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Nobel Laureates to World: Let’s Not Consume Ourselves to Death

Signing of Stockholm Memorandum, Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability)

Stockholm–With the arrival of King Carl XVI Gustaf at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and a presentation of “Only One Earth” by Andreas Carlgren, Minister for the Environment, the morning of day three at the Symposium on Global Sustainability had a high-level start.  But my head was still buzzing from the conversations with Nobel laureates in the 20-minute bus ride from downtown Stockholm.  Indeed, beyond the product of the Memorandum to be signed today at the Academy, the dialogues and relationships behind the scenes are unseen turning points of the event.

In one discussion with a laureate, we lamented the challenge of mapping how significant change takes place on the global and local stages.  And were we to more deftly track the levers of public opinion and policy, how much more effective might we be in avoiding the downside of what is being promoted here as the “Anthropocene” period in Earth history?  Humans are turning the planet and approaching 9 billion strong this century.

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Posted on Categories News, Science

Climate Scientist Fears His "Wedges" Made It Seem Too Easy

When the torrent of predictions about global warming got too depressing, there were Robert Socolow’s “wedges.”

The Princeton physics and engineering professor, along with his colleague, ecologist Stephen Pacala, countered the gloom and doom of climate change with a theory that offered hope. If we adopted a series of environmental steps, each taking a chunk out of the anticipated growth in greenhouse gases, we could flatline our emissions, he said. That would at least limit the global temperature rise, he said in a 2004 paper in the journal Science.

The Princeton colleagues even created a game out of it: choose your own strategies, saving a billion tons of emissions each, to compile at least seven “wedges,” pie-shaped slices that could be stacked up in a graph to erase the predicted doubling of CO2 by 2050.

It was a mistake, he now says.

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Posted on Categories Climate, News

When Scientists Confuse Cause and Effect

WSJCloudsScientists like to remind us not to confuse cause and effect. But they’re not immune from making that mistake themselves. Last week, for example, a flurry of sociological headlines emanating from a conference included the claim that elderly Taiwanese people who shop every day are 27% less likely to die over 10 years than those who shop once a week; and the claim that 16-year-olds who read books at least once a month are more likely to be in managerial jobs at 33 than those who read no books at 16.

It would be tempting but rash to conclude that shopping prevents death, rather than that ill health prevents shopping; or that reading causes career success rather than that a scholarly aptitude causes both reading and career success.

The nature-nurture debate has long been bedeviled by cause-effect confusion, as exemplified by the old joke: I’m not surprised that Johnny comes from a broken home; he would be enough to break any home.

Whole districts of Freudian theory are confused about cause and effect. For example, the incest taboo, forbidding people from mating with close relatives, turned out on closer investigation to be a codified expression of, rather than a cause of, incest avoidance. As Freud’s rival Edward Westermarck argued, there’s an innate tendency to develop revulsion at the idea of sex with close childhood contemporaries (who usually are siblings). A taboo turns this into a rule.


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Posted on Categories Climate, News, Science

A Record Making Effort

Economist Figure

On Thursday March 31st Richard Muller of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory gave evidence to the energy and commerce committee of America’s House of Representatives on the surface temperature record. Without having yet bothered to check, Babbage can say with some certainty that this event will be much discussed in the blogosphere—as, oddly enough, it should be.

Here’s the short version of the reason why: a new and methodologically interesting study, carried out by people some of whom might have been expected to take a somewhat sceptical view on the issue, seems essentially to have confirmed the results of earlier work on the rate at which the earth’s temperature is rising. This makes suggestions that this rise is an artefact of bad measurement, or indeed a conspiracy of climatologists, even less credible than they were before.

Now here’s the much longer version.

There are two topics which, more than any other, can be guaranteed to set off arguments between those convinced of the reality and importance of humanity’s impact on the climate and those not so convinced. One revolves around the question of how reliable, if at all, statements about average global temperatures before about 1500 AD are. This is the so-called “hockey stick” debate.

The amount of computer processing power and data storage capacity devoted to endless online discussions of the hockey stick— the subject featured in a great deal of the brouhaha over the “climategate” e-mails—must, by now, have the carbon footprint of a fair-sized Canadian city, which of course would worry one side of the argument not a whit.

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Posted on Categories Climate, News

Can a group of scientists in California end the war on climate change?

MullerIn 1964, Richard Muller, a 20-year-old graduate student with neat-cropped hair, walked into Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, and joined a mass protest of unprecedented scale. The activists, a few thousand strong, demanded that the university lift a ban on free speech and ease restrictions on academic freedom, while outside on the steps a young folk-singer called Joan Baez led supporters in a chorus of We Shall Overcome. The sit-in ended two days later when police stormed the building in the early hours and arrested hundreds of students. Muller was thrown into Oakland jail. The heavy-handedness sparked further unrest and, a month later, the university administration backed down. The protest was a pivotal moment for the civil liberties movement and marked Berkeley as a haven of free thinking and fierce independence.

Today, Muller is still on the Berkeley campus, probably the only member of the free speech movement arrested that night to end up with a faculty position there – as a professor of physics. His list of publications is testament to the free rein of tenure: he worked on the first light from the big bang, proposed a new theory of ice ages, and found evidence for an upturn in impact craters on the moon. His expertise is highly sought after. For more than 30 years, he was a member of the independent Jason group that advises the US government on defence; his college lecture series, Physics for Future Presidents was voted best class on campus, went stratospheric on YouTube and, in 2009, was turned into a bestseller.

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Posted on Categories Climate, News

Flame Off!: Turning Natural Gas Pollution into Gasoline

Rather than pollute the atmosphere by venting or flaring the natural gas that comes out of oil wells, a new technology would turn it into gasoline or other products

As if burning oil and all of its derivatives wasn’t bad enough for the environment, there’s also the natural gas that bubbles up as the oil is pumped out. This byproduct cannot be easily harvested in many cases—some oil fields are far from pipelines that can transport it and other options are very expensive. As a result, oil companies either release it into the atmosphere—a process known as venting—or burn it in a flare.

Using either method produces gases that the atmosphere doesn’t need more of: venting discharges methane, a potent greenhouse gas, whereas flaring generates carbon dioxide. The World Bank estimates that the 5.3 trillion cubic feet (150 billion cubic meters) of natural gas that bubbles up at oil wells worldwide adds some 400 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year—as well as more methane.

Existing technologies allow oil producers who cannot pump the natural gas into a pipeline to simply reinject it back underground, use it to generate electricity or, by installing a so-called Fischer–Tropsch conversion system, change the former nuisance gas into liquid fuel, among other options. But those approaches cost much more than the approximately 50 cents per thousand cubic feet (28 cubic meters) for flaring, and add up to millions of dollars for a large oil field. A Fischer–Tropsch system, for example, starts at a billion dollars.

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Posted on Categories Energy, News