A Conversation with James “Jim” McCarthy

Why Knowledge is No Longer Enough and the Importance of Science Communication
July 2019

“Science has an important role today. Far more important for the future of civilization than I think it’s had at anytime prior to this moment.”

Dr. James (Jim) McCarthy, is a marine ecologist that has had an interdisciplinary career across environmental science and policy. Winning the Tyler Prize in 2018 and currently the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University, McCarthy has fostered and led cooperative efforts among scientific disciplines to forge new, global-scale perspectives on environmental change. He has been at the forefront of synthesizing scientific knowledge about these transformations, translating science into climate policy. Furthermore, he has written for and been co-chair on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2001 assessment on the impacts of and vulnerabilities to climate change,  and continues to dedicate himself to producing and promoting the clear and effective communication of science for broader audiences.

Dr. James McCarthy

Dr. James McCarthy, Photo by Christopher Michel

What is currently happening in your life right now?

I’m currently right at the end of my academic career. I have one more year in my professorship at Harvard, and I will be retired just a year from now. I’m spending this time preparing a textbook with a colleague that we’ve been working on for a few years. It’s an endeavor that has sprung from a course that we began teaching a little over a decade ago. He’s a terrestrial ecologist, and, of course, my expertise is in the marine realm, so we designed a course that we call Global Change Biology. We’ve been teaching that course here at Harvard and are now are working on a textbook that follows that same general template.

What is this textbook about and why is it so important to teach?

We look back very superficially over the last odd 100,000 years of Earth’s history, focusing on how climate, ocean, and biology has all changed. Then we move forward to the last 20,000 years, where coming out of the Ice Age brings dramatic changes, including the onset of the warming period.

The main focus, and where we look really intensely, is at the last 200 years. This is the period where human population has soared and we’ve seen massive transformations of land and ocean over that period of time. A lot of it due to the development of agriculture on land. The need for food to feed the world population, the need for fuel, the need for fiber. Plus the changing ocean ecosystems, as a direct result from unsustainable fishing and human interaction. It’s important that people are aware of this, because only once we understand what has happened in context, can we create real and tangible solutions.

What do you think is the future for humans 100 years from now?

Well, we have a pretty good idea as to how the Earth’s system works. That is the interactive parts of the climate, the atmosphere, the ocean, the biosphere, and the generation and consumption of these greenhouse gases by organisms in the soil, in the ocean. What we don’t have a good idea about is how humans are going to use this information.

It’s always been important to understand and take advantage of the advances in science. It led to technologies that brought humans out of poverty, cured diseases, made the longevity of humans what it is today because of better workplace conditions, better maternal health, better child health, cleaner water, cleaner air and so on. But the vision that led to those improvements were usually in the hands of a few people.

Occasionally the public will get riled up about something and create change. But today we had a very different situation where scientists are telling us that all of human society must act in an aggressive way over the next few decades to slow the rate of change. The climate is changing now more rapidly than ever before. Changing more than 10 times, maybe a 100 times faster than it ever did in the past, which means that you cannot adjust without enormous disruption.

A great example is sea level rise. When a sea level rise of one meter occurs over a thousand years, it’s hardly noticeable. Over a hundred years, it’s extremely disruptive. That’s the sort of change we’re seeing. The sea level could rise by one meter or more by the time my granddaughters are my age, and that’s a really startling realization.

So the future is not simply about how these natural processes unfold. The bigger sense is what humans will do. I think that’s a sort of really interesting moment in science right now where scientists have always observed, experimented, modeled and published papers to better understand the world around us. But now, we need to be at the forefront of making sure that information is communicated and available in such a way that actually leads solutions. Knowledge is not enough anymore, we need to ensure that the knowledge is being used.

We need to point towards solutions that the public can embrace and support in every way, from our political leadership to our financial investments, to slow the rate of change. Otherwise, humanity will be faced with an enormous disruption in all facets of society in the decades that will unfold within this century.

