Jessica Tuchman Mathews: The Greenhouse Effect and Global Climate

  • submit to reddit

This 1998 episode of World of Ideas posed the question: “How serious is the ‘greenhouse effect’ on global climate and the environment?” Very, says Dr. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics. We are facing the specter of the “greenhouse effect,” the prospect of overloading the earth’s atmosphere with gases released when industrial nations burn fossil fuels like coal and oil, and the Third World strips its forests to farm and burn firewood. In this conversation with Bill Moyers, she contemplates just how much the earth and the heavens can stand. Mathews suggests that advances in technologies and international cooperation are necessary if the world is to save itself from ecological disaster.

The Bill Moyers Collection: American Archive of Public Broadcasting

{voice-over} Three years ago these pictures shocked the world. Television crews returning from Africa showed us what could happen to a land seared by heat and exhausted by drought. This summer other foreboding pictures appeared around the globe; record-breaking heat and drought from the rice patties of China to the Great Plains of the United States. The world’s superpowers had to face what the starving subcontinent had known; those who live on the earth also depend on it.

In the United States, all summer, we heard the earth complain–forest fires raged across the West. Farmers unable to plow the dust watched crops wither and die. Across the South, rivers dried to a trickle, and barges ran aground on the Mississippi. Fish turned belly-up in lakes and rivers, while poisoned crabs crawled out of the Atlantic. And on Eastern beaches medical waste washed ashore from New York to North Carolina.

Now we are facing the specter of the Greenhouse Effect, the prospect of overloading the Earth’s atmosphere with gasses released when industria1 nations bum fossil fuels like coal and oil, and the Third World strips its forests to farm and to bum firewood. These gases trap radiation from the sun, and heat up the atmosphere. How much can the Earth and the Heavens stand?

{on camera} I’m Bill Moyers, and I’ll talk about that question with Jessica Tuchman Mathews. The subject is strange weather and our national security.

{voice-over} Here in Washington, the summer was one of the hottest on record. But Jessica Tuchman Mathews says that the phenomena that troubled us as summer might be good for us–a good warning, that is. For most of her career Dr. Mathews has been getting out the word to the public and to the Federal government, that the health of our planet is deteriorating. Formerly on the editorial board of the Washington Post, where she covered science and technology, Dr. Mathews also advised the White House on global policy during the seventies, when she served on the National Security Council. She is a scientist with a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics. I look my questions to her at the World Resources Institute, where she is vice-president of the group that monitors global ecology.

{interviewing} What’s going on here? What’s happening to this Earth, our home?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: There’s a new sense that this is our only planet and that we are playing a very dangerous game with change that could be catastrophic -not necessarily, but could be -and irreversible. And there does seem to be a sense of urgency. It’s also not a time of just gloom and doom because there are things we can do about all of it.

BILL MOYERS: Assume that we didn’t do that. You and your husband have three children?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Between us we have four.

BILL MOYERS: How old are they?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: They are 18 down to 3.

BILL MOYERS: All right. Take the 3-year-old. I interviewed his grandmother the other day, the historian Barbara Tuchman. If the 3-year-old lives as long as your mother has lived, in her late 70s, and these current trends continue, what kind of earth will that child inherit?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: If we’re talking about 75 years from now, and things don’t change, I think he will inherit an unlivable planet because of greenhouse climate change. I hesitated when I answered, because I don’t want to sound cataclysmic–but with greenhouse climate change we are much farther along than we realize. There’s a lot more that’s happened than we have yet recognized. And the warming has progressed.

BILL MOYERS: Walk me through the greenhouse effect. What actually is happening?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: The science of it is that the atmosphere is transparent to radiation that comes in from the sun, it just passes through the atmosphere and hits the earth. Some of it is absorbed by the earth and some of it is re-radiated back to the atmosphere. The radiation that comes back out is at different wave lengths -it’s lower energy -than what came in, and these gases, the so-called greenhouse gases that we’re emitting, absorb that radiation, trap it. That adds energy to our atmosphere and heats it up.

