Roger Revelle, Father of Global Warming, Predicts Life in the 21st Century

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Century City, center, and downtown Los Angeles sit under a blanket of smog, Jan. 14, 2000.

In this 1966 talk at the Rensselaerville Institute, Dr. Roger Revelle produces the usual combination of amusing blunders and uncanny insights one hears when people try predicting the future. "Aging" will still be with us, but with cures of common diseases and organ transplants "most people might die of accidents," the frequency of which seem to be increasing. "It's hard to think of what other things people might die of." Yet he speaks very presciently of the increasing problem of mental health. While narcotics and alcohol addiction will be on their way to solution, the problem of schizophrenia is "very difficult." Turning to space travel, he predicts regular trips to Mars by 2000, where we will find no intelligent life but perhaps plants and "simple animals" who eat those plants. There will be trips to Venus as well. "Heaven only knows what we will find under its layer of clouds." The real challenge will be interstellar voyages, figuring how to get a man to the closest stars and back in one lifetime.

As for problems at home, he is remarkably sanguine about the economy. The world of 2000 will be one of affluence and abundance. Because there will be less need for humans to manufacture and farm, a new servant class will arise. This profession will not bear the stigma of its predecessor. Most of the new servants will be college graduates! He accurately forecasts the crisis of what do to with our old people, noting a need to change our concept of retirement. Then there is the problem of where to put our sewage. Our rivers will be in danger of becoming polluted. He ends, somewhat abruptly and surprisingly, with a plea to address to problem of alienation, which he has begun to see affecting the students he meets on college campuses.

If the speaker were just another academic huckster, all this would be no more than an amusing historical snapshot of once-commonly held opinions. But Dr. Roger Revelle (1909-1991) was a highly regarded and extremely influential scientist and social critic. A prominent oceanographer, Revelle's early work played a crucial role in the formation of plate tectonics theory which explains continental drift and earthquake activity.  He headed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography as well as  the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. His most controversial scientific discovery is detailed on the American Institute of Physics website:

Before scientists would take greenhouse effect warming seriously, they had to get past a counter-argument of long standing. It seemed certain that the immense mass of the oceans would quickly absorb whatever excess carbon dioxide might come from human activities. Roger Revelle discovered that the peculiar chemistry of sea water prevents that from happening. His 1957 paper with Hans Suess is now widely regarded as the opening shot in the global warming debates.

Revelle was a much sought-after scientific advisor in political circles and a "player" in the high stakes game of what one might call educational entrepreneurship. He is credited with founding the University of California at San Diego, despite fierce opposition from University of California trustees and the nearby locality of La Jolla, which feared an influx of Jewish professors. As this at times whimsical and scattershot talk illustrates, his interests were wide-ranging and hardly confined to those of an orthodox scientist or administrator. The New York Times recounts in its obituary:

In 1952 Dr. Revelle became a member of the off-beat American Miscellaneous Society, composed of scientists trying to think of exciting research on which Government money could be expended. The result was the Mohole Project, which proposed to drill through the ocean floor into the underlying mantle. The project died for fiscal and political reasons before a drill platform could be built, but it led to the more conventional Deep Sea Drilling Project, which, with its successor, the Ocean Drilling Program, has probed the floors of all the world's oceans. Some scientists regard it as the most productive scientific enterprise ever conducted at sea.

Today, Revelle is remembered as "the father of global warming." A marine research vessel, the R/V Roger Revelle, is named in his honor, as is UC San Diego's Revelle College. This talk's vision of the future, one with shared wealth and a universal sense of responsibility, is reinforced up by the Harvard School of Public Health website:

For all his awareness of impending challenges, Revelle…was at heart an optimist. His answer to alarms about the “population bomb” was a broad agenda: feeding and caring for the growing numbers of humanity, especially those in the poorest parts of the globe. As he said in an interview with the Harvard Public Health Alumni Bulletin, “Because of the shrinking size of the world and its growing interdependence, and the fact that all the world’s resources are needed to support the world’s peoples, an effective way of distributing the world’s income more widely among nations must be found if there is to be world prosperity.”


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150037
Municipal archives id: T818