Issue Date: August 24, 2009
Climate Change: Editorial And Letters
After reading your editorials of June 22 (page 3) and July 27 (page 5) and the letters to you about the June 22 editorial, I am amazed. The level of illogical thinking and ignoring of obvious evidence in many of the letters is appalling to me. I expect such stuff in my local newspaper, the Seattle Times, but not from such a highly educated readership as yours.
It makes me ashamed of my profession (chemistry). But then again, it just drives home to me that even educated people who are talking about something that is not in their area of training and/or expertise sometimes act in strange ways. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it has to do with their religious outlook, their political leanings, or their paranoid ideas regarding conspiracies.
Your editorials were right on the mark. They contain some of the most concise and pointed discussions of climate change I have seen.
What will we do when over a billion people in Asia lose their water supply as a result of the disappearance of glaciers that feed their main rivers? What will inhabitants of low-lying coastal areas do when these areas are flooded? What will happen when dengue fever and dengue hemorrhagic fever become rampant? What will happen when the permafrost melts and releases about twice the amount of carbon that is now in the atmosphere, converting, say, Montana into the tropical rain forest it was when dinosaurs lived there? I don't know, but it will sure be a different world than we live in now.
Atmospheric CO2 levels are now higher than they have been in over 100,000 years. Doesn't the concept of a forcing function to an equilibrium mean anything to these letter writers (this relates to water vapor as a greenhouse gas)? Have they never heard of the precautionary principle? Maybe letters that deny anthropogenic climate warming but still ask for more efficient use of energy and non-greenhouse-gas sources of energy are to come.
Or maybe they are just hedging their bets, like this atheist who carries a 1-sq-inch microfiche of the entire bible in his wallet. (I really carry it because I was sent it many years ago and it's cool—I think—to show it to others.)
My favorite quote from all the letters was the following: "Nuclear power? All those who are willing to store a cask of nuclear waste in their garage—forever—raise your hands!" The author of that quote should look up information about the traveling wave reactor that Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Wash., is putting a lot of money into studying.
Anyway, keep up the good fight.
Harvey F. Carroll
Lake Forest Park, Wash.
Readers who may be confused about the causes of climate change might want to read the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) summary report, "Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate" (www.sepp.org/publications/NIPCC_final.pdf). The title tells the story.
For those with stamina, I recommend looking at the full NIPCC report that I wrote with Craig Idso, "Climate Change Reconsidered: The 2009 Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change" (Chicago, The Heartland Institute, 2009). The full report is available online at nipccreport.org.
S. Fred Singer
I am appalled by the content of your July 27 editorial. I would like to think that the vitriol you describe emanates not from scientists, let alone from ACS members, but I am probably wrong. Most likely, politics, especially ultra-right-wing politics, trumps science as well as common sense, not to mention superseding the First Amendment. I do hope to continue to read your freely expressed views in the editorials.
Peter R. Lantos
I note the generally shocked tone of letters published in the July 27 issue of C&EN. The letter writers are shocked that you so wholeheartedly endorse the political conclusions of global warming and the draconian measures being proposed. They are shocked at "your arrogant self-righteousness and the left-wing practice of stifling debate by personal attacks on anyone who disagrees (page 6)." Indeed, there are several well-documented books by respected environmental scientists that indicate human influences on global warming are not causally important. "Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years" by S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008) is one good example.
Your reply in your editorial is even more disturbing to me than your original stance. You state that ACS has adopted an official position statement on "climate change" that fully endorses the opinion that the climate trends are caused by human activities. I am a member of ACS, and I was not asked about my position on this subject. As a member of ACS, I was not even informed about the existence of this official position until I read your editorial.
It is quite disturbing that ACS is using my membership dues to support official positions without informing me, or the majority of members, about those positions. It would only make sense on controversial topics such as global warming to at least survey the membership before telling politicians that the membership endorses a position that is obviously (from the number of letters to the contrary) not the position of many members.
Several other organizations have been doing this disservice to their members. When I have found that an organization I would like to join is making official positions that please politicians while neither polling their members nor reporting what percentage of their members supports the official position, I have refused to join. Is it time for large numbers of ACS members to withdraw their membership and start a new organization that would actually represent its members? I hope such action will not be needed. I hope ACS will start polling its members and actually begin listening to them rather than demeaning them for not supporting official positions that were taken without their input.
Lake Jackson, Texas
Many chemists are skeptical about the science of global warming because it doesn't fit well with the frame of their chemistry mind-set. An example is the letter by Thomas E. D'Ambra in which he asks, "How many kilocalories of infrared energy can a ton of carbon dioxide absorb?" (C&EN, July 27, page 6). The question implies that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be insufficient to cause a change in the trapping (the greenhouse effect) of the outgoing energy by Earth's thermoradiation.
