How does rising atmospheric CO2 affect marine organisms?

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Show Us the Science
Volume 1, Number 2: 1 October 1998

In the box office hit Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise plays an aggressive sports agent who questions the ethics of his occupation.  After printing his opinions in a company memorandum, Jerry is relieved of his position in a large management agency.  When he attempts to take some of his clients with him, the agency is able to dissuade all but one from leaving.  This athlete, a pro football player, tells Jerry that he will go the distance with him on one condition.  "Show me the money," he says, just show me the money.

This simple phrase -- show me the money -- is a powerful expression that reaches far beyond the movie screen.  It is the bottom line of nearly all business transactions, the place where the rubber truly meets the road.  Likewise, in essentially all fields of endeavor, there typically is some overriding and all-powerful criterion upon which we base our decisions.  And in this regard, concern for the environment should be no different; but instead of "show me the money," the operative phrase when dealing with the future of the biosphere should clearly be "show me the science."

Far too often, we see material that boldly proclaims that the rising CO2 content of earth's atmosphere is causing global warming, that it is wreaking havoc all across the earth, that we must do something to stop it, and that we must do it now, regardless of the cost.  When carefully studying such materials, however, one key ingredient is often missing or greatly maligned -- something that would have a science referee throwing up a penalty flag in disgust.  This ingredient is a proper regard for, and clear exposition of, the data and reasoning upon which such statements are supposedly based.

Consider the classic claim that "climate change is the greatest environmental challenge facing the world today."  First of all, is the climate really changing?  If so, by how much and on what time scale?  Show me the pertinent data if you want me to even consider your position on this topic.  Is warmer (as is usually implied in such proclamations) worse than cooler?  Give me your reasoning based on experiments or observations that broach this question; and if your arguments are sound, I may be forced to concede your point.  What other environmental challenges did you consider in deciding that climate change was the greatest threat currently facing the planet, and how did you objectively compare them?  Show me the results of your analyses; and if I find them convincing, I may even join your crusade.  Is CO2 (again, as is typically implied) responsible for any climate change that may be occurring?  Make your best case for this supposition with whatever climate-modeling approach you feel is justified -- but be sure to back it up with real-world data -- and I may be persuaded to become your ally.

What about the other side of the story?  Are you ignoring any positive effects of elevated CO2?  There are generally two sides to every issue; and objective seekers of truth will want to know the "whole truth."  And more often than not (but not always), the whole truth cuts both ways, with positive and negative consequences at one and the same time.  And when this happens, we must judiciously weigh all the pros and cons in formulating a position on the topic.

Yes, show me the science, and show me all of it, if you expect to convert me to your cause.  Everyone wants to do what is best for the earth (or should want to); but gut feelings, personal convictions and political philosophies just don't cut it.  The peer-reviewed scientific literature is the coin of the realm on the field of scientific debate.  If you think you know what is best for the planet and have a plan for its stewardship, show me the observations and analyses in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that support your view.  Anything less is insufficient at best and disingenuous at worst.  And if you don't have the data to support your claim, you must seriously consider the very real possibility that you may be espousing an errant hypothesis.  I think about this possibility every time I pick up a new journal and begin to peruse its pages.  Do you?

In the end, we all must be open to receiving and objectively evaluating the never-ending flow of newly-discovered scientific information.  And we must be willing to alter our views as the unfolding evidence warrants.  If we do not, the world will pass us by and we will become but an archaic curiosity, holding fiercely but uselessly to antiquated ideas that have long since lost their once-perceived validity.

Yes, show me the science, and keep showing it to me.  We have not yet arrived at the end of the road that leads to complete understanding of the complex and multifaceted role of atmospheric CO2 in regulating earth's climate and biosphere.  And it is crucial that we reach that understanding.

Dr. Craig D. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President
1 October 1998