Global warming: Greek tragedy or preventable catastrophe?

When the controversial and talented physicist Edward Teller was doing a PhD. with the great Werner Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig, the question asked at the end of every group meeting that focused on a complex sequence of problems was "Wo ist der Witz?", supposed to be translated as "What is the point"? but more correctly translated as "What is the joke?". The joke part of it consisted of turning a wry eye at the world, donning the hat of the court jester who laughs even as the fire that he predicted would engulf the world rages on. The question about global warming that we ask is also "Wo ist der Witz"? and we only hope that the joke is not upon us and we can actually still get the last laugh. Whether we might was the topic of discussion of a panel on global warming on the final day of the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates at Lindau.

But first I want to apologize; I was unable to post for a couple of days because I was busy traveling by train and enjoying the German countryside. Unfortunately I was not able to savor the much discussed efficiency of the German railways- three of my trains were delayed by more than 30 minutes and one trudged into Magdeburg 3 hours late- but I was nonetheless quite satisfied that I could use such widespread public transportation over long distances. The convenience is undeniable.

That won't be the case now. I am on a flight back to the United States, where I won't have the pleasure anymore of using efficient public transportation. For some reason I get the feeling that I am making up for all the train rides in Germany by traveling home by air, not to mention by consequently resorting to driving my fossil fuel loving car.

Aircraft contribute massively to air pollution by emitting carbon and nitrogen oxides. In the 1970s Harold Johnston at the University of California, Berkeley began to examine the gases emitted especially by supersonic jets and their reactions in the atmosphere. Johnston conducted pioneering studies of ozone destruction, the first of their kind. Two researchers at the University of California, Irvine, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, picked up his work. Interested especially by the scope of Johnston's work on reactions of gases with ozone they began to explore reactions of other compounds with ozone, and especially those of halogens. In the 1980s they and other scientists obtained definitive proof that chlorofluorocarbons used in dozens of household products were reacting destructively with ozone. For their efforts Molina, Rowland and Crutzen received the Nobel Prize in 1991. The fourth man, Harold Johnston, was left out as has happened in many other Nobel-related cases. But his work endures. All three Nobel Laureates were at this year's Lindau meeting.

So the initial question; what do we do about the massive use of fossil fuel transportation in the United States? One suggestion that is now floated around by many scientists and policy makers is to impose a gas tax on the use of gasoline in cars. Nobody knows what the correct number for this tax would be. NASA's Jim Hansen who is called the "father of global warming" has proposed a tax of one dollar per gallon. Some think this is too high. In any case, simply imposing a tax is going to elicit howls from the people if there is no alternative to driving cars. However, there are several people who think that the tax may be the only or best option. One of these people is Mario Molina.

Mario Molina took part in the panel discussion on climate change on the last day of the Lindau meeting. He was joined by two other Nobel Prize winners; Rajendra Pachauri who is chairman of the IPCC and Richard Schrock of MIT. The panel also included Prof. Thomas Stocker from Bern who is a scientist with the IPCC and Cornelia Quennet-Thielen, the state secretary. The last person on the panel was a specifically chosen adversary; Bjorn Lomborg, who has been long vilified as a climate change 'denier'. Lomborg is a professor at the Copenhagen Business School and became infamous for authoring two books, The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It that criticized environmentalists for exaggerating the problems and policy-makers for focusing on the wrong solutions. But Lomborg is not a denier, at least not now and surely not a completely uninformed one. And he is not a knee-jerk rebel who does not back his assertions with facts. Otherwise his presence on such panels would not have been welcome. Instead Lomborg has turned into playing the devil's advocate, trying to moderate the concern about global warming. He tries to act as a foil to what is perceived as widespread consensus. The Linda organizers clearly thought his input would be valuable, if controversial.

