James White: ice & the city

The NEEM ice core site, Greenland. (Photo: Tyler Jones, 2012)

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“It is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO2 content will rise 25% by 2000. [Over time] this could increase the average temperature near the earth’s surface by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet. Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington, for that matter.” 

Memo from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to John Ehrlichman, Nixon Administration, September 1969.

“On the timescale of any meaningful planning effort, sea level will never stabilize. In human terms, it will essentially keep rising forever.”

Glaciologist and IPCC AR 5 author Tad Pfeffer, Climate Central, August 2014

City Atlas is about the future of New York, and New York is on the ocean. Over the past year, research on ice melt in Antarctica has brought the issue of sea level rise into sharp focus. The city is adapting to rising seas through implementing the Rebuild by Design program and other coastal defenses proposed in the Special Initiative on Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR). 

Some experts think the city should be planning farther ahead. In an interview with City Atlas, geophysicist Klaus Jacob recommended that the city make long term plans to move back from low-lying land and relocate to higher ground.

In December, James White, Director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at University of Colorado Boulder, gave a talk at the American Geophysical Union on “Abrupt Climate Change,” which described the implications of sea level rise for U.S. cities, including New York and Miami, taking into account the new research on ice melt. 

New York, despite a widening gulf between rich and poor, is a wealthy and powerful city, confronting climate change with adaptive resources that are scarce elsewhere. But even for New York, unchecked emissions pose an existential threat. Can New York, and the residents of the city, become leaders to preserve the city’s future – and in the process, lead the kind of transformational response that Pope Francis has called for in his encyclical, Laudato Si?

The scope of the emissions challenge is shown on a global calculator developed by the British Department of Energy and Climate Change. A successful response involves very rapid investment in new clean energy, with a simultaneous reduction in per capita energy use for the high energy populations of the developed countries, including the U.S. This solution involves the cooperation of every nation and region, and without our commitment, it doesn’t work. Why would anyone else do what we won’t do ourselves? 

Before the pope’s announcement, we reached out to Dr. White for more of his thoughts and he generously gave us his time, shortly before leaving for a month-long research project drilling ice cores in Greenland. Jamie Carpenter conducted the following interview.

In your AGU presentation on abrupt climate change, you give the metaphor of a canoe in the river leading up to Niagara Falls. The tipping point isn’t actually going over the falls, but the point in which you can no longer make it to shore and will have the consequence of going over. If there are possibly many tipping points of climate change for different consequences, what points do you think we’ve past, and what can we avoid?

I think there are some tipping points that we’ve gone past. Clearly we’re looking at a warmer and warmer climate, so parts of that have already past. There are health implications; you know what it’s like to live in the city when it hits 95 degrees for many days in a row – it’s not pleasant.

There are tipping points in the sea level rise system, and I think we’ve already pushed past it but haven’t felt it yet. For example, anything within a couple feet of sea level I don’t think is going to make it. I don’t see us turning that around. At 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, with all the heat that’s already stored in the ocean, it’s going to be very difficult to deal with low-lying areas.

“At 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, with all the heat that’s already stored in the ocean, it’s going to be very difficult to deal with low-lying areas.”


There are billions if not trillions of dollars of infrastructure going on in those areas. The Federal Flood Insurance Program that we pay into, that’s a tipping point. In the not too distant future as we recognize that that’s not a solvent program, and it’s never going to be a solvent program, we’re going to struggle with how we deal with that. Right now we pay folks who live on the ocean quite a bit of money to fix their homes, or to buy them out. You and I do that. We’ll eventually realize we can’t keep doing that.

Usually putting issues into economic terms gets better attention and then responses. When you talk about the Federal Flood Insurance Program becoming the largest entitlement program, has that generated any kind of reaction?

