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Prudence Misapplied
Volume 3, Number 29: 1 November 2000

In the 25 August 2000 issue of Science, Philip H. Abelson introduces his Editorial on "Limiting Atmospheric CO2" with the statement that "worldwide emissions of CO2 continue to increase, and prudence dictates that technologies be developed to help limit this trend," whereupon he launches into a detailed discussion of ways to achieve this goal.  Unfortunately, his entire analysis is moot.

The problem with Abelson's thesis derives from his use of the word prudence; he employs it in such a way as to suggest it possesses almost Deity-like qualities.  His invocation of the word in his introductory statement, for example, tends to confer an aura of absolute truth upon all that follows, as if God himself had spoken and everyone must bend their wills to his.   But such is not the case.

In the book of meanings we normally consult when faced with challenges of this sort - Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary - the word prudence is defined as "the habit of acting with deliberation and discretion," suggesting a much more cautious approach to complex issues than the unthinking dictatorial one implied by Abelson.   In fact, its definition does pretty much just the opposite of what the former editor of Science attempts to do, as indicated by the use of the word in a sentence selected by the Dictionary's editors to illuminate its proper application: "It would be the point of prudence to defer forming one's ultimate irrevocable decision so long as new data might be offered," which opinion was rendered over two centuries ago by none other than George Washington.

The father of our country well knew whereof he spoke; and we would be wise to heed his sound advice.   Is it not possible, or even likely, for example, that there are, indeed, potentially "new data" that may yet be reasonably expected to come forth - or even unappreciated old data - that might cause us to reconsider the "ultimate irrevocable decision" that technologies be developed to help limit the ongoing increase in worldwide CO2 emissions?   Only a fool would shut his eyes to the possibility.

Consider our own recent paper (Idso and Idso, 2000) - see our Journal Review Will There Be Enough Food? - wherein we demonstrate that without the added benefit of the aerial fertilization effect of the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 concentration, the nations of the earth will find it extremely difficult to harvest enough agricultural produce to sustain the planet's projected population a mere fifty years hence.  Is it prudent, in the light of these "new data," to dictate the adoption of policies that would actually reduce mankind's ability to feed itself?  We think not.

Consider also the implied assumption behind Abelson's use of the word prudence: that there is no question but what the earth will experience counterproductive changes in climate as a direct consequence of the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content.  Although accepted by many as fact, this assumption is clearly false; for there are many questions being asked by many people who have studied the subject for many years.  The recent paper of Hansen et al. (2000) comes to mind in this regard (see our Editorial of 16 August 2000 and our Journal Review Then Again ? Rethinking Climate Change), wherein he and his colleagues suggest that the net climatic effect of the burning of fossil fuels over the entire course of the Industrial Revolution is zilch!   And if there are serious questions about the CO2-climate connection, can it be prudent to turn a deaf ear to them and pretend they don't exist?   Again, we think not.

In light of these observations, it is sad to see such an otherwise thoughtful person as Abelson getting the policy-cart so far ahead of the scientific-horse in this matter of grave international concern.  It is even sadder to find his prescriptions for the future published in Science's "Compass," a prestigious section of the journal described as a place devoted to "scientists orienting scientists," for in the case at hand, the navigational tool of the trade may well be pointing readers in the wrong direction.  True prudence thus dictates we make a significant course correction.

Wait a minute.  Did we say prudence dictates?  What we really meant is we should act with "deliberation and discretion" and not rush headlong into an "irrevocable decision" that could well prove our undoing in decades to come; for there are other data that are pertinent to the debate over CO2 and the environment, and they do tell a very different story than that implied by Abelson.   Look almost anywhere on our website and you'll see what we mean.

In conclusion, exercise your right - and responsibility! - to be truly prudent.   Examine all the data.  And think for yourself.

Dr. Craig D. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President

Abelson, P.H.  2000.  Limiting atmospheric CO2Science 289: 1293.

Hansen, J., Sato, M., Ruedy, R., Lacis, A. and Oinas, V.  2000.  Global warming in the twenty-first century: An alternative scenario.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA  97: 9875-9880.

Idso, C.D. and Idso, K.E.  2000.  Forecasting world food supplies: The impact of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Technology 7S: 33-56.