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George Woodwell, who warned of climate change, 'was always thinking about what to do next'

George and Katharine Woodwell (center) with Skee Houghton (right), pictured in Woods Hole in the late 1980s.
Woodwell Climate Research Center
George and Katharine Woodwell (center) with Skee Houghton (right), pictured in Woods Hole in the late 1980s.

WOODS HOLE—George Woodwell was among the first scientists to ring the alarm on climate change, long before the term entered the public conversation.

In the 1980s he founded the Woods Hole Research Center, which was later renamed Woodwell Climate Research Center.

The work of Woodwell, who died last week at 95, resonated around the world. Few knew him as well as Richard "Skee" Houghton, whom Woodwell hired in 1966.

Houghton is senior scientist emeritus at Woodwell Climate Research Center, and has served as its acting director and president.

Patrick Flanary Is it fair to say that Dr. Woodwell was among the first to identify our role as humans in climate change?

Skee Houghton, Ph.D. I hadn't thought about it that way, but yes. Let's say climate change was in the hands of oceanographers and atmospheric scientists. And so they really hadn't addressed what land was doing; they were looking at what the oceans were doing, [as well as] the atmosphere and fossil fuels. We didn't know at that point, but we said, let's look at what humans are doing to the forests, because forests are what hold most of the carbon.

PF Woodwell's research was instrumental in the banning of farm chemicals, including DDT, during the 1970s. In 1986 he testified before Congress, warning them of the inevitable danger facing the world. Was he a doomsayer? How did you perceive him when you met him?

SH I first met him at a job interview, almost 60 years ago. I'd been out of college for a year, so I was maybe 22. He was looking for a research assistant ecologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. I was interested in it very much, but I didn't know what to do with a bachelor's degree in biology. He hired me. He also said that he I never had to look for a job after that first one.

PF Did you feel you were in good hands with him?

SH I did. I had a long enough time to sever that if it wasn't great. It was great.

PF Did your team ever think at some point that people were starting to understand that climate change is inevitable?

SH Well, I think lots of the world thinks that. There are people in the U.S. who still resist it.

PF And did Woodwell ever speak with those people? Was he much of a debater?

SH He did some debating with oceanographers here on the outfall of whether to dump garbage into the ocean or not. But at some point, it's not worth debating with people who've made up their minds. You're not going to change their minds, but you do want to get out as much information as you can to the public so they can make up their minds.

PF What was your last conversation with Dr. Woodwell?

SH He was always thinking about what to do next. And so when I visited him about a month ago, his main interest at that point was what he should do with his 140-acre farm in Maine: "Should we make it a model farm? What can we do that isn't already known?" He didn't have an answer to that, but that's what he was thinking about.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.