Not really no. There was an attempt to reform the Federal Flood Insurance Program, and there were so many people who screamed about it and said they couldn’t afford the new rates that Congress turned around and said we’d take that back. In a very confusing way – I actually tried to read those laws and it gave me a headache. But the bottom line now is that we’re back in ostrich-land, where we’re sticking our heads in the sand and just hoping that this goes away. And it won’t go away, that’s a simple reality. Where the physics are really simple you can’t do much about it, and in the case of sea level rise and just fundamental climate change the physics are pretty straightforward. It’s happening right now.

Out west, we’re very concerned with the [limited] amount of water we have. I know the folks in New York, it’s not really on your radar screen, but to us it’s our lifeblood. You may hear about California all the time, and folks in New York may care about the price of almonds and pistachios, but it’s an economic hit that none of us want to have to take.

I frequently hear the term ‘paradigm shift’ in climate change discussions. Will people change behaviors only after they’re immediately affected in a big enough way, or can it occur before all the tipping points are past?

I think there are a couple of tipping points that will push paradigm shifts. One is, as you get sea level rise around the world there are hundreds of millions of people who are at-risk. And we’re already seeing these issues beginning to play out in low-lying countries.

Refugees are in a sad situation but also a very dangerous situation for us. Refugee camps are breeding grounds for extremists and we’ve seen that. If you look at the core issues in Syria right now, drought is not very far below the surface in terms of a cause. You’ve got a whole bunch of people who are forced off the land, not because of political reasons initially but because of climate reasons. The Pentagon understands that. The military understands that. That’s one tipping point.

Another obvious tipping point is that areas become indefensible. Miami Beach becomes indefensible, parts of Norfolk becomes indefensible, parts of the New York metropolitan area become indefensible.

It’s like, people wake up and they go ‘oh shit’ and they have that moment. You probably can’t say that in print but the ‘oh shit’ moment does happen. I think that’s common and it’s not that far away. It’s going to be difficult because for example, Manhattan is spending a lot of money to build a barrier around the end of Manhattan. I mean, that buys time but it’s not a solution. Sea level will go up by meters, by tens of feet, and that we know not just from the simple physics of the situation but from the history of our planet. If you just look at the simple math: for every roughly 1 degree [change in Celsius] of global temperature, there’s something on the order of 10-20 meters of sea level up and down. And we are arguing today internationally if we should hold the line at 2 degrees. But you do the math. Your barrier around Manhattan is not going to cut it, certainly in that situation, and it’s really just a matter of time before sea level rises to the point where you’ve got to build another wall, then another wall, then you think ‘what have I got to do about this? Is this something I’m going to keep trying to fight against?’ It’s expensive.

Occasionally when I get together with people who work in this area we sort of kick around odd ideas about where the future’s going. One of the things that I sort of envisioned is – and I’m not Nostradamus – New York as a Venice-like city. Abandoning Manhattan is a really hard thing for us to do, economically and spiritually and morally and for all sorts of reasons. So what I think that we might end up doing is hardening the basements and hardening the first floors, and going to a city with boat traffic on the streets. The alternative is to abandon Manhattan. Eventually.

“Ultimately, sea level rise could be 30 feet or more higher than it is today.”


If you look at the amount of infrastructure in New York City, it is so large and so expensive that you could almost argue that moving NYC is not something to even contemplate. It’s a very slow death if you will, a very slow problem. I call it the long slow retreat. Every time you move back five meters, or say ten feet higher in sea level, and start rebuilding your cities there, eventually you’re going to lose that too. Ultimately, sea level rise could be 30 feet or more higher than it is today. Go outside on the street in [lower] Manhattan and you’re probably about 4-5 feet above sea level. Look up 25 feet, that’s where the water’s going to be, that’s 2 floors up.

How long do you think it’ll take to reach that level?

It’ll take hundreds of years. But that is also a challenge. Ponder this. What we’re doing today is obligating probably the next ten generations to deal with this problem. That’s a huge burden and a huge change in one generation’s obligation and treatment of the next generation. We’ve operated on this idea that what we do in this generation ought to leave the country and the planet better off than when we’ve found it because we want to leave our kids to do just as well if not better.

