This week we noted a sad milestone – the first time that the global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm). It had previously hit this mark at individual stations, including the famed observatory at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The figure of 400 ppm has no particular physical significance, but it is symbolic of humanity’s continued failure to control climate change. To put this figure in perspective, in 1850 the concentration was about 280 ppm, its “preindustrial” value. To limit global warming to 2oC, a widely cited but probably inadequate policy goal, we must limit atmospheric CO2 to no more than about 450 ppm. It is unlikely, however, that we’ll stop emitting CO2 soon enough to do that; at the current rate that humans are adding CO2 to the atmosphere, it would take only 20 or 25 more years to surpass that limit.
This is why the work WHRC is doing to develop and implement ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is so important. We simply won’t be able to limit climate change to a tolerable level without it. As I’ve mentioned before, the Center – in partnership with policy and aid organizations – is working to both remove CO2 from the atmosphere via reforestation, and to objectively measure progress in doing this using data from satellites.
While our work has never been more necessary, more visible, or more scientifically avant-garde, it has also never been more difficult to support. For our first 31 years, WHRC successfully supported itself primarily via government research grants. Like all institutions that engage in scientific research, however, we are pressured by the increasing difficulty of obtaining these grants, and their shrinking size. The National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, for example, reports that the average success rate for grant applications decreased from 17% in 2007 to 7.6% in 2015. Compounding this, the average amount of principal investigator time funded by successful proposals decreased from 1.7 months in 2002 to 0.8 months in 2014 (for NSF as a whole). With these statistics, an average scientist would have to write 180 proposals to fund him/herself for 11 months, which is what we ask our scientists to do every year. (In the 12th month they are supported by WHRC for the purpose of writing proposals.) If you’re asking yourself how any human being could write 180 proposals in a year, much less in a month, you understand why we need to transition to a long-term funding model that relies less on scientist-driven government research funding.
We are gratified by increasing interest in our work on the part of philanthropic foundations, but most of these funders require us to contribute matching funds, typically 30-40% of the amount they provide. We are rapidly approaching the point of being unable to accept further foundation funding because, quite literally, we can’t afford to take the money! Needless to say, this something I would hate to have to do. Contributions from individual donors, therefore, allow us to accept additional foundation support, and the benefit of these donations is immediately multiplied.
For these reasons and others, we rely increasingly on the support of our loyal friends and followers. This support is especially important to us because, unlike research universities, we are not funded by student tuition, and we don’t have a “built-in” base of alums. Because we are a small organization, every contribution makes a difference to us. If you value our work, please consider helping to continue it.
As always, thanks for your interest and support.