By Michael J. Weiss
October 08, 1979 12:00 PM

If Gordon MacDonald is wrong, they’ll laugh, otherwise, they’ll gurgle

The scenario reads like an Irwin Allen disaster movie. Early in the 21st century, carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere thickens ominously. The CO2 admits sunlight but prevents escape of heat from the planet’s surface, creating a situation known as the “greenhouse effect.” Average temperatures increase, from 3 to 20°F, melting ice at the poles. Oceans rise everywhere by perhaps 20 feet, inundating coastal cities. Some 25 percent of the world’s population must flee to higher ground. Food shortages follow. All is chaos.

Purveyor of this doomsday theory—the man Charlton Heston would play in the movie—is Gordon MacDonald, 50, a geology and environmental sciences professor at Dartmouth. Researchers have long worried about the effects of carbon dioxide produced by burning oil, gas and coal. MacDonald says the Carter administration’s proposal to develop synthetic fuels by converting coal into oil and gas involves a process that will dramatically increase the CO2 level. With synfuels, atmospheric carbon dioxide could double by 2020, MacDonald predicts. As a result, new temperature patterns could begin to change the weather all over the globe by 1990.

“The Adirondacks and New England might not get snow,” he predicts. “In Washington, summer highs will jump from the 90s to the 100s. Some leafy plants like corn and sugar beets will benefit from increased photosynthesis, but you’ll see a 30- to 40-percent drop in wheat production. That’s because the latitudes suitable for wheat will move north, where the land lacks nutrients to support intensive agriculture.”

MacDonald has taken his concern to Congress as well as to the scientific community, and he has credentials in both. At 32, he was one of the youngest members ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1962. His résumé lists 134 published articles, plus 10 major lecture series. He has also been an adviser to Presidents Eisenhower (on space exploration), Kennedy (weather), Johnson (ocean pollution), Nixon (coal), Ford (technology exchange) and Carter (national security). “Nixon,” MacDonald remembers, “would say he had three summa cum laudes from the Harvard class of 1950: Jim Schlesinger, Henry Kissinger and me.” (At the National Academy of Sciences in 1963 MacDonald first ran across statistics relating climate to CO2; since the late 1950s carbon dioxide is up to 10 percent in the atmosphere, but because the ocean is still absorbing it, no real temperature changes have occurred.)

The greenhouse theory continues to be the subject of heated debate. Some scientists contend the oceans will never become so saturated with CO2 that the climate is affected. Dan Dreyfus, staff director of the Senate Energy Committee, dismisses MacDonald’s fears by more or less dismissing him. “He’s a generalist,” Dreyfus says. “Carbon dioxide is not the only thing he’s interested in, and it’s a very complicated geophysical problem. I don’t think anyone can definitely say what effect increased CO2 will have on the climate.” Yet in July, when MacDonald and other scientists reported on CO2 to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, the council called it “an extremely important, perhaps historic, statement.”

As an alternative to synthetic fuels, MacDonald suggests a mix of solar energy, fusion, natural gas and biomass (mostly alcohol-based fuels made from converting trees, sugarcane and other plants). He prefers natural gas, which produces little carbon dioxide. He’s lobbying for it while on leave from Dartmouth to work as chief scientist at the MITRE Corporation, a goverment-funded Washington think tank.

MacDonald grew up in Mexico City, the son of a British mining executive and an American embassy clerk. He became a U.S. citizen in 1955 and taught at UCLA and California (Santa Barbara) before moving to Dartmouth in 1972. His first marriage ended in divorce. He has three children by his second wife, who died of cancer; he has a son with his third wife.

With CO2, MacDonald is of course presenting the worst case scenario with great flair. “He isn’t the usual ass-covering bureaucrat,” an Energy Committee staffer marveled after MacDonald testified against the Carter synfuel proposal. “He provided quite a show.” MacDonald realizes that if he is wrong, his warnings will sound ridiculous. If not, world catastrophe will result—”not 200 years from now but within our lifetime.”