Funded by a variety of private foundations, the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) has positioned itself as a key source of scientific research and policy proposals regarding climate change, directed to government decision-makers around the world. WHRC has further extended its influence beyond governments to include civil society, by working directly with community organizations to help shape local responses to climate change. This includes, from WHRC’s view, the need to reduce carbon emissions from oil and gas to zero.
Mission and Founder’s Vision
WHRC’s mission is to assess developments that can impact global climate, and foster collaborative opportunities to work with partners including governments and voluntary associations to halt further climate change. It carries this mission out through a combination of scientific research and policy studies.
WHRC’s focus on climate issues is in line with the goal set by its founder, ecologist George M. Woodwell, as expressed in his 2009 memoir, The Nature of a House: Building a World that Works: “In 1985, when we moved to establish the Woods Hole Research Center, it was becoming clear that an international treaty [on climate change] was necessary and that details of the treaty must emerge from the scientific community. We were at the center of this discussion and free to proceed as we set forth with the new institution.”
WHRC has four research/program areas: the restoration of forests, soils, grasslands and wetlands; the prevention of tropic deforestation; studying the impacts of climate change on the arctic; and disseminating information about climate change to other researchers and organizations.
Since opening its doors in 1985, WHRC has been noted for its specialization in researching global climate issues; as of 2017, it has been recognized for four years running as the top global “climate change think tank” by the International Center for Climate Governance (ICCG).
As well, Richard A. Houghton, a WHRC scientist, was named in 2017 as a lead author for an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change and land expected to be published in 2019.
In 2008, WHRC’s founder George Woodwell outlined how “the foundation community and the non-profit scholarly community” could find ways to collaborate to advance scientific research. In line with this, WHRC has numerous ties to various foundations. In 2014-2015 alone, it disclosed funding from the following sources: Acacia Conservation Funds, Cogan Family Foundation, Endurance Foundation, Foundation for the Carolinas, Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, Harbourton Foundation, Island Foundation, Inc., Ruth McCormick Tankersley Charitable Trust, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Trust for Mutual Understanding.
Another aspect of WHRC’s fundraising efforts involves a membership group for individual donors called the George Perkins Marsh Society, which recognizes those who agree to support WHRC’s work through “through a life income gift, annuity, life insurance policy, or bequest.”
WHRC has described Marsh as “the first to draw attention to the notion that the natural menace to nature was humans themselves.” Marsh’s book Man and Nature includes the following lament regarding human impact on the environment:
“The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant [i.e., mankind], and another era of equal human crime and improvidence…would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the deprivation, barbarism and perhaps even extinction of the species.”
George. M. Woodwell, WHRC’s founder, has been affiliated with the following environmentalist organizations: Natural Resources Defense Council; World Wildlife Fund; World Resources Institute; and Environmental Defense Fund.
In a 2006 article, Woodwell observed that: “Contrary to conservative dogma of the moment, the free market system offers no solution to major environmental crises. Intensification requires new rules, new laws, and a competent and evolving governmental system in which science, as well as economic and political interests, has a guiding hand.”
In addition to Woodwell’s connection to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the current vice-chair of WHRC’s Board of Directors, Thomas E. Lovejoy also had a long-running WWF affiliation; and former WHRC Board Chair Lawrence Huntington was once Chair of WWF’s Board.
John Holdren, who succeeded Woodwell as WHRC Director upon the latter’s retirement in 2005, served from 2009-2017 as President Obama’s science advisor. Following the announcement that Holdren would be joining the White House, controversial statements published in a 1977 textbook co-authored by Holdren, Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich came to light. The textbook, entitled Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, included discussion of instituting a “Planetary Regime” to “control the development, administration, conservation and distribution of all natural resources.” The textbook also considered the advisability of “compulsory abortion” as a response to too-rapid global population growth.
In response to news reports about the textbook, Holdren’s office rebutted the controversy with a statement that: “Dr. Holdren has stated flatly that he does not now support and has never supported compulsory abortions, compulsory sterilization, or other coercive approaches to limiting population growth.”