What can we, as a society, do to help reduce carbon?

There’s no vaccination, there’s no single invention. It’s a multifaceted problem. It ranges from all of our uses of energy and realizing that for many of them, there are ready substitutes that don’t have the same impact. For the U.S. it’s renewable energy, and if it hadn’t been for the investments made by the Obama Administration to get us moving on that, we wouldn’t be where we are today. No one 10 years ago would’ve guessed that today the state of Iowa would be getting almost 40% of its electricity from wind.

You see that this is being done because it’s cost effective. Because these investments by the administration through the Department of Energy,  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), brought the cost of these innovations down. Batteries are more efficient and costing less. Solar is more efficient and costing less. Wind is more efficient and costing less. We can now generate, store and distribute electricity from renewable energy easily.

We need to consider all of our activities, from the personal up to through to corporate, and shift our behavior and actually consider the consequences of our actions. On a worldly level, not just as an individual.

It’s important for us to be optimistic and focus on what we’re doing right as a society, so what is something that you find encouraging?

It’s really encouraging to see for the first time, two things. Over the last couple years, there’s been a strong interest in climate change from the youth movement. We’ve never had that before. Secondly, we’ve never had a run up to a major primary with so many candidates talking about climate change.

However, climate change is not something that’s going to be the just the territory of the Democratic party. We’re now seeing a lot of Republican candidates express interest in advancing our nations’ commitment to climate change. Which makes sense, because it’s good for business. It’s only the fossil fuel business that is weakened by these breakthroughs in renewables. But we can’t forget that they’re powerful, have a lot of money and will fight it to their death, and we have to be prepared for that and work together to confront it.

Which audiences should scientists focus on spreading awareness about climate change?

Many scientists have been involved in helping the business community see opportunities to develop their business and investments while simultaneously helping the Earth. At then end of the day, businesses aren’t going to spend money where they don’t have to. So companies like Amazon, Walmart and Google have these big facilities where they invest more in wind and solar energy, because it makes more fiscal sense. They know it’s cheaper now, and they get a positive reaction from their consumers for taking action.

However, I think working at the public level is also really important. This is where we’re going to change the minds of people who are elected to office and serve in our state houses. A big challenge for scientists today, is that we have to do more than just write papers. We’ve got to share this information we’ve got to share it in such a way, that people, all people and not just scientists, understand why it’s important. We have to share it in a way in which people can use it to influence decisions. Decisions at all levels, whether they’re corporate heads, politicians, or individuals considering their utility options or next car.

What did it mean for you to win the Tyler Prize?

It’s hard to describe because it came as a big surprise. It’s such a distinct honor and nothing else that I’ve been honored for stands out like the Tyler Prize. Looking over the list of prior recipients, it’s a who’s who of all my heroes. Just to be in their company, it’s an awesome thing. I’m just enormously grateful to the committee and the whole process that they considered me to be of the same caliber of these very, very distinguished people. It’s just a terrific honor and I’m forever grateful.

July 2019

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Continue Reading

2018 Tyler Laureates

Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

The Earth’s climate influences most biological, physical, and chemical processes that support life on this planet. Paul G. Falkowski and James J.McCarthy were among the first to show how climate change interacts with these life-supporting processes that will determine the future for life on Earth.

Paul G. Falkowski is recognized for his fundamental contributions to our understanding of Earth’s geochemical processes, the flow of nutrients across land, ocean, and atmosphere, and how human activity impacts the Earth’s climate.

His pioneering research and invention of novel instrumentation has allowed a greater understanding of the biological mechanisms controlling nutrient flow and the timescale upon which biogeochemical cycles operate. This fundamental understanding has improved our capacity to accurately measure the impact of human activity upon these cycles.

James J. McCarthy is recognized for his pioneering research on marine nutrient cycles, his significant additions to our understanding of human activity on Earth’s climate, and his contributions to informed policy discussions on climate change.