If I had to define the American Dream that would be it. But what we’re doing today is obligating many generations into the future with a financial burden, with an infrastructure burden, with a public burden that is not going to go away. It’s going to keep happening. Slowly, annoyingly happen.

I know that’s also the underlying principle of the Brundtland Commission with the United Nations – not just speaking as the ‘American Dream’ – to be able to preserve the planet for future generations.

My thinking on climate change has gone more towards ethics and morals than it ever has in the past. And certainly in the 1980’s it was not on my radar at all, but it is today. I think the core problems and actually the core solutions to sustainability and climate change all wrap around the issues of values. Intergenerational equity is a big part of this. What do we owe the next generation? I was born in the 1950’s and my generation will burn pretty much all of the oil and natural gas, and a good chunk of the coal, pretty much in one generation and leave the next 10-20 generations with the problems that come from that. The history books are not going to look too kindly on us.

You understand the problem. Anything that happens that slowly, something that keeps approaching, it’s very difficult to deal with politically. Because you have to have politicians who are willing to step out of the next 6-12 month election cycle and look at this as a long term problem. And that is not something that we do very well in our country, or in any country.

Icebergs float near Thurston Island, West Antarctica, 2014. (Photo courtesy NASA/GISS).
Icebergs calving from ice sheet off Thurston Island, West Antarctica, 2014. (Image credit: NASA/Jim Yungel). Short summaries of recent Antarctic findings are here and here.

Why is Antarctica specifically important to New York City?

Antarctica’s important because that’s where a lot of the most unstable land ice is. We call marine based ice sheets fundamentally unstable ice sheets. Much of the West Antarctica ice sheets and parts of East Antarctica are well below sea level, thousands of feet below. As sea level rises and waters warm, these systems destabilize and start shedding water into the ocean. And once they destabilize, we don’t know of the mechanism at which they re-stabilize, except to have the climate cool back off, land ice forms again and sea levels drop again. And that’s also a very long process.

What we’re worried about right now is, have we reached a point at which these marine based ice sheets have become unstable? They’re going to start shedding ice, and there’s really not much we can do to stop them. West Antarctica, for example, obligates us to several meters of sea level rise, parts of Greenland obligate us to a meter or two of sea level rise, and parts of East Antarctica to meters of sea level rise. We know it’s not just theory.

“Much above 600-800 ppm CO2, that’s when there is no land ice anymore.”


If you look at a plot of global temperatures versus sea level in the past, you can determine that for every degree of temperature change there’s about 20 meters of sea level change. You can actually see bumps and wiggles in that curve that tell you, OK, this is West Antarctica, this is probably Greenland. When you get really warm, East Antarctica melts, and that brings you up to about 80 meters of sea level rise.

One of the interesting observations that I think is fundamentally scary and that everybody ought to know is when you get much above 600-800 ppm CO2, that’s when there is no land ice anymore.

When we look at the record of the past it’s somewhere around 600-800 ppm when you start to melt off all of East Antarctica. And we’re at 400 ppm now. [The pre-industrial level was 280 ppm of CO2, and the recent increase in concentration has been graphed here.]

We haven’t even slowed down the growth of GHG in the United States, let alone decreased them. Last year we burned more fossil fuels than we ever have. First we’ve got to slow down, then you can start to talk about bringing the curve over. Until you slow that down, the odds of us turning this around before hitting 600 ppm are increasingly low without some serious understanding on the part of politicians and without some serious understanding on the part of people. And that 600-800 threshold is really interesting. Manhattan will not survive under 30-40 meters of sea level rise, it just simply won’t. Long Island won’t survive either.

When you talk about abrupt ice melt, is that something that you could picture happening soon, or more than 100 years in the future, or would that be something that is unknowable (much in the way that earthquakes are understood but unable to be predicted)?

