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Warning to Humanity
Posted March 4, 2001

In case you didn't already know this, Mostly Mozart is broadcast live every Sunday at 2:00, and repeated on Tuesday nights at 8. Today is Sunday March 4, which is sort of a special day for modern science. Or at least it should be. And here's why.

Last week I made a big joke about telling you how to make a nuclear bomb. But aside from being a nice joke, nuclear technology raises serious questions about the role of scientists in the responsible use of technology. Several famous scientists, including Albert Einstein, had lifelong regrets over their contributions to nuclear bomb technology. Among other things, Einstein wrote a famous letter to the US president during the second world war, essentially urging him to start the nuclear arms race. Of course, most scientists don't get to have such a direct influence on politics and war. Or do they?

In December 1968, senior faculty members at MIT called on their fellow faculty members and students to stop their research activity for one day on March 4, and put some thought into where their research might take them. In the 33 years since then, that effort has turned into a group called the Union of Concerned Scientists, which issues periodic warnings and advice along these lines.

On today's show, after a bit of Mozart of course, I'll read that faculty statement from 1968, as well as their latest plea, which is called the "World Scientists' Call For Action." It was written in 1997, as a follow-up to 1992's "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity." It was obvious that relatively little attention had been paid to that warning in the last 5 years. They thought the 1997 Climate Summit in Kyoto, Japan, would be an opportunity for the bigwigs to take some advice about the misuse of technology, from those people who made the technology possible in the first place.

Mostly Mozart is sponsored by Comfort and Joy, a unique children's store.

I'd like to thank Bonnie Nilsen for lending me the bassoon concerto that we're about to hear. It's performed by the Orchestra of the Old Fairfield Academy, which is based in New York City, even though Fairfield is in Connecticut. The orchestra takes its name from the Old Fairfield Academy, which was built in 1804, a mere 13 years after Mozart's death. New world... old world... New orchestra, old instruments.

This is the text of the Faculty Statement written at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in December 1968. The document was originally signed by 50 senior faculty members, including the heads of the biology, chemistry, and physics departments, and was later circulated to the entire faculty for endorsement. Faculty and student actions on the concerns that prompted this statement resulted in the founding of the Union of Concerned Scientists in early 1969.

Misuse of scientific and technical knowledge presents a major threat to the existence of mankind. Through its actions in Vietnam our government has shaken our confidence in its ability to make wise and humane decisions. There is also disquieting evidence of an intention to enlarge further our immense destructive capability.

The response of the scientific community to these developments has been hopelessly fragmented. There is a small group that helps to conceive these policies, and a handful of eminent men who have tried but largely failed to stem the tide from within the government. The concerned majority has been on the sidelines and ineffective. We feel that it is no longer possible to remain uninvolved.

We therefore call on scientists and engineers at MIT, and throughout the country, to unite for concerted action and leadership: Action against dangers already unleashed and leadership toward a more responsible exploitation of scientific knowledge.

With these ends in mind we propose:

To initiate a critical and continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where science and technology are of actual or potential significance.

To devise means for turning research applications away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems.

To convey to our students the hope that they will devote themselves to bringing the benefits of science and technology to mankind and to ask them to scrutinize the issues raised here before participating in the construction of destructive weapons systems.

To express our determined opposition to ill-advised and hazardous projects such as the ABM system, the enlargement of our nuclear arsenal, and the development of chemical and biological weapons.

To explore the feasibility of organizing scientists and engineers so that their desire for a more humane and civilized world can be translated into effective political action.

As a first step toward reaching these objectives, we ask our colleagues--faculty and students--to stop their research activity at MIT on March 4 and join us for a day devoted to examination of the present situation and its alternatives. On that day, we propose to engage in intensive public discussion and planning for future actions along the lines suggested above.

If you share our profound apprehension, and are seeking a mode of expression which is at once practical and symbolic, join us on March 4.

That was 1968, the year that Richard Nixon was elected president of the USA and Tom Lehrer was so disgusted that he stopped performing.

The latest statement from the Union of Concerned Scientists was made in 1997. Here it is.

Five years ago, in the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, 1,600 of the world's senior scientists sounded an unprecedented warning:

Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms.
Addressed to political, industrial, religious, and scientific leaders, the Warning demonstrated that the scientific community had reached a consensus that grave threats imperil the future of humanity and the global environment. However, over four years have passed, and progress has been woefully inadequate. Some of the most serious problems have worsened. Invaluable time has been squandered because so few leaders have risen to the challenge.

The December 1997 Climate Summit in Kyoto, Japan, presents a unique opportunity. The world's political leaders can demonstrate a new commitment to the protection of the environment. The goal is to strengthen the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change by agreeing to effective controls on human practices affecting climate.

This they can and must do, primarily by augmenting the Convention's voluntary measures with legally binding commitments to reduce industrial nations' emissions of heat-trapping gases significantly below 1990 levels in accordance with a near-term timetable. Over time, developing nations must also be engaged in limiting their emissions. Developed and developing nations must cooperate to mitigate climatic disruption. The biosphere is a seamless web.

