Exclusive: Dr. George Woodwell sets the record straight

The response to the [email] vandals is to bury them with the data and experience of a century of scholarly research and analysis. The information that is important in making the decisions as to how to manage our world is unequivocal and must be advanced, not as questions at the edge of scientific knowledge where scientist like to dwell, but as the facts that they are, facts as immutable as the law of gravity. The climatic disruption is not a theory open to a belief system any more than the solar system is a theory, or gravity, or the oceanic tides, or evolution.  This approach is uncompromising, partisan in the sense of selected for the purpose. It is not a lecture to undergraduates; nor is it ecology 101. It is a clear statement of what is required for government to do its job in protecting the public welfare. The scientific community has a firm responsibility in this realm now. This is not the time to wring our hands over the challenges to hyper-scientific objectivity, the purity of scholars, and to tie ourselves in knots with apologies for alleged errors of trifling import.

That’s the opening paragraph of a statement Dr. George M. Woodwell emailed me yesterday.  Woodwell, founder, Director Emeritus and Senior Scientist at the The Woods Hole Research Center, was responding to some “private e-mails obtained by [the uber conservative newspaper] The Washington Times,” including one of his that has been misrepresented.

Since Woodwell has blogged here before, I asked him to clarify his original use of the word “partisan,” since I was pretty sure he was not using it in its Washingon, DC political sense, as some have implied.  He wasn’t.  In addition to his statement, he sent me a remarkable piece of 1988 Senate testimony he gave (reprinted below), which makes clear he has been at the forefront of warning the public about the dangers of human caused global warming.

His statement continues:

The fact is that we, humans, have changed the composition of the atmosphere with respect to heat-trapping gases enough to start the progression of global climate, not into a new steady state, but into an open-ended warming that is pulling the environment out from under this civilization. If one wonders where that process leads, one need not look far around the world to find dysfunctional landscapes. Have a quick look at New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, or Haiti before the earthquake.  All have fallen far below any point where internal resources can be used to restore a nation with a functional political system, a vital economy, and a functional environment. They have fallen into an abyss, beyond rescue without massive outside aid that will, first, restore a functional landscape to produce, for instance, a water supply, and stable agriculture, and a fishery. Something to build an economy around, and to support a government.

The challenge is complicated, the most complicated international environmental issue the world has ever faced. The scientific community has done brilliantly with the IPCC, by nature a conservative apparatus. It is time now, thirty years after the problem was recognized as threatening this civilization, for the scientific community to come forth with clear instructions, relentlessly repeated and amplified, as to how to restore a functional habitat for humanity. It can be done, but the scientific community has a big responsibility not now widely recognized or accepted.

Woodwell has published more than 300 papers in ecology.   His “research has been on the structure and function of natural communities and their role as segments of the biosphere”¦.  For many years he has studied the biotic interactions associated with the warming of the earth.”  Indeed, he testified on the dangers of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions back in 1988 (click here).

As you can see, our scientific understanding even back in 1987, wasn’t that much different than today.  We face a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration by midcentury with a projected warming from that doubling of 2 to 4.5°C to (just from fast feebacks — not stuff like the defrosting tundra).

The rate of warming that we face in the high latitudes on our current emissions path is staggering (see “M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F” [11C]).  Compared to preindustrial levels, we’re very likely to exceed 1.5°C by 2050 — and it could be much, much higher if the carbon-cycle feedbacks also turn out to be more severe than most models [which ignore the tundra] currently project (see “UK Met Office: Catastrophic climate change, 13-18°F over most of U.S. and 27°F [15C!] in the Arctic, could happen in 50 years”).

Testimony of G.M. Woodwell before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate

June 23, 1988

Rapid Global Warming: Worse with Neglect

I. Introduction: The Villach-Bellagio Report

I am a scientist, Director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Woods Holes, Massachusetts.  I am also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a conservation law group with more than 75,000 members around the country.  I appear before you in both capacities.  My colleagues and I in science have done research on various aspects of climatic change for more than 25 years; my colleagues and I in the NRDC have made formal efforts spanning nearly two decades to make better connections in public affairs between what we know and what we do.

I am reporting on experience gained through two conferences held during the fall of 1987 in Europe dealing with climatic change.  The first was in Villach, Austria, and was a review by scientists of the details of the global climatic warming that appears to be underway.  The second, held in Bellagio, Italy, was an exploration of the implications of the changes in climate for governmental policies.  A report of these conferences has been published by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO 1988) and is available to you.  I am emphasizing in what follows the biotic interactions involved in climatic change because those interactions affect people most directly and have the potential for affecting the course of the climatic changes.  I am also giving emphasis to the need for general solutions to the regional and global problems that will become increasingly acute through the next years.  I find it necessary to do so because we tend to overlook the fact that 5 billion people now occupy the globe, twice the number present as recently as 1950.  Before 2030 the human population could be 10 billion.  The 5 billion we now have use half or more of the energy available from plants globally.  Big changes in the human condition will be occurring without climatic changes.  The climatic changes will compound the difficulties in accommodating such extraordinary rates of growth.

