Letter from the Director: “The Exquisite Science,” April 2020

“The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas”[1]. With that simple sentence we began to understand the effect of human actions on the Earth’s climate.

In recent years there has been an enormous outpouring of articles on the various crises we face including conflict and migration, urban air and water pollution; biodiversity loss; water scarcity; and the crisis that captures many of these and more, climate change. Of course, at the moment and for the foreseeable future our attention is on the pandemic. Global and threatening to everyone on Earth—though not everyone is vulnerable in the same way—the coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes COVID-19 now dominates our thinking about crises, the short and long-term consequences on us as a species and our individual and collective responses.

Despite the US President’s assertion that no one could have predicted this pandemic, many people did. We knew it was coming. Books were written, studies were completed, TED talks delivered. In 2017 the US Department of Defense completed an internal document[2] that predicted many of the consequences of a pandemic. On the very first page it reads, “The potential for a large biological incident to impact the United States is real.” And, “Novel contagious pathogens capable of human-to-human transmission via aerosol with high virulence for which no MCM[3] exists may present the greatest challenge to response and recovery.”

All of this is also true of climate change, including another analysis by the DoD highlighting threats to national security. In a 2015 report[4], the DoD “…recognizes the reality of climate change and the significant risk it poses to U.S. interests globally. The National Security Strategy, issued in February 2015, is clear that climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.”

The timing of a pandemic was, of course, not known but how it would likely manifest was a matter of some agreement and fairly confident and informed speculation. It would likely result from a novel virus making the leap from an animal to a person. The worst-case scenario would then include airborne transmission from person to person.

This has now happened. In the early messy weeks of this global crisis, strangely, several conspiracy theories that the virus had been invented in a lab (American, Chinese or North Korean) had some play in the press and in the dark corners of the internet but also with a US university president and even among some world leaders. Now some, citing his TED talk of 2015, have targeted Bill Gates as an evil genius plotting to profit from the pandemic.

Roughly the same strangeness has long infected popular discourse of climate change—remember “it’s a Chinese hoax”. The coronavirus did emerge in China, not in a lab but most likely in a “wet market”. It quickly made the enormously successful evolutionary leap from animals to humans and found in us a global population of 7.8 billion ready hosts frenetically moving about the earth. Once public health experts fully understood the potentially massive health consequences unprecedented steps were taken to broadly nullify social norms and shut down or drastically contract the vast majority of economic activities.

This week Earth Day is upon us and already there is a proliferation of perspectives on how a post-COVID-19 future may offer opportunities to redirect our world into a more environmentally positive path. We can, it turns out, act together to combat a global challenge. We can, and have, dramatically altered our individual behavior for the collective good. We have also placed our confidence in and directed our actions on the advice of scientists: at least the vast majority of us have. We have done all of these things when we understood our lives, and everyone else’s lives were in the balance. Again, climate change comes to mind.

Now, these two streams of crisis—COVID-19 and climate change—are flowing into one another. A lot has been written in the popular press and a lot of people are taking notice. Among the many thoughts on offer, I would like to direct attention to one element that has received less notice but should be called out every Earth Day every year, during a pandemic or not.

That one element can be summed up in a visit I once made to Prof. Susan Solomon’s office on the 19th floor of the Green Building here at MIT. When I arrived, Susan was clearly excited by what she was about to tell me. “It’s clear now we have the evidence to show the ozone hole is healing.” With that simple statement she made clear there was now “evidence” and it was still up to her and colleagues to “show” that the hole was healing—a scientist’s way of delivering good news. They were in the midst of writing a paper on their findings[5].

At that moment, a recurring thought came back to me—that the beauty, the awe, the breadth, the sheer scale of the science of the Earth is not well known to most people and certainly not deeply appreciated by people generally—at least that’s what I perceive. There is so much more to the science of the planet than greenhouse gases and yes, there is certainly much to talk about besides the science including the political stasis; the organized campaigns to deny climate science; the utter tragedy and inequity of the emerging consequences, and so much more. Yet, it is not often that we pause and consider that it all began with science driven by the sheer joy of learning how it all works.

The beauty of the science of our planet’s climate deserves celebrating on this Earth Day, 50 years after millions of Americans started it all on April 22, 1970. It is estimated 1 in 10 Americans (1 in 10!) heeded the call from the “Conservation Governor” and then Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin who wondered, “If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public… we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda.” For a while it worked and the EPA was born soon after. Today we might say the US has taken many steps back on controlling pollution, protecting species and ecologies and committing to long term leadership on climate change.  All of that has been easier to do because science has been under siege for some time now.

Imagine, if you have not, trying to understand the complex interactions between the oceans, the atmosphere, land, all marine and terrestrial species and a range of human activities, like burning fossil fuels, flying airplanes, industrial fishing and cutting down forests and so much more. Imagine describing those interactions using physics, chemistry and biology and drawing conclusions that hint at a worrisome future. This is the exquisite science—the science of the earth—of our home, that which begat us and all other living things through evolution. The word exquisite derives of the Latin ‘exquisit’ meaning to carefully seek out. Modern usage includes ‘carefully ascertained’ and the science of climate change has certainly been carefully ascertained.

In our celebration let us recognize how old the science is. Eunice Newton Foote (interesting fact—her father was named Isaac Newton, originally of Goshen, Connecticut) described the warming property of carbonic acid (then a reference to CO2) in 1856 three years before the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. Forty years later in 1896, Svante Arrhenius is credited with being the first person to describe the warming of the planet resulting from an increase in carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels[6].