His service to organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme, as well as his authorship of the Arctic Climate and Northeast Climate Impact assessments, have uniquely informed and shaped the international discourse on environmental science policy.


Paul Falkowski, 2018

Paul Falkowski, Photo by: Jon Black Photography

Dr. Paul G. Falkowski

One of the world’s greatest pioneers in the field of biological oceanography, Dr. Paul Falkowski is a distinguished professor in the Departments of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University.

Focusing primarily on phytoplankton, coral, and the primary production of aquatic organisms, Dr. Falkowski studies the biophysical processes controlling ocean productivity, especially the roles of the nitrogen and iron cycles in ocean biogeochemistry and climate.

The knowledge that climate strongly influences the distribution and diversity of all animals and plants has been historically clear, but its effect on microbial communities were poorly understood. In the 1970s, Dr. Falkowski was among the first scientists to observe this chain of linked processes at the source of all life’s origin– our oceans– that now informs predictions about how phytoplankton communities will change in the future and impact global climate.

In the evolution of Earth, Dr. Falkowski’s research has been influential in identifying how microbes became a major force in transforming this planet to make it habitable for animals, including humans. His research observes how electron transfer reactions are mediated throughout our planet and have changed its geochemistry over time. Over the course of his 42-year career, Dr. Falkowski has published over 300 papers in leading peer-reviewed journals, edited and authored 6 books, and advised more than 100 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and visiting scientists at Rutgers University, internationally known as a top-tier academic research institution in the field of biological Oceanography.

Having received his undergraduate degree in biology from the City College of New York, in 1975, Dr. Falkowski emigrated to Canada and obtained a PhD in Biology and Oceanography from the University of British Columbia. Faced with the prospect of working in a medical school in Canada, or going to sea as an oceanographer, Dr. Falkowski chose the latter and completed his postdoctoral research at the University of Rhode Island. Following his postdoctoral work, in 1976 he was hired at the Brookhaven National Laboratory as a staff scientist in the newly formed Oceanographic and Atmospheric Sciences Division, where he developed the field of environmental biophysics. Since then, he participated in over 45 cruise expeditions to regions including the subtropical Atlantic, Antarctica, and the Black Sea.

In 1998, Dr. Falkowski moved this research group to Rutgers University where he now holds tenure as the Bennett L. Smith Chair in Business and Natural Resources, and is the founding director of the Rutgers Energy Institute.


James McCarthy, 2018

James McCarthy, Photo by: Jon Black Photography

Dr. James J. McCarthy

Throughout his long and remarkable career in interdisciplinary environmental science and policy, marine ecologist Dr. James J. McCarthy, the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University, has fostered and led cooperative efforts among scientific disciplines to forge new, global-scale perspectives on environmental change.

With faculty appointments in the departments of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Earth & Planetary Sciences, Dr. McCarthy has investigated marine ecology and the effects of climate change in the world’s oceans, with a particular focus on the nitrogen cycle. He and his students working at sea and in the laboratory have generated new insights into the effects of climate on biological systems, including how climate affects the production of plankton and the marine organisms that consume plankton.

In his over 47 years within the field of biological oceanography, Dr. McCarthy has been at the forefront of synthesizing scientific knowledge about these transformations, translating this science into climate policy. Dr. McCarthy contributed as an author and expert reviewer to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the foremost international scientific body assessing the causes and impacts of climate change. He was co-chair in the IPCC’s 2001 assessment on the impacts of and vulnerabilities to climate change, and later was a lead author of the seminal Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2004.

Dr. McCarthy’s efforts to communicate the risks of climate change in novel, clear and compelling ways became an international standard in science policy. Dr. McCarthy is an emeritus chair of the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also served as the initial chair of the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme.

Dr. McCarthy received his undergraduate degree in biology from Gonzaga University, and his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. At Harvard University, Dr. McCarthy was instrumental in creating the institution’s undergraduate degree program in Environmental Science and Public Policy, and he directed Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology from 1982 to 2002. He continues to teach ocean science and advise students.