BILL MOYERS: What difference does it make if the earth warms 2, 3 degrees over the next


JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Remember that that’s Centigrade and not Fahrenheit, which we’re all used to. So you have to double that number to think about Fahrenheit degrees. But what it will mean is hotter temperatures, much hotter, in the temperate regions, where we live. And in the Artic, even hotter than that. Europe’s climate may get much colder because the Gulf stream that warms Europe is expected to shirt direction. The monsoons will shift sea level will rise, inundating coastal zones, coastal areas where a great part of mankind lives. The effects on wildlife could be enormous because nothing that we know about evolution suggests that they can adapt to such rapid change. There have been big temperature swings before over geological time, but there you’re talking millions of years. Now we’re talking decades. And, for example, trees we know something about how fast trees can move to adjust to different climates, how far the wind blows the seeds in the year, and so how far they can progress. It’s a fraction, a tiny fraction, of what they would have to move in order to keep up with their changing habitat. So you would expect massive extinctions and changes of habitat as well.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve described what is a very global situation, one thing affecting all other things. Can anyone nation protect itself from the pollution from any other country?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: No. That’s what’s new now. What is new about it is that mankind, through principally combustion of fossil fuels, and to a lesser extent the deforestation of tropical forests-

BILL MOYERS: Cutting down our trees.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Cutting down the tropical forests — we cut down the temperate zone forests a hundred, 200 years ago — is accelerating so fast that it’s throwing the natural system out of equilibrium and out of kilter and forcing a warming.

We’re starting to learn something about how -very late -about how the planet works and what regulates it, what makes it the only place in the universe, as far as we know, where life exists. One of the puzzles has been that we’ve spent so much money and so much brain power exploring subatomic structure and exploring far outer space, but we’ve spent very little on the planet, and how it works and what its inhabitants, how they behave. We’ve spent less time in the deep oceans than on the surface of the moon, for example.

BILL MOYERS: And yet one has seen so many documentaries on nature and earth -one has a sense that, welt, we know everything. But you’re saying we don’t.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: We know very little.

BILL MOYERS: Very little.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: The oceans are ready very much of a mystery. And in particular how the oceans and the atmosphere interact, because circulation in the atmosphere is much faster than circulation in the oceans. You have these two vast systems that are interacting constantly but on very different time scales, and that interaction is what creates our climate. And there are great uncertainties about how greenhouse warming will change our regional weather patterns, simply because we know so little about that interaction.

BILL MOYERS: But we know enough, don’t we, to know why all of this is happening?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Yes. There’s no question about the phenomenon; the incoming radiation, the radiation going back at a different wave length being trapped. We’ve no question and no responsible scientist questions that the phenomenon is under way. And we have a pretty good grasp on what we’re pulling into the atmosphere and how fast This is the scary part of climate change; a lot of these gases have hundred-year lifetimes in the atmosphere.

BILL MOYERS: Which means?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Which means that, for example, with the chlorofluorocarbons that we put up tomorrow, or today, they’re still going to be up there destroying ozone in the stratosphere a hundred years from now. They start to trap radiation immediately, but the new climate -the new equilibrium is not reached for several decades, and we don’t know exactly how long. Say 30 years. So what we’re feeling now is the result of things that were emissions 30 years ago.

BILL MOYERS: Not what we’re pouring in right now.


BILL MOYERS: And we’re pouring in now more than we did 30 years ago.


BILL MOYERS: So the curve is not promising.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: And the rate of growth is accelerating.

BILL MOYERS: That’s not a pretty picture.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: No. It’s not. It requires a level of anticipation and ability to think abstractly about an issue that is rare for government. In other words, this summer in the United States we’ve had so much attention to this issue because of the drought. It’s here, we can feel it, there’s no question, you know. And people see the impacts in a way that 300 studies would never make clear.

BILL MOYERS: How do you feel? Are you optimistic that we will in fact read the signs and act accordingly to change the trends, which if they don’t change, are so destructive of this earth?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: The optimistic part of this is that people do respond. I mean when people see the junk on their beaches, when they see the drought, the effect, not just in the US this year, but in China. All around the world we’re seeing anomalous, strange weather this year. And it also appears now that-pretty good evidence that 1988 will be the hottest year in recorded history, and the four warmest years before this were 1980, ’81, ’83 and ’87.

