Harvard Professor and oceanographer James J. McCarthy is a co-recipient of the 2018 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. (Photo: C. Cambon)
Distinguished Oceanographer and leading climate scientist James J. McCarthy of Harvard is a co-recipient of this year’s Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. Host Steve Curwood joins Professor McCarthy on the Harvard campus to talk about the early influences that launched his long career as a biological oceanographer, and his hopes for the future of climate science.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Jane Goodall, Jared Diamond, and C Everett Koop are all highly respected science and environmental champions and all are winners of the prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. This year the prize winners are Paul Falkowski and James McCarthy, both distinguished oceanographers who focus on climate change. Harvard Professor James McCarthy co-chaired a working group for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and I met up with him on the Harvard campus in Cambridge – Jim, congratulations!
MCCARTHY: Thank you, Steve. I'm really pleased to be a recipient of this prize. It came as a great surprise to me, and as I look back over the list of recipients over the past four decades, I realized that many of them had been my heroes and my mentors, so it's really quite an honor to be joining their company.
CURWOOD: Professor McCarthy, how did you become interested in science, and ocean science especially?
MCCARTHY: Probably like any kid growing up in a small town, a rural area, interested in the outdoors. It seemed to be what we did as kids. We played outside, we hiked, we fished, we looked for bugs, looked for birds, and I do recall a very formative moment for me when I was probably about 10, and my father gave me a microscope and he took me out to a pond on the edge of town and we filled a test tube with pond water and he tied a string on it and showed me how to spin it over my head and basically centerfuge the particles down into the pellet at the bottom and decanted liquid and we suspended that small pellet microscope and watching these small organisms. And I mean I knew there were fish in those ponds and I knew there were bugs, but I had no idea what was living there in the microscopic realm. And just being really fascinated by what I could see with that microscope. And then as I began to think about an area of science where I could pursue a career and find interesting life I definitely was inclined toward something that would have me involved in field work rather than totally lab based. The ocean was the one I chose, and it wasn't a crazy passion for the ocean, it was really the opportunity to do a science that would work.
CURWOOD: Now, famously, back in 2000, the year 2000, the New York Times ran a picture of you in a ship in the North Pole with open water. Tell me that story.
MCCARTHY: Well, the story is one that we never could have imagined would be on the front page of The New York Times. We were on a Harvard Museum of Natural History tour. We joined this Russian icebreaker expedition. It went from Murmansk through Franz Josef Land to the pole and back. We were expecting to see the - the ice conditions that some of us had seen before. I had been in that area, and when we got beyond Franz Josef land, we just didn't seem to encounter the thick ice that is so common in that area. And we were a little surprised, and as we got closer and closer to the pole, never did we see the multi-year ice - two, three, four meters thick - and so the ice breaker was basically chipping away at amazingly thin seemed like mostly one-year ice and we got to the north pole and all the navigation instrumentation said we were at 90 North and we looked around every direction and you could see ice but we were actually in water.
And as it happened, Malcolm McKenna, who is a paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History on the trip was one of the lecturers was chatting with someone at a cocktail party and a few days later it ended up on the front page the New York Times. And of course at that time that seemed like an extremely unusual observation, and the reaction to it was also very interesting. There were people who said, “Absolute nonsense.” We had somehow fabricated this whole thing. But as it turns out nobody could have imagined at that point that ice was thinning at the rate it was. People said, “That's impossible, there should be two or three meters of ice there”, and of course we know today, that ice isn't there.
CURWOOD: In some respects, that was something of a wakeup call.
MCCARTHY: It was. Not only did we get lambasted by a number of the very prominent deniers of climate change at that time, some of whom are still active, but they wrote up op-eds and criticized us, but I also had handwritten letters and typed letters from people who had spent years in the Arctic. I remember one fellow who had been a pilot in the Air Force and had flown mobile missions, he said “I just don't think it's possible that you saw what you saw,” and I kept up a correspondence with some of these people. I said, "Well, have you considered that things could have changed?" And look at what we do know about change in this area. So, for a lot of people it was just jarring.
CURWOOD: So, you've been at this for a long time. What kinds of pushback have you had when it comes to the question of climate disruption?
MCCARTHY: The pushback has been sort of largely just the stable of regulars who seem prepared to try and diminish every bit of new understanding that comes in climate science as being irrelevant or exaggerated, but we're used to that, and fortunately a lot of them are older than me so they won't be as much a bother to future generations as they were to my generation.
CURWOOD: Let's talk about what's been going on over the past year since the Trump administration has taken over. In the United States there has been quite a shift in government policies, towards science in general and the environment specifically. What if anything concerns you there?