Completion of an effective treaty at Kyoto would address one of the most serious threats to the planet and to future generations. It would set a landmark precedent for addressing other grave environmental threats, many linked to climate change. It would demonstrate that the world's leaders have now recognized, in deeds and words, their responsibility for stewardship of the earth. The stark facts carry a clear signal:

There is only one responsible choice --
to act now.

We, the signers of this declaration, urge all government leaders to demonstrate a new commitment to protecting the global environment for future generations. The important first step is to join in completing a strong and meaningful Climate Treaty at Kyoto. We encourage scientists and citizens around the world to hold their leaders accountable for addressing the global warming threat. Leaders must take this first step to protect future generations from dire prospects that would result from failure to meet our responsibilities toward them.


Atmospheric Disruption

Predictions of global climatic change are becoming more confident. A broad consensus among the world's climatologists is that there is now "a discernible human influence on global climate."

Climate change is projected to raise sea levels, threatening populations and ecosystems in coastal regions. Warmer temperatures will lead to a more vigorous hydrologic cycle, increasing the prospects for more intense rainfall, floods, or droughts in some regions. Human health may be damaged by greater exposure to heat waves and droughts, and by encroachment of tropical diseases to higher latitudes.

The developing world is especially vulnerable to damage from climatic disruption because it is already under great stress and has less capacity to adapt.

Climate Change: Linkages and Further Damage

Destructive logging and deforestation for agriculture continue to wreak havoc on the world's remaining tropical forests. The burning of the Amazonian rain forests continues largely unabated. Other forests in developed and developing nations are under heavy pressure. Destruction of forests greatly amplifies soil erosion and water wastage, is a major source of loss of species, and undermines the environment's natural ability to store carbon. It releases additional carbon to the atmosphere, thereby enhancing global warming.

Fossil-fueled energy use is climbing, both in industrial nations and in the developing world, adding to atmospheric carbon. Efforts to enhance energy conservation and improve efficiency are much hindered by low energy costs and by perverse incentives that encourage waste. Without firm commitments, most industrial nations will not meet the carbon-emission goals they agreed to at the 1992 Rio conference. The transition to renewable, non-fossil-carbon-based energy sources is feasible but is not in sight for lack of aggressive political will. The insurance industry has recognized the risks posed by climate change. Leading economists have identified viable policies for reducing these risks. Markets undervalue ecosystems worldwide and inflict few penalties against practices that do long-term environmental and resource damage. Political leadership must introduce incentives that reward sound practices.

Water Scarcity and Food Security

Humanity now uses over one-half of the total accessible freshwater runoff. Freshwater is the scarcest resource in the Middle East and in North Africa. Efforts to husband freshwater are not succeeding there, in East Asia, or in the Pacific.

Global food production now appears to be outpaced by growth in consumption and population. There is broad agreement that food demand will double by 2030. Most land suitable for agriculture is already in production. Sub-Saharan Africa's increase in agricultural production is one-third less than its population growth. The region now produces 80 percent of what it consumes, and per capita production is declining. Projections indicate that demand for food in Asia will exceed the supply by 2010.

Thus, food consumption levels in many countries are likely to remain totally inadequate for good nutrition. Widespread undernutrition will persist unless extraordinary measures are taken to ensure food for all, measures not now even contemplated by governments. Climate change is likely to exacerbate these food problems by adversely affecting water supplies, soil conditions, temperature tolerances, and growing seasons.

Destruction of Species

Climate change will accelerate the appalling pace at which species are now being liquidated, especially in vulnerable ecosystems. One-fourth of the known species of mammals are threatened, and half of these may be gone within a decade. Possibly one-third of all species may be lost before the end of the next century.

Biodiversity gives stability to the ecosystems that we are so dependent on, enhances their productivity, and provides an important source of new foods, medicines, and other products.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a web site at, where you can find their warnings and calls for action and so on, as well as a picture of a butterfly that's half as big as the Earth.

There's one more work I'd like to plagiarize on this show. It's a book by Paul Colinvaux called "Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare," published in 1978 by Princeton University Press.

It's a book about ecology. I'm just going to read one short paragraph, that concludes his discussion about the effect we're having on the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

The carbon dioxide in our air will increase, thus, from about 0.03 percent by volume to about 0.06 percent by volume. This will not be catastrophic for life. On the other hand it will certainly make a difference. The worry is that we do not know what all the effects might be. We are embarked on the most colossal ecological experiment of all time; doubling the concentraition in the atmosphere of an entire planet of one of its most important gases; and we really have little idea of what might happen.

The Mozart piano concerto coming up is played by the Saint Paul Chamber orchestra. The piano soloist is none other than Chick Corea. There's only one conductor who could persuade Chick Corea to record a Mozart CD, and I don't know about you, but I never would have guessed who it is. Unless, of course, the conductor had a very distinctive voice and did an a capella introduction.

But before I do that, I should play something by Tom Lehrer, since I know there are some Tom Lehrer fans listening, and it's a bit unfair for me to mention his name without playing one of his songs.