Obituary: Dr. Burt Bolin, Pioneer Climate Scientist

“The greatest disturbances of which we are aware are
those now being introduced by man himself. Since his
tampering with the biological and geochemical balances
may ultimately prove injurious — even fatal — to himself,
he must understand them better than today.”

Bert Bolin. “The Carbon Cycle.”
Scientific American, September 1970

Vol 451
7 February 2008

Bert Bolin (1925-2008)
Pioneering climate scientist and communicator.

As the first chair of the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC), and one of the first
scientists to understand the environmental impact
of carbon dioxide produced by human activities,
Bert Bolin left an indelible mark. A pioneer of
climate science, he died in Stockholm on 30
December 2007, aged 82.

Bolin was born in Nyköping, Sweden, on 15 May
1925. He completed his PhD at the University of
Stockholm in 1956, and was within five years
professor of meteorology there – a post he held
until his retirement in 1990. During that time,
he published more than 160 papers related to the
meteorology and chemistry of the atmosphere,
contributing to an improved understanding of
numerical weather models and acid deposition.

As early as the 1950s, Bolin started to study the
natural carbon cycle. His fundamental research
advanced our understanding of the fate and
transformations of carbon dioxide, not only in
the atmosphere, but also in the oceans and in the
terrestrial biosphere. He was among the first
scientists to recognize the significance of
changes in ecosystems for atmospheric carbon
dioxide, and that deforestation in particular was
contributing to the observed increase. He was
also one of the first to go public with his
concerns: in May 1959, he travelled to Washington
DC to warn the National Academy of Sciences that
a 25% increase in carbon dioxide in Earth’s
atmosphere by the end of the century could have
serious consequences for the temperature of the

Bolin rapidly acquired a reputation as an eminent
organizer and leader of cross-border scientific
collaborations. In 1963, he became involved in
setting up an international effort to study the
general circulation of the atmosphere. This work
led to the formation of the International Council
for Science’s (ICSU’s) committee on atmospheric
sciences in 1964, of which Bolin became the first
chair. That committee’s work resulted in the
establishment three years later, by ICSU and the
World Meteorological Organization, of the Global
Atmospheric Research Program – GARP.

The timing of this move was especially
significant: the availability of the first
information on Earth from space was exciting
meteorologists across the world, owing to the
unprecedented opportunity it offered to study the
atmosphere as a whole. This ambitious goal was
supported by the rapidly growing potential of
computers to perform large-scale modelling. Bolin
chaired GARP from 1968 to 1971, bringing together
scientists from around the world at the height of
the cold war. Under his aegis, GARP became an
acclaimed international research programme that
contributed much to our understanding of weather
and climate.

In 1983, Bolin began a project supported by the
United Nations Environment Programme to explore
the links between the physical climate system and
global ecosystems. The result was the foundation,
under the auspices of ICSU, of the International
Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, which brought
about a new level of integration between
physical, chemical and biological perspectives of
the global ecosystem. Bolin’s particular insight
was to comprehend the magnitude of the problems
faced by the scientific community in working
across disciplinary boundaries, as well as to
envisage how these problems might be solved.

These were qualities that served him well in the
role for which he will undoubtedly be best
remembered – as the first chair of the IPCC, from
1988 to 1998. His reputation as a brilliant and
honest scientist, who listened to and respected
diverse views, attracted the best and the
brightest of the scientific community to the
IPCC, and the fledgling panel rapidly gained the
attention of the politicians to whom its reports
were addressed. Bolin’s quiet, soft-spoken style
earned him the trust and respect not just of
government officials who already recognized the
threat of human-induced climate change, but also
of those who vehemently challenged the idea that
Earth’s climate was even changing, let alone
whether humans were involved. These same ‘soft’
skills helped him nurture talent in his own
research team in Stockholm, where he was a mentor
to many young researchers who have since become
leading climate scientists.

Rarely does a single individual change the world,
but Bolin’s work as a scientist, as an organizer
of major international research programmes and as
leader of the IPCC has certainly changed the way
we think about the world. That we are now aware
of the potentially catastrophic impact of human
activities on Earth’s climate, and of the need to
make the transition to a low-carbon economy and
to protect our natural forests, is in no small
part down to him.

Without his leadership of the IPCC, the 1992 Rio
de Janeiro Framework Convention on Climate Change
and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol would have taken
longer to negotiate. His vision was central to
all of the achievements for which the IPCC was
jointly awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along
with the former US vice-president Al Gore. Bolin
was by then too ill to attend the ceremony but,
as Gore wrote to him: “Bert, without you we would
not have come to where we are today.”

Brilliant yet humble, Bert Bolin was an excellent
communicator, a leader despite his natural
shyness, and one who always gave credit to others
rather than to himself. A world-class scientist,
a man of great integrity, a great organizer and
an inveterate optimist, he was above all a nice
guy who just enjoyed singing in his choir at home
in Sweden. Isaac Newton famously said that we in
science all stand on the shoulders of giants. For
those of us who knew and worked with Bert at the
IPCC, he above all was the giant upon whose
shoulders we stood.
Bob Watson was Bert Bolin’s successor as chair of
the IPCC. He is currently at the University of
East Anglia, Norwich, UK, and is chief scientific
adviser to the Department for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square,
London SW1P 3JR, UK


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