II. A Consensus among Scientists

Several points about climatic change now constitute a consensus held by meteorologists and other scientists who have worked on the problem.  Most of these points have been made in slightly different form in the Villach-Bellagio report.

1. The dominant influence on global climate for the indefinite future is expected to be a continuous warming caused by the accumulation in the atmosphere of infrared absorptive gasses, especially carbon dioxide and methane, but including nitrous oxide and the CFC’s.

2. The warming marks the transition from a period of stable climates to climatic instability.  Stable or very slowly changing climates have prevailed during the development of civilization.  We are now entering a period of continuous warming accompanied by changes in precipitation.  The changes in climate are predictable in general at continental and broad regional levels; they are not predictable locally.

3. The rate of the warming is uncertain.  Estimates based on models suggest that a doubling of the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere (or the equivalent through increases in other gasses) above the levels present during the middle of the last century will produce a global average warming of 1.5-5.5 degrees C.  Such an effect [doubling] is expected by the period 2030-2050.

4.  The earth has warmed between 0.5 and 0.7 degree C over the past century and the rate appears to be accelerating.

5. The warming in the tropics will be less than the mean for the earth as a whole; in the middle and high latitudes the warming will exceed the mean by two fold or more and will fall in the range of 0.5-1.5 degrees C/decade.

6. The current sources of carbon dioxide are the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation.  The dominant source of methane is anaerobic decay.

7. A rate of warming in the middle and high latitudes that approaches 1 degree C/decade exceeds the rate at which forests can migrate and will result in the destruction of forests at their warmers and drier margin without compensating changes elsewhere.  Such destruction of forests and soils release additional carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

8. It is possible that the warming already experienced is stimulating the decay of organic matter in soils globally, increasing the total releases of carbon dioxide and methane.

9. No stimulation of the storage of carbon in forests or soils that is large enough to compensate for such rapid releases is known.

10. The warming will cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and an expansion of the water in the oceans.  The effect will be an increase in sea level of 30 cm to 1.5 m over the next 50-100 years.

11. The changes in climate anticipated over the next decades extend beyond the limits of experience and beyond the limits of accurate prediction.  Surprises such as the discovery of the polar ozone holes are common in such circumstances.  The possibility exists that a rapid warming will change the patterns of circulation of the oceans and produce sudden but profound changes in climate in regions such as western Europe, now kept warm by the Gulf Stream.  The same changes may have equally surprising effects of the storage or release of carbon from forests and soils.

The warming will move climatic zones generally poleward, shift the arable zones of the earth continuously, cause large and continuous dislocations of natural vegetation, and cause flooding of low-lying areas globally.  The arid zones of the northern hemisphere will expand because there is more land at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere.  The warming will be greatest in winter and will be accompanied by increased precipitation in high latitudes.

A one degree C change in temperature is equivalent to a change in latitude of 100-150 km, 60-100 mi.  Rates of warming, if they occur as anticipated over the next decades, will exceed the capacity of forests to migrate or otherwise adapt.  In that circumstance forest trees and other plants will die at their warmer and drier limits of distribution more rapidly than forests canb be regenerated in regions where climates become favorable.  The destruction of forests will add further to the releases of carbon to the atmosphere.  The seriousness of this problem will depend heavily on the rate of warming.  There is sufficient carbon in forests and soils of middle and high latitudes to affect the atmosphere significantly.  While there is no proof of this process and there will probably not be proof until the changes are well underway, the process will hinge heavily on rates of warming.  Rates that approach 1 degree per decade exceed by a factor of 10 or more tha capacity of forests to accommodate the changes.

III. What Can be Done?

The earth will warm as a result of the changes in the composition of the atmosphere that have already occurred.  But an open-ended, continuous warming that speeds the rise in sea level and destroys forests over large areas is so thoroughly disruptive of the human enterprise as to preclude any thought that civilization might “muddle through.”  Can the warming be checked?

The annual increase in the atmospheric burden of carbon dioxide alone is about 3 billion tons currently.  The global warming has the potential for increasing this net accumulation by speeding the release of carbon from forests and soils without causing an equivalent increase in the rate of storage.  No estimate is available of the extent to which this additional source of carbon dioxide is likely to compound the problem.  But the new source will diminish as the warming diminishes.

