Captain Climate (part 2) – Wally Broecker on CO2 and Global Warming


A young Wally Broecker launchin into his climate career at the Columbia University geology department in 1953. (Credit: Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering Archives, Columbia University)

Wally Broecker is a climate researcher who has had so much impact in his field that he is considered one of the most important figures in ongoing climate research.

If we picture climate research as a ship navigating in the raging sea of the Earth’s climate system, then Wally might be Captain Climate.

He explains it like this:

[…] I have an advantage, because when I started doing this, the field was very small and we could learn everything about everything without much trouble. Now, it is almost impossible for people to spread over the same territory I can spread over. Even though I am not expert and know all the nuances, I know the basics, and that is what is really important.

Wally spent most of his life thinking about how everything is connected; the oceans, the atmosphere, the land, the climate, and human activity. Do you want to know more about his point of view on global warming and CO2?

Then pull the anchor and we sail through his answers!

Wally, what would you say are the main unanswered questions in climate research today?

Wally’s answer comes fast and accurate. He gives me a list of issues that still puzzle him; all linked to the relation between CO2 and ice extent.

Firstly, in the Antarctic ice core record there is a drop in CO2 at the onset of the last glacial period. This drop is delayed with respect to the drop in temperature by about 1500 years. Assuming that CO2 drives temperature, this lag is very hard to explain, and indicates that the climate system is more complicated than we presently understand.

Secondly, around 8000 years ago, atmospheric CO2 increased to 265ppm. But glaciers didn’t retreat, and nobody knows why. Wally emphasizes that it is unclear what else beyond CO2 affects the ice, and what controls the CO2. He underlines that we need much more research to understand how it all is connected, especially when it comes to the role of the oceans.

Thirdly, why did CO2 undergo the same shift from one glacial cycle to the next? The cycles are not identical, so why did CO2 act the same? One possible explanation is that Pacific deep water replaced North Atlantic deep water, and hence had the same effect on CO2.

So, how can we answer these questions technologically and socially?

Putting CO2 into the atmosphere has been mankind’s greatest geophysical experiment”,

Wally quotes, and quickly continues.

We’re moving, but the goal is receding, so the gap is getting wider. We are learning, but one thing we are learning is that the climate system turns out to be a hell lot more complicated than we initially thought. […] We are going to learn all these things by experiment. […] On the time scale that this is all going to happen, we will not be able to make really good predictions. It is just too complicated.

We use the atmosphere as a garbage dock, but we cannot do that. [..] There ought to be a way to retrieve the CO2 and put it away. […] But it is hard for a single nation to create a task that everybody accepts. […] We have to cut the fossil fuel emissions by a factor of ten to stop the CO2 from rising!

Wally notes that tasks, such as carbon taxes, a general increase in fuel costs, and hydrogen cars, are the first-steps.

Yet, everything that people talk about is nibbles, and nibbles aren’t going to get us there!

Especially not in the short-term. I ask him about his opinion of the Kyoto Protocol. Wally answers disenchanted:

The biggest players weren’t even in the game: The US, China and India all didn’t sign it. The world must realize that the CO2 in our atmosphere is a big problem.”

And Wally continues resolutely:

There have to be some big bites; we need to do something dramatic! Putting a price on carbon would be something dramatic, starting to take CO2 back out of the air, too. That of course will cost money, so somebody will have to pay for it. […] As fossil fuels are so cheap, and in the near future we won’t run out of them, the world is in great need of an alternative solution.

In cooperation with Klaus Lackner at Columbia University, Wally works on producing a prototype to air-capture CO2 out of the atmosphere. He explains that machines like this need to be huge to be sufficient. Wally is convinced that the CO2 problem cannot be solved unless science, industry and politics push Research and Development forward.

But not even Wally knows how to promote more research on the subject.

We got ideas, but so far, ideas don’t work. Lackner has been trying since 2008 one way or another to get money for CO2 capture. He hasn’t succeeded. That is perhaps one of the most discouraging things. Everybody has their own pet ideas, and they can’t stand back and eliminate their own personal preferences and say we have got a huge problem that we all got together and do all the things that we can to start to get a handle on it. I think China eventually will take the lead. Their government can do it. We could never do it here, because the congress is dead-locked on everything.

[…] My feeling is that until the world decides that this is a huge problem and creates an organization like the UN, but not the UN, that has great power with regard to regulating carbon globally […], we are not going to solve the problem. But the probability that this is going to happen is rather small. That organization would have incredible power, and would be prone to misdealing and corruption.

How worried are you about global warming? Do you think we can still have decisive impact to slow it down?

Wally sees few ways to crush the whole civilization. But he thinks the CO2 influence we are playing with is potentially extremely dangerous.

We are heading for trouble! […] That is not the way to run the world! […] Normally we always plan for the worst, right, that is why we spend 500 Billion Dollars a year on the US military defense. Not that we are endangered of having another war soon, we still put that money in. Yet, as far as CO2 storage from the atmosphere, only 25 Million Dollars have been spent over a time period of ten years! That is what some New York Yankee players make in a single six-months-season! You know, there is something wrong, this is a huge problem, and we are not doing the basic things that we could do.

[…] I am pushing, […] because fossil fuels are so cheap, […] and it is clear that with technology we will find even more than we found now, so we will not run out of fossil fuels. And right now they are cheaper than any other source of energy. […] I think we will have to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. Klaus Lackner at Columbia knows how to do it, but he can’t get the money to build the prototype.

So where can this money come from? Our governments maybe?

Wally talked to Jens Stoltenberg, while he was Prime Minister of Norway, one of the wealthiest oil producing countries in the world. Wally asked Jens Stoltenberg if the Norwegian authorities could invest in the development of a prototype for CO2 capture.

I said, you know, you as a nation are ahead of everybody else, in taxing carbon and so forth, why don’t you use some of your oil money to explore taking CO2 out of the atmosphere?

And Jens Stoltenberg answered categorically:

I can’t do that. That has to be done by industry!

Wally tells me that he found Jens Stoltenberg’s answer incredibly disappointing.

What is needed is like 100 Million Dollars, yet politics shovel their responsibility to the industry.

And Wally knows that this means one thing:

That is scary. Industry has no interest in this, venture capitalists don’t want to do this because the pay-off is 20, 30, 40 years away.

CO2 capture and storage is the “dead obvious” solution to Wally. And Wally is, undoubtedly, one of the wisest guys there is in global climate science. Already today, the destructive effects of human’s shortsighted greed for money, luxury and power are a sad, undeniable truth. Already today, global warming is measurable. And it is today, that the future of our globe, so beautiful and yet so fragile, lies in our hands. Yet, all we can do is hope for a change of thinking, and tell people about the science that we do.

The seas are undoubtedly getting rougher. Whether the rest of the world jumps on board and takes Captain Climate’s advice, to get CO2 out of our sails, remains to be seen.

If you want to gain a more detailed insight into Wally’s CO2 theory, and how he thinks it all is connected, you can read further in his newest e-book “What Drives Glacial Cycles?”


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Hella Wittmeier

I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Earth Science, University of Bergen, and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. I work with glacier and climate reconstructions of the Northern Polar Region, as part of the SHIFTS project.
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