledge of the vital resources in their own area, and may well have been exchanging goods with other established groups from as far away as the Patagonian plains across the Andes.

“That would imply,” says Dillehay, “that there were certain resource zones throughout the Americas where people settled in and perhaps built up a substantial population” 14,000 years ago or more.

If he's right, that’s an eye-opener for the Americas, which until very recently were assumed to have been devoid of humans, much less substantial populations trading with each other, until much more recently.

Robert Adler
May 8, 2008

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fifty thousand Earth scientists call for climate action, but is anyone listening?

The American Geophysical Union, representing some 50,000 scientists and students in 137 countries, has staked out significant new ground on the issue of climate change. The question is, have they gone far enough?

At a press conference in Washington, DC on 24 January, they released a terse statement saying that “Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming,” that many facets of the climate system “are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural,” and that these changes are best explained by increased levels of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity.

They were equally clear about probable impacts—reduced agricultural productivity worldwide, widespread loss of biodiversity, and, if warming greater than two degrees Celsius continues over centuries, melting ice sheets leading to a sea level rise of several meters.

“The scale of change we’re seeing is something modern society has never seen,” said Michael Prather, who chaired the AGU committee and was also lead author of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Nor did the group rule out the possibility of “surprises that may cause more dramatic disruptions than anticipated.”

Unlike the Bush administration, which has steadfastly resisted international efforts to set specific targets for greenhouse gas emissions, the AGU was not afraid to lay out numbers. “If this two degrees Celsius warming is to be avoided,” they write, “then our net annual emissions of carbon dioxide must be reduced by more than 50 percent within this century.”

When I asked the AGU panel to explain the statement that Earth’s climate is out of balance, Prather said it meant that the climate is no longer cycling slowly within a fixed range. “It’s not a balanced system,” he said. “We’re starting to slide.”

Does that mean that we’re sliding toward an irreversible tipping point? Prather would only say, “We’re moving.” He would not say if that meant “crossing a single critical threshold” or “death by 1000 knives.”

In either case, the panel agreed, concerted, coordinated, and targeted international action is needed.

“If you don’t start on a trajectory downward [for greenhouse gas emissions], you won’t be able to stabilize climate change,” said Prather. “We have to turn it over and bring it down. What we’re really looking for are much larger reductions, greater than 50 percent, by the end of the century.”

Given the clarity and urgency with which the AGU presented the case for urgent action, I was disappointed by their lack of a specific action plan, even for their own organization. “It’s our responsibility to go out and talk,” said Prather, and of course to provide society with the best science possible. But individual members need to decide just what they want to do.

AGU president Tim Killeen also emphasized education, outreach and greater interaction with policy makers, but cautioned that the AGU is determined to stay within its scientific role and not be drawn into “debilitating political controversies”.

Clearly, the AGU deserves kudos for stating the science clearly and for issuing yet another strong wake-up call to citizens and policy makers worldwide.

Still, given the powerful economic and political interests who are fighting any caps or cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, much less 50 percent reductions, I suspect that the AGU is overestimating the impact of good science, education, and outreach alone. After all, energy producers, smokestack industries, automakers and other great producers of greenhouse gasses are not shy about exerting all the political influence they can muster or buy.

To the extent that the AGU and its members take their own work and warnings seriously, and want those warnings to lead to real change, they are going to have to venture out of their comfort zone and into that unfamiliar and risky political arena both farther and faster than they might like.

Robert Adler

for the institute