At least three possibilities exist for reducing or eliminating the imbalance and moving toward long-term stability of climate:

1. a reduction in the use of fossil fuels globally, now estimated as the source of about 5.6 HG-tons of carbon annually;

2. a reduction in or cessation of deforestation, now estimated as releasing 1-3 G-tons annually;

3. a vigorous program of reforestation that would remove from the atmosphere into storage in plants and soils about 1 G-ton of carbon annually for each 2×10(6) km(2) tract in permanent forest.

Further adjustments in emissions will be appropriate as experience accumulates.  Such steps are appropriate now and possible.  They will bring widespread ancillary benefits to the human enterprise.  Further delay increases the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, the severity of the warming that must be accommodated, and the risk of unexpected consequences that lie beyond the limits of current prediction.

These changes are possible now.  They will require adjustments in the efficiency of use of energy in the industrialized nations and imaginative and far-reaching changes in the patterns of development of the less industrialized nations.  Recognition of the need for the transition to a new era in the management of the earth’s resources opens new opportunities for industry and governments to pursue new paths for sustainable economic development on a global basis.


WMO. 1988. Developing Policies for Responding to Climatic Change. TD-No.255. World Meteorological ORgnaization. 53 pp.

Woodwell is justifiably frustrated that such frank, science-based warnings have not only been ignored decades — but also that those who have made such warnings have been subject to a well funded disinformation and harassment campaign (see “The rise of anti-science cyber bullying“).

The media continues to embrace a false balance and thus mislead the public about our basic understanding of the science (see Boykoff on “Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change”).  All scientists — indeed all people who understand what we face from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions — must be as blunt and repetitious in explaining the science as the anti-science crowd has been in spreading disinformation.

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19 Responses to Exclusive: Dr. George Woodwell sets the record straight

  1. Thank you, Dr. Woodwell, for all your efforts in the past several decades as well as for your current, admirable statement.

  2. john atcheson says:

    What an eloquent and intelligent statement! It is time for scientists to quit paralyzing themselves with “…hyper-scientific objectivity, the purity of scholars, and [tying themselves]in knots with apologies for alleged errors of trifling import.”

    We have allowed “trifling import” and a fear of being challenged to prevent us from sounding the alarm on things of major import.

    Thanks for posting this Joe — hopefully the scientific community will stop acting like the Obama administration and start speaking truth to power.

  3. Richard Brenne says:

    Yesterday I attended a talk at Portland State given by well-known Duke Professor of Engineering and Author Henry Petroski during which he said that “the jury is out” about human contributions to “claimed” temperature increases.

    I asked him if he believed in the Big Bang theory expecting to explain that the scientific consensus about AGW was similar, but he didn’t believe in the Big Bang theory either so at least he was consistently uneducated.

    The guy who brought him is a denier of sound science and recently brought Freeman Dyson (Question to Dr. Dyson: Atmospheric scientists don’t claim to know quantum field theory better than you do, so how insufferably arrogant do you have to be to think that you know atmospheric science better than they do? Answer: Quite.) to Portland, which is his right. It is also the university’s right not to sponsor any such talks.

    There were many students in the audience and they were being systematically uneducated.

    I’m friends with PSU’s Provost who was present and we agreed we needed to work toward a new mechanism where a competent moderator doesn’t let such uninformed and uneducated comments stand.

    In contrast, here’s world-class testimony by Dr. Woodwell that would be remarkably accurate today and it was given 23 years ago! People, we’re going backwards!

  4. fj2 says:

    Excellent. Could not be more direct.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    Responsibility (and Indeed Obligation) of The Scientific Community To Speak Out On This and To Do What It Takes To Make Sure Society Addresses The Problem

    Thank you, Dr. Woodwell.

    Scientists do indeed have an immense responsibility, and I’m glad and relieved to see that a few more are slowing getting that, coming to grips with it, and finding the human courage to speak up. Finally.

    Please nudge your peers — hard!

    FYI, in terms of dates, Walter Cronkite himself featured and introduced a rather amazing short segment on global warming — on the CBS Evening News, no less! — on April 3, 1980. That was nearly 30 years ago! I have a copy of it in front of me on a DVD, and you can get one from the Vanderbilt TV News Archive if you like. (I suggest that ClimateProgress ought to get one and arrange with Vanderbilt or CBS to allow people to link to it and watch it. The topic is important enough — in providing additional historic context — that I would hope Vanderbilt and/or CBS would allow ClimateProgress to show it.)

    By the way, someone here, commenting on ClimateProgress, initially brought my attention to it. That said, I’m sorry to say that I’ve forgotten who that was? In any case, thanks to whoever it was!!

