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Two Views On Climate Change

April 16, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 16

William A. Levinson correctly asserts that Wall Street and other special interests see dollar signs in a cap-and-trade climate-change policy (C&EN, Feb. 20, page 4). As he points out, flying into Copenhagen in private jets, using gas-guzzling limos, and sleeping in $1,000-per-night hotel rooms are reliable indicators of what motivates them: money. It is unfortunate, however, that Levinson believes global warming is a scam and present-day climate change is just one more “undeniable fact of geological history.”

In his persuasive book “Storms of My Grandchildren” (C&EN, March 22, 2010, page 49), leading climatologist James Hansen refers to special interests as “the people in alligator shoes.” He argues convincingly that a complex bureaucratic cap-and-trade policy—more accurately, tax-and-trade policy—will not work and urges the adoption of a much simpler, effective approach called fee-and-dividend. In contrast to cap-and-trade, it would not take years of negotiations to put in place globally. A gradually increasing tax on carbon fuels imposed at the source and returned directly to citizens would encourage lifestyle changes needed to slow and ultimately stabilize Earth’s climate.

Eventually, renewable, nonpolluting sources of energy could compete economically with today’s nonrenewable, heavily polluting fossil fuels, and we would gradually be weaned from our dependence on fossil fuels. Altruism—caring about the well-being of our children and grandchildren and what kind of a planet they will inherit—would count; it would be meaningless under a cap-and-trade policy. Hansen’s fee-and-dividend testimony to Congress, along with his scholarly publications, is available at

A reading of “Storms” leaves one deeply impressed with the power of the scientific method and with an inescapable conclusion: Humans are causing global warming by burning fossil fuels and injecting massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Nature is trying to tell us something: It is not infinitely resilient to the assault. We are warned of the very real danger of runaway, amplifying feedbacks wreaking havoc. The melting Arctic ice, the melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and glaciers, and release of the powerful greenhouse gas methane from frozen tundra could take us past tipping points beyond which the dynamics of global climate could rapidly escape our control.

Meanwhile, we continue business as usual, dumping ever-increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and going to the ends of Earth to find even more carbon to burn.

By William T. Nolan

If climate-change-denier Levinson doesn’t want to be considered a “scientifically illiterate troglodyte” (his words), he should name specific issues that he can effectively dispute.

Here, for starters, is an incomplete list: (1) CO2 is formed when fossil fuels are burned. (2) The increase in total atmospheric CO2 over the past century is less than the equivalent from total fossil-fuel combustion (part is absorbed) and hence the increase is largely man-made. (3) Infrared absorption by CO2 is significantly greater than that by N2 and O2. (4) Increasing the absorption of infrared radiation passing through a gas heats the gas. (5) Warmer air can not only melt glaciers but also evaporate more water from oceans, lakes, etc. (6) Water vapor also absorbs infrared radiation, compounding the warming effect of the CO2. (7) The added water vapor duly condenses, releasing added heat into the atmosphere that can intensify the turbulence of the weather. (8) Slowing (or halting) the rate at which CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere would appear to be prudent. (9) Because the world’s supply of fossil fuels is limited, alternative sources will inevitably be needed—it would be selfish to leave the burden of finding them entirely to our children and grandchildren.

By Scott Lynn
Pleasant Hill, Calif


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