It’s not unknowable. We just haven’t spent a whole lot of time, effort, and money in trying to understand just how fast these systems work. We know in looking into the past that a sea level rise of 3 meters in 100 years to 5 meters in 100 years is quite doable. Nature can do that, its done it before. We’re looking at something on the order of a meter in a hundred years, and the way I think about that is a foot every 30 years or so.

You buy a house or a property on the beach: One foot of sea level rise is going to be a real pain, but three feet of sea level rise is, even before you pay your mortgage off, your house is worthless. And that is a wakeup call. That is a social tipping point. So if we are looking are sea level rise rates of 3 feet in 30 years, or 1 foot in a decade, which nature is quite capable of, then you’re looking at something where you take your kids to the beach and it’s a different beach. Then it’s just so obvious. It’ so damaging from an economic point of view that you can’t get around this.

The NEEM ice core site, Greenland. (Photo: Tyler Jones, 2012)
The NEEM ice core site, where INSTAAR works with an international team studying Greenland’s past climate. (Photo: Tyler Jones, 2012)

Tell me about your upcoming trip to Greenland. What’s the main objective of the trip? And what specifically will you do?

We are drilling an ice core in East Greenland on a small ice cap. The eastern coast of Greenland is very mountainous and there is a mountaintop glacier, a little place called Renland. If you go to the middle of the ice sheet, and you take an ice core, we measure temperature change in a number of different ways with that ice core. But, one of the reasons temperature could change is because that ice sheet itself is either moving up or down. If the ice sheet grows and your location goes up into the atmosphere you actually get colder. That’s like going up in elevation.

That doesn’t happen on solid land because land doesn’t grow and shrink the way that ice grows and shrinks. If people get the importance of sea level rise, they would understand then that if you go to the middle of an ice sheet and you measure an ice core, one of the confounding factors is that the ice sheet itself can go up and down because that’s sea level going up and down [as water melts or freezes].

So when we go to these little coastal sites, they cannot go up and down very much because if they go up too much, ice just sheds off the plateau of this mountain. And so they can’t go up. And if they go down they disappear. So as long as the ice is there – and we can measure a whole bunch of things in there like GHG levels that tell us where we are in terms of [historical] time – then we can use those ice cores as a measure of a climate signal. Then what we see in the interior is a mixture of climate and elevation. That helps us address directly this issue of how fast and how far the sea level goes up and down because of Greenland. So it’s a strategy we can use in Antarctica and Greenland.

How many times have you gone on these types of expeditions?

I’ve been part of five ice cores in Greenland, and three now in Antarctica.

“There are three important things you need to know about sea level: how fast, how far, and how inevitable.”


Have any strange or interesting events taken place while doing these research trips?

(Laughs) Oh yeah, welcome to science. We stuck a drill one year, occasionally it happens. We were drilling and basically had to start over again at a place called NorthGRIP. That core was also interesting because we got to the bottom of the ice sheet and the drill suddenly shorted out, all the electronics went dead. Which isn’t hugely surprising when you think about it, because when you’re on top of an ice sheet ‘ground’ doesn’t really exist. When you actually hit ground all your electronics go kapluey. It’s a fundamental issue of using electronics on ice sheets. But in this case, when we pulled the drill out it was full of water, or frozen ice. We had hit liquid water down at the bottom of the ice sheet, unbeknownst to us there was liquid down there. It was full of bacteria. It was pink, mostly because of clay, but it was really weird pulling the drill up and there’s this pink icicle hanging onto the drill. We’ve learned that, particularly when you get to the bottom of the ice sheet, strange things can happen.

When you conduct these drills for research do you collaborate with other institutions/countries?

These are relatively expensive and we try to share the expense with a bunch of different countries. The project I’m working on now is co-funded by the U.S., by Denmark, and by Germany, roughly equally. We’re partners together, we write papers together, we do field work together. The folks who are up there right now are probably 30% each of us Danes, Americans and Germans. We do try to get Italian or French cooks, because we’re not dumb (laughs). We do have an excellent American cook this time around.