2018 Tyler Prize History and Laureate Bios

2018 Tyler Prize – Press Release – English

2018 Tyler Prize – Press Release – Spanish

2018 Tyler Prize – Press Release – French



2018 Media Articles

America Adapts – The Climate Change Podcast by Doug Parsons, May 2, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

TriplePundit, May 2, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

The Press of Atlantic City, May 2, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski

Eureka Alert | AAAS – May 2, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

Public Radio International, April 22, 2018 – James J. McCarthy

Albany Democrat-Herald, March 17, 2018 – James J. McCarthy

The New Era, March 14 – James J. McCarthy

The Spokesman-Review, March 14 – James J. McCarthy

The Harvard Gazette, February 28, 2018 – James J. McCarthy

City College of New York, February 23 – Paul G. Falkowski

Harvard University Environmental Science and Public Policy, February 22 – James J. McCarthy

Union of Concerned Scientists, February 22, 2018 – James J. McCarthy

Eos, February 7, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

AAAS, February 6, 2018 – James J. McCarthy

Eureka Alert | AAAS – February 6, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

Gonzaga University, February 6, 2018 – James J. McCarthy

Humanitarian News, February 6, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

Mongabay, February 6, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

Odyssey, February 6, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski and James J. McCarthy

Rutgers University, February 6, 2018 – Paul G. Falkowski


2018 Laureate Media

YouTube Video – 2018 Tyler Prize Laureates: Paul G. Falkowski & James J. McCarthy

1992 Tyler Laureates

Perry L. McCarty and Robert M. White

Perry L. McCarty, 1992

Perry L. McCarty is one of the world’s leading environmental engineers, he created a scientific approach for the biological treatment of water for purification, wastewater reclamation and groundwater treatment that is used worldwide. He pioneered scientific principles for anaerobic digestion in wastewater treatment and contaminant control in aquifers.

Perry L. McCarty, Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil Engineering at Stanford University, is honored as the world’s leading environmental engineer working to protect the Earth’s water resources. His outstanding research contributions have formed the basis for significant improvements in water quality, wastewater treatment and reclamation, and groundwater decontamination.

Dr. McCarty’s record of initiating new lines of inquiry has more than once defined a new subarea of environmental problem analysis. His investigations in biochemistry, microbiology and organic chemistry are astonishing in their breadth and ingenuity of experimental verification; and they have stood the test of time.

Scientific principles and innovative microbiological processes developed by Dr. McCarty established anaerobic digestion as a reliable, costeffective, energyproducing alternative for wastewater treatment. His unified theory for biological treatment is used widely as the basis for the design and operation of waste treatment throughout the world.

In the mid1960s, Dr. McCarty applied thermo dynamics to estimate maximum yields and growth rates in microbial systems. This work provided a scientific base for limits on synthesis and growth rates of a wide variety of processes involving microorganisms, including iron and manganese oxidation, nitrate and sulfate reduction, nitrogen fixation and methane fermentation. These insights are used extensively by environmental biologists, chemists, and engineers in the study of biological processes in natural environments. McCarty’s scholarship has changed fundamentally our concepts of the rates at which biological processes take place and modem environmental engineering technology derives largely from this work.

These achievements were accomplished with systems in which microorganisms were grown in suspension. Dr. McCarty turned to the theoretical aspects of microbial growth attached to solid surfaces and attained a coherent concept for growth in attached bacterial films. This revolutionary concept created a new direction of research in environmental engineering; and biofilm processes are the basis for stateoftheart waste treatment technology today.

The provision of clean drinking water will, in the viewof many, be a major preoccupation of the 1990s. Water supplies are becoming increasingly polluted, heightening concern for human health. The EPA’s Superfund program has located more than a thousand severely polluted sites nationwide, bearing testimony to the need for research breakthroughs.