BILL MOYERS: So they’re all bunching up right here.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: And that’s in 135 years of records. We know, for example, the rate of growth of carbon dioxide emissions, which are going up very fast We know how many CFCs are going up. We know methane and nitrous oxide. And for most of these gases we know why and what are the sources of those growths.

BILL MOYERS: What are the sources?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, for carbon dioxide it’s fossil fuel combustion. It’s everything we do. That’s what makes it so central to human endeavor. Everything that modem societies do, after all, is based on energy use. And most of it is fossil fuel use, from a coal plant making electricity, to the automobile, which is a big part of it.

BILL MOYERS: When I came to Washington in -the first time, in 1954, I think there were something like 50, 52 million cars in the world.


BILL MOYERS: Now there are how many?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Three hundred and fifty million, and it’s expected to be half a billion by the year 2,000. And I think there’s a real question whether the planet can accommodate half a billion automobiles. In industrial societies we have to have three parking spaces for every car. We have a parking space at home, a parking space at work, a parking space at the shopping mall.

BILL MOYERS: And that means?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: And so we now don’t have alternatives in vast parts of the country, and remaking those alternatives is terribly expensive, but we’ll be forced to.

BILL MOYERS: How, though? I mean there’s no mythological symbol more potent in the American image of itself, psyche, than the open road. And you see these commercials with fast, expensive cars zooming along roads that don’t exist, in my experience, in New York, open roads leading off across the great Western Plains, where you can drive 100 miles an hour, if you want, without bothering anyone. How do you change that part of our psyche?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: It painful and it’s probably going to be slow, but it’s going to have to happen because of these boundaries that we’re hitting up against in so many ways.

BILL MOYERS: Boundaries is not a nice word in the American vocabulary.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: No, it isn’t. But what seems to be different about the last year or two with these two phenomena of global environmental changes, the Greenhouse Effect, and the ozone depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, is that it seems as though people do have a sense that we have only one planet, and if we are on a path that leads to irreversible change we’d better stop, rethink, redirect.

BILL MOYERS: I see that as a journalist, but I also see some very practical things happening that are contrary to it. For example, in Dallas just last month the people of that city voted down a bond issue for a mass transit system which they had approved three years ago. Now, there are local circumstances in that, but the significance of it is: I want my automobile, I don’t want to ride mass transit.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I know, it’s there. The automobile, I think, reaches to the heart of American self-image in a way that the horse once did in the West, and it’s going to be very hard to change. But when the average time it takes to reach work grows from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to two hours, and the average speed on the Beltway here in Washington is something like 15 miles per hour, then people start look for alternatives simply because their own lifestyle has degenerated

so much.

BILL MOYERS: It’s hard to think of the American economy without the automobile, without the mobility.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Our energy future centers around the automobile. And our attachment, our just deep emotional attachment, to cheap gasoline. And the reason that we have such poor performance in Detroit in terms of automobile efficiency is because we are running on cheap gasoline. It’s an anachronism. And that’s why when you look around the world, you see Renault, with 124 mile-per-gallon prototype automobile, and Toyota with a 90-mile-per-gallon, five passenger prototype, and Volvo with a 70-mile-per-gallon one which they expect to upgrade to 90, and us with none in that category. In fact, one of the awful ironies of this thing is that, having invented the automobile and invented mass production, we have technologies now that are really the bottom. If you look at the new technology in automobiles, Japan leads, then the European producers, and then us. And it’s our thing! Now, I don’t happen to believe that we can have a healthy American economy without a healthy automobile industry. I really donít And while what’s good for General Motors may not be good for us, what’s bad for General Motors is going to be bad for us. So I think we’re going to have to somehow thrust them into -thrust Detroit into the next era.

