Climate Change and a Book Signing Event

On Monday evening in Boston, nearly 200 people gathered in a ballroom of the Seaport Hotel for the ACS Forum on Science & Consequences of Climate Change. The forum was sponsored by the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) and was an ACS Presidential Event. It was moderated by Charles Kolb, president and CEO of Aerodyne Research and chair of CEI.  To this reporter, the disconnects that are manifest in discussions of climate change were in full blossom on Monday. Earlier in the day, I had read a long op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Disaster at the Top of the World,” by Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada. Homer-Dixon opens his essay with observations from a Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker plying the Arctic Sea, and he writes: The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and this summer its sea ice is melting at a near-record pace. The sun is heating the newly open water, so it will take longer to refreeze this winter, and the resulting thinner ice will melt more easily next summer.  At the same time, warm Pacific Ocean water is pulsing through the Bering Strait into the Arctic basin, helping melt a large area of sea ice between Alaska and eastern Siberia. Scientists are just beginning to learn how this exposed water has changed the movement of heat energy and major air currents across the Arctic basin, in turn producing winds that push remaining sea ice down the coasts of Greenland into the Atlantic. Globally, 2010 is on track to be the warmest year on record. In regions around the world, indications abound that earth’s climate is quickly changing, like the devastating mudslides in China and weeks of searing heat in Russia. But in the world’s capitals, movement on climate policy has nearly stopped. Homer-Dixon argues in his essay that climate change may not be gradual and easily adapted to and that a “devastating climate shock” may well be delivered in a very short time period. He maintains that nations should be preparing a “Plan Z” to deal with such a climate crisis. In Boston, two speakers at the forum, Michael McElroy, the Abbott Lawrence Rotch Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and the Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Sciences at Harvard University, and James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard, presented, first, a primer on climate change and, second, an examination of anticipated climate change impacts. An ACS colleague who sat through these first two talks with me commented, “How can you possibly listen to these two talks and not be convinced that this is a serious problem?” The third talk, by John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center and distinguished professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and Alabama’s State Climatologist, made an effort to answer that question. Christy is not a climate change denier, but he is skeptical of the predictions of many atmospheric models that project significant increases in Earth’s temperature if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, and he presented a number of studies that called into question whether the models’ predictions matched measured temperatures. Christy’s presentation would have been more credible had he focused on fewer examples and done a better job explaining where his data had come from. Christy also echoed many of the climate change skeptics with less impressive credentials than his in his overall message, which was, basically, that climate change models don’t match actual temperature measurements (a lot of climate scientists don’t agree); that even if rising atmospheric CO2 levels are causing global warming, nothing we can do will make any difference; and even if we could do something about it, it would inflict an injustice on the world’s poor. Christy’s message, in other words, was a call for inaction. Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, where he is also the co-principal investigator of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, gave the concluding talk. Socolow primarily focused on the National Academies work on a major report on “America’s Climate Choices.” Four panels have already published their reports, and the final summary report will be released shortly. Socolow summarized the findings of the four panels and made a number of personal comments on those findings. Of the many trenchant points Socolow made in his talk, two stood out for me. When it comes to climate science and policy:
  • Never in history has the work of so few led to so much being asked of so many.
  • What has seemed too hard becomes what simply must be done.
One other note on a completely different subject: One of yesterday’s events at the C&EN booth in the exposition was a book signing. George M. Whitesides, a chemistry professor at Harvard University, and Felice C. Frankel, an award-winning science photographer who holds concurrent positions at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, signed copies of their new book, “No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale.”

Whitesides and Frankel at C&EN book signing event

Author: Rudy Baum

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