Nate Lewis
Chemistry Professor, CalTech
02:19

Rolling the Dice With Our Planet

To embed this video, copy this code:

The real issue is not whether we can prove that climate change will or will not occur within 30 years. It’s that we don’t really know for sure, but we only get to do this experiment once.

Nate Lewis

Dr. Nathan Lewis, George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry, has been on the faculty at the California Institute of Technology since 1988 and has served as Professor since 1991. He has also served as the Principal Investigator of the Beckman Institute Molecular Materials Resource Center at Caltech since 1992. From 1981 to 1986, he was on the faculty at Stanford, as an assistant professor from 1981 to 1985 and as a tenured Associate Professor from 1986 to 1988. Dr. Lewis received his Ph.D in Chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Transcript
Question: If an asteroid were heading towards us, the world would unite to meet the challenge. Why can’t we do this when it comes to the climate change crisis? 

Nate Lewis: There are two differences at least that I see between the asteroid problem as you’ve posed it and the climate change problem. First is the fact that you can’t see carbon dioxide. It’s a colorless, non-toxic to humans at some concentration, gas. On the other hand, how would you feel if everybody on the freeway, every mile they drove, stopped, opened their windows and dumped out a pound of trash? That’s exactly what we do, it’s just you can’t see that pound of carbon dioxide trash that comes out of everybody’s tailpipe on average every single mile we drive. 

The second thing is that if the asteroid were absolutely hitting the earth, we would probably really respond, but there’s some probability that it may get by and then we always have to understand the cost benefit analysis of do we act or not. The same thing is true with carbon dioxide emissions. We don’t absolutely know what levels of carbon dioxide are, or are not “safe.” And so we get into an actually, in my opinion, a very inappropriate discussion of whether or not we should take action or not. The real issue is not whether we can prove that climate change will or will not occur within 10 or 20 or 30 years. The real issue is that we don’t really know for sure, but we only get to do this experiment once. And if we get into a situation that we don’t like, we can’t do anything about changing it back to where it was. This is not a situation of sound science. It is all about rolling the dice once with the one planet that we have.

Recorded on February 3, 2010

×