BILL MOYERS: What do the automobile leaders say when you confront them with these facts, with the necessity of alternatives, with what’s happening?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: They have become innovation-averse. They are allergic to the future in some very profound way. That’s why we’re so far behind on the new high-efficiency technologies. We simply don’t have them. We have the capacity. We spend more money on research in Detroit than anywhere else, but we’re not working on that future. In Detroit, they see only quarterly profits and the quarterly profits are so good that they can’t imagine they could be doing anything

BILL MOYERS: But, they are affected by everything you’ve described earlier that is happening to the Earth.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: They don’t know yet very much about greenhouse climate change. And they are – we’re all starting really to learn about more familiar kinds of pollution, ozone is certainly one of the actors, and other forms that are transported over fairly long distances, not what we used to think of air pollution, as a local problem; it goes up and comes right back down. Now we know it gets transported, gets changed up in the atmosphere. The atmosphere is not just a passive transport mechanism, it’s an active chemical cauldron up there. And I think that the automobile industry is paying attention, for example, to some of the more familiar kinds of local and regional air pollution, acid rain, and its broader set of cousins with different sort of impacts. Greenhouse really is a new one that they haven’t thought very much about

BILL MOYERS: And a lot of Americans don’t want to think about it Don’t want to think about $3 a gallon tax on the gas we buy, the way that Europeans have already accepted. What effect would a high tax on gasoline have on the economy’?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: The challenge is to see if we can respond now with a slowly rising tax that will create the environment that makes it possible for Detroit to produce high-efficiency cars. So if you’re paying three times as much for gasoline but your car gets four times as many miles per gallon, you come out ahead. And right now the average American car gets 17 miles per gallon.

BILL MOYERS: And you’re saying that technology already exists to increase the mileage per gallon of the car that we buy.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: It does. Some of these cars are going to have solar-powered air conditioners, so that when you park your car in the summer it cools the car while you’re off doing your shopping and instead of coming back to 120-degree cars, you get in and it’s cool. I mean there’s no consumer in the world who won’t leap at that. So these technologies give you a lot of benefits besides high mileage. And they will sell. The only question will be, is American industry going to be ready to market them when we need them?

BILL MOYERS: You could make a case that if we don’t act, we will find ourselves economically behind the eight ball

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Absolutely. Thereís no question about it. We are not an energy-efficient society, not near, and we’re not positioned for what will happen in the ’90s, when oil prices go back up.

BILL MOYERS: And you think they will.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I think they will. We know very well what the U.S. oil base is. Last year production fell 10 percent from domestic sources. But it has been falling for 18 years. It has fallen steadily since 1970, despite a tripling of prices. It’s because we’ve pumped it. We’re reaching the end. We have to change our pattern of energy use. And we can do it.


JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Meaning we are still the United States, a terribly energy-wasteful economy. There is something policy analysts look at called energy intensity of economies, and what it measures is how much energy you have to use to produce a dollar of GNP. If you rate, if you rank the countries of the world by their energy intensity, we are in the bottom fifth. We’re down there along with the Soviet Union and the other Eastern European countries, which arc terribly energy-wasteful, and that’s one of the reasons that their economies are in such mess. Japan is twice as efficient as we are. All of Western Europe is twice as energy-efficient as we are.

How much energy does it take to make a ton of steel in this country versus China, versus India, versus Sweden? We ought to be the best and we’re not, by a long shot. And we’re going to have to do that across the economy. And what makes it hard is that there’s no easy fix. Right? It’s not like you could say, well, we’re going to launch a program to build a hundred nuclear power plants. Or we’re going to have the synfuels program. There’s no one thing you could say-here’s the one thing you have to do to fix it. Because it’s not one thing, it’s 15 things across the economy. We know what they are. We can list them and we have a pretty good grasp on how much energy saving you get from each one of them. There is, for example, a kind of light bulb that fits in existing sockets and uses a fraction of the energy as existing light bulbs.

