In the Middle of the Climate Debate

The debate about the causes of global warming continues to rage while presidential candidates offer solutions, car manufacturers struggle with emissions standards, the price of oil and gasoline skyrockets, and Americans remain confused. The politics encourages confusion, but a man who sits in the middle of the debate makes a simple point about pollution, global warming, and climate change.

“If you look at the polling information, while global warming is at the top of environmental issues of concern to the public, environmental issues in general rank well below other issues the public expresses concern about,” says William Brennan, director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), who earned his master’s degree in 1985 from URI’s Marine Affairs Program. “This is one of my major concerns,” Brennan adds. “People don’t realize that they are part of the problem, and fixing the problem will be costly and will require significant changes in our day-to-day lives.”

As director of CCSP, Brennan oversees the work of 13 federal agencies as he integrates the planning and budgeting of federal climate and global change activities. CCSP’s main mission is to bring together research conducted by federal scientists, academic scientists, and others to arrive at a consensus on how much the global climate is changing, how it’s changing, and why it’s changing.

But his job as climate director is but one of Brennan’s roles in Washington. He has served since 2002 as deputy assistant secretary of commerce for international affairs with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and was recently promoted to the number two position at NOAA.

Last January, he was nominated by President Bush to be the assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy administrator of NOAA. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in early June and has since been actively engaged in the day to day management of NOAA and its several branches, including the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Ocean Service, Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Satellite and Data Information Service, and the NOAA Corps. “This is really an exciting opportunity for me to be involved with so many things that I’ve been interested in for years,” Brennan says, “and so much of it that relates directly to work going on at the University of Rhode Island.”

Brennan’s career has been inspired by youthful years in the U.S. Merchant Marine and commercial fisheries. Several years after high school he obtained an undergraduate degree in marine biology, then went to work at NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service labs in New Jersey and at Woods Hole, Mass. He transferred from Woods Hole to NOAA’s Narragansett Lab in 1980 so he could do his master’s work at URI. He later went on to earn a doctorate in ecology and environmental sciences.

“I studied with Dennis Nixon (now assistant dean of the College of Environment and Life Science), Larry Juda, Lew Alexander, and several other fine professors there,” he said. “It was a great experience, and it opened up new directions for me. The University of Rhode Island has had a profound influence upon me professionally and personally.”

Brennan’s son Tyler is in his senior year as a political science major at URI, and Brennan said his son made a good decision in choosing the University. “I was very impressed with the University and all the efforts made to help Tyler,” he said. “They have great support systems in place there to help students.”

Brennan was interested to hear that the 2008 URI Honors Colloquium is focused on global climate change. The colloquium is being organized and directed by GSO professors Steven D’Hondt and Arthur Spivack, with assistance from communications studies professor Judith Swift. “We are examining all areas of global environment, not just climate change and global warming,” Spivack points out.

The colloquium is certain to focus on the debate about the causes of global warming, which is one of the central conditions being examined by the CCSP. “While there is a general consensus that warming is occurring,” Brennan says, “there isn’t the same kind of consensus on the science. This is part of what we are trying to get at through all this research.”

A Time magazine article last April indicted the growing biofuels industry as a backfired solution to global warming, insisting that it has led to gross deforestation and greater carbon emissions as farmers plant corn and soybeans to be turned into biofuels with a resultant increase in food prices because of reduced crops for food consumption. Such reports add to the confusing picture for average citizens.

Without question, Brennan says, human impact is a factor in global warming and other aspects of environmental change, so he returns to the human factor as talks about solutions. “Even if we stopped carbon dioxide emissions, warming would continue,” he says. “So we have to look at this with hard scientific evidence and develop policy from that. This is what the U.S. Climate Change Science Program’s objectives are.”

By John Pantalone ’71