Climate warning, 50 years later

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  13 Nov 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6262, pp. 721
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad7927

Long before geophysicist Michael Mann's hockeystick graph became the icon for anthropogenic global warming, the U.S. President's Science Advisory Committee [now known as the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)] cautioned President Lyndon B. Johnson that the continued release of CO2 to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels would “almost certainly cause significant changes” and “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.” The committee's report concluded that there could be “marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts.” In recognition of the 50th anniversary of that first official warning from scientists to policy-makers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Carnegie Institution for Science, the American Meteorological Society, and the Linden Trust for Conservation sponsored a 1-day climate symposium on 29 October.


“…policy-makers should be sending thank-you notes—not subpoenas—to express their gratitude to scientists…”

Fifty years ago, the problems of global warming seemed distant and highly uncertain. Today, we are already experiencing impacts from climate change. In the face of mounting urgency, there are signs of hope, though. Within the past few weeks, 10 oil producers, representing 20% of global production, have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by curbing the flaring of natural gas and investing in carbon capture and storage. The best part of this announcement is the acknowledgment by energy giants BP, Pemex, Statoil, Saudi Aramco, Total, Royal Dutch Shell, BG Group, Eni, Reliance Industries, and Repsol that climate change is a serious problem and that energy companies need to be part of the solution. Unfortunately, the proposed steps are inadequate contributions toward meeting the goal of keeping the increase in average global temperature to below 2°C, a target that would avoid the worst impacts from warming.

Another beacon of hope is the leadership being taken by faith-based groups. Pope Francis has done perhaps the most to raise world awareness of the moral imperative to take action on climate change for the sake of the most disadvantaged members of society, who have done the least to cause the problem. His message resonates far beyond those of Catholic faith. Laudato Si joins statements from many other religious leaders, including those of Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and other Christian faiths.*

The private sector is also stepping up its responsibility. This past summer, in the ramp-up to the Paris Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 12 major corporations, including General Motors, Apple, Google, Alcoa, and Bank of America, pledged to invest more than $140 billion in efforts to curtail CO2 emissions in the next 5 to 10 years.

Although these announcements from diverse sectors are all hopeful signs of a growing awareness of climate-change risk and the need to take action, some leaders are instead distracting scientists from the important work at hand. Last month, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received a subpoena from Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the House of Representatives, for all documents and communications among and between NOAA employees that refer to various global temperature data sets. Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) labeled the subpoena “a fishing expedition” triggered by a NOAA paper published earlier this year in Science, “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus.” Senator Edward Markey (D–MA) summed up his opinion at the 50th anniversary event when he suggested that policy-makers should be sending thank-you notes—not subpoenas—to express their gratitude to scientists for sounding the alarm on the perils of greenhouse gas emissions. The senator's remarks remind us that we scientists should thank the many leaders who promote action on climate change.

View Abstract

Stay Connected to Science

Navigate This Article