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 discussion was moderated by Geoffrey Carr who is a British economist. He asked each of the participants to make a five-minute opening statement which was going to be followed by a question and answer session. Pachauri started by stressing the importance of sustainable development and how changes in lifestyle, habits and local as well as global policies are going to necessary for such development. He also reemphasized how pernicious the effects of global warming can be, and how quick action is necessary. In his statement Pachauri was essentially echoing the consensus of the IPCC, the organization that won a Nobel Prize under his leadership. The IPCC consensus is considered the most exhaustively detailed and studied consensus on climate change, generated by the work of thousands of scientists and policy makers around the world. In his statement Pachauri did what the IPCC does best, lay out the facts and drive home the serious nature of the problem.

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.

Molina's statement was followed by Cornelia Quennet-Thielen's and Schrock's. Quennet-Thielen focused on Germany's contribution to mitigating climate change. Germany has installed the largest connection of wind farms in the world and is also the largest exporter of wind turbines. It has also committed large resources and funds to installing solar panels. Germany has also phased out the building of new nuclear reactors. The merits and drawbacks of all these policies are not certain and the phasing out of nuclear energy seems to be especially unfortunate, considering the safety and efficiency of the new generation of nuclear reactors. Richard Schrock is a chemist, a dedicated scientist who has spent his entire career working out the minute details of organic reactions that he along with others fine-tuned into potent instruments for producing valuable substances like drugs and polymers. Keeping true to his field of expertise, Schrock emphasized the role of chemistry in producing novel technologies for combating climate change. One of the most promising chemical technologies is the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen, one of the holy grails of science, which plants have conquered billions of years ago. Developments such as those spearheaded by Daniel Nocera of MIT might go a long way in making such technologies a practical possibility. However I would have liked to hear much more about new technologies from Schrock. Perhaps he is just exploring the landscape right now before making forays.

It was Bjorn Lomborg's turn next. Lomborg is an economist, not a scientist. He is also suave, well-read and speaks almost perfectly grammatically correct English. He peppers his words with anecdotes, numbers and wit. Among all the people on stage Lomborg was probably the best and most effective speaker. That is what makes him a worthy adversary. That also means that we need to be constantly wary of him.

Lomborg did not deny the fact of climate change or the contribution of human activities to it. However he reiterated the points he has made in his other talks, interviews and writings. Lomborg's focus since the beginning has been on what he considers are the exaggerated effects of global warming in certain quarters. For instance he has long since been an advocate of the benefits from warming that would accrue for people living in cold parts of the world like Siberia or Greenland. Being an economist Lomborg has also analyzed the possible future allocation of financial resources to solutions for warming. Lomborg thinks that at least in some areas financial resources could be spent much more fruitfully doing things other than battling the consequences of warming. In his statement for instance, Lomborg talked about studies indicating that because of the increased hospitability of once colder locations for mosquitoes due to warming, the global incidence of malaria would go up by three percent. Lomborg noted that the fatality rate from malaria already runs into the millions. Should you use money for combating global warming that would increase this number by three percent, or would you rather use it for battling the other factors that lead these millions to be afflicted with the disease in the first place, such as mosquitoes, drinking water and malnutrition?

Lomborg's viewpoint should not be flippantly discarded out of hand. The allocation of resources to mitigating specific consequences of global warming is a sensible and cogent problem. Yet I have always thought that Lomborg is being intellectually dishonest when he talks about what he thinks is faulty resource allocation. For one thing, resource allocation is not always necessarily a binary choice, although Lomborg makes it sound like that. Secondly, Lomborg resorts to one of the oldest strategies of debate; cherry-picking and taking a one-sided view of the situation, and I think that here he oversteps into scientific territory. For instance, would the benefits to people living in cold areas really outweigh the hazards to people elsewhere? What about the overwhelming exodus of people from the previous warm areas who will now start migrating to the previously cold areas? And would the number of people in cold places whose lives would be saved by warm weather really vastly outweigh the number of people whose lives and property would be destroyed by rising sea-levels for instance? In all his interviews, talks and books that I have come across, Lomborg has always tried to put a positive spin on the effects of global warming. However when it comes to the effects of global warming, selective optimism is only going to harm us. Pragmatic thinking that considers all sides of the issue is the only realistic way forward.

