Friday, July 9, 2010

Climate Change and Sustainability debated: the Heat is ON

Last day the attendees of the 59th Meeting of Nobel laureates piled onto a futuristic looking boat and travelled to the beautiful island of Mainau for a panel discussion about sustainability and climate change.

The panel line up was pretty impressive: Rajendra Pachauri and Thomas Stocker from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), Nobel laureates Mario Molina and Richard Schrock, Cornelia Quennet-Thielen from the German Ministry of education and research, and author Bjorn Lomborg.

The discussion was on the beautiful island of Mainau, about two hours by boat from Lindau. The more than five hundred students, guests and journalists were sitting on chairs in the open air for more than two hours. The atmosphere was hot, humid and largely unpleasant. At the end of the discussion these qualities for the weather had translated into part of the tone of the argument.

The panel had come here specifically to spur their student audience into working towards fixing the global problems of climate change and sustainability – and whilst they all agreed something needed to be done (and fast), where young researchers should start looking for these solutions proved to be a far more difficult point to pin them down on.

Current approaches - such as solar panels, geoengineering and nuclear fission - were heavily criticized by various members of the panel. Causing one student attendee to stand up and ask for suggestions on what specific green technologies young researchers should be working on, the response? Silence, followed by question dodging. Pachauri did eventually suggest developing small turbines for use as biomass gasifiers and developing a route for turning agricultural cellulose waste into fuel at a local level.

Stocker focused on the actual physical effects of climate change including the melting of polar ice and the destruction of natural habitats. He also briefly discussed some of the measures that have been proposed for mitigating the problem but especially criticized geoengineering solutions, which he thinks would be unpredictable and expensive. But he is lukewarm towards geoengineering most of all because he thinks that it does not address the root cause and simply tries to make the problem disappear by pushing it under the rug.

Mario Molina has observed first hand the effects of human activities on climate at the most fundamental scientific level. He now spends part of his time at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California and part in Mexico. Molina works with economists and politicians in Mexico and California and tries to have a very well rounded perspective of the problem. Molina is also the only person at the Lindau meeting who included new generations of nuclear reactors as an important part of the solution to the climate change problem. In both his statement in the panel discussion as well as his earlier talk, Molina stressed his concern about tipping points which could cause irreversible changes in climate. We must not forget that the period of relatively temperate climate that we have been enjoying for about ten thousand years is a rare event in the climate history of our planet, an interglacial period between ice ages or glaciations. Ice ages seem to be earth's favorite state of being. At least based on her history, there is no reason to believe that our earth's climate would be extraordinarily resilient to large changes. Molina is concerned that tipping points induced by anthropogenic global warming might easily consign the earth to one of these common states.

The opening statements of the panel discussion were followed by a few questions. A common question was about how we could encourage ordinary people to do their bit against global warming and change their personal habits. I have not yet received the answer to this question and I don't think any of the panelists had a good one. But everyone acknowledged that only by providing information about the serious consequences of climate change on a personal level could one make a difference.

The question and answer session also turned into a heated debate when panelist Lomborg clashed over most of the others regarding the proper dissemination of information. Most panelists and especially Molina and Pachauri stressed the constant need for making sure that people have all the relevant information. Global warming has unfortunately become such a highly politicized issue that most of the time the information that people get is biased. However Lomborg challenged this view and said that careful studies indicate that information people had in 2008 was comparable to that in 1988 and yet people have not changed.

After much back-and-forth between members of the panel, the audience was invited to ask questions, but disappointingly there was time for only a few from the young researchers. One of the highlights, however, was when recent (GFP) Nobel Laureate Tsien stood up from the first row of the audience and challenged the panelists to give specific examples of scientific and technological research that the assembled audience should consider working on, noting that some of the brightest young scientific minds in the world were present. There really weren't very many focused answers, but solar energy and nanotechnology were mentioned — the consensus was that work should be done in many different areas.

Is this what will happen? Only time will tell. Human history has repeatedly and remarkably demonstrated that truth and wisdom can be snatched from the jaws of defeat and despair by human dignity, rationality and common sense. There is every hope that this will be the case with the problem of climate change, and it is only that hope that will keep moving us onward.
In December, the UNs Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will take place in Copenhagen, where the world’s political leaders will meet and hopefully agree a global plan on who cuts what and when - in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. If these targets are agreed – and this is still a big if – the world’s scientific leaders will need to work out what technology is needed to reach them. And from that day’s discussion it became abundantly clear to me that this may prove to be an even bigger problem.


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