Magazine article Oceanus

Science in Service to the Nation: A Conversation with Oceanographer Ray Schmitt

Magazine article Oceanus

Science in Service to the Nation: A Conversation with Oceanographer Ray Schmitt

Article excerpt

In 1863, as the Civil War raged, Congress established the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), an honorary society of scholars that any government department could call upon to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art." In 1916, during another war, the NAS created the National Research Council to draw on the expertise of a wider scientific community. The NRC enlists committees of the nation's top scientists, engineers, and other experts, who volunteer their time to study designated issues and provide scientific and technological advice for policymaking.

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In 2008, Congress asked the NRC to establish a committee to investigate "the serious and sweeping issues relating to global climate change." Ray Schmitt, a physical oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was among some 90 experts in science, economics, law, industry, and energy policy who in May 2010 issued a new report, America's Climate Choices.

How is this report different from what we've heard before, particularly the controversial Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of 2007?

I think we stated the facts more assertively than other reports. Scientists tend to offer very qualified statements, and they've been relatively conservative on the subject of climate change in the past. We were not conservative. We did not equivocate.

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From our perspective, climate change is not a theory. It's going to happen. It's happening right now. I'd say our approach for the entire report revolves around the notion that you can't populate the planet with nine billion people and expect the environment not to notice.

Did the report's findings surprise you?

I found all of the research sobering. For example, the projections from the IPCC report said that sea levels could rise by a foot by 2100. In the past three to five years, a number of papers have come out saying that it looks like the rate of melting of the icecaps is a lot faster than had been anticipated, and that we could get a sea level rise of 3 to 4 feet by the end of the century.

A foot of sea level rise we might be able to live with; but 3 feet of sea level rise is a big problem for a lot of people. Anyone who lives in coastal areas will feel tremendous impacts.

Besides shoreline erosion, what are some of the problems that would come along with sea level rise?

Probably the big change would be how far storm surges come into land. That will just get worse and worse. With a big rise in sea level, all of a sudden you're in much worse shape than you would have been without that sea level rise. The sort of flood that would only happen every 100 years, now might happen every 10 years.

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What are our options? How do we deal with it?

We can do four things: We can do nothing and suffer; we can adapt; we can mitigate, using geoengineering to treat the problems; or we can try to reduce the levels of C[O.sub.2] [carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas] in our atmosphere and avoid all these problems. To do that, we would have to change our economy. People talk about it being too expensive. That's kind of a ridiculous argument. You'd just have a different economy. …

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