Roger Revelle’s 1980 Discussion of CO2 and Climate Risks

Roger Revelle, is a pioneering researcher in the study of the human influence on the atmosphere, carbon cycle and climate

In 1980, then director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Revelle gave the talk “The Role of the Oceans in Earth’s Climate and Carbon Budget” at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. He gives a great overview of how much we knew and didn’t know about climate science 1980. He explains the state of the science, the uncertainties, and the questions needed to be answered.

His conclusion and discussion for how to deal with the carbon dioxide problem sound eerily similar to pronouncements made today:

The dilemma is compounded, however, and this I can’t emphasize too strongly, by the fact that decisive action must be taken in the next two or three decades if profound climatic changes 50 to 70 years into future are to be avoided. And the reason for this is obvious when you think about it, it takes about 50 years for a new energy source to penetrate the worldwide market.

If we are going to make a transition, for example, from fossil fuels to nuclear energy or to solar energy or to wind energy, if you think about that as a major source of energy during the next 50 years from now, you better start right now. Certainly, we need a 30 year leap time for any major change in the sources and uses of energy.

Let me conclude, by pointing out the carbon dioxide problem has begun to invade public consciousness at a critical time, when the worldwide industrial civilization is beginning to be shaken to its foundations by the disappearance of inexpensive sources of energy.

This is a time when critical choices must be made about future sources and uses of energy and the realization that all potential energy sources, quite apart from the carbon dioxide problem, have serious social, economic and environmental liabilities.

Government and industry must decide whether to invest vast sums, of the order of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of billions of dollars in production of synthetic liquid fuels from coal or oil shale, an equally expensive and widely unpopular alternative is construction of many new nuclear fission plants for generation of electricity or production of secondary fuels.

Nuclear fission, as you all know better than I, as a long term alternative to fossil fuels, depends on development and wide use of nuclear breeder reactors with concomitant problems of proliferation of atomic weapons materials.

Energy conservation is another, at least partial, alternative, energy now used in transportation can be conserved by large investments in mass transit. With all that these investments imply the changed structure of cities.

Fundamental decisions must also be made, whether to continue present patterns of central station generation of electricity and electrical transmission grids or to develop local community sources.

In the bitter competition for dwindling energy sources, the less developed countries without fossil fuel reserves of their own will inevitable be the losers. This means, as I pointed out, most of mankind.

Even development assistance from the rich countries to the poor ones is jeopardized because development of the poor countries will inevitably lead both to great increases in their demand for energy, and perhaps even worse, in their ability to compete with the present industrialized countries to acquire fuels in the international markets.

There is nothing really cheering about this report on the carbon dioxide problem but I guess I am convinced, that for the moment at least, it is not a very cheerful world


Tribute to Roger Revelle and his contribution to studies of carbon dioxide and climate change



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