Population, climate, and our future

Endowed fellowship salutes a unique research partnership


by Bob Henson

Judith Jacobsen.

In the climax of their life’s work together, a book called The Crowded Greenhouse (Yale University Press, 2002), John Firor and Judith Jacobsen stress the necessity of hope in the face of daunting concerns. They advise readers to “reach deep, dig into your most profound beliefs about how the world works and how you fit into it, mourn the sorrows and the losses.

“Then get back to work, with joy.”

As spouses, scientists, and teachers, Firor and Jacobsen exemplified their own advice. A solar physicist by training, Firor was the second director of NCAR; he then shifted gears, becoming one of the first scientists to convey to both policy makers and the public the risks of human-induced climate change. Jacobsen moved from a legal career to become a world expert on population and consumption, heading the group Zero Population Growth and chairing a task force on sustainable development for former President Bill Clinton. After they met and married, Firor and Jacobson developed a new perspective on the intertwined challenges of climate change and population pressures.

Firor and Jacobsen’s work together was cut short by Jacobsen’s untimely death in 2004. With their combined legacy still fresh, NCAR is now establishing a position to keep that legacy alive. The John W. Firor and Judith E. Jacobsen Postdoctoral Fellow will be the first permanently endowed postdoctoral position at NCAR. The fellowship, which will be based in the Institute for the Study of Society and Environment (ISSE), is meant to stimulate research at the intersection of climate science and population theory.

Firor-Jacobsen fellows will design and conduct their own research projects while collaborating with ISSE scientists and other experts. During their two-year terms, they will hone their ability to address public policy concerns by participating in policy forums and seminars. On occasion, fellows will present lectures at NCAR and on Capitol Hill summarizing their work.

Making a difference

John Firor.

The Firor-Jacobsen post honors the human touch of its namesakes as well as their achievements, says Cynthia Schmidt, manager of UCAR’s Office of Government Affairs.

“John and Judy have made a difference in countless lives through their compassion and dedication,” Schmidt says. “We hope that this new fellowship will help produce scholars with the same ability to address global issues while connecting and communicating with people on a meaningful level.”

In the 1970s, shortly after completing law school, Jacobsen joined the Worldwatch Institute, where she tracked global trends in population and consumption. “It was high-level, demanding, and visionary work,” said Jacobsen’s long-time friend Wren Wirth (Winslow Foundation) at Jacobsen’s memorial service. “But after a while, she found it unsatisfying, because it was all on paper. She wanted to understand and communicate what she knew, but she also wanted to roll up her sleeves and help.”

Jacobsen ended up in Africa, developing a population policy for Nigeria through the Agency for International Development. Inspired to learn more, she completed a doctorate in geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder and then joined the faculty at the University of Wyoming. “Judy was very proud of being named ‘Top Prof’ by her students at Wyoming,” says Schmidt.

Firor, director emeritus of NCAR and a senior scientist in ISSE, was one of the first recruits of Walter Orr Roberts, the founding president of UCAR and the first NCAR director. Along with his own research in high-energy astrophysics and radio astronomy, Firor guided the birth of the NCAR Advanced Study Program, whose graduate and postgraduate fellowships have launched hundreds of careers in the atmospheric and related sciences.

“John has devoted his entire professional career to creating better futures for people and nature. He is an integrative thinker who always looks for the complete solution to any environmental puzzle or challenge,” says Firor’s friend and colleague Bob Harriss (ISSE). He adds, “John is always hopeful about the future. I think this optimistic perspective comes from his confidence that each generation of scientists is better prepared for dealing with the complexity of the growing human footprint on Planet Earth.”

In October 1999, John Firor (pictured here with Judith Jacobsen) delivered the Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture in Boulder. View the transcript. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Rebels with a cause

The Firor-Jacobsen fellowships will begin as soon as core funding is established, perhaps as early as 2008. Those working to build the endowment, including friends and family members serving on the fellowship’s campaign committee, hope to stimulate a wave of innovative thinking on problems that too often seem intractable.

In The Crowded Greenhouse, Firor and Jacobsen argue that two revolutions are needed to address population and climate change: a social revolution that improves equity, particularly the status of women, and a technical revolution that extracts far greater efficiency from Earth’s finite resources.

Should these revolutions occur, they add, “The talents of half the world’s population, previously oppressed, will be unleashed and perhaps the greatest environmental threat ever—altering the very fabric of Earth’s atmosphere—will be avoided. Given the stakes, given the alternatives, given the promise of our two revolutions, we urge our readers to become rebels.”

For more details about contributing to the Firor-Jacobson endowment, please contact Cynthia Schmidt, 303-497-2107


Also in this issue:

Examining the N factor

Big year in 2007: IPY & IGY

Firor-Jacobsen Fellowship

Blue Gene: Small but powerful

President's Corner

HIAPER arrives

New directors for SERE, ISSE

Faculty Fellowship Program

Community Calendar