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Environment

Probably Catastrophic

September 22, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 38

I am not an expert on global warming, so I am a bit intimidated writing to C&EN about this technical controversy with so many contributing experts. I suspect others feel similarly.

I try to read all of the articles, editorials, and letters in C&EN (and in other magazines and newspapers) on global warming. The consensus seems to support a probable position that our world faces serious problems that have potentially severe consequences if we do not act quickly. I trust the methods of science, and I am concerned with our reluctance to address this probable problem.

I understand that science is sometimes initially wrong and requires corrections, but every year that passes is an irreversible step into a potentially precarious future. Where is the point of no return? Do we try to change the future, do we plan for an inevitably different world, or do we do nothing and just let the chips fall where they may?

Societies have adopted many expensive and inconvenient practices to avoid threats of terrorism. We do this even though the odds of a terrorist attack are low because the consequences of an attack could be horrible. We do something similar regarding many natural disasters (earthquakes in California, hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, tornados in the Midwest, and floods near riverbeds).

When the available information tells us there is potential calamity, we respond accordingly even though the conditions may change, averting the disaster. History guarantees that all of these disasters will continue to happen in the future, and we are continually cautioned to prepare for them. Perhaps, because all of these disasters are localized, we believe that they will happen somewhere else; many of us choose to ignore the possibilities.

Global warming and its possible dire consequences (flooding of coastal regions, loss of ice packs and fresh water reserves, loss of animal and plant diversity, northern migration of disease vectors, etc.) are planetary; the entire world will suffer the consequences of inaction.

In a complex world like ours, there are unending controversial problems to confront and act upon, even in the face of uncertainty—nuclear and biological weapons, nuclear waste disposal, energy use, pesticide use, phthalates, chlorofluorocarbons, nanotoxicity, and more—all discussed on the pages of C&EN. Do we ignore them?

Let’s hope that the inconvenient problems of global warming we are seeking to avoid aren’t “ticking time bombs destined to go off,” but hope is not a good plan. The U.S. needs to be a world leader in facing these problems because we are the biggest per capita users and polluters. Many people throughout the world want to attain a standard of living similar to that the U.S. enjoys. We need a national commitment to show the world that it is possible to change to a more sustainable way of living. We need leadership and courage to find out if we must “save the world” or if we can “breathe a sigh of relief.”

There are too many examples in world history that prove avoiding inconvenient, tough societal problems is plain stupid. If we allow the ruin of our global home, there will not be much of a future to hand over to the next generations, and they will likely curse our bones.

Phil Beauchamp
Chino Hills, Calif.

Correction

» Sept. 1, page 35: Jinsong Yang is the head of R&D for China’s Dalian Chemphy Chemicals, also known as New Chemphy.

» Sept. 1, page 43: The structure of one product of the copper-releasing reaction was incorrect. It should have contained an NO group as shown, not an NO2 group.

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