GUEST COMMENTARY: Science, not pundits, should determine effects of climate change

Monday, December 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:56 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Before joining in the national political sport of name calling, backbiting, and sloganeering, the first question that one should clinically address is: "Are human activities responsible for the observed increases in world temperatures over the past century?"

(There is no real question that the earth is warming. Some really competent members of the human race, now with the help of earth-orbiting satellites, have gotten very good at measuring temperature.)


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I am not qualified to answer that pivotal question. I am not even in the game. To really be "in the game," one must actually examine historical data, read volumes of pertinent technical literature, develop and test one’s own mathematically-based hypotheses and, finally, publish the results in peer-reviewed scientific literature where it can be challenged and, possibly, refuted. (From a strictly scientific standpoint, those who cannot or will not sacrifice the time required to formulate the problem in this fashion might be considered dilettantes, somewhat like the loud and shirtless fans criticizing the action at a football game.)

Instead, in our democratic society, even with questions of this magnitude and complexity, we are inclined to put them to a public referendum. Pundits abound. Scientific illiteracy is no barrier. Even the third graders at elementary school may voice their opinions for the media.

For a politician, a decisively held opinion on the matter of global warming is essential. Often, for self-described conservatives and others dreading the economic impacts of mitigation, the answer to an anthropomorphic warming component is a genetically-ingrained and resounding “No!”

Still, some concerned scientists and engineers have joined together to give the matter serious thought. After consideration, the American Chemical Society (at 129,000 members, the world’s largest scientific society) published its study group’s consensus in an ACS policy statement titled, "Global Climate Change."

In calling for the development and application of technology to “cost-effectively (most ACS members are keenly aware of the costs of energy and materials production) protect the climate,” the ACS policy statement argues that “deploying these technologies would reduce energy costs, increase productivity, improve the U.S.’s energy independence, improve air and water quality, and reduce environmental hazards, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

(Considering the multiple ancillary benefits, one might imagine that government sponsorship of the application of these technologies would be welcomed even were greenhouse gases not reduced.)

Addressing the probable impact of human activities, the ACS policy statement concludes: “The overwhelming balance of evidence indicates that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the prudent and responsible course of action at this time.” Moreover, “ACS believes that public and private efforts today are essential to protect the global climate system for the well-being of future generations.”

However, pursuing a prudent and responsible course of action in America is difficult because, when facing a national policy involving a change in lifestyle (particularly conservation), many U.S. citizens do not respond as "Americans." Some superelevate the economic interests of their state; some consider solely those of their city; others, still more narrowly, of an individual business or university; while the meanest among us defend their interests alone.

To the besieged administrator who adopts his primary accounting stance as "defender of the university budget" (rather than the future economic welfare of the nation), it might seem reasonable to not only oppose any measures which threaten to increase the financial burdens on the university, but, further, to argue that the problem is debatable — and may not even exist.

It has always struck me as especially odd that many of the those who most enjoy the prosperity brought by modern technology (and who also have faith that future technological developments will overcome current material and sociological problems, such as those created by uninhibited population growth), will turn to vilify that community of technologists when confronted with a message they prefer not to hear.

That seems a lot easier to do when you are not in the game.

John O'Connor is the retired chairman of the MU Department of Civil Engineering.

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Mike Sykuta December 14, 2009 | 11:42 a.m.

Given the vested personal interests members of the ACS would have in the funding and development of the technologies described, one could hardly consider their 'scientific assessment' as unbiased.

There are many scientists who specialize in the study of climate change, including at least one in our local community who was part of a Nobel-prize winning team of experts. His assessment, as I understand it from press reports and his personal web links, is that anthropogenic (man-made) climate change is insignificant at best.

Given the very real problems facing our world with much larger scope and that could be addressed right now with fractions of the resources required to have any meaningful effect on greenhouse gases and its implications one hundred years hence, perhaps we should focus our political, financial and human resources where they may do some demonstrable good. Google "Copenhagen Consensus" to see how some pretty serious scientists and scholars from around the globe have considered this problem of best use of resources where global warming in concerned.

(Report Comment)
Matt Wilkinson December 16, 2009 | 5:07 p.m.

Mike Sykuta,

There are many other groups or associations of scientists from various disciplines that have a similar stance to that of the ACS. Try the British Royal Society, the UK equivalent of the National Academy of Science, which has no affiliation to any particular industry.

John O'Connors piece is well thought out and delivered. At least he referred to a large group to validate his point rather than one questionable individual that you invoke.

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