Since then the progression and range of work has been truly astonishing in its creativity, diversity and increasing resolution: investigations of the thermal equilibrium of the atmosphere[7]; early characterizations of the greenhouse effect[8] and observations confirming a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide[9] leading to the famous Keeling curve. Then there is the work that attempts to reach far back into the deep past as paleoclimatologists search for clues[10] of temperature changes and CO2 concentrations. Others have examined the influence of climate change on weather events[11], like a superstorm or a heat wave, and others have examined future risks including self-reinforcing feedback loops that threaten runaway warming leading to a “Hothouse Earth”[12].

Let’s also celebrate the diversity of astounding questions that can be asked about the Earth, our place on it and all other species: for example, the proposal for a new geologic era, the Anthropocene[13] and the state of global biodiversity including a recent attempt at a “census” of the total biomass on Earth[14]. Of course, there is also all the work attempting to describe a new and sustainable world, projections and proposals on how to get us there including novel concepts like the climate “stabilization wedges”[15] and plans[16] and roadmaps[17] for reaching important climate goals and then there is the idea of Social Tipping Dynamics that can lead to effective climate mitigation[18].

I could go on and on—for days really. There is so much more to cite and so much more to celebrate in the awesome breadth of the scientific journey that has led us to an incomplete but always improving understanding of the Earth. On this Earth Day, let’s celebrate the science of it all.

It is of value to note that the many other branches of science can be lauded in the same way I am doing here, from physics to biology to computer science and epidemiology. Today, and every day for the foreseeable future, we are celebrating the scientists working to solve the human health crisis we find ourselves in. As the entire world waits for word on effective treatments and a vaccine, there is not much doubt that it will come one day. Such is our confidence in the branches of science that have contributed such wondrous improvements in human health. In the meantime, science-based decision-making will substantially determine how many people contract the virus and how many succumb to its fatal consequences. No one but the terribly deluded will find reason to deny the primacy of scientific knowledge and judgment in our current situation.

When politicians scoff at the words of scientists and dismiss their recommendations as outside of political and economic reality or not practical, hopelessly unrealistic, too costly and out of touch with what people need, consider how science is acting to try to save us today. When politicians take immoral and shameful advantage of the low quality and often incomplete public education that many Americans suffered through to shamelessly obscure and confuse the science of climate change, or when the ultra-wealthy bankroll the spewing of disinformation to confuse and redirect for delay and diversion from real action for profit, science suffers and we all lose. What will save us today and tomorrow is science.

John E. Fernández, Director
April 17, 2020
Cambridge, Massachusetts

[1] E. Foote. (1856) Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays. Read before the American Association, August 23rd, 1956.

[2] USNORTHCOM Branch Plan 3560 Pandemic Influenza and Infectious Disease Response 06 January 2017.

[3] MCM: Medical countermeasure dispensing – the ability to provide medical countermeasures including vaccines, antiviral drugs, antibiotics, antitoxins, etc.

[4] National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate, submitted in response to a request contained in Senate Report 113-211, accompanying H. R. 4870, the Department of Defense Appropriations Bill, 2015.

[5] S. Solomon et al. (2016) Emergence of healing in the Antarctic ozone layer. Science, 353(6296): 269-274: 10.1126/science.aae0061

[6] S. Arrhenius (1896) XXXI. On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground, The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 41(251): 237-276, DOI:10.1080/14786449608620846

[7] S. Manabe and R. T. Wetherald (1967) Thermal Equilibrium of the Atmosphere with a Given Distribution of Relative Humidity. Journal of Atmospheric Sciences, 24(3): 241-259.

[8] Wang, W.C., Yung, Y.L., Lacis, A.A., Mo, T. and J. Hansen. 1976. Greenhouse Effects due to Man-Made Perturbations of Trace Gases. Science, 194(4266): 685-690.

[9] C. Keeling et al. (1976) Atmospheric carbon dioxide variations at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. Tellus XXVIII, 6: 538-551.

[10] For example, Emiliani, C. (1955) Pleistocene Temperatures, The Journal of Geology 63 (6), 538-578 and Barnola, J., Raynaud, D., Korotkevich, Y. et al. (1987) Vostok ice core provides 160,000-year record of atmospheric CO2. Nature 329, 408–414.

[11] K. Emanuel (2017) Assessing the present and future probability of Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall. PNAS, 114(48): 12681-12684: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1716222114

[12] W. Steffen et al. (2018) Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. PNAS, 115(33): 8252-8259: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1810141115

[13] P.Crutzen (2002) Geology of mankind. Nature, 415, January 3, 2002: pg. 23.

[14] Bar-On, Y.M., Phillips, R. and R. Milo (2018) The biomass distribution on Earth. PNAS, 115(25): 6506-6511: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1711842115

[15] S. Pacala and R. Socolow (2004) Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science, 305(5686) 968-972: DOI: 10.1126/science.1100103

[16] C. Figueres et al. (2017) Three years to safeguard our climate. Nature, 546: 593-595.

[17] J. Rockström et al. (2017) A roadmap for rapid decarbonization. Science, 355(6331): 1269-1271: DOI: 10.1126/science.aah3443

[18] I. M. Otto et al. (2020) Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050. PNAS, 117(5): 2354-2365: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1900577117