Alum who sounded climate change alarm featured at Reunion

As an environmental activist and lobbyist, Rafe Pomerance ’68 played an early, pivotal role in raising awareness about the threat of climate change in the late 1970s. He connected scientists with government policymakers and the media, efforts that led to congressional hearings.

Pomerance went on to serve as deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and development in the Clinton administration, and has since worked with numerous environmental and research organizations, including Woods Hole Research Center, Rethink Energy Florida and Arctic 21.

Rafe Pomerance

In the past year, Pomerance has received renewed attention, thanks to a lengthy feature in The New York Times Magazine last August that has been expanded into a new book, “Losing Earth: A Climate History,” by Nathaniel Rich. The book tracks Pomerance as he moved through Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s, sounding the alarm on global warming and building bipartisan support to address it, only to see this momentum stymied in the 1980s by political divisions and a disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry that scientists are still combatting today.

Pomerance will return to Cornell for a Reunion panel, “Challenges and Opportunities for Reducing Climate Risks,” hosted by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. The panel will be June 8, 1-2:30 p.m. in G10 Biotechnology Building.

Also included on the panel will be Natalie Mahowald, the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Katherine McComas, vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs and professor of communication, Doug MacMartin, senior research associate and senior lecturer in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and meteorologist John Toohey ’84, who will moderate the conversation.

In this Q&A, Pomerance discusses the long evolution of the climate change debate, how Cornell influenced his environmentalism, and the role the university can play in addressing climate threats.

You graduated from Cornell with a B.A. in history in 1968. Was there anything you learned at Cornell that helped inform your perspective on the environment?

I can think of two big influences. One was the combination of studying history, economics and government, which was really great preparation for doing climate policy work. In economics, you have some basic understanding of policymaking. In history, you have some sense of how an individual can make a difference. And in government, you challenge conventional thinking.

The second influence is that it was a tumultuous period at Cornell. This was during the Vietnam War. There were demonstrations. It was a very engaged atmosphere, to put it mildly, very charged, because ultimately people’s lives were on the line if they were drafted. But it was a good atmosphere for learning because Vietnam made everything you were doing in the classroom that much more relevant.

You’ve had a diverse career, working with organizations like Friends of the Earth and World Resources Institute, as well as in government. How has being on different sides of policymaking shaped your approach to sustainability efforts?

The idea that people could make a difference, that stayed with me. After I left Cornell, I went into Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the anti-poverty program, and I was trained by a very good community organizer. What you learn in community organizing is how to take an issue and make it go, make it happen, and initiate change. And those lessons that applied on the ground in the poverty program and welfare rights organizing actually had an applicability when I got to Washington and started working on environmental issues.

When I encountered the climate change issue for the first time, there was nobody working on it.

How has the climate debate evolved since the beginning of your involvement in the ’70s?

Well, the world actually made a lot of progress for about 10 years. Nathaniel Rich’s book makes the point that the [George H.W.] Bush administration could have really come down much harder and actually put some real emission reductions in place, which they didn’t do.

Toward the end of the ’80s, the U.S. oil industry and coal industries got involved in what became a campaign of disinformation, seeding uncertainty. That denialism took hold in certain political circles and also portions of the public, and we have been fighting that phenomenon for a couple decades. We spent a lot of time on the science: It’s true, [we have] the data. The U.S. should be the global leader on this, we should be rescuing the planet. Instead, we are bogged down in a polarization and an inability to do anything of significance. It’s a tragedy.

But now we seem to be coming out of that. Young people are really getting a hold of this because it is a multigenerational issue. This is their lives and their children’s lives.

Is that validating? Do you feel like your hard work has paid off, or is it frustrating that it took so long?

Well, better now than not. I suppose it is validating. It seems that all of a sudden in the last year or two there’s been a big wakeup event in society. The Green New Deal, the Sunrise Movement. There’s been a big leap in concern and public opinion, which is all great. Now that political concern has to translate into sufficient action. We have a lot of work to do as a planetary society to get this under control. It’s an unprecedented scale and urgency. You know, we built up a carbon-based economy for a couple hundred years; you can’t dismantle it in the blink of an eye.

Are you optimistic there could be real change on the way?

I think I’m more optimistic than I was. The question is whether the political sentiments and technological progress can get us there in time.

What role do you see for research universities like Cornell to play in addressing climate change and related issues?

I think there’s a big role across the board. I call it the politics of the third millennium. How’s that for grandiosity? This is a multicentury issue. There’s a whole range of technology questions, not only in energy, but in agriculture, which is a big source of greenhouse gas emissions. And there are questions of design, engineering resilience. Different schools at Cornell all have some role to play, if they choose to, from Engineering to Arts and Sciences to the Agriculture school. Even the hockey team.

Here’s the thing: If Cornell does not step up to this in a big enough way, the university will be irrelevant. Because climate change will be a dominant issue. It will only get bigger and bigger. And it has lessons that are important to the study of human behavior. I don’t recall people talking about the human species as a planetary force when I was at Cornell. I don’t think it was understood the way it is now. And that’s a whole new challenge, both in the real world and in academia.

Is there one specific aspect of climate change you feel needs more recognition from the public and policymakers?

We need to know how much warming we’re going to let happen and by what date. There isn’t really a national goal and a strategic plan to mobilize society behind it. Because it’s a transformation. The fact is you can’t wait forever to do this. It has to get done quickly.

In Queensland, Australia, they’re trying to figure out how to geoengineer the water around the Great Barrier Reef. Why is that? Because much of the Great Barrier Reef is dead from coral bleaching. What you don’t want is to be behind the impacts, when it’s too late. And that’s going to become true for more and more parts of the climate system the longer we wait.

David Nutt is managing editor of the Atkinson Center.

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