Europe is in general much more progressive with climate initiatives. Is it a challenge to keep up with research being based in the U.S. and not having as strong support?

It’s getting harder. Congress right now is talking about cutting funding to NSF, particularly the GEO Directorate, which is part of the America Competes Act, believe it or not.  I love the way they name these things. Yes, the bottom line is that our ability to participate in these international programs is constrained. Interestingly that doesn’t mean that people won’t drill ice cores, it just means the Americans won’t be involved. It means the Europeans will get the work. China is investing a lot of money into ice drilling. India is doing it as well. At a time when other countries around the world are getting interested in how the planet functions, the US, particularly this Congress, has been trying to find a way to put blinders on us and say ‘no we don’t need to know that.’ NOAA has the world’s largest network of monitoring the atmosphere. Not doing any attribution, just monitoring what’s going on up there. Since 2007 that monitoring network has been cut by 30%.

We are at a time when, particularly as the Arctic warms up…you probably know this: There’s as much carbon in permafrost as there is in oil, coal and natural gas put together. As the Arctic warms up, that carbon gets to thaw out and bacteria chew on it, decay it into CO2 and methane. We know that’s coming, but we’d like to know how fast that’s coming and be able to monitor that. We’re basically blinding ourselves to what’s going on out there.

By looking at the ice cores, can you determine what the weather patterns were in correlation to temperature and sea level? Were there more frequent or more severe storms in times of ice melt?

We can do that to a limited degree. What the ice core is going to give us is sort of the background picture. It will also tell you how much GHG is in the atmosphere because ice is the best repository for that. Ice is 10% air, so when we crush that ice core in a closed container we can get the air that was trapped 20,000 years ago or 50,000 years ago, or 100,000 years ago. Or 800,000 years ago for that matter. So what the ice core is going to do is give you the background information. It’s also going to tell you what the ice sheet is doing, which is a critical piece of information. Then what we do is we incorporate other paleoclimate techniques that are more local. For example in the New York area, we look at lake sediments and can look at ocean sediments off the coast of New York that can give us details about what was going on in that area as sea level was rising and as climate was changing. So that information’s available.

The cool thing about ice cores is that they pretty much tell you year-by-year information. The less-than-cool thing is they tell you what’s going on in Greenland and what’s going on in Antarctica, and we don’t live there. So while that information’s really important, we still want to look at tree rings, we want to look at lake sediments, we want to look at other archives of information. And there are some fantastic people up at Lamont-Doherty [Columbia University] who do that all the time.

(Photo: Courtesy James White)
(Photo: Courtesy James White)

How did you get started in this field?

When I was a graduate student I was looking around and trying to figure out problems I wanted to work on, that I thought would be of good scientific interest and also important problems, so I chose climate change and I chose the carbon cycle back in the 1980’s.

And I’ll be very honest with you, I thought that by the 2000’s or so we’d have a carbon policy. I thought these would not be interesting or exciting fields anymore; we would be dealing with them.

I think I got it right that they were interesting and important problems in the 1980’s, but I think I totally got it wrong about how stubborn we are as human beings in terms of dealing with the obvious. I’m still working on these problems.

What was it like working on climate change in the 80’s? It’s still a very taboo word today in many places, how was it then?

It wasn’t taboo, it just wasn’t really on people’s radar screens. Not very many people understood that human beings were causing climate change and that we would cause major climate changes in the future with a very high degree of predictability. We knew this in the 1980’s. The physics of greenhouse gases are pretty straightforward.

So, we knew in the 1980’s this was going to happen if we didn’t do anything about it. I think it just wasn’t something that the average person talked about.

Comparing research from the 1980’s and today, are most things consistent, or has the scale of severity and timeline changed considerably?

Well, we knew some things were going to happen. We are better with our predictions today. We’re not where we should be, in part because we don’t spend a whole lot of money on climate change. Some of the things that we knew were going to happen – like changes in precipitation patterns, like the ocean’s going to warm up – the physics is so straightforward that these are things we knew were going to happen ever since I can remember being in this field.