I encountered questions from professional chemists similar to this while giving presentations on global warming, and I was initially unable to come up with a satisfying answer. The basis of the question is legitimate: CO2 absorption in the infrared region of the spectrum is weak on a per-molecule basis, and CO2 is a minor component of the atmosphere, with a current concentration of 380 ppm (only 380 molecules out of 1 million molecules in air are CO2).
Any person, particularly a skeptical chemist, would expect that, with the nonstop emission of thermoradiation from Earth's surface, all CO2 molecules would soon be in the excited vibrational and rotational levels of their molecular energy states, and none would be left to absorb more outgoing energy. Hence, the greenhouse effect would be very limited.
However, CO2 molecules do not exist alone in the atmosphere. The excited molecules can and do transfer their excess energy to other molecules and return to ground states and are therefore ready to absorb thermoradiation again. The transfer of the initially absorbed energy to other nonabsorbing molecules, called "quenching" in photochemistry, enables a relatively small amount of greenhouse gases such as CO2 to continuously absorb the thermoradiative energy, which otherwise would escape into space, and to convert the radiation back to thermal energy that stays on Earth.
Therefore, the answer to D'Ambra's question is that an unlimited amount of infrared radiative energy can be absorbed and returned back to Earth by small quantities of atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect is continuous along with Earth's thermoradiation.
Ouch! I think you got a taste of what it has been like teaching environmental chemistry in Utah.
Stephen E Bialkowski
I just read your July 27 editorial and thought you might like to hear a different point of view. I, for one, support the ACS position on anthropogenic climate change. The position is based on the best science and represents clear thinking and the vast majority of ACS members.
I personally encourage you to keep up the fight against climate-change deniers. It's a good fight, and you're on the right side. C&EN is thriving under your leadership. Instead of treating C&EN as another trade rag that I throw in the recycle bin, I look forward to the timely reporting of industry news and excellent journalism in the feature articles.
I am writing to thank you for your editorial on climate change. I understand that you're being bombarded by the forces of ignorance, but as a climate scientist, I can assure you that your views of the science are spot on. Keep up the good work, and don't be intimidated by the screaming from those for whom politics matters more than science.
College Station, Texas
The flurry of letters in response to the editorial "Climate-Change News" represents a concerted effort to vilify Rudy Baum.
The climate-change deniers (CCDs) responded on cue, just as Baum predicted: "Sow doubt, call for an open debate, claim that you are being silenced." These tactics are familiar to anyone who has confronted Holocaust denial or intelligent design. Currently, most of the first 20 Google hits for American Chemical Society climate change bring up political websites celebrating the campaign to depose Baum. One website even proclaims, "American Chemical Society says man-made 'global warming' is poppycock."
CCDs have clearly triumphed over climatologists, mainstream scientists, and the National Academies to win the hearts of Americans. My nonscientist neighbors are hostile toward anyone expressing concern about climate change, and my colleagues feel ambivalence. No one makes more than token efforts to stop climate change, either by advocacy or through lifestyle changes. CCDs achieved this victory over the scientific process by reducing the debate to a political shouting match. Their success exposes a profound failure of the American educational system.
Having attended many lectures by leading researchers in climatology, I was surprised by the publication of letters that showed very limited understanding of climate change. Journal editors politely decline substandard submissions. Why can't Baum do the same? Compared with the hundreds of journal article reviews I have received or written, most of the CCD letters would surely rank in the bottom 20%, as judged by scientific knowledge, logic, and diplomacy.
Willem R. Leenstra, chair of the ACS Committee on Meetings & Expositions, recently announced several green measures that will be taken by ACS at national meetings (C&EN, July 27, page 58). For example, full copies of the technical program will no longer be published in C&EN. The ultimate rationale for these sacrifices is his assertion that "climate change may be the single biggest threat to humanity." Will Leenstra now also be denounced with a demand for his resignation?
How will ACS members respond to the present challenge? One option is compliance through a Faustian bargain that would unseat Baum and perhaps Leenstra and give the CCD members veto power over future ACS appointments. A historical perspective for possible ACS actions and their consequences may be gleaned from the politicization of chemistry under German National Socialism (Angew. Chem. 2002, 114, 1364).
