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Maybe Some People Want Global Warming

January 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 4

Cheryl Hogue’s insights on our failure to address global climate change, as contrasted with earlier success on ozone depletion, seem correct and purposeful (C&EN, Nov. 21, 2011, page 29). She notes that people related well to risks of skin cancer resulting from ozone depletion attributed to synthetic chemicals and that the downsides of the phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons were of a lesser scope than what we face in the replacement of fossil fuels.

I believe the article misses one other emotional factor—the direction of the change. If we were facing global cooling, as opposed to warming, it is clear to me that the majority of people would be much more concerned about the situation. I observe among my colleagues and friends that the strongest skeptics of anthropomorphic warming predictions are the folks who like their offices and homes toasty warm, and I guess they would be stomping mad if the world were cooling significantly.

Simply changing the name of the problem from “global warming” to “global climate change” was clearly not effective in attenuating this bias, let alone in raising awareness of what climate experts warn will be extreme conditions. The last paragraph in the article suggests a public stress on the negative impacts warming will have on our lives. I agree, and I believe it would be well for public educational information to include pointed reference to the folly of thinking of the future as a nice trip to warm environments; think rather malaria, dengue fever, and other things tropical.

By John C. Thompson
Coatesville, Pa

There are multiple layers of questions, most of them unanswered, about climate change: First, are global temperatures rising enough to cause such change if they continue unabated, and are there natural forces adequate to keep them in check? The consensus at this time is “yes,” and “maybe not.”

Second, is global temperature enhancement desirable or not? As with most things, there will be winners and losers. But the last significant historical temperature increase, toward the end of the first millennium, appears to have produced more winners than losers, and the subsequent “Little Ice Age” midway through the second, gave us the Black Death and depopulation of, at least, Europe.

Third, is the global temperature increase man-made? We know mechanisms by which greenhouse gases increase temperatures, so the answer is “probably to an extent.” But there are also nonhuman causes.

Fourth, and most important, can intentional, government-driven changes in human activity ameliorate the “problem,” if it is a problem? The jury is still out on that one, and some suspect that such changes would be misanthropic in their intent and results.

Before we do anything more drastic, it would be best to employ our science to ask and answer more of these questions.

By W. Patrick Cunningham
San Antonio



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