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Fall/Winter 2001 Vol. 1 No. 2




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20/20


What I Did On My Summer Vacation

BY JOHN M. WALLACE


John M. Wallace (photo by Mary Levin, courtesy University of Washington, Seattle) In the aftermath of the release of a high-profile report on global climate change, a Research Council committee member reflects on his 15 minutes of fame.

One of the summer's biggest news stories was the National Research Council's report for the White House on climate change. It made headlines not just here but around the world, the coverage seeming to take on a life of its own, reverberating in op-eds, magazine articles, and talk shows for weeks after the report's release.

Having served on the committee that wrote the report and expecting to take part in a press conference on June 7 to release its findings, I arrived in D.C. the evening before, only to find a voice mail message on my hotel room phone from a press officer at the National Academies saying that because of concerns of a news leak, he had been forced to lift the embargo on the report's findings that afternoon and that the story would appear in tomorrow morning's newspapers. Did it ever. "Panel Tells Bush Global Warming Getting Worse," screamed the lead headline in large print on the front page of the New York Times.

There was no need to conduct a press conference now that the news was out there, but in his message, the press officer had suggested that I stop by the Academies' headquarters in the morning anyway, in case there were additional interview requests. Most of the newspaper reporters who filed stories the night before had spoken late that afternoon with Ralph Cicerone, chancellor at the University of California, Irvine, and chair of our committee. But as I was soon to find out, the newspaper coverage meant we were now in the television news cycle. Cicerone had taken a red-eye back to California after finishing his interviews the night before, leaving me to appear in front of the cameras. At practically breakneck speed, I zipped through one taped interview after another -- at CNN, ABC, NBC, and some syndicated TV news outlets too. (CBS was the only network that had rushed a story on its broadcast the evening before when the embargo was lifted and the news broke.)

When the stories aired, my 15 minutes of fame had been boiled down to shorter than 15 seconds in sound bites that all sounded curiously similar on each of the networks. Every producer seemed to want the same thing: my earnest-looking mug summing up the report's main findings in one sentence to sandwich into a one- to two-minute story speculating on how the report would impact President Bush's forthcoming meetings with European leaders.

My interviews centered on a single question: "Is global warming a serious policy issue?" How does one respond to such a question, given the large uncertainties inherent in projections of greenhouse warming?

In response, I had a choice of answering, "Yes, to the best of our current knowledge, subject to the following qualifications..." -- or -- "We don't really know for certain, but..." I chose the more affirmative format, mindful that a number of findings are undeniable:

  • The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has already increased by 30 percent since the industrial revolution.
  • Unless policies are enacted to slow the growth to pre-industrial levels, the concentration may well double by the year 2100.
  • The prevailing view in the scientific community, shared by most committee members, is that a doubling of carbon dioxide would raise global mean temperature on the order of 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The adverse ecological and societal ramifications of such a rise in temperature cannot be dismissed as inconsequential.

It was a bit naive of me to think that any qualifications I might have added would survive the editing process for prime time news programs. Yet I think I made the right choice: The resulting set of 15-second sound bites affirming that greenhouse warming is a serious policy issue were a lot closer to the spirit of our report than "We don't really know" would have been.

Fortunately some of the coverage went far beyond these snippets. In lengthier conversations with NPR and the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," Ralph Cicerone had the chance to articulate much more clearly the qualifications and uncertainties that were discussed in our report. And for those who want to delve even deeper into the intricacies of what we do and do not know about greenhouse warming, full text of the Research Council report can be viewed online; and the entire series of reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are available online at <www.ipcc.ch>.


John M. Wallace is a professor in the department of atmospheric sciences and co-director of the program on the environment at University of Washington, Seattle. Wallace is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society.



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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences