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Global Climate Change and Citizen Chemists

March 29, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 13

The threat is so serious and potentially irreversible that further research should not be a substitute for action.
The threat is so serious and potentially irreversible that further research should not be a substitute for action.

Global Climate Change, in my opinion, is the environmental challenge of today. Scientists who understand its implications are alarmed about the staggering consequences of permanently changing our Earth's climate. This issue commands the attention of each of us. The onus is on us to grasp this issue and to alert our friends, neighbors, and, importantly, our elected officials. They need to hear from reliable scientists. I challenge you to incorporate energy conservation and sustainable practices into your individual activities. An abruptly changing climate can affect adversely the world, its economy, and the welfare of our descendants.

ACS, the world's largest scientific organization, is chartered by Congress to provide advice on scientific issues. The Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) has been following this important issue and making policy recommendations to the ACS Board of Directors for nearly a decade. At the fall 2003 ACS national meeting, CEI cosponsored a presidential symposium on the current science of global climate change. The symposium presentations and other materials can be viewed at

Evidence is accumulating that global average temperatures are increasing, that sea levels are rising as glaciers are retreating, and that atmospheric greenhouse gases are increasing. There is now general agreement that the strong warming trend of the past 20 years is compelling, and that it results from the growing concentration of greenhouse gases.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) also concludes that human activities are altering Earth's climate and that natural influences cannot account for the temperature increases of the second half of the 20th century. AGU concludes that it is virtually certain that global surface temperatures will continue to increase. These increases may well lead to damaged ecosystems, to loss of plant and animal life, to changes in rainfall patterns with accompanying floods and droughts, to damage to coastal and permafrost areas, to increased human disease, and to severe economic dislocations.

What about scientific uncertainty? Earth's climate is a complex system. Trying to predict the effects of population growth; man-made or natural events leading to emissions or reductions of greenhouse gases; and the chemistry of atmospheric particles, ozone, and aerosols requires sophisticated computer modeling as well as interdisciplinary cooperation. Yes, there are uncertainties, and these fuel debate--a back-and-forth between science and politics.

In the long term, the debate will be settled not through opinions, but through science. I encourage further research in all the areas of uncertainty. That said, in my opinion, the threat is so serious and potentially irreversible that further research should not be a substitute for action.

We all share a common experience in science and engineering; yet each of us interprets risks individually. What about the risk? A closer look reveals that we are experimenting with Earth's climate and cannot predict with certainty what the outcome of the experiment will be. The potential ramifications are so immense that we should act, even with remaining uncertainty. I suggest that we now need to implement cost-effective measures to protect the climate. And we must embrace technologies that can help us to mitigate the potential negative effects of climate change.

So what am I asking you to do? On one level, I ask you to familiarize yourself with the issue and to communicate it to your friends, neighbors, and elected officials. Participation in the ACS Legislative Action Network ( may be a convenient way to achieve this objective.

On a personal note, I feel compelled to write to my newspaper and representatives about the need for an urgent national energy program that focuses on alternative energy production, enhanced energy transmission and storage technology, and increased energy efficiency and conservation. Expenditures in these areas will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, improve Earth's environment, increase our productivity and world competitiveness, and benefit us and our descendants. The U.S. is a good place to start, because the world watches it closely. If the U.S. does not act, much of the rest of the world will feel excused.

Further, I am asking for your personal commitment. Those of us living in the U.S. are using Earth's resources at a disproportionate rate, with a total per capita energy usage five times that of the rest of the world and more than double that of Europe. I ask you to opt for fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources, and energy conservation in homes and factories. Can any of us afford to do otherwise?

Above all, citizen chemists, I implore, don't be silent on what appears to me to be the environmental issue of our lifetime.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of the committee.



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