William K. Wilson
I am completely in agreement with your editorial regarding the impact of human activities on global warming. Accordingly, I did not feel compelled to add my voice to a position you so eloquently expressed. That is, I felt that way until I read your editorial in the July 27 issue and especially after reading the letters of criticism published therein. I am disheartened that members of my profession have expressed their legitimate disagreement in a manner that reminds me of the town meetings on health care, now taking place across the U.S., in which a vocal minority is attempting to intimidate the majority into their point of view. In both cases, the anger is palpable, the approach disrespectful, and the positions advocated often ignore inconvenient truths.
My modest contribution is not to debate whether human activity is responsible for climate change but to ask this question: What if the critics are wrong, and by our inactivity Earth crosses the tipping point into the truly catastrophic scenario of runaway warming? I happen to believe the evidence that we are responsible is compelling, but in appreciation of the risk that we face, I believe that prudence requires that we cannot take the chance with business as usual. The next and subsequent generations, who will suffer the extreme storms, rising sea levels, famines, territorial disputes, and political upheaval, will justifiably condemn us.
Donald J. Hnatowich
Many gases are considered greenhouse gases, especially water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane. One of the concerns being voiced centers on the production of methane by ruminants, especially cattle raised for meat and milk. The argument is advanced that raising cattle is contributing to global warming. I am of the opinion that methane from cow burps is a trivial matter and would appreciate a discussion to evaluate my thinking.
I argue that all ruminants consume plant matter. The carbon in the plant matter had its origin in atmospheric CO2. Anaerobic fermentation in the rumen converts some of the plant matter to short-chain fatty acids that the animal absorbs for energy. The by-products of fermentation are CO2 and methane. An activist says that methane is a greenhouse gas and contributes to global warming. Note, however, that the carbon in methane is simply recycled atmospheric CO2. Furthermore, it is only a small percentage of the carbon that was originally captured by the plants! Methane cannot have a long half-life in the atmosphere because it would be attacked by many oxidizing atmospheric species and should shortly be returned to its carbon dioxide form.
Hence, I conclude that methane from ruminants must be a trivial contributor to global warming.
Is there a danger of causing climate change by human activity? This question should be treated seriously. Alarmists point to potential catastrophic consequences while others are unconvinced. I recall the reply offered when F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina urged limiting the release of chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere because they might be causing depletion of the ozone layer. They said, in effect, that we do not know for sure, but not limiting the release of these compounds into the atmosphere was an experiment that should not be performed.
C. Clinton Rila
Mount Pleasant, Iowa
The first two editions of my book, "Understanding Environmental Pollution," had a chapter called "Global Climate Change." In that book, I faithfully presented the increasingly preponderant scientific position on global warming. Nonetheless, I always had a nagging feeling as to whether warming was really occurring or if it was that human actions were involved. Finally, last summer when updating the chapter for the third edition, I struggled with the information on climate change for many weeks, including addressing my own doubts. At the end of that time, I renamed the chapter in question "Global Warming."
The issue goes beyond the impacts on atmospheric warming to impacts on our oceans. Earth's oceans are a major sink for carbon dioxide and are experiencing an ongoing fall in pH as CO2 is transformed into carbonic acid. The myriad creatures that form calcium carbonate shells are threatened as surface waters lose their calcium carbonate supersaturation. Some may find the work on ocean acidification more straightforward than that on warming. See the C&EN article "Off-Balance Ocean: Acidification from absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide is changing the ocean's chemistry," by Rachel Petkewich (Feb. 23, page 56).
Marquita K. Hill
The climate change debate needs some calm, rational, long-term thinking. I have life insurance, as do most people on both sides of the debate. I don't plan on having a catastrophic event happen to me, but I hedge my bets for the preservation of my family by paying my life insurance premium twice per year. This premium is about 1% of my yearly income. International agencies, the U.S. military, U.S. science agencies, and others have written many reports about the potential catastrophic impact of global warming.
Even if there is a less than 10% chance that these scenarios are true, predicting global economic dislocations, dire food and water shortages, trillions of dollars in property losses, displacements of hundreds of millions of people, vast destruction of ocean life (due to both ocean warming and acidification), and so on, doesn't it seem worth paying the relatively small estimated GDP growth penalty "just in case"?
Even the most hardcore climate-change skeptics pay their life insurance premiums, even though they know that it is highly unlikely that they will die tomorrow. They pay because there is that small nagging chance that catastrophe could be around the corner for them and their family. No one can be 100% certain that human activity either is or is not causing climate change—but we all have to admit that according to the evidence thus far, there is a substantial chance (although detractors may insist it is small) that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are the problem. The cost to change the way we use energy should simply be viewed as an insurance premium that we as responsible adults need to be willing to pay.
