If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Climate Schizophrenia

by Rudy M. Baum
September 5, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 36

That the discussion of global climate change has become utterly schizophrenic was dramatically demonstrated by a symposium—or was it symposia?—sponsored by the Division of Small Chemical Businesses at the Denver ACS national meeting.

The Sunday morning session featured five prominent climate scientists talking about measurements of how Earth’s climate is changing—and about how emissions of greenhouse gases are forcing that change. The afternoon session featured six speakers whose focus is undermining the data and analyses of scientists like the ones who spoke at the morning session. There was almost no overlap in the audiences.

Because of a prior commitment, I was able to attend only the first four of the morning session talks. Nevertheless, the talks built solidly on each other to make the case that humans are dramatically disrupting Earth’s climate.

Stanley E. Manahan, an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Missouri, Columbia, compared the current debate over climate change to the debate over chlorofluorocarbons and Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer 30 years ago.

Ted A. Scambos, the lead scientist at the National Snow & Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, observed that “the past two decades have seen large changes in Earth’s cryosphere, especially the Arctic sea ice and the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.” Arctic sea ice reached a record low in 2007, Scambos said, with 2011 “vying to set a new record.” The difference is that there were a number of exceptional factors contributing to the decline in 2007 that are not factors this year. “What was exceptional not long ago is now becoming the norm,” Scambos said.

David M. Anderson, of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Climatic Data Center in Boulder, discussed various aspects of paleoclimatology. Data from ice cores and oceanic floor cores provide good data sets on Earth’s climate dating back as much as 50 million years, Anderson said. Those data indicate that the natural variability of the surface temperature of Earth is small—about 1 °C—in the absence of a forcing factor. The data also indicate that Earth’s surface temperature is sensitive to the atmospheric concentration of CO2—to the tune of a 4–5 °C increase in response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2.

And Pieter P. Tans, senior scientist at NOAA’s Climate Monitoring & Diagnostics Laboratory in Boulder, presented definitive proof that the “increase in greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere is entirely due to our emissions. And the direct impact of greenhouse gases on Earth’s heat balances is known accurately.”

And the afternoon session? The speakers participated by webinar, which was fine except that the first speaker, William F. Stewart, a partner with the law firm NLdH, cut out for several minutes just after he had declared the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change an “overtly political process.” Stewart didn’t question whether atmospheric CO2 was rising or even that climate change was occurring. But he did suggest there wasn’t much anybody could do about it.

I only made it through two more of the six afternoon talks. Nir J. Shaviv, a physicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, drew a connection between sunspot activity, cosmic rays reaching Earth’s atmosphere, cloud formation, and global warming. Ross R. McKitrick, an economist at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, argued that climate-change data showing that Earth has warmed significantly over the past 30 years have been analyzed improperly and are wrong. There are thousands of climate scientists around the world working with a variety of data sets and a variety of analysis techniques, and they’re all wrong. McKitrick’s arrogance is nothing short of astonishing.

What amazes me about climate-change skeptics and deniers is their rejection of the principle of Occam’s razor. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, its atmospheric concentration has been rising for 150 years, Earth’s temperature is rising—these are empirical facts. Why do some individuals go to such lengths to deny their connection?

Thanks for reading.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.