BILL MOYERS: Which means that less coal has to be burned, and less pollutants have to go into the air-


BILL MOYERS: Well, why don’t we use that light bulb?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Because we haven’t yet gotten the policy grasp on making energy efficiency, a central thrust-

BILL MOYERS: You mean we haven’t made it politically popular, have we?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Right. Energy has disappeared as an issue. Everybody thinks, well, it’s over, we worried about energy in the ’70s, and that’s a past issue. In fact, it’s going to be the central issue of the ’90s. We have to get a new mental picture of what a constructive policy is, and the tricky part is going to be getting it before we have a crisis, but we won’t have a moment like that with climate change probably.

BILL MOYERS: It will be a slowly evolving and-

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: We’ll have to be able to act in advance.

BILL MOYERS: A crisis is no less a crisis for being invisible, right?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: That’s right. When we passed the Clean Water Act, anybody could walk out their door, just about, and see a filthy lake or river and place they couldn’t swim, or a place that you could no longer sit beside because it smelled so bad. We can’t do that anymore. The one sign of optimism, and it’s a real one, is the international treaty that was signed about a year ago, a year and a half ago, to protect the stratospheric ozone layer. We knew that we had a problem, that the chlorofluorocarbons were depleting the ozone layer. But nobody had felt the damage yet; you couldn’t see it, you couldn’t smell it, you couldn’t feel it, you weren’t tripping over it on the beach. Nobody could feel the impact of this increased ultraviolet radiation. And, you know, the appearance of this continent-sized hole in the ozone over Antarctica; no scientist had predicted it. Nobody had even imagined such a thing could happen, and it had just appeared. Well, it didn’t just appear, but we hadn’t been measuring up there so we hadn’t realized until it was very well developed. And that was a shock to everybody, even though nobody was living underneath it. But maybe we’ll get, in a tragic sense, lucky and there will be something like that that comes from greenhouse warming. There are scientists who believe that the scariest part of greenhouse change is going to be-is the possibility of nasty surprise, of things we cannot now predict. There won’t be gradual, smooth change. There will be some big, big stepwise quantum change that’s really quite expensive, painful, catastrophic.


JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Climatologists believe that one characteristic of global warming will be an increase in both the intensity and the frequency of what they call climate extremes, which are hurricanes, droughts, cold snaps, typhoons. 1988 has been a year that’s broken records all over the globe. If this continues, we may get a sense of a global change, and if that happens, we’ll be lucky, in a way, because it is hard to think abstractly about a crisis.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about policy often, and your field is national security. What does all of this have to do with national security?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: These trends are already affecting international relations, and will more and more. Soil erosion, drought, flooding, local weather cross borders with impunity.

They’re not national problems. And the loss of genetic diversity, species, which is happening at an extraordinary rate, also affects the whole planet. So, we have these trends that are affecting countries’ ability to feed and provide jobs for and house and clothe their people. There economic potential-it’s being dramatically affected in ways that they now see and recognize, their economic growth. That means it affects their political stability. And then layered on top of that is global climate change. And that may have the most profound effect of all.

BILL MOYERS: You make such a persuasive case that I keep sitting here asking myself, why then do we keep on winking at the problem?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: We’re just waking up to it. It’s really only about a four, or five-year-old issue. Scientists have known about the phenomenon for a hundred years and studied it now for about 10 or 20, but we’ve only realized the speed at which we’re changing things and the urgency of acting, really, in the last four or five years. So it’s moved pretty fast. So, rather than winking, I’d say
we’re waking up to it, and the question is, will we wake up fast enough to keep up with the problem? But this is an issue where politicians will have to lead public opinion, not follow it. And that’s hard for elected officials to do.

BILL MOYERS: If you do the right thing now, it’ll be someone 20 years from now who gets the credit for it, who’s holding your seat.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: That’s right. But your children will thank you. It is an issue that requires a degree of vision and leadership that is pretty rare, and a degree of consensus, and of international cooperation which, I think, is unprecedented. We’re going to need a new sense of shared destiny. We are the only planet in the universe, that we know about, where there is life. And I think that is a fact that people react to rather strongly and profoundly.

BILL MOYERS: From the World Resources Institute in Washington, this has been a conversation with Jessica Tuchman Mathews. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 25, 2015.

  • submit to reddit