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February 12, 2009

James McCarthy's Crystal Ball

  James McCarthyAs outgoing AAAS president James McCarthy delivered the address, "Our Planet and Its Life: Origins and Futures," that kicked off this year's meeting, he made it clear that he took that sub headline seriously. Tonight's talk was an admiring look back at hundreds of years of science and a nervous look forward to what lies ahead.

Things started, appropriately enough, with Charles Darwin. If you haven't heard, today is the famed naturalist's 200th birthday--and 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. McCarthy noted that a lot has changed since Darwin's time, and not all of it has been good. "Much of his studies occurred in areas that had seen little effect of human presence," said McCarthy, who has been heavily involved in climate change issues and reports. Yet even in Darwin's day, the seeds of our so-called anthropogenic era were being sown. After all, McCarthy noted, this year also marks the 150th anniversary of the first commercial oil well and the precursor of today's internal combustion engines.

McCarthy then fast-forwarded to the future--and it wasn't a pretty sight.

Even some of the most radical estimates of how much CO2 will be pumped into the atmosphere in the next 50 years may turn out to be conservative, he said. And that means temperatures on Earth could get hotter than they've been for more than 25 million years. Sea ice will continue to melt at an alarming rate, Arctic communities will vanish, and floods and fires will plague the globe like nothing before seen in human history. The news gets worse: Citing a study published last month, McCarthy said many of these changes will be irreversible.

The bright spots? Well, that gets back to the "Futures" theme of this year's meeting. McCarthy noted that there is more than one future ahead of us, depending on the path we choose. He has hope that, even if we can't stop emitting CO2, we may be able to mitigate its effects via geoengineering. And he's cheered by recent political trends. "If you had told me 5 years ago ... that within 4 years, nearly every serious candidate for the presidency would be saying, 'We must get our nation on an agenda to reduce fossil emissions [by up to 90%] by 2050,' I would have said that's unbelievable."

McCarthy reserved his highest hopes for President Barack Obama. Returning to the significance of 12 February, he noted that John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, the president's respective picks for White House Science Adviser and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--and, by the way, both past AAAS presidents--had their congressional confirmation hearings today. "We need extraordinary leadership in science, and it's hard to imagine that in the areas where the nation faces urgent problems that need scientific advice that President Obama could have picked more able leaders," said McCarthy.

But with the global economy in meltdown, will Obama put science on the back burner? McCarthy noted that another president still took time for science--establishing the Department of Agriculture and incorporating the National Academy of Sciences--in the midst of a national crisis. That would be Abraham Lincoln. Born 200 years ago today.

--David Grimm