A Letter to L. Rafael Reif
President, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“Experts Urge ‘Full Speed Ahead‘ on Climate Action -
At the first of six climate symposia, specialists discussed the current state of knowledge on climate change, described what areas needed more research, and urged immediate advancement of climate science and action...” (from MIT Climate Action)
Dear President Reif:
Since my sophomore year at MIT in 1960, I have been familiar with the term “thermal runaway.” This was, of course, the end of the germanium transistor era when positive feedback led to the demise of many transistorized circuits.
About fifteen years ago, when I read for the first time about climate change, “thermal runaway” came to mind again with the anticipation of the release of methane with the expected melting of the tundra.
The story was more than a shock. Perhaps it was a reaction to my love of the natural landscape since my career change some thirty-five years ago, after twenty-three years at Bose Corporation, to fine art landscape photography. I had by that time exposed some 20,000 sheets of film in a view camera and sold thousands of prints I made myself, primarily to health care facilities. What followed was two years of depression. Part of my reaction may also have been influenced by my interest in cosomology and my fairly intimate picture of the earth as a beautiful place, friendly towards humanity, and isolated in an arm of a spiral galaxy, a miracle of the great singularity that ultimately gave birth to trillions of planets.
For the next twelve years my readings of the warming climate and my awareness of the gradual change in the nature of the seasons ate away at my joy of the planet I called home. I became more and more aware of the risks to the earth as opportunities passed for serious intervention, the last, in my opinion, being the efforts of President H.W. Bush after the address to congress by Dr. James Hansen, the noted climate activist. This was 1988. Already there was considerable speculation about the role of nuclear power and the possible need for negative emissions, literally laundering the atmosphere, a thought that had crossed my mind years before.
I was getting on in years and political activism seemed both enervating and hopeless. So I decided to create a website: caringfortheearth.com. It is quite large and forever being rewritten as new information comes my way (and is full of typos etc. as I create new material rather than completing work on what I had already done).
My reason for writing to you is the quote above from the MIT climate news that I had just read. The words “experts urge ‘full speed ahead’” made my blood boil. In all these years those were the only words I had read after every technical paper and news story. I had on my web site urged the formation of a “World Climate Authority” that, in cooperation with the United Nations, would take a very public and specific lead of what had to be done, country by country, publized the results regularly and established a pubic teaching program about the very difficult to comprehend phenomena of climate change. Of couse, no such thing happened.
Now I believe this letter, as well as almost everything else, is too late. Carbon in the atmosphere is at its highest level in one million years, emissions are rising, oil companies are increasing production, and there is no authorative, forward looking, audacious public organization attempting to hault, and ultimately and very audaciously reverse the carbon content of the atmosphere. And I asked myself, in the abscence of political leadership, what organization had the knowledge, resources and stature to bring together the resources that would do the impossible. My mentorship and friendship for over 40 years with Dr. Bose taught me over and over again to rexamine every difficulty and to find a new way to accomplish the objective. I spent many hours one-on-one with Dr. Bose and I used to joke that he did not look over the horizon but through the horizon.
I am still revising and rewriting and thinking about my web site and a few days ago I wrote “if not MIT than who” just as I say as I approach 80, if not now, when?
The world needs authorative and superb teaching. It needs leadship, goals, guidance and evaluation for each important country and periodic reports, presented in a manner that fully reflects the incredible seriousness of the situation, and does not just explain but strikes a powerful emotional chord. If presented well, public opeinion should do the rest. But the plan must include goals that will stop the warming and eventually reverse it. A 3°C rise, which I believe will happen without serious intervention, will make the earth a most unfriendly place. And it must be made clear that a war on emissions will be expensive, likely in the trillions of dollars. So the public must be educated about the future cost in livability of the planet, disease, the loss of coastal cities and more.<4h>
Part of the problem is the focus on the year 2100. Warming will not stop in 2100 and could also eventually lead to an unlivable planet. ib And the public must be educated. When we had to revolutionize car stereo it was 9 million 6 page gatefolds in 14 publications. This is small compared to what must be done, but it got the public’s attention. The layman symply does not ”get it” from the present poor presentations in print and on the web and in television news. A cataclismic report from the UN will get a few paragraphs on page 13 of the New York Times. It should be beautifully taught and illustrated and on the front page. (The The New York Times does not even have a science editor nor a scientifically educated staff writer.)
Climate change is the most difficult concept to get across that I have encoutered in my career. But it is essential that the level of understading be raised to a level adequate to create the political support necessary.
With all best wishes,
John Wawrzonek, MIT SB 1963, SM 1965, EE 1967.