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More On Global Warming

November 2, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 44

Rudy Baum's editorial on global warming and the pushback from several readers bring to mind not the specific issue of ACS's official stance on global warming, but the fact that ACS doesn't appear to have an official stance that is broadly supported by the membership at large (C&EN, July 27, page 5). Maybe it is, but I haven't seen solicitations to members at large regarding their scientific opinion on the subject. Nor have I seen a ballot proposition on the subject.

Alan Strickland's letter is very succinct: ACS does not effectively solicit the input of its members and over the past 25 years of my membership, and in my opinion, quite frankly does not effectively represent its membership in any way (C&EN, Aug. 24, page 4).

ACS does a great job at putting on meetings twice a year, and it provides a forum for things such as networking and presenting information. But ACS is lousy at representing chemists and their views. Other than access to journals, my membership benefits are limited. Most other professional societies, such as the American Dental Association, advocate for their members and lobby Congress effectively on behalf of dentists. I know this because my brother is involved in that advocacy. They are tough on Congress and on the insurance industry, and very effectively advocate for their members.

When was the last time a chemist got direct help from ACS when there were layoffs at a company? Where do we stand on the proposal to standardize our education and perhaps license chemists to practice? Where is ACS with regard to sending chemistry jobs overseas; are we just standing by with our hands in our pockets?

Why is Baum editorializing in C&EN and apparently espousing his personal views on a particular subject without an apparent mandate from the society on its official position? Is it our official position that human activities are driving global warming? What do we propose doing about it?

It's a difficult task, getting scientists to consensus. Some would say a little like "herding cats." A distinguished chemistry professor was quoted as saying that most other professions circle the wagons and shoot out; for some reason, we chemists circle the wagons and shoot in.

ACS could more aggressively represent its members, much as a union or other professional societies do. I'm not suggesting we unionize, but I am suggesting we present a more cohesive facade to the world. It might give us more muscle with Congress and perhaps with the industries in which we work. And it may help us lose the mantle (sometimes well deserved) of being just a loosely associated collection of nerd scientists.

Robert R. Webb
San Diego

I am an emeritus member of ACS and, like Strickland, I am troubled that ACS is taking an "official position" on the causes of global warming, which are still not fully understood. In fact, I do not think that the function of ACS is to take official positions on issues such as this, which clearly has political implications. ACS should report on strictly scientific issues and remain impartial on controversial issues.

I am also against "polling the members" on such issues. Deciding scientific theories by majority vote is hardly the best way to conduct scientific endeavors and in any case usually arrives at incorrect conclusions. Anyone concerned with discussing climate change should certainly read the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change report (, as Strickland recommends in his letter. That includes those in ACS who have adopted an "official position statement on climate change."

Thomas D. Smith
Oak Harbor, Wash.

Ultimately, the debate about climate change—whether human activity has significant effects—needs to address making wise policy decisions, particularly, avoiding bad policy decisions.

With this in mind, it seems useful to consider the consequences of being wrong by making decisions based on humans-do-have-a-significant-effect (the do hypothesis) and the consequences of being wrong by making decisions based on humans-don't-have-a-significant-effect (the don't hypothesis), then avoiding the hypothesis with the most serious consequences.

On the one hand, it seems that the consequences of acting on the do hypothesis and being wrong are time and money wasted on unnecessary "fixes." On the other hand, it seems that the consequences of acting on the don't hypothesis and being wrong are political unrest (possibly wars) as coastal people are displaced and food production is reduced, as well as financial, as coastal cities are destroyed or protection for coastal cities is built. Eventually, the consequences of acting on the don't hypothesis and being wrong could mean the destruction of human life on this planet.

It seems reasonable, and more useful, to shift discussions from which side is right or wrong to more pertinent discussions about the consequences of making wrong decisions.

Robert G. Rein Jr.
Eugene, Ore.

I find it amazing that the ACS, made up of scientists who normally deal in facts, would use such a speculative statement in their official position on climate change. The July 27 editorial quotes the position statement as starting out, "Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth's climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing aerosol particles (IPCC, 2007). There is very little room for doubt that observed climate trends are due to human activities."

The fact that Earth's climate is getting warmer seems to have been well documented (although the very low temperatures in the northeast this past spring might throw even that into question). But blaming it on human activities seems to be speculative. Earth has gone through natural warming and cooling cycles for many years, so how do we prove this is not just a natural warming cycle? The only way I can see to prove conclusively that the current warming cycle is the result of human activities is to roll back the clock 100 years or so and then rerun those 100 years exactly the same way except with the elimination of all human-generated greenhouse gases and aerosol-absorbing particles. Then you could tell what the human contribution to current global warming really is.

Since that is obviously impossible, we can only speculate as to how much of the current warming trend is due to nature and how much is due to people. That we can't prove what the cause of current global warming is doesn't mean that we should not take reasonable precautions to minimize the emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosol-absorbing particles. These have been shown to be capable of causing atmospheric warming, so, while they may not be a major contributor to the current warming trend, it makes sense to take reasonable steps to minimize these emissions. But in doing this we need to remember that there is a big difference between taking reasonable steps and going crazy.

William Barringer
Pearl River, N.Y.


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