We just know these things better now, we have more predictability but we’re not where we want to be. For example, we would love to be able to tell you how fast sea level is going to rise, and what ultimate sea level rise will be and in what timeframe, and I’d love to give a curve over the next couple hundred years of what sea level rise will be, and here’s the bumps and wiggles in that curve, but we’re not there yet. I’d love to be able to tell you the inevitability of all this.

There’s three important things you need to know about sea level: how fast, how far – if it’s ten meters or 25 meters – these things make a difference, and how inevitable. We’re very much engaged in trying to understand the inevitability part right now. Once you get an ice sheet going, and shedding ice into the ocean, can you turn around and stop that?

If you cut back on GHG [greenhouse gas] production, or removed GHGs from the atmosphere, can you actually turn around and stop West Antarctica or parts of Greenland from shedding ice into the ocean? I think we’re getting better at this. At least we’re asking the right questions.

In terms of moving cities, or any low-lying  area, away from the coast, do you have ideas for what might be a good area to move to or what might not be an ideal location to move to, in terms of future drought or extreme weather?

I think the climate part of this is going to play itself out. The sea level rise part has more predictability. We know that by the end of this century the sea level’s going to be in the neighborhood of 3 feet, if not 5 feet higher.

Delaware was the first state in the union and they’ll also be the first state out as sea level rises. When there’s 20 feet of sea level, Delaware is gone. I tell people you can remember ultimate sea level rise if you remember First In, First Out. FIFO. Actually, here’s a cool kind of project. You can look around the eastern seaboard and you can see where the 80 meter sea level mark was. There’s actually an old beach line that you can see. That was established when the ocean was higher, when there wasn’t Antarctica 40-45 million years ago, and Greenland wasn’t ice. That created these topographic features that are old beach deposits. You can see them in South Carolina, North Carolina, you can’t see them in Delaware because that was all underwater then, but you can see them in New York State.

We built cities near the coast because that’s where ships came in, and we really populated the planet with ships. That’s not true anymore, we don’t populate the planet that way. While shipping is still very important, is it necessary to have your large population centers right on the coast? The answer’s no. You might want to think about going to a place that is safe for the long-term and rebuild our cities.

What would you recommend as good policy?

I don’t know the best policy prescription, but my best sense is that we’ll need geoengineering, we’ll need to be removing GHGs from the atmosphere, because at a 400 ppm world once the ocean warms up it’ll be a very different world and a very different climate. I don’t think we’re going to like it and I think we’re going to be removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The fundamental physics that I think people need to understand is: if you warm the surface of the planet, where does the heat go? And the answer is that it goes into the ocean. Water has most of the heat capacity, 90 something percent, air holds very little heat capacity.

“It takes water a long time to heat up. This is what creates the intergenerational inequity.”


The example I tell people to consider is this: put two pots on the stove, one with a couple of cups of water and one with no water. Put the heat up identically and walk away for a few minutes. When you come back and touch the pot with water it’ll be a little warmer but not that warm, not boiling yet. If you put your finger on the other one, and I remind people this is just a thought experiment, the hissing sound you’ll hear will be the end of your finger burning. So if you ask yourself why is that? Why is the one so much hotter when there’s equal energy going into them both? The answer is water has an enormous heat capacity. It takes water a long time to heat up. This is what creates the intergenerational inequity.

We have created the 400 ppm CO2, but we haven’t felt the 400 ppm CO2 climate. And we won’t have one for another 50 years or more, which is how long it takes the oceans to warm up. I just kind of shake my head when people say the atmosphere hasn’t really been warming up. The atmosphere is small, it’s less than 10% of all heat capacity. So with the atmosphere, while we live there and it’s important, it’s really the ocean that we care about. Here’s the downside to this. Once you take the 50-100 years to warm the ocean up, it’ll take the same amount of time to cool off if not longer. So you obligate future generations to climate change through this mechanism. That is a big problem that we’re not facing.