It is interesting how people can be objective, cordial, and professional in so many areas of science, yet when the topic changes to something like climate change, we forget how to think critically and act politely and revert to name-calling and threats. As a community college instructor, I have seen this same change in attitude show itself in my biology classes when evolution comes up. I wish I understood why these topics make people forget their manners.
I once again applaud you for your fine work as editor and for bringing topics such as climate change into a thoughtful, scientific realm of discussion.
The heated responses to your editorial on climate change indicate that the significantly ambivalent attitude toward science in this country has even begun to affect some scientists. As a recent survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science noted, many nonscientists in the U.S. often pick and choose those scientific findings with which they agree.
Because science should be based upon facts and correctly gathered statistics, in preference to anecdotal information, the injection of personalities by the use of such perjorative terms as "left wing" to describe scientists with whom one disagrees is unacceptable. The fact that the first link between cigarette smoking and cancer was made by medical researchers in Nazi Germany didn't make it any less valid.
Another specious argument advanced against global warming is that some scientists disagree with the majority. I always thought that unanimity was only required of a jury at a murder trial.
Harvey W. Yurow
The letters in response to your June 22 editorial are remarkable for their vehemence. I have not seen such since fluoridation was a hot topic.
I believe that all of the discussion, pro and con, misses some really important issues. As you noted in the July 27 editorial, Arctic ice is shrinking in terms of surface area, and the ice that remains is thinner. The loss of the glaciers on the great equatorial mountains is overlooked. If you want to see the snows of Kilimanjaro, you had better go in the next few years. The loss of these glaciers will impact millions of people because the reliable flow of water for growing crops will be lost and populations will be thrown to the mercies of cyclical weather patterns.
The continued rise in sea level with erosion of the shore lines means that New Orleans will go under water again, as will Miami, Charleston, S.C., and many other low-lying cities in this country and across the globe. It is not that Charleston will suddenly go under water, rather each hit from a hurricane or a Nor'easter will erode more shoreline. A big storm will flood the streets and the next storm will be more damaging, until at some point, the population decides to give up the fight. Already, house and condo owners on North Carolina's Crystal Coast are after my tax dollars to pump sand back onto their beaches, build jetties, and cover their potential losses. Why should I pay for some fool who builds a house on a sandbar? Yet, there is no planning for the inevitable loss not only of the barrier islands, but also of the low-lying cities and towns.
I do not believe that we can dramatically decrease the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try. The cap-and-trade bill is an indirect tax on energy consumption. My preference would be for a direct tax on all carbonaceous fuels. Most important will be to drive down the cost of oil: We are at war, but we make no sacrifice for the effort, and every time I stick the nozzle in my fuel tank, I know that I am sending money to people who hate me. Oil at $100 a barrel allows Hugo Chavez to have his infantile rants, feeds Al-Qaeda and Irani radicals, and allows Vladimir Putin to play his games. Oil at $20 per bbl would starve them all. Yes, we should drive down the use of carbon-based fuels, but my interest in doing so is very different from most everyone else's.
Is that a little more rational than most of your letters? Calmer anyway.
Brian A. McMillen
Mr. Baum, please don't lump your opponents all together with one clever "CCD" acronym. There are those among your readers who accept that temperatures have risen somewhat over a measured period of the past century but who question the doctrine of climate warming being effected by human activity.
You have labeled those calling for open, honest, and scientific debate over the matter (which is not yet happening, by the way) as "purveyors of nonsense." You suggest, in no uncertain way, that we are outside the realm of legitimate scientific thought. Furthermore, you have essentially called us liars (making up statistics). Your statements sound much more like the angry and arrogant invective of politicians than the respectfully offered hypothesis of a scientist. I, for one, believe that it remains to be established where lies the preponderance of "nonsense."
Duane A. Scogin
I strongly support the views of the editor concerning climate change. I remember the brave position of ACS as the former U.S. president did not want to admit global warming existed.
Like Baum, I am also amazed at the anger in the letters concerning climate change. However, we must realize that this has more to do with the extreme right-wing politics that is becoming pervasive in a minority of the population, including scientific organizations. The writers really are not looking at the science nor are they interested in it. People who are climate-change deniers, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence, are really responding to the policy-change implications.
If they accept the evidence, they then have to admit that major and rapid changes must be accomplished in our civilization and very way of life. That is the heart of the issue. No amount of evidence will ever convince them.
Thank you for announcing the ACS stance on climate change. Despite efforts by propagandists (CCDs) to selectively pick data from larger studies and draw their own conclusions, organizations like ACS need to remain diligent and draw conclusions based on all available data.
Undergradute Student, University of Central Missouri
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