Dr. McCarty has devoted himself to improving the understanding the behavior of organic contaminants in soils and ground water. He discovered that many manmade chemicals thought to persist in the environment for decades were in fact disappearing through the action of microorganisms; and he realized that microorganisms with unique chemicaldegrading abilities do exist in soils and groundwater, and sometimes at great depths. Efforts to better understand the actions of these organisms and to use them in engineered processes are now underway. Dr. McCarty has made seminal contributions to the knowledge of contaminant behavior in groundwater aquifers and sediments by developing concepts for modeling the behavior of microorganisms attached to solid surfaces in the form of bioflms.

Professor McCarty received his B.S. in Civil Engineering at Wayne State University and earned M.S. and Sc.D. degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He taught at MIT before joining the faculty at Stanford in 1962. He also has taught at Harvard; the University of Cape Town, South Africa; and in Venezuela. Dr. McCarty has served on the National Research Council in numerous capacities, including as vicechair of the Environmental Studies Board and as a member of the Commission on Natural Resources.

Among the numerous honors Dr. McCarty has received are the Water Environment Federations’ Harrison P. Eddy Research Award (1962 and 1977) and the Thomas Camp Award (1975), the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Walter L. Huber Research Prize (1964), the American Water Works Association’s Research Prize (1989), and the Association of Environmental Engineering Professors’ Distinguished Faculty Award (1966). He was honored with membership in the National Academy of Engineering in 1977, named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1980, and made an honorary member of the American Water Works Association in 1981 and the Water Environment Federation in 1989.

Robert M. White, 1992

Robert M. White was a world leader in designing cooperative networks and building institutions, he planned the global atmospheric research program and initiated international efforts to understand global climate change and the effects of greenhouse gases. The first administrator of NOAA, he helped create and implement legislation on marine fisheries, marine mammal conservation, and coastal zone management.

Robert M. White is honored for his inspired leadership in designing and building the machinery through which society observes and understands global climate change.

Long before his contemporaries, Dr. White perceived the essential unity of the global environment and the need for unified institutional approaches. The impact of his leadership on an entire generation’s progress in global environmental science is evident in the integrity of the Global Atmospheric Research Program during the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Global Weather Experiment in 1979, and the World Weather Watch and World Climate Program of the 1980’s.

His unique combination of scientific, communication and policy development skills were acquired during a career that began with a doctorate in meteorology, a decade of research on the circulation of the global atmosphere, and the establishment of one of the first corporations devoted to environmental science and service.

Under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, Dr. White built and led effective environmental institutions in the federal government. He transformed the U.S. Weather Bureau into the Environmental Science Services Administration in 1%3, combining it with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and the upper atmospheric research program of the National Bureau of Standards. He revolutionized the nation’s weather warming and ocean monitoring systems with satellite and computer technology.

Dr. White forged the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as its first Administrator, from 1970-1977. He created an Office of Ecology and Environmental Conservation; and he insisted that the environmental agenda be treated as important at all levels of the agency. NOAA acted as an environmental bureau of standards, developing the best possible research data to enable the government to understand the consequences of human activities on the environment.

An agency with large biological responsibilities, NOAA acted as a conservation organization for marine and migratory fish. White was personally involved in the creation, passage, and implementation of legislation supporting conservation and environmental quality, including the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. He was responsible for establishing the first National Marine Sanctuary. American fisheries experienced a rebirth under White’s protection; and landmark methods for the management of U.S. coastal zones were instituted.

At the United Nations’ first Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, Dr. White proposed a total moratorium on commercial whaling.· Appointed U.S. Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission in 1973, White altered the direction of the Commission, stopping whaling on all threatened species and limiting catches of abundant species.

