Global climate change: Ralph Cicerone joins WUSTL conversation

Bringing weight of WUSTL community to bear on problem of climate change

Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, delivering the Princeton Environmental Institute’s 2011 Taplin Environmental Lecture.

Ralph J. Cicerone, PhD, president of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the National Research Council, will present a seminar on climate change at Washington University in St. Louis at 4 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23, in Room 300, Laboratory Sciences Building on the Danforth Campus.

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton will introduce him.

The seminar, “Global Climate Change and Demand for Energy,” is part of a conversation about climate change that began last October when a small group of faculty gathered in the new International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) conference room in Green Hall to brainstorm ways to put the entire weight of the WUSTL community behind efforts to address climate change.

“Contemporary climate change is seen in measured temperatures of air and oceans, ice losses from the Greenland and Antarctic continents and the Arctic sea, and sea-level rise.” Cicerone says.

“Increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere from human activities, principally fossil-fuel burning, are the likely cause of these changes. Earth’s carbon cycle is out of balance, with more carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere each year than can be absorbed by oceans and land so that future climatic changes may be much larger.

“The challenge of meeting energy demand without causing dangerous climate change is joining two other strategic goals for energy: access to domestically secure and low-cost sources,” he says.

The seminar is co-sponsored by the Tyson Research Center and I-CARES. It is free and open to the public.

The seminar is part of a larger conversation about climate change that is being led by Barbara Schaal, PhD, the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, vice president of the National Academy of Sciences and director of the Tyson Research Center, and coordinated by Himadri Pakrasi, PhD, the George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences, professor of energy in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and director of I-CARES.

Cicerone’s research in atmospheric chemistry, climate change and energy has involved him in shaping science and environmental policy at the highest levels nationally and internationally.

He has taken a leading role in the writing of the National Research Council series of reports “America’s Climate Choices.” These are authoritative analyses produced at the request of Congress to inform and guide responses to climate change across the nation.

The series includes four focused panel reports and an overarching report. The panel reports are: Advancing the Science of Climate Change; Limiting the Magnitude of Climate Change; Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change; and Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change.

The overarching report is America’s Climate Choices: Final Report. All of the reports can be ordered from the National Academy of Sciences site:

“Its a great opportunity to hear one the nation’s leading scientists who was involved in the research on the topic and now leads a lot of the response to climate change, “ Schaal says.

An ongoing conversation

Schaal has long felt that the climate debate has not been moving forward fast enough.

As she points out, global warming has been a topic of concern since the late 1950s, when scientist Charles D. Keeling’s measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii first alerted the world to the progressive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

When Schaal took over as director of the Tyson Research Center last summer, she felt she had been handed a golden opportunity to act on her concerns. At the research center, which includes 2,000 acres of woods, prairie, ponds and savannas located some 20 miles southwest of the Danforth Campus, dozens of WUSTL faculty study ecology, biodiversity and restoration management.

Schaal quickly discovered that Pakrasi was thinking on parallel lines as he sought to find ways to engage the entire university community in issues central to the I-CARES mission.

I-CARES was founded in 2007 to foster institutional, regional, and international research on biofuels from plant and microbial systems, sustainable alternative energy and the exploration of environmental systems and practices.

Under the I-CARES umbrella are the Tyson Research Center and the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC).

“When I started thinking about climate change, it became absolutely clear in my mind that the entire institution should be involved, and we don’t have anything going on that is focused that broadly,” Pakrasi says.

By design, the initial group that met in October to brainstorm was small and comprised people from disparate disciplines. “We have anthropologists, we have engineers, we have artists, we have social scientists,” Schaal says. “The broader the better. That’s where you’re going to get the real synergies — among all the disciplines, not just science.”

The climate change conversation is one of three I-CARES conversations Pakrasi hopes to start this year.

A second conversation, “Building for the Future of Our Cities,” led by Christof Jantzen, the I-CARES Professor of Practice in the School of Architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, and Bruce Lindsey, the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration and dean of the College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, is getting underway this month.

What might come of a conversation

One purpose of the conversation, Schaal says, is to lift the pall of apathy that seems to have fallen over the topic of climate change.

“It’s so easy for people just to give up, and we can’t do that,” Schaal says. “Tyson gave me an opportunity to say, ‘let’s talk about climate change at this university, not just in science but across a lot of different fields, and see what we can do.’

“Let’s see if we can get graduate students interested — I know the undergraduates are tremendously interested. There are many things that can be done,” Schaal says.

“One of the problems with universities,” Schaal says, “is that it’s really hard to learn what other people are studying. But once you know what somebody else is doing, you can see really wonderful areas of overlap where there could be collaborations. So one purpose of the conversation is to locate the synergies among faculty,” she says.

Pakrasi says he regards the I-CARES conversations as similar to start-up companies; they will live or die by their success in engaging the university community.

“It’s up to them,” Pakrasi says. “They need to feel that this is important enough that they will do all that needs to be done.”

But both Schaal and Pakrasi are deeply committed to the climate change conversation.

“I view climate change as a tremendous challenge,” Schaal says. “Something that is going to be with us for a long time, something that I think our undergraduate students need to be aware of and educated about, and something that a responsible university needs to address.”

Pakrasi needs no convincing. His family was displaced to India from Bangladesh, widely recognized as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, and already suffering increased rainfall, rising sea levels and ferocious tropical cyclones.

“Another foot of water will take 80 percent of that country below water,” he says. “It’s beyond getting worried, we need to prepare for the changes that are coming.”

Pakrasi remains optimistic. “The hope is always with the young people,” he says, “because it’s their future that’s at stake.”

For a video of Barbara Schaal introducing Ralph Cicerone’s talk “Climate Change Seen from Space and Earth’s Surface,” visit