“The climate system is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks,” so wrote Wallace “Wally” Broecker, a leading climate scientist, who is widely credited with coining the phrase “global warming”, and who died this week.
Wally – as he was often known – can only be described as a climate visionary. The Professor authored some 500 research papers and 17 books, writing them all by hand and never using a computer, often just handing manuscripts out to interested colleagues.
He spent over six decades at Columbia University, at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He will be remembered as the “grandfather of climate science” or “dean of climate science”, whose early warnings since the mid-sixties about climate change and the need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, were ignored by world leaders.
But it was his 1975 work “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?,” where, according to the Washington Post: “Dr. Broecker theorized that a natural cooling trend would soon give way to a rise in global temperatures. The paper marked the first use of the term ‘global warming’ in an academic publication.”
His obituary at Columbia University notes that in the 1975 paper “he argued that humans were changing the climate by emitting CO2; it just wasn’t evident yet, because the world was experiencing what he believed was a natural 40-year cooling cycle that was masking the effects.”
It continued: “He predicted that the cycle would soon reverse, and then the manmade warming on top of that would become dramatically visible. It later turned out that he had misinterpreted some of the ice-core data, but had the overall picture right. Right on cue in 1976, temperatures started ascending, and have continued since then pretty much along the trajectory Broecker laid out.”
He would later describe himself struck with “dumb luck” in some of his predictions for that paper. Writing decades later in 2017, he said “I predicted that a natural cooling was about to give way to a warming, and that industrial emissions of CO2 would amplify this warming.”
He added “The paper published in Science in 1975. Warming did follow in 1976–1977. However, a retrospective look shows that my analysis was flawed. What is more—and to my chagrin—based on the words ‘global warming’ in my Science paper, I was given the title ‘Father of Global Warming.’ Not only did I not like this title, I had done little to merit it.”
He finished by saying “It is my hope that the title ‘Father of Global Warming’ does not appear on my tombstone. Were it to, I would be faced with a restless afterlife.” He even offered moeny for peopel to find out if others have used the term before him.
But Wally’s science went much further than just predicting climate change. He was also an expert on how heat was moved by the world’s oceans and labelled the ocean conveyor belt the “Achilles heel’ of the climate system, which he argued raised the average winter temperatures in Europe by 20 degrees or more.
If the world’s oceans currents were disrupted, there would be significant trouble, he predicted, although this concept was exaggerated by the film, the Day after Tomorrow.
Scientists the world over have paid tribute to Wally since his death was announced, calling Broecker both a “genius and pioneer”.
“He has singlehandedly pushed more understanding than probably anybody in our field,” said Richard Alley, a leading climatologist at Pennsylvania State University. “He is intellectually so huge in how the earth system works and what its history is, that all of us are following Wally in one way or other.”
Princeton University Professor, Michael Oppenheimer told the Guardian “Wally was unique, brilliant and combative. He wasn’t fooled by the cooling of the 1970s. He saw clearly the unprecedented warming now playing out and made his views clear, even when few were willing to listen.”
Leading climate scientist, Penn State professor, Michael Mann, also told the paper: “Broecker helped communicate to the public and policymakers the potential for abrupt climate changes and unwelcome ‘surprises’ as a result of climate change.”
Back in 1984, Broecker testified at the first congressional hearings on climate change, along side the then Tennessee Representative, Al Gore. He told Congress that carbon dioxide was “the number one long-term environmental problem.”
If only the politicians had listened to Wally and not their fossil fuel funders and buddies, he would have left the world in a much better state.