    Scientists — “Pick up the cry!” (as Grace Slick used to sing)

    Late is better than never, and there’s no excuse either way.



  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    A Word on Passive Acquiescence — directed at the scientific community today — From Tacitus

    “A shocking crime was committed on the unscrupulous initiative of few individuals, with the blessing of more, and amid the passive acquiescence of all.”

  7. mike roddy says:

    Very well said, and I hope that Woodwell’s summary becomes a rallying cry.

    It is indeed up to the scientists, by default, since the media have clearly failed. A selected group of climate scientists who are good communicators need to go forward with this message. The biggest impediment appears to me to be scientists’ reflex to neither express nor telegraph emotion when they speak or write. This is necessary for scientific communications, but it’s not the scientists we are addressing here.

    The public is skeptical of scientists who shrug when they’re called liars and frauds, and respond with data charts when creatures like Rick Morano or Steve McIntyre hurl insults at them.

    Time to go to the whip, guys. This is our best hope, and absolutely necessary. A lot of us have got your back, and are ready to help in any way we can.

  8. Lou Grinzo says:


    Everything Dr. Woodwell says here is great, but “open-ended warming that is pulling the environment out from under this civilization” is brilliant.

  9. dhogaza says:

    What Michael Tobis said …

    I’ve read some of the NAS e-mails and am astounded that anyone thinks there’s anything wrong with the effort the various scientist members propose. I suspect the gasps of horror on the RIght have as much to do with some of the names of those posting (Paul Erlich, in particular) as with the content.

    We’ve wasted 22 years. Drs. Woodwell & Hansen and others gave us ample warning, and the result has largely been a two decade effort to shoot the messengers.

  10. MarkB says:

    Note the upward linear trend in global mean temperature since the testimony of Hansen and Woodwell.

    While observations over such a period of time are of modest value with regards to determining climate sensitivity, it would nonetheless imply a sensitivity of 3.4 C, with large error bars however.

  11. paulm says:

    This is an EMERGENCY situation, from like 1988, yet there is no action. Even by the scientist themselves, apart from a few like Hansen.

    Now we can see clearly how Easter Islands happen. What a mess were in.

  12. Phil says:

    … shooting the messengers….

    reminds me of Karl Popper, who, in Conjectures and Refutations, wrote: “You cannot have a rational discussion with a man who prefers shooting you to being convinced by you”. And, as he went on to point out, you could logically convince him only for him to choose to shoot you anyway. And that is the real problem.

  13. Heraclitus says:

    Someone should pass this, and similar posts, on to Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society. He was speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning and whilst I don’t think he said anything wrong he was careful to the point of blandness. He refused to agree that some of the reporting has been irresponsible and didn’t object to some standard hyperbole on the CRU emails from the interviewer.

  14. climateprogressive says:

    #8 Lou Grinzo:

    “Everything Dr. Woodwell says here is great, but “open-ended warming that is pulling the environment out from under this civilization” is brilliant.”

    Spot on. It’s a rare skill to be able to use so few words to convey something so powerful.

    Contrast that to the typical denialist gish-gallop, that can be summarised thus: “It’s typical alarmist hype. There is no global warming, there is warming but it’s nothing to do with carbon dioxide and the carbon dioxide causing the warming has all come from volcanoes.”

    Anyway over here in Wales we are making a start with the launch of our Transition Towns initiative not too far in the future. It may not make that much difference globally, although there are lots of TTs now, but at least it’s good to spend some of one’s time with like-minded people who share the view that the environment isn’t just somewhere you visit on vacation!

  15. Wit's End says:

    Thank you Dr. Woodwell!

    I think for the person who genuinely is unconvinced about the science (as opposed to a paid denier), it would be important to update and make prominent exactly how much CO2 and other greenhouse gases emissions we are putting into the atmosphere by burning fuel. People can’t see them, and so they allow themselves to believe the amount is too insignificant to affect climate.

  16. Justin Wood says:

    I simply wish to record my own deep admiration for Dr Woodwell’s intent and his seeringly eloquent statements.

  17. Mike#22 says:

    I just visited the Woods Hole home page and poked around the site. I was hoping to see some examples of “It is time now, thirty years after the problem was recognized as threatening this civilization, for the scientific community to come forth with clear instructions, relentlessly repeated and amplified, as to how to restore a functional habitat for humanity” front and center at the WHOI.

    Dr. Woodwell, I respectfully ask: shouldn’t “the scientific community” at WHOI be using their main source of communication with the public, their website, to present “clear instructions, relentlessly repeated and amplified”?

  18. Wil M says:

    Clarification. Dr. Woodwell founded the Woods Hole Research Center, often confused with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), but not the same. Please see