As U.S. Permanent Representative to the World Meteorological Organization from 1963-1978, Dr. White led the effort to conduct the Global Atmospheric Research Program utilizing Earth-orbiting satellites to observe the global environment. In 1977, Dr. White proposed converting GARP into the World Climate Program. Subsequently, the WMO asked White to organize and chair the first World Climate Conference, which met in Geneva in 1979. It had become evident that climate warming could have potentially serious consequences for society. The conference was a watershed event for raising awareness of the economic and social consequences of climate alterations. The resulting World Climate Program has provided the scientific basis for understanding the effects of increasing emissions of greenhouse gases on the world’s climate.

As President of the National Academy of Engineering and Vice Chair of the National Research Council, Dr. White has guided advisory work for the U.S. government on a broad range of environmental issues, including stratospheric ozone depletion, acid deposition, loss of biodiversity, nuclear energy, radioactive: wastes, the potential for waste reduction, and ways to accelerate diffusion of environmentally-friendly technologies to developing countries.

Dr. White holds a B.A. degree in geology from Harvard University and M.S. and Sc.D. degrees in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a member of the French Legion of Honor, and the academies of engineering in Japan and Australia. His many awards include the Charles E. Lindbergh Award for technology and environment, the Rockefeller Public Service Award for Protection of Natural Resources, the Smithsonian Institution’s Matthew Fontaine Maury Award for Contributions to Undersea Exploration, the International Conservation Award of the National Wildlife Federation, and the International Meteorological Organization Prize.


2022: Sir Andy Haines

2020: Gretchen C. Daily and Pavan Sukhdev

2019:  Michael E. Mann, Warren M. Washington

2018:  Paul Falkowski, James McCarthy*

2017:  José Sarukhán Kermez

2016:  Sir Partha S. Dasgupta

2015:  Jane Lubchenco, Madhav Gadgil

2014:  Simon A. Levin

2013:  Diana H. Wall

2012:  John H. Seinfeld, Kirk R. Smith*

2011:  May R. Berenbaum

2010:  Laurie Marker, Stuart L. Pimm

2009:  Richard B. Alley, V. “Ram” Ramanathan

2008:  James N. Galloway, Harold A. Mooney

2007:  Gatze Lettinga

2006: David W. Schindler*, Igor A. Shiklomanov*

2005:  Charles David Keeling*, Lonnie G. Thompson

2004:  The Barefoot College, Red Latinoamericana de Botanica

2003:  Hans Herren, Yoel Margalith*, Sir Richard Doll*

2002:  Wallace S. Broecker*, Tungsheng Liu*

2001:  Jared M. Diamond, Thomas E. Lovejoy*

2000:  John P. Holdren

1999:  T. T. Chang*, Joel E. Cohen

1998:  Anne H. Ehrlich, Paul R. Ehrlich

1997:  Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, George Schaller

1996:  Willi Dansgaard*, Hans Oeschger*, Claude Lorius

1995:  Clair C. Patterson*

1994:  Arturo Gomez-Pompa, Peter H. Raven

1993:  F. Herbert Bormann*, Gene E. Likens

1992:  Perry L. McCarty* , Robert M. White*

1991:  C. Everett Koop*, M.S. Swaminathan*

1990:  Thomas Eisner*, Jerrold Meinwald*

1989:  Paul J. Crutzen*, Edward D. Goldberg*

1988:  Bert R. J. Bolin*

1987:  Richard E. Schultes*, Gilbert F. White*

1986:  Werner Stumm*, Richard Vollenweider*

1985:  Bruce N. Ames, Organization for Tropical Studies

1984:  Roger R. Revelle*, Edward O. Wilson*

1983:  Harold S. Johnston*, Mario J. Molina*, F. Sherwood Rowland*

1982:  Carroll L. Wilson*, Southern California Edison Company

1978:  Russell E. Train*

1977:  Eugene P. Odum*

1976:  Abel Wolman*, Charles S. Elton*, Rene Dubos*

1975:  Ruth Patrick*

1974:  Arie Jan Haagen-Smit*, G. Evelyn Hutchinson*, Maurice Strong*

* Deceased

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