“Global warming?” says Steve Wampler. “Crap!”
This is unexpected because Steve trained as an environmental engineer at UC Davis.
But he’s serious. “There are 100,000 scientists out there who are saying it’s total crap too, but they get shunned, swept under the carpet because all this ‘global warming’ stuff is just money-making scare tactics. They prevent the opposing view from ever getting a fair hearing.”
Steve. What a contradiction. I thought he’d be a global-warming shoo-in, a great first interview on my mission to find out what green San Diegans are doing, post-Copenhagen, to save the world. To undo — uninvent — global warming. Because it turns out (who knew?) that San Diego invented global warming, or at least discovered a way of understanding it.Just over 50 years ago, in March 1958, Charles Keeling of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography set up camp on the summit of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. His idea was to take daily measurements of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to see if that number was increasing as a result of humanity’s use of fossil fuels.
And over the course of 50 years, the figures tell us it was. Keeling’s graph does one sexy curve up, up, and up. Each notch equals more CO2 in every molecule of air. The Keeling curve “marked a key moment in American science history,” says Scripps, commemorating the anniversary in an article on its website. It’s “become one of the iconic images of science, rivaling the double helix, or Darwin’s sketches of finches…. It turned speculations about increasing CO2 from theory into fact.”
So the question is: With all the urgent calls from Copenhagen, can San Diego help lead the world back from the brink? It turns out that our fair city bristles with experts and activists, from Keeling’s son Ralph, also a climate scientist at UCSD, to Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who discovered the “ABC” — atmospheric brown clouds — clouds loaded with industrial soot that cause a reduction in solar radiation at the ocean surface.
The problem is, all the UCSD/Scripps people involved with Copenhagen are apparently too busy to talk. Or, as in the case of Ralph Keeling, too apparently elitist. He didn’t think the Reader a newspaper worth speaking to (and we wonder why UCSD can’t shake its town/gown image problems).
Which started me thinking. We need people who are actually doing something, not just forever analyzing the problem. From the Maldives drowning, to the crows invading San Diego (until recently, their southernmost limit was Carlsbad), to some pretty wild fire seasons, there is plenty of evidence that it’s roll-up-your-sleeves time.
So here are a half-dozen San Diegans who decided not to wait for the arguments to end.
The man who has looked into the abyss: “For years, I was a voice in the wilderness,” says Walter Oechel, a distinguished professor of biology at San Diego State. “I warned of this coming crisis.” He doesn’t hold up much hope for planet earth on its present trajectory. “The tipping point, our chance to avoid damaging change, passed in 2002, 2003. Now it’s a question of damage control.”
We’re sitting in the old (1941) Faculty Staff Center on campus, one of the original buildings of San Diego State, during a noisy lunchtime. The place is filled with staff members, eating, chatting, heading over to give orders to a chef who stands by the well-stocked buffet. The chef slices slivers of roast beef, serves up healthy sides. If Earth is the Titanic, SDSU staff are going down in style.
I’ve come to see Oechel because he’s a legend in green circles. Long before most, he was studying the tundra in Alaska and Iceland for signs that it was about to begin defrosting. He’s also known for resisting corporate pressures to play ball and stay quiet. He’s authored pioneering papers detailing how a few degrees’ warming is causing the Arctic tundra to change from a reliable frozen carbon sink to a potential carbon bomb, releasing thousands of years’ worth of stored carbon in short order. After he published that, he says, the Department of Energy cut $500,000 from his research grant in 1992. Two years later, when he published a paper demonstrating that higher CO2 levels don’t stimulate ecosystems long-term, a second $500,000 was taken away. The last $300,000 of his D.O.E. grant was withdrawn after another paper on carbon and global warming came out.
But he has hung in there, all the while training another generation of ecophysiologists like himself.
“The poles are the radiators for the planet,” Oechel says. “They radiate energy to outer space because of the reflections from snow, the clear sky, the low humidity. They’re net exporters of energy to space, while the mid-latitudes and the equator are net importers of energy. The Arctic has become our canary in the coal mine.”
But his contribution to the Copenhagen debate boils down to one word: population.
“I’m unaware of anyone dealing with this double-edged sword of an increasing population and an increasing resource use.” We are approaching the Perfect Storm, he says: Just as Earth reaches her limits of tolerance for carbon emissions, the developing world is about to explode in fossil-fuel-driven consumerism, led by China and India. “Over the 30 years I’ve been involved in climate-change research, China has gone from a per capita CO2 emission of 1/32 of that of America to about 1/3. I’m not picking on China. Most of the developing world wants to develop, and if the developing world reaches just 1/3 the U.S.’s resource use — and if you apply that to the current population of almost 7 billion, let alone a likely future population of 13 billion or more — it just explodes in terms of CO2 emissions and resource use.”
Oechel is part of the first generation of eco-academics who’ve had to muscle their way into an academe (along with their corporate backers) not ready for them.
“My formal training is as an ecophysiologist,” he says. “Since the late ’70s, the focus of my research has been on the impact of increasing atmospheric CO2 on natural ecosystems. For instance, the new estimates for the Arctic now are that there may be 1.7 thousand gigatons of carbon in the upper three meters of soil. If any significant fraction of that came out as CO2 and methane, it would have a huge perturbation on existing atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Because the total atmospheric CO2 now is less than 800 gigatons. So there’s a huge potential impact of that organic matter being oxidized and released to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.”