It was an exciting day when Barack Obama named physicist Steven Chu (history's first Nobel laureate scientist cabinet nominee) as Secretary of Energy and chose two science advisers with previous ties to the Smithsonian. John Holdren, a professor of environmental policy, was selected to be the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, and marine biologist Jane Lubchenco was chosen to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All three individuals understand the crucial connection between research, climate change and energy. Last century's 1 degree Fahrenheit spike in average global temperature and our continuing dependence on fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal, confront humankind with unprecedented challenges.
I am honored to serve on the National Academy of Sciences' Summit Committee on America's Climate Choices and the bipartisan Leaders Project on Energy and National Security, chaired by former Senators William Cohen and Sam Nunn. Both groups are developing recommendations on energy, environment and national security goals. The questions are very difficult. How can we act on climate change while also ensuring safe, reliable and affordable energy? How do we best communicate complex alternatives to the public?
Smithsonian research helps answer these and similar questions. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory measures atmospheric pollutants, including greenhouse gases, from space. Our Environmental Research Center studies the effects of increases in CO2 on Chesapeake Bay coastal wetlands and Florida plant communities experiencing rising sea levels. Plant fossils from Wyoming helped National Museum of Natural History paleobotanist Scott Wing discover that a massive release of carbon—5,000 gigatons, or about the size of today's remaining fossil fuel reservoir—lifted global temperatures an average of 9 degrees 55 million years ago, changing the composition of vegetation all over the world. That event is being carefully studied since it is probably the best analogue for today's climate changes.
Our Tropical Research Institute oversees the Global Earth Observatories Program, which measures the CO2 absorbed—and thus removed from the atmosphere—by millions of trees in 34 large-scale study plots in 20 countries worldwide. This is a unique, standardized way to assess climate change's impact on the function and biodiversity of forest ecosystems. In the Arctic, anthropologist Igor Krupnik collaborates with native people to understand their adaptations to increasingly unpredictable weather and shrinking sea ice. The Smithsonian Institution informs climate and ecosystem change discussions while also aiming for environmental sustainability—including in our own physical plant. So we join the new presidential science appointees in working toward a greener future for us all.
G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution