"Global change"—a term that encompasses the size and impact of future climate change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions from human activity—is one of the most highly polarized topics in all of science. Scientific assessments of this impact have direct implications for key economic areas such as transportation, electricity generation, and heating and air conditioning. Large amounts of money hinge on governmental decisions about what energy policy to adopt in response to the problem, and this link makes global change a major political issue.
In the debate over global change, environmentalists tend to be arrayed on one side of the issue, concerned about damage to the environment if future fossil-fuel use causes large-scale climate change. Some industries take the opposing position that efforts to mitigate the impact of global change would be damaging to the economy. Numerous exceptions to these generalities can be found within both groups.
Because of this polarization, several disclaimers on my part are in order. I have never published an opinion piece on the global-change issue. I have never received any funding from either environmental or industry sources. All of my career funding has been from the government, and over 99 percent of it from the National Science Foundation, which is widely regarded by politicians of many views as the model of a well-run government funding agency (based on its reliance on competition and peer review). All of the funds used to write this book came from my retirement annuity earned at educational institutions.
Most of my research has been on climatic changes in the distant past, including the ice-age cycles of the last few million years, and the long-term cooling of the last tens of millions of years. I did address the global-change issue in a collegelevel textbook published in 2001. One reviewer cited that treatment as a model of balance, and the textbook has drawn no published criticism that I know of from either the environmental or industry extremes. In sum, I have no prior public record as an advocate on either side of this issue, and no financial interest in the outcome of the debate.
Nevertheless, I do have opinions on global change. Given the polarization around the current debate, I have chosen to isolate these opinions in this "editorial" section.
Distortions come from both extremes of the global-change debate (chapter 18). Environmental extremists are mostly prone to alarmist exaggerations, while pro-industry extremists systematically attack or even deny basic knowledge coming from mainstream science. In my opinion, these trends are reaching the point where they may do damage to the integrity of climate-science research.
Placed within the larger framework of environmental and resource concerns (chapter 19), global climate change does not rank as the as the largest problem facing humanity, even though the changes are likely to be large. In the short term, many other environmental concerns are already more worrisome, especially major ecological changes. Over the longer term, humanity's concerns will probably shift to the gradual depletion of irreplaceable "gifts" that Earth has freely provided, including fossil fuels, groundwater, and topsoil.
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