Two MIT Nobel laureates were on a panel of scientists invited to the White House to help shape a campaign to educate the public about the threat posed by global warming.
The July 24 meeting was designed to provide the scientific foundation for a comprehensive all-day conference on the issue in October. An international conference is scheduled for Kyoto, Japan, in December.
Institute Professor Mario Molina, who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for chemistry, and J.A. Stratton Professor Henry Kendall, the 1990 Nobel Prize co-winner for physics, were joined on the panel by Professor Sherry Rowland of the University of California at Irvine, a Nobel co-winner with Professor Molina. He is the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Sciences and professor of chemistry.
Also on the panel was Professor John Holdren (SB '65, SM), director of the program on science, technology and public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and professor of environmental science and public policy in Harvard's Department of Earth and Planetary Science. Professor Holdren delivered the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1995.
President Clinton told the scientists that his goal was to convince the general public that global warming is a man-made problem that can be alleviated if confronted and managed sensibly.
"It is obvious that we cannot fulfill our responsibilities to future generations unless we deal responsibly with the challenge of climate change," President Clinton said. "Whenever the security of our country has been threatened, we have led the world to a better resolution. That is what is at stake here."
In his remarks, Professor Molina noted the relationship between climate and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He said the level is higher today that it has been in 160,000 years. Computer simulations of the climate indicate that it is necessary to take into account changes in the greenhouse gases such as CO2 in order to understand the ice ages, especially in the southern hemisphere.
"Looking to the future, our trajectory is clear and ominous," said Professor Molina, who has served on numerous advisory councils and boards, including the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee for Geosciences.
"In a geological blink of the eye -- 100 years -- we will be taking CO2 to levels not seen on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years," said Professor Molina, who used a portion of his Nobel Prize to establish the Molina Fellowship in Environmental Sciences at MIT. "In fact, the paleoclimatic data record from different sources indicates our current trajectory may lead to CO2 levels higher than any in 50 million years.
"The strong correlation between CO2 and temperature, combined with a rapidly growing concentration of CO2, is a clear indication that serious concern with our present course is warranted." Professor Kendall focused his remarks on the link between climate and agriculture, warning that all nations will be affected by problems with world food production if climate disruption continues unabated.
"Food demand is expected to double in the next 30 years. Fresh water, which is vital for irrigation, is already short," he said. "Of course, it's the bottom tier of the developing nations that will get hit directly by shortages. A large number of people, one in six, will have great trouble--and some will find it impossible--to feed themselves."
The shortage of resources, Professor Kendall said, is helping "to generate increasing numbers of hungry migrants, environmental refugees streaming across national borders. The result is that no nation will be sheltered from dislocation of food supplies, altered trade balances, freshwater difficulties. And even though the wealthy nations will remain able to feed themselves, no nation will escape the troubles from pressures on the food supply."
"Mr. President, it is not the case that one end of a boat can sink," he said.
A third MIT Nobel Prize winner, psychiatrist Eric Chivian, was among 125 experts invited to attend the meeting. "Just having this meeting is a significant breakthrough," said Dr. Chivian, a founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. "Politically, it will be a tough battle. But this is a start -- an important start."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 13, 1997.