Nearly 200 people attended the ACS Forum on Science & Consequences of Climate Change on Monday, Aug. 23, during the Boston national meeting. 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.
The forum was one component of CEI’s review of the ACS position statement on global climate change. Position statements must be reviewed every three years, and the statement on climate change is one of four being reviewed this year.
To this reporter, the disconnects that are manifest in discussions of climate change were in full blossom on that Monday. Earlier in the day, I had read an 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, in Waterloo, Ontario. Homer-Dixon opens his essay with observations from a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker plying the Arctic Sea, where temperatures are rising twice as rapidly as on Earth generally. He writes:
“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 a gradual process that humans can easily adapt to and that a “devastating climate shock” may well be delivered in a very short time period. He maintains that nations should be preparing plans to deal with such a climate crisis.
In Boston, two speakers at the forum, Michael McElroy, a professor of atmospheric and environmental sciences at Harvard University, and James McCarthy, a 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 a 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 he said called into question whether the models’ predictions matched measured temperatures. Christy’s presentation may 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, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, where he is also the coprincipal investigator of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, gave the concluding talk. In measured tones, Socolow talked of risks and benefits, of uncertainties in the science, and of the need for more research.
Nevertheless, two points Socolow made in his talk 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 has become what simply must be done.
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