MCCARTHY: I'm extremely concerned about the loss of momentum on the extraordinary international agreement that was struck with the Paris Accord. The good news is that we've seen many cities and states not only express their resolve to continue working in this area, but even up their game. And we've known all along that's an important place where the action has to occur. I'm worried though that the international resolve could be diminished without the US in a position of leadership because what was extraordinary about the Paris Accord was that for the first time you had the United States and China and India all at the table, and all agreeing to not only participate, but to really take leadership roles. The targets that were agreed to, individually determined contributions for each nation that were an extremely important part of getting this agreement, and everyone who looked carefully at those realized that by themselves they will never get us to where we need to be. But they were a start, and to have every nation agreed to come back in five years and assess publicly how well we had, we as each individual nations have done, was an extremely important part of the agreement and to be prepared to ratchet to a higher level of commitment.
We're losing some momentum now without the US pushing hard in this area. We know that President Trump's decision to withdraw cannot become effective until actually, ironically it's right after the next presidential election, 2020. So, he can express his intent, but it can't be finalized. Maybe he will change his mind or if someone else is elected, there could be a different future. What I think is not easily communicated to the public is that if you lose a day working on this problem now, it's not like you can work an extra day later and catch up. The carbon dioxide we’re putting in the atmosphere now, a portion of that will be in the atmosphere hundreds and thousands of years from now. So, everything you can do to slow it today makes tomorrow easier.
CURWOOD: You've been at this, Professor McCarthy, for some 40 years now and when you got started climate change wasn't really a common concern, much less how the world's oceans are involved with - with climate change. So talk to me a bit more about how the field has changed over the course of your career.
MCCARTHY: The field of ocean science has advanced at a pace that at times has been really profoundly disruptive. The one in my experience that’s been the most disruptive has been the advent of satellite observing capabilities. It wasn't until the late 70s, say about 1980, that the first satellites were launched that could demonstrate the capability of measuring ocean properties from space. So, a lot of ocean science today doesn't really require the same effort at sea as it did in the past. That's a good thing. It means it's a lot easier to do a lot of ocean science now, but it also means that perhaps there's not as many people on the ocean observing what's happening there and I can honestly say that every time I've gone to sea, I have seen things that I could not have imagined.
CURWOOD: For example?
MCCARTHY: So, we were out in the Equatorial Pacific in the mid-90s and getting ready to do a routine station. We were doing a section across the equatorial region. We were stopping at one of the stations a few degrees north of the equator, and as we were setting up to do our work there, the man who had been on watch the bridge the night before, one of the crew of the ship said, "I saw the strangest thing on radar last evening." I said, "Well, tell me more." And he said, "Well, it kind of looked like there was something in that water, it was almost like a wall of water, something strange happening with the currents, and the other thing we turned the lights on it looked really, really green." So, I said, where was that? We looked at the chart and realized it was taking the ship back to the direction it had been not that far, a couple hours, and we thought, well, let's do our station there rather than here.
So, we turned the ship around went back, and lo and behold, there was this streak of plankton, a very dense band. It was greenish brownish of photosynthetic plankton that as far as we could see. It turns out that there was a NASA plane sitting in Hawaii that was capable of making measurements of ocean color from space, and one of the people on our team Jim Yoder made a contact and based upon that information they deployed the plane and flew down and documented that this thing went for hundreds of kilometers. Well, it turned out that this was also a moment when the space shuttle was up, and so someone at NASA said, “Hey, next time you're over the Pacific, look out the window and see what you can see”. And they took a picture of this thing, and it ran a couple of thousand kilometers. So, here is this streak of plankton production. It was clearly a current boundary, but this was really stunning. So, it's still very exciting to go to sea. Every time I look forward to being surprised.
CURWOOD: We've been looking at some pretty dire topics looking back on your career, the whole question of climate disruption. Frankly, there's the prospect of upending our entire civilization if we don't get this right. Professor McCarthy, what gives you hope?
MCCARTHY: The trends are the right direction actually. Today, if you look at the economics in the energy realm and realize that the non-fossil fuel based energy sources are soaring, who could have imagined just a decade ago that today in Iowa you would have 35 percent of the electricity coming from wind, or Oklahoma it's over 20 percent, or that Texas would be building wind and solar faster than any other state. And if you go back not too far in US national policy, we had in the early 2000s, a plan to build another 200 coal-fired power plants. Well, basically, not only did we not build those, but we're closing down a lot of power plants well before the end of their lifetime, coal-fired power plants. Now, part of that is because of the abundance of natural gas which is cleaner than coal, but today, you're finding that wind and in some locations solar is more economically beneficial for a long term investment than even gas fired power plants or electricity.
But what more than anything else gives me hope is seeing the young people today, the college age population who are learning about this subject and wherever they go, whether they go into business and into the public sector, any position in any career they're carrying with them an understanding that they early generation didn't have, the importance of this problem. And when I interact with these students, you see a passion to be involved in the solution side of this question, and I think that's a very very hopeful indication that as we move through this bottleneck, we will emerge much stronger on the other side.
CURWOOD: James J. McCarthy is a Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University and the co-recipient of this year's Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. Congratulations.
MCCARTHY: Thank you, Steve.
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