Few people today will recall what happened to the little Pennsylvania town of Donora in the fall of 1948 or what happened afterward, when it appears that two crimes were committed -- one by industry, the other by science acting as an accomplice.
Is it any wonder that progress on global climate change has been so slow? As the University of Washington ethicist Stephen Gardiner has recently argued, nothing in human experience has prepared us to deal with a problem that has such far-flung causes and uneven and momentous effects. No one source of emissions is to blame: Global warming springs from many acts of energy consumption over many years in many places across the planet. And if and when the temperatures and the seas rise, the toll will fall on some nations (mainly poorer ones) more than others, while the costs of any policy to avert warming will be distributed differently and require present generations to make sacrifices for future ones.
When the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry was announced last October in Stockholm, the new laureates -- Yves Chauvin of the Institute Français du Pétrole, Robert Grubbs of Caltech, and Richard Schrock of MIT -- won recognition for creating “fantastic opportunities for producing new molecules.” They had explained and developed a reaction known as metathesis, which allows chemists to selectively design organic molecules by trading atoms across different compounds. In search of an analogy to help the pubic grasp this concept, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences likened the process to changing partners in a dance. Then came the political statement: The advance represented a “great step forward for green chemistry,” the academy declared.