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Pioneering Black Scientist to Win Nobel Prize of Climate Change
By Marlene Cimons
Warren Washington can trace at least one of the origins of his extraordinary scientific career—more than half a century of groundbreaking advances in computer climate modeling—to a youthful curiosity about the color of egg yolks.
"I had some wonderful teachers in high school, including a chemistry teacher who really got me started," he said. "One day I asked her, 'Why are egg yolks yellow?' She said, 'why don't you find out?'" So he did. He still remembers the answer—the sulfur compounds in chicken feed become concentrated in the yolk, turning it yellow. "I also had an excellent physics teacher," he said, describing why he became an atmospheric physicist.
Those teachers would be immensely proud of him today. Before the evolution of sophisticated computers, scientists knew little about the atmosphere other than what they could observe outright. Then a young black physicist came along, eager to use early computers to understand the workings of the Earth's climate. He collaborated in creating the earliest computer climate models and went on to advise six presidents about climate change — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2010 by President Obama. Washington, now 82, recently retired after 54 years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, though it isn't much of a retirement. He still continues to conduct research as a distinguished scholar.
Warren Washington in 1975. National Center for Atmospheric Research
Washington was an early pioneer of climate modeling. Working with Japanese scientists in the early 1960s, he was one of the first to build computer atmospheric models using the laws of physics to predict future atmospheric conditions. Despite his accomplishment, he avoids any semblance of self-promotion and seems happy with his low public profile. "
"I am quiet, but not to the extreme," he said. "I'm just not as vocal as some people in the field, but that's OK. [Some] people say I'm a legend, while others joke about the fact that I am still alive." When compared to the subjects of the movie Hidden Figures, the black, female mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1960s, he laughed. "You know, I think I met those ladies," he said, pausing. "It was just a small world then."
There is no Nobel Prize for climate change, the world's most pressing environmental problem. But if there were—and there is an ongoing campaign to establish one—Washington almost certainly would be on the short list. He will soon receive the next best thing, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, often referred to as the environmental Nobel. He will be sharing the honor with climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.
In addition to recognizing their groundbreaking climate research, the award also sends a message to climate skeptics who have gone after Mann and Washington. Mann has endured multiple public attacks and Washington, despite his low-key nature, occasionally fields death threats, which he said "haven't really had an effect on me." Washington applauded Mann for standing up to the critics. "He's handled it very well," he said.
For his part, Mann is thrilled to be sharing the award with Washington, his longtime idol. "I used to read his papers when I was a graduate student, and he is a real hero of mine," Mann said, pointing out that Washington received his doctorate in atmospheric sciences — only the second African-American ever to do so — at Penn State. "He is one of our most distinguished alumni," Mann said. "He is such a great role model, who speaks to the fundamentally important contribution that diversity plays in advancing science."
Washington at a computer terminal in his younger days. National Center for Atmospheric Research
Washington's father, Edwin, was reared in Birmingham, Alabama and attended Talladega College, a small historically black college. After his 1928 graduation, he left the South for Seattle, and a year later for Portland, where Washingon was born and raised. During the Great Depression, jobs were scarce, so Edwin took the only job he could find, as a waiter on the Union Pacific Railroad. "He was bitter about it," Washington said.
Washington's mother Dorothy attended the University of Oregon for 18 months, majoring in music. "She couldn't stay in the dormitory because they wouldn't allow black women," he said. "She had to work as a live-in helper for a family to have a place to stay. She left college after two years because she was upset about it."
In grade school, Washington read books about George Washington Carver and other black Americans "doing interesting science." By high school, he had decided on a career in physics. But the racism encountered by his parents was still alive at Oregon State University. "My freshman advisor told me I shouldn't stay in physics because it was probably too hard for me," he said. Ignoring the advice, he graduated in 1958 with a bachelor's degree in physics. He then earned a master's in meteorology in 1960, also from Oregon State, and finally a doctorate in atmospheric science in 1964 from Penn State.
Washington reviewing climate simulation results on film. National Center for Atmospheric Research
The earliest computer he used—he thinks it was in 1957—was an old vacuum-tube model, about the size of a room, and agonizingly slow. "In those days it took one day to generate one day of simulation," he said. Today, "for the highest resolution, we can probably do 10 years in a day. For the lowest, we can probably do 100 years in a day. Today, I probably have more computing power in my smartphone than in those very early computers."
Most of the presidents he advised—with the exception of Obama—were more interested in supporting climate research than mitigation, he said. President Obama, on the other hand, championed the Paris climate Agreement and crafted numerous climate protections.
President Obama awards Warren Washington the National Medal of Science. National Center for Atmospheric Research
Washington first met him in the fall of 2007, when Obama was still a senator. "We both were asked to speak to the Congressional Black Caucus about climate change," he recalled. "He spoke before me, and it was clear he had read the IPCC report [a major UN report on climate change]. I was next, and I teased him a little bit, 'You gave my talk.' He laughed."
Not surprisingly, Washington has not been asked to brief President Trump, who plans to exit the Paris Agreement and is working to undo numerous Obama-era climate protections."I can't figure the man out. He doesn't get briefings or read. He doesn't get advice, like most presidents [do]," Washington said. "He doesn't have any interest in reading any reports on any subject, not just science. During his State of the Union speech to Congress, he didn't even mention [climate change] once."
Nevertheless, Washington is encouraged by climate actions outside the federal government, and still has hope for the future. "I think we just have to suffer through another couple of years with this president," he said. "But I haven't lost my optimism."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Randi Spivak
Slashing two national monuments in Utah may have received the most attention, but Trump's Interior Department and U.S. Forest Service have been quietly, systematically ceding control of America's public lands to fossil fuel, mining, timber and livestock interests since the day he took office.
A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.
The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images
By Sue Branford and Thais Borges
Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
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