Robert M. White of Bethesda talks about the climate of the next century, with the eloquence of a practiced speaker, the immediacy of this morning's weather report and an urgency that underscores the many years he has spent as a leading American meteorologist.
The brother of author Theodore H. White, who has won renown for charting the climate of American presidential politics, Robert White was honored last week with the International Meteorological Organization Prize.
"It's like a Pulitzer for meteorologist," explained an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. government agency White helped found and headed from 1970 to 1977.
The award from the Geneva-based United Nations agency is the latest of many honors bestowed on White in a long career. He has been Chief of the Weather Bureau; head of NOAA and its predecessor agency, the Environmental Science Services Administration, and the U.S. commissioner to the International Whaling Commission.
At 57, he is president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a consortium of 48 universities.
White looks very much like his famous brother. "Everyone seems to notice," White said. "He'll appear on TV and I'll come to work and everyone will say, 'My God, you really do look like him.' It extends to not only physical likeness but apparently our manner of speech, and some of our mannerisms are very similar."
Of the four children in the family, the two brothers were particularly close. "Our father died when I was only 8 years old. Teddy was 16. He essentially was the closest thing I had to a father. His attitude toward me and my attitude toward him were very much like father and son. So it was a very close relationship."
But his brother went directly to China from Harvard in 1938, and geographical distances separated the family.
White has lived in the Woodhaven-section of Bethesda with his wife, Mavis, since President John F. Kennedy called him to Washington 17 years ago to be Chief of the Weather Bureau. He has a daughter, Nina, now a senior at Harvard and a son, Richard, who works on the economics of inland-barge travel for the Maritime Administration.
A summer job after his freshman year at Harvard led White into meteorology. Prof. Charles Franklin Brooks asked the young student in his meteorology class if he wanted summer work taking the hourly weather observations at Boston's Great Blue Hill Observatory.
"I was desperately in need of a summer job," said White, who later won the American Meteorological Society's Charles Franklin Brooks Award. But in college, meterology was just something he enjoyed casually. He still intended to become a geologist.
"Then the Second World War came along and what the government was looking for was not geologist but meteorologists. They needed weather officers," he said.
And except for a two-year stint as a reporter for Fairchild Publications in Boston, covering the wool industry and men's-wear marketing industry, White has worked as a scientist and administrator as the forefront of advances in U.S. weather services.
White talked about his work and his scientific worries in an interview in the newly opened UCAR office in Washington.
An example of the kind of science-public policy problem that fascinates him, White said, is the effect on the earth's temperature and climate of the fuels the United States puts in its power plants.
"Any reasonable scenario for the use of fossil fuels, given reasonable rates of increase of energy usage in the world, indicates that we could bring about a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the middle of the next century," he said.
"That would amount to an increase in the earth's temperature of between 2 and 4 degrees centigrade," he added.
"There would be important consequences in terms of changing rainfall patterns, duration of growing seasons, that would have substantial social and economic repercussions.
"Here is a fundamental problem of the consequences of changing the composition of the atmosphere . . . ," White continued.
"If it turns out, for example, that by burning fossil fuel at a very rapid rate you're going to bring about climatic consequences that are unacceptable, then you're faced with a dilemma. Society has to judge whether those consequences are acceptable or not.
"Whatever the course society decides to take ought to be as well-informed as it possibly can (be) about the consequences of choosing one course or another," White said.