Do you do any of the research regarding changes in the ocean like pH and salinity due to added ice melt?

No, but I follow the pH argument very closely because I think it is really important for human beings. I’m interested in sustainability broadly and ocean ecosystems that are under threat by rapid acidification, and the word rapid is important here. We get a sizable chunk of our protein around the world from the ocean. Having ocean ecosystems rapidly changing –and seriously under threat of collapse – is very disconcerting. The problem here is speed and speed kills. The ocean’s acidifying much faster than it did in the last million years. Yes, the ocean did acidify over the past 40-50 million years at various times but the speed with which that happened was pretty slow. Normally carbon dioxide on our planet is regulated by very slow processes and human beings do not do things slowly. What took 60-100 million years to form we will get out of the ground and put back into the atmosphere in 100-200 years. It’s about a 40,000x faster process.

Do you have any preference for future energy sources?

I think ultimately solar is in our future for the very simple reason that there is no other form of energy that is abundant enough and sustainable enough. We can see the end of oil and natural gas. If we burned coal with the growth rate of 3% a year, which is roughly what we’re doing these days, 500 years of coal will last less than 100 years, because that growth rate kills you. The same thing with nuclear. You can basically burn your way through fissionable material that’s available on the planet in a far shorter period of time than you would like. Less than a hundred years. Eventually we have to go to sustainable forms of energy and eventually that has to be largely solar because that is where the energy is. All we’re doing today is arguing about how we get from where we are now to one day a largely solar society.

Any closing remarks?

To me, this is becoming more of a question of two things. One is simple physics. People need to understand simple physics like how greenhouse gases work and how the ocean’s going to rise if you raise the temperature of the planet. They need to understand the delays of the system – because if you live in a water planet it’s going to have long delays.

“My think­ing on cli­mate change has gone more towards ethics and morals than it ever has in the past.”


At the same time I think that values are going to end up playing the most important role here. Right now it’s all about economics. If you talk about any kind of a change somebody very quickly will say ‘does it hurt the economy.’ And I look right at them and say ‘you’re asking the wrong question.’ The economy can adapt. My values cannot adapt. Your values cannot adapt. There are core issues that we believe in that are going to basically make us feel like crap because we did it. Part of that is what we’re doing to our kids and grandkids and I can’t get around that. In the end that’s the roadblock that we’re going to run up against. What’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to dealing with the planet and dealing with our place on the planet.

I think this is something that should be talked about in elementary schools and is talked about there. I can tell you that the college kids today are way more savvy, they understand what’s going on and what’s happened. Fundamentally denialism has to have an endpoint as the ocean rises – what are you going to do, deny that Miami Beach is gone? I’m one hundred percent certain that they’re going to lose because physics is physics and there’s not a damn thing that you can do about it.

Do you see large scale change happening more as the younger generations come into power, in politics and in business? 

Probably. Unfortunately because of the delay in the system, what we do today matters. That’s the really agonizing part of this. We’re at a CO2 level that hasn’t been seen in the atmosphere for probably 3-5 million years. And by the time we get around to doing something about it we’ll be at CO2 levels even worse than that. And that delay in the system is extremely important. What it means is the time between when you think you have a problem and you have to solve that problem has shrunk now to almost nothing.


James White was among the first scientists to document abrupt climate change recorded in Greenland ice cores. He is the Director of INSTAAR, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he is Professor of Environmental Studies and of Geological Sciences. He received his Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from Columbia University in 1983. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

INSTAAR bio page with research areas

Dr. White graciously answered questions about ice, climate, and his research via NOVA/Extreme Ice in 2009.

Below, take a tour of the NEEM Greenland ice core facility, in a video made by Tyler Jones:

James White spoke at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in December, 2014. Discussion of NYC at 33:23:


Lead image of Manhattan tweeted from space by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, May 2014

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