Dr. Walter Orr Roberts: Living With the Greenhouse Effect

Dr. Walter Orr Roberts discusses the greenhouse effect, the pollution produced by nuclear power plants, automobiles, underground water supplies and chemical by-products are staggering and frightening.

| March/April 1984

Dr. Walter Orr Roberts discusses the greenhouse effect and the growing pollution problem of the world.

The Plowboy Interview: Dr. Walter Orr Roberts

The ever-growing menace of pollution is no secret to most MOTHER readers. We live with the news — and some of us encounter immediate examples — of it every day. Power plants emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that can make precipitation as acid as vinegar. Automobiles spew out compounds that react in sunlight to create brown sheets over urban areas. Synthetic organic chemicals invade our underground water supplies. Worse still, some chemical processes result in by-products, such as dioxin, that are so toxic that a mere one part per billion is considered dangerous!

In the face of all these exotic contaminants, how in the world can anyone be concerned over something so mundane as carbon dioxide? We all know that the gas is normally present in our atmosphere in weak concentrations . . . and that it's so nontoxic that we can chill food with it, in the form of dry ice, and put out fires with extinguishers charged with the compound. Why, without carbon dioxide our gardens wouldn't even grow!

Indeed, in any concentration that's likely to occur on earth in the immediate future, carbon dioxide presents no direct threat to our health. But, as two of MOTHER's staff members learned during a visit to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in early October of 1983, the accumulation of C02 in our atmosphere — as the result of burning fossil fuels — will, in all likelihood, bring about profound changes in our climate within 50 years.

Dr. Walter Orr Roberts, president emeritus of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (and retired director of its laboratory perched on a mesa above Boulder, Colorado), told our team that the majority of the world's atmospheric physicists believe that the warming trend that would result from the Greenhouse Effect is inevitable. Our editor and photographer were also lucky enough to get a tour of NCAR with the man who knows it best. Inside they saw one of the world's most powerful computers, a Cray I, where staggeringly complex simulations of our atmosphere's circulation are run at the rate of hundreds of billions of calculations per hour. They also visited a "clean room" where the solar telescope for Skylab was built, and there saw an instrument that measures the sun's diameter with amazing accuracy.

Dr. Roberts' credentials and achievements are far too numerous to list here in their, entirety, but a few highlights hint at the scope of his distinguished career. After earning his bachelor's degree at Amherst College, Walt went on to Harvard to complete a master's and a doctoral degree. Then, after matriculation, he became a research associate at the Harvard College Observatory, where he studied the solar corona and the influence of various other solar phenomena on the earth's weather. In 1946 he was named director of the college's High Altitude Observatory. Roberts stayed there, continuing his study of the sun, until he became the first director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in 1960. He was succeeded as director of that organization in 1968, but he continued as chief executive of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research — the multi-member organization that manages NCAR — until 1973.

Dr. Roberts continues as president emeritus of UCAR and as a research associate at NCAR . . . but also spreads his time between being a professor at the University of Colorado, a senior fellow of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies (where he was director of the Program on Food, Climate and the World's Future from 1974 through 1981 — vice president of the American Philosophical Society, and a faculty member of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, where he recently led a telecomputing course on the impact of climate changes on human societies.

Though Dr. Roberts still keeps up with developments in the hard science of climate change, his recent interests have leaned toward the effect that future weather may have on the earth's ability to feed its human population. In short, because of his solid scientific background and his keen interest in the social, political, and moral issues of climate change, it would be hard to imagine anyone who is more qualified to speak about the Greenhouse Effect.

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