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With a fully engaged, standing-room-only turnout of students and faculty for his lecture on global warming and what to do about it, renowned Columbia University climatologist and author of Fixing Climate Wallace S. Broecker presented his proposal for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

Broecker, Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has studied climate change over a career that spans more than a half-century. He is widely credited with coining the term “global warming,” and his message was sober: first and foremost, rapidly rising CO2 levels must be reined in. Especially at risk are “dryland dwellers” — those in potential megadrought regions (like the southwestern U.S.) and populations living in flood-prone areas (like southeast Asia). “We currently dump 60 to 70 million metric tons a day into the atmosphere,” Broecker said, adding, “we cannot reverse this trend with conservation and alternative energy alone. We must develop the means to capture and bury CO2.” He and other scientists have developed methods for accomplishing that goal.
A standing-room-only crowd turned out for Wallace Broecker’s lecture on climate change.

Broecker’s contention is that CO2 can be “scrubbed” or captured, a technical strategy deployed for decades on a small scale in space shuttles and submarines. Until very recently, the suggestion that an approach on the scale of Earth’s atmosphere is technically feasible was revolutionary. A corner was turned for Broecker by theoretical physicist Klaus Lackner and his proposition that CO2 could be scrubbed efficiently from the atmosphere, and sequestered by chemically reacting it with silicate rocks to produce inert carbonate rocks. Broecker recruited Lackner to Columbia, drew an inventive engineer, Allen Wright, into his team, and obtained R&D funding from venture capitalist and Lands’ End founder Gary Comer.

The scope of the Broecker team’s effort is immense since it also involves convincing a large and complex network of governments worldwide to cooperate in the effort. But even at 77, he accepted the invitation of the Thomas Phelan Faculty Seminar and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences to lecture at Rensselaer. He is a man with a mission.

Each fall since 2004, Langdon Winner, Thomas Phelan Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, has organized a semester-long seminar for a group of interdepartmental senior and junior faculty, exploring an intellectual issue at the intersection of the humanities, social sciences, and technology. “This year, our theme is global climate change and the future of higher education. We are using Dr. Broecker’s new book, Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat — and How to Counter It, as the focal point of our discussions,” explained Winner. “We started by examining basic assumptions that have guided higher education: long-standing commitments to ‘progress,’ ‘economic growth,’ ‘career,’ and ‘the consumer society’ that no longer appear sensible unless they can be reformulated to account for ‘inconvenient truths’ of global climate change and its effects. When seminar faculty member Mimi Katz from the department of earth and environmental sciences offered to invite Dr. Broecker, we had a perfect opportunity to extend our discussion further into the Rensselaer community.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 2, Number 17, October 17, 2008
©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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