Pharyngula

Auf wiedersehen, Lindau!

Yesterday was my last day in Lindau, I’m sorry to say — it was also the day of the closing ceremonies on the island of Mainau, in case you were wondering why it was so quiet on the blog. I decided to leave all my electronical gear behind at the hotel and venture out for the last session with a stark naked brain.

The day began with a walk down to the harbor to board the Sonnenkönigin, a very impressive ship that can only be inadequately be called a ferry. We were welcomed aboard with a glass of wine or a glass of juice if you felt 8 am was a little early to begin, and tables heaped with food. One thing I’m going to miss a great deal when I get back to Minnesota is good bread — the stuff that is chewy and substantial and has all this flavor. Bread back home is a kind of glorified aerogel, a pale and puffy spongy substance.

We also got some musical entertainment, and a lot of hard sell for the German province of Baden-Württemburg. They can do everything, except speak proper German (really, it’s their motto: “Wir können alles. Außer Hoch-Deutsch.”) They put on a good show with lots of exhibits touting their support for basic research and industry — if nothing else, I’m convinced they value the practical benefits of science enough to heavily recruit mobs of graduate students.

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Mainau is a lovely island in Lake Constance, topped with an old baroque Schloss and filled with gardens and walking paths. We were there for a final panel on sustainability. The panel consisted of four nobelists, Pachauri, Molina, Schrock, and Stocker, one government minister, whose name I’ve probably misspelled since her tag was turned away from me — Quellen-Thielen, I believe — and one annoying crackpot, Bjorn Lomborg, who really didn’t belong up on the stage. Even as insubstantial as he was, though, Lomborg did agree, along with every one else, that climate change and global warming are real phenomena. Here’s a short summary of what they said.

Pachauri: Our big problem is unsustainable growth. It’s inevitable and desirable that third-world economies expand, but the old strategies of exploiting fossil fuels aren’t going to work.

Lomborg: While global warming is real, it’s not a crucial problem, since it will only cost 0.5% of world GDP to cope with it. He’s pro-development, and thinks, for example, that while global warming may increase the incidence of malaria by 3% more, we ought to be focusing on the 100% of malaria cases occurring now rather than trying to reduce the 3%. We need to invest in better technology, but imposing limitations on CO2 emissions now is fruitless.

Molina: We aren’t taking the right path in growing economies — we need to convince the world that building sustainable energy supplies and limiting environmental damage now is the best viable long-term strategy. He had to take a poke at Lomborg, too: putting a dollar value on irreversible changes is inappropriate and misleading. Focusing on one aspect of the problem and calling the cost increases and human losses manageable hides the risks of passing a tipping point. He favors, as an important early step, incorporating the costs of externalities such as CO2 emission into the economy.

Quellen-Thielen (sp?): Germany takes climate change seriously, and the government sets policies and targets for emissions. They also materially support new technologies, like photovoltaics. These actions have not harmed the economy but instead have created new jobs and positioned Germany as a global leader.

This prompted one of the more obnoxious jabs from Lomborg, who literally sneered at German environmental efforts, pointing out that all the photocells Germany has built are already obsolete, and that it was just money thrown down the drain. Throughout, Lomborg took the attitude that direct action now is inefficient, and that we’re better off waiting for new technologies to emerge, at which time the magic of the market will kick in and our problems will go away. Quellen-Thielen reasonably pointed out that their development now means they’ve got a leg up, that they’re obtaining a reasonable fraction of their energy directly from the sun right now, and they are also building the industrial infrastructure to build on new ideas quickly.

Schrock: He was a bit out of place here; I think the presence of Lomborg effectively derailed the whole panel away from a discussion of a diversity of solutions to the global warming and into a wasted defense of the rightness of taking any policy action at all. Schrock clearly wanted to talk about catalysis and the importance of chemistry in generating technical solutions, and advocated more investment in basic as well as applied research — he fears that we could lose the potential for long-term improvements in a frantic search for solutions we can implement right now.

Stocker: he also spoke against the bean-counter on the panel, pointing out that the 2003 heat wave killed thousands, and within 30 years, that kind of event will likely have a frequency of every other year. He thinks global warming is a misnomer: it’s more than just a temperature shift, but it’s going to lead to a sea level rise, changes in the availability of water resources in some of the most heavily populated areas of the world, and is going to trigger resource wars that will be devastating. He pointed out that this really is an anomalous event in our history, that CO2 is 29% higher than at any time in the last 850,000 years. He believes we need a globally binding emissions target set right away.

So it was a mildly interesting discussion, but it could have been so much better — I suspect someone noticed it was hard to find a strong contrarian among Nobel prize winners, and decided to bring in a last-minute alternative view. Unfortunately, Lomborg’s basically an advocate for do-nothingness and did nothing but distract the others from wrestling with more substantial ideas.

After sitting in the sun for this outdoor panel, I got a sunburn and a strong desire to escape, so I spent the time afterwards wandering about in the gardens. Then the best part, getting back on the Sonnenkönigin and being handed a big mug of cold beer as I boarded. I’m beginning to get the impression that all bier in Deutschland ist frei. That can’t be true, but empirically it seems to be the case. Or maybe it’s just Baden-Württemburg’s cunning plan to persuade us that southwestern Germany is paradise.

We had more entertainment on the trip back — Stuart Pivar was aboard, doing tricks with balloons! No, actually it was some other guy who made balloon molecules, as well as strange hats. I guess the guy just looked at me and decided I needed more tentacles.

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Do you want this to be the dominant image of atheism?

He also made a buckyball out of balloons, and guess who ended up wearing that on his head?

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Sir Harold Kroto

And that’s all there was. A great meeting overall, lots of fun, and lots of networking. The majority of the attendees are graduate students who are brought over to hob-nob with the biggest of the big-wigs of science, and most importantly, make international connections with their peers. Any graduate student readers of this post: ask around in your department if anyone knows about nominations for the Lindau meetings. They are definitely worth attending for young people wanting to get involved in this global enterprise called science.

One evening after the talks, when we were hanging about in a gasthof enjoying some good food and beer, the Countess Bettina Bernadotte stopped by our table (Yes! You also get to meet European nobility!), and we all talked a bit about the meetings. She’s the president of the council for the meetings, and puts a tremendous amount of effort and fund-raising to get them off the ground. When asked why she was doing it, the answer was simple: that while she gets no direct personal or material gain from the meetings, as a citizen of the world she feels an obligation to make a contribution to bettering the world’s knowledge, and this is an opportunity to foster a positive benefit to science. The whole meeting is built around giving young investigators connections.

Now I’m on my long, slow way home. It was worth it, and hope I can go again.

Tonight I’m in the city of Friedrichshafen, home of the zeppelin (I asked if there were any connecting flights by zeppelin, but I’m out of luck and will have to take an Airbus tomorrow, instead.) Then I’m off to Frankfurt, Philadelphia, and finally, Minneapolis. All should be smooth this time — I don’t have any too-short layovers on this trip.

Now I’m going to stroll about and use the Fourth of July to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the first transatlantic zeppelin flight — I noticed that there was a big brass band down by the harbor, with fellows in bright green uniforms and tall hats with tassels. It should be fun!