Seven prominent researchers had the rare honor of conducting an hour-long seminar yesterday for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore on the scientific bases for global change. But the two students also had an agenda--to begin educating the public in preparation for a major international meeting on climate change in December in Kyoto, Japan.
"We see the train coming, but most ordinary Americans in their day-to-day lives can't hear the whistle blowing," Clinton told several hundred invited guests during the unusual gathering in the East Room of the White House. The session, put together in barely a week by White House staffers, launched what Clinton called "a process in which we ask the American people to listen to the evidence" of human-induced global change.
Each scientist was asked to speak for 3 minutes on one aspect of the problem, and some were questioned by the president or vice president. Chemists F. Sherwood Rowland of the University of California, Irvine, and Mario Molina of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began by describing the mechanisms of greenhouse warming and trends of greenhouse gas emissions--complete with an expandable flip chart showing projected atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the 21st century. Ecologist Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University in Corvallis and microbiologist Robert Shope of the University of Texas painted a picture of a United States riven by ecological disruptions and spreading infectious diseases. Physicist Henry Kendall of MIT and climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University explored the possibility of world food crises and stronger storm systems.
John Holdren, a professor of environmental science and public policy at Harvard University, wrapped up the discussion by addressing a question from the president about why people aren't more worried about global warming. Most Americans do not realize the extent to which climate change will influence their lives, Holdren answered. Nor do they appreciate the many linkages between the developed world, which may have the resources to respond to many aspects of climate change, and the developing world, which likely will suffer much more severe consequences. "You can't sink just one end of a boat," he concluded.
Clinton appeared to be following the conversation closely, and he invited the researchers to join him in publicizing the scientific conclusion in the months leading up to the Kyoto meeting. The United States "has got to be committed to realistic and binding limits on our emissions of greenhouse gases," he said. "Between now and then, we have to work with the American people to get them to share that commitment."