Bert Bolin: Meteorologist and first chair of the IPCC who cajoled the world into action on climate change


Bert Richard Johannes Bolin, meteorologist: born Nykoping, Sweden 15 May 1925; Professor of Meteorology, Stockholm University 1961-90; Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1988-97; married Ulla Frykstrand (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1979); died Stockholm 30 December 2007.

The Swedish meteorologist Bert Bolin was one of the giants of the climate-change debate. For 30 years he, more than any other individual, made sense of the rising tide of research emerging from weather observations and computer models, and cajoled a reluctant world into recognising the urgency of the issue.

Between 1988 and 1997, Bolin chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These were the years of the IPCC's most crucial work, establishing a broad scientific consensus for political action, and many believe Bolin, more than the panel's current leading lights, deserved the Nobel prize that it won last month.

Bert Bolin was born in Nykoping, Sweden, in 1925. An early academic high-flier, he swiftly joined a long tradition of world-renowned Swedish meteorologists. In the 1950s, he had already earned a reputation as a pioneer in using computers to predict the weather. But by the end of the decade he had found his true role by being one of the first scientists to recognise the importance to future climate of new findings about rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Bolin turned himself into an expert on the carbon cycle and the influence of industrial emissions of carbon dioxide on climate. From 1961, when he became Professor of Meteorology at Stockholm University, his influence grew.

The historian of global warming Spencer Weart says Bolin uniquely combined "scientific savvy with an unusual ability to communicate and inspire people, developing outstanding diplomatic skills" that came to the fore at the IPCC. Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences at Princeton University, this week called him a "scientific statesman".

Bolin was a leading figure at the now-legendary meeting of scientists who discussed the future threat from climate change, held at Villach in Austria in 1985. More than any other participant, it was he who had responsibility for turning the conference's findings which went unreported in the press at the time into a manifesto for global action. He wrote the 500-page report, which warned that "in the first half of the next century, a rise in global mean temperatures could occur which is greater than any in man's history", and called for a "global convention" to prevent it. And he persuaded the UN Environment Programme's then director Mostafa Tolba to adopt its conclusions.

The meeting proved a catalyst, resulting in the formation by the UN in 1988 of the IPCC. It was charged with advising the world on the science of climate change, and Bolin became its first chairman. The IPCC's first report, published in 1990, resulted in an agreement two years later at the Earth Summit in Rio, of a UN Climate Change Convention, out of which the Kyoto Protocol emerged.

The 1992 Climate Change Convention pledged countries to prevent "dangerous" climate change. Under Bolin, the IPCC was often criticised for refusing to define what dangerous might be. Bolin insisted that was a political rather than a scientific judgement. "It is a danger every time the IPCC meets that the politics will dominate," he once said.

But he had his own views. In 1997 he was one of the first climate scientists to suggest that a maximum carbon dioxide concentration in the air of 450 parts per million might be a safe limit. In saying that, he undermined a consensus at the time that 550 ppm (twice pre-industrial levels) would be good enough. He has been proved right. At the Bali climate conference last month, where governments began talks on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, there was near-universal consensus that it would be dangerous to go beyond Bolin's 450 ppm target.

Bolin always worked hard at the IPCC to establish a broad scientific consensus by bringing in researchers with divergent views, even outright climate sceptics. But that was never an excuse for sitting on the fence. As early as 1991, he was chastising politicians for refusing to face up to the science, and accusing them of exploiting difference on detail within the scientific community to excuse inaction.

"What we know now is sufficient for action now," he said that year. "There is no excuse for politicians if they wait until all the scientific debate is over before acting. It is better to be roughly right now, rather than precisely right later."

Always modest and quietly spoken, Bolin was at his best as an interpreter of the significance of new science. He was among the first climate scientists to realise, back in the 1970s, that smogs and sulphate pollution from acid rain could be masking the impact of global warming by cooling parts of the planet. And as editor of the small scientific journal Tellus, he was, in 1974, the first academic to publish James Lovelock's then heretical views on Gaia the notion of life on Earth regulating the environment to its own advantage.

Bolin, who continued to live in Sweden, accumulated numerous awards and held a range of other posts, including scientific director of the European Space Agency. His last project was to complete a book, A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change. Published in November 2007, it is a narrative that in part amounts almost to autobiography such was Bolin's influence on the subject.

Fred Pearce

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape