Bert Bolin

Posted January 3rd, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

When the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, I wondered why Bert Bolin wasn’t standing next to Al Gore. As it turns out, he would have been, had he not been too ill to travel – at least he lived long enough to enjoy the honor (hat tip Climate Science Watch).

Which brings me back to a post I started awhile back, but never got around to finishing, about the important role of synthesis in science, which is rarely mentioned – not at all for example in this article by scientific historian Naomi Oreskes on the history of the consensus of climate change. To be fair, there are only so many things one can say in an op-ed, but in between the work of those she mentions was a report from a workshop led by Bert Bolin in 1977, under the auspices of the ICSU Scientific Committee on Problems in the Environment (SCOPE), at which 66 scientists from 22 countries tried to nail down the “missing carbon.” An excerpt from the preface of SCOPE report number 13:

One major problem, which constantly cropped up in the discussions, concerned the carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere. This issue is very significant because the potential increase of CO2 in air remains substantially unpredictable as a factor in climatic variations. For us, the CO2 question is only one of many important issues concerning carbon. It also appears that an answer to the build-up of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere can only be found by placing the CO2 problem in its proper environmental context, that is, the global cycle of carbon. Consequently we have tried, in a series of articles, to treat the carbon cycle by dividing it into various segments, i.e. hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere and lithosphere. Rather than concentrating on the accumulation and compilation of the data alone, we were guided by the intention to reveal the mechanisms of the carbon cycle in terms of sinks and sources and the kinetics of transfer and exchange.

Subsequently, in 1981, he led another interdisciplinary team that examined interactions among all of the major biogeochemical cycles: carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorus that resulted in SCOPE 21. And then, another review in preparation for a 1985 UNEP/WMO/ICSU International Conference on The Assessment of the Role of Carbon Dioxide and of Other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impacts, held in Villach Austria, that produced the following recommendation:

Recommended actions: Major uncertainties remain in predictions of changes in global and regional precipitation and temperature patterns. Ecosystem responses are also imperfectly known. Nevertheless, the understanding of the greenhouse question is sufficiently developed that scientists and policy-makers should begin an active collaboration to explore the effectiveness of alternative policies and adjustments. Efforts should be made to design methods necessary for such collaboration. UNEP, WMO and ICSU should establish a small task force on green- house gases, or take other measures, to: Help ensure that appropriate agencies and bodies follow up the recommendations of Villach 1985. Ensure periodic assessments are undertaken of the state of scientific understanding and its practical implications. Provide advice on further mechanisms and actions required at the national or international levels. Encourage research in developing countries to improve energy efficiency and conservation. Initiate; if deemed necessary, consideration of a global convention.

which appears in SCOPE 29, The Greenhouse Effect, Climatic Change and Ecosystems. Following which, the IPCC was formed.

I started to learn about all of this around 1991, when, as an employee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, I was assigned as staff to the US Committee for SCOPE – an international body that was established to provide this kind of synthesis on emerging global environmental problems – which is how they get on the radar screen. Much of the credit for the establishment of SCOPE goes to Gilbert White, who very much influenced my decision to become a geographer, after many years of frustration doing interdisciplinary work in institutions that at best, seem intentionally designed to make it difficult. At worst, such endeavors get dismissed as “academic moonlighting.” So I appreciate what a feat it must have been, both to create SCOPE and the IPCC – and remain in awe. They have both served not only to advance knowledge, but to build the capacity for international collaboration in science, which can be a starting point for collaboration in addressing global problems. A few quotes from Gilbert White:

“What is important is where we stand in relation to the tasks of society . . . What shall it profit [the profession of geography] if it fabricates a nifty discipline about the world while that world and the human spirit are degraded?”

“I feel strongly that I should not go into research unless it promises results that would advance the aims of the people affected and unless I am prepared to take all practicable steps to help translate the results into action.”

Added note: One of the reasons the SCOPE reports were obscured to those outside the scientific community involved in producing them, was because they were once outrageously expensive, and the internet did not yet exist. But volumes 1-59 are now available for download in their entirety. Newer volumes are now published by Island Press at much more reasonable rates.

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