Manabe’s Nobel for global warming research was a long time coming

Pontus Lundahl/TT News Agency via REUTERS
Member of the Nobel Committee for Physics Thors Hans Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Goran K. Hansson, and member of the Nobel Committee for Physics John Wettlaufer announce the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden October 5, 2021.

Pioneering research that scientifically predicts global warming has been given worldwide appreciation. The honoring of these scientists must be applauded.

Three scientists, including Syukuro Manabe, a senior meteorologist at Princeton University in the United States, are sharing this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, with Manabe cited “for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.” There are now 28 Japanese-born Nobel prize winners, including those with U.S. citizenship such as Manabe.

After completing his doctorate at the University of Tokyo, Manabe has since the 1960s been working and achieving results in the United States. He developed a model to determine the relationship between atmospheric movement and temperature, and predicted for the first time in the world that a doubling of carbon dioxide would raise global temperatures by 2.3 C.

Using supercomputers to predict climate change has become common, but Manabe’s research was the starting point. His foresight deserves great admiration.

Manabe later modified the model to make calculations on a global scale more accurate by taking into account ocean circulation. This series of findings were incorporated into the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an expert body of the United Nations.

Last year, Japan set a goal of achieving a carbon-neutral society with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Considering the great influence Manabe has had in making the world aware of the dangers of global warming, and finally in making the international community take concrete measures to prevent global warming, it seems it has taken too long for him to receive the award.

Traditionally, the Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded mostly for work on the properties of space and matter, failing to spotlight the field of climate change. Mounting worldwide interest in global warming may be behind the award this time.

Since 2000, Japanese-born scientists have received a slew of awards in the Nobel’s three natural science categories, the others being in physiology or medicine and in chemistry. However, there are concerns that these awards will not happen at the same pace in the future because most of these honors were based on past research.

This is because the foundation of basic research has been weakening in Japan. As government subsidies for university operating expenses have been reduced, young researchers are unable to envision their future due to an increase in unstable fixed-term employment. The number and quality of Japanese research papers has significantly declined compared with those from the United States and China.

In recent years, Nobel laureates have pointed out that the research environment in Japan is deteriorating. Manabe also spent most of his research career in the United States, except for periods when he returned to Japan temporarily. There seem to be many excellent researchers who cannot adapt to Japan’s rigid research system.

Improving and expanding basic science, which has a wide range of applications, will increase Japan’s presence in the world. The government needs a long-term strategy to support basic research.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Oct. 6, 2021.