Spencer Wells
The National GeoDirector, The Genographic Project

Whose responsibility is climate change?

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It's not something we can solve with a simple technological fix, says Wells.

Spencer Wells

Spencer Wells is a leading population geneticist and director of the Genographic Project from National Geographic and IBM. His fascination with the past has led the scientist, author, and documentary filmmaker to the farthest reaches of the globe in search of human populations who hold the history of humankind in their DNA. By studying humankind's family tree he hopes to close the gaps in our knowledge of human migration.

Wells's own journey of discovery began as a child whose zeal for history and biology led him to the University of Texas, where he enrolled at age 16, majored in biology, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later. He then pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard University under the tutelage of distinguished evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin.

His landmark research findings led to advances in the understanding of the male Y chromosome and its ability to trace ancestral human migration. Wells then returned to academia where, at Oxford University, he served as director of the Population Genetics Research Group of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford.

Following a stint as head of research for a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, Wells made the decision in 2001 to focus on communicating scientific discovery through books and documentary films. From that was born The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, an award-winning book and documentary that aired on PBS in the U.S. and National Geographic Channel internationally. Written and presented by Wells, the film chronicled his globe-circling, DNA-gathering expeditions in 2001-02 and laid the groundwork for the Genographic Project.


Question: Whose responsibility is climate change?

Spencer Wells: Climate change is in my opinion one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. It is not in my mind just a scientific or technical challenge it’s not necessarily something that we’re gonna be able to solve by inventing something. I think it’s more of a social challenge and that is in part because of the migrations that are gonna be driven by climate shifts and, you know, whatever we decide to do today, many of the things that happen going on, increasing, you know, carbon emissions, increasing greenhouse gases, will take a generation or two to play out and so, you know, even if we decided in 2008 to freeze our carbon emissions at a certain level or even back it off by 20%, probably this process would go on for another 20, 30, 40 years perhaps. We don’t know, lots of speculation and the idea is that we have set in motion events that our children are gonna have to deal with and I think that, you know, we have to shift our thinking away from next quarter or a year or two down the line and start to think in terms of well, you know, so how will we deal with climate refugees in 20, 30, 40 years when things get really bad. How will our children and grand children deal with it, you know, we’re bequeathing to them this world that we in part created and so I think, you know, we need to think about educating them, you know, about these events, not simply the science of climate change but also the social impact of climate change and how it might affect the world they live in.


Recorded on: 5/22/08