Having said that, let me not completely discount the value of Lomborg's thinking. One of the important realizations emerging from recent studies and such discussions is that the problem of climate change is one that is as much within the domain of economists as scientists. The science is now largely accepted although many details still need to be ferreted out and new discoveries will undoubtedly continue to be made. But once we start talking about how best to manage the consequences of climate change within our limited budgets, the problem essentially becomes an economic problem. The future of climate change needs to be spearheaded by economists at least for a while. An analysis of budget allocation for dealing with climate change is one that will challenge and sharpen the minds of our best economic theorists and policy makers. For instance Yale economist William Nordhaus has laid out one of the most notable strategies which involve the mechanism of discounting that is familiar to all economists. In his book Nordhaus criticizes both Al Gore and Nicholas Stern for suggesting policies that ignore discounting and are too draconian. Nobody knows who is right, but we need professional economists like Nordhaus to put forward thoughtful proposals for targeting various consequences of climate change. This panel discussion as well as the initial one discussed earlier made it clear that most Nobel Prize winning scientists, perhaps not surprisingly, are not much more informed about the economics of global warming than are intelligent laymen. A sound strategy for tackling climate change can only come about when scientists and economists work together, each side complementing the knowledge that it lacks using the other side's expertise.

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. Yet the question stands; how do you convince, say, a farmer in China or Africa who is having trouble putting food on his family's table, that he should save electricity by switching to fluorescent light bulbs? Such problems are usually remote from the minds of the hundreds of millions of poor people who could care less about climate change and who care more about where their next bag of rice is going to come from. One feature of global climate change is that it is not always abrupt and it is not always possible to point to a particular climate event and ascribe it to global warming. The problem of how to convince hundreds of millions to pay attention to climate change especially when they are aspiring to live third world lifestyles may indeed be the most pressing and challenging problem in the field. In this context panelist Pachauri raised an interesting issue when he said that in the slums of Mumbai one finds incredibly poor families who don't have furniture in their one-room home but who do have brand new TV sets on which they are watching American soap operas. Clearly if the developed world sets an example many of the developing countries' poorest are going to follow it. This is not a call for moral action- it very well might be- but more simply an elucidation of a cause and effect relationship. The world is not so much about right and wrong as it is about action and reaction.

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. This statement rose more than a few hackles. Panelist Stocker indignantly said that Lomborg is assuming that people actually had full knowledge of the problem in 2008 when his own two books contributed to misinformation about climate change. I have to agree with Stocker here since Lomborg is not being completely intellectually honest. Plus, is the knowledge that people had in 1988 really comparable to that they had in 2008? I doubt it.

Perhaps the most startling moment came when someone in the audience asked if it would be necessary to suspend democracy for effecting climate change regulations. That such a suggestion can even be considered is a sign of how desperate some think the situation could become. Pachauri said that democracy should not be suspended, but people should make efforts on a war footing of the kind that they made when Churchill called upon them to make tremendous sacrifices during the Second World War. But this example raises probably the most serious dilemma about the climate change problem. The British people took up Churchill's soaring exhortations with alacrity because the country was in obvious mortal peril and could have been overrun in a short time by Hitler had it not been fully prepared. Climate change is an even more pressing need, but most of its effects are spread over relatively long periods of times, and even there it is not always easy to attach specific causes to specific events. How do you convince people that such events should galvanize them the same way that a possible invasion of their country galvanized them in 1940? This question is perhaps deeper than any of the participants on that day thought to discuss.

Then the questions turned to Kyoto. Many have now admitted that Kyoto has been unsuccessful with more than half of the signatories not adhering to the targets. At this point Lomborg made an interesting statement; that setting targets usually goads people into using existing technologies than creating new ones. I am not sure why this would be so. Minister Cornelia Quennet-Thielen strongly disagreed with Lomborg and said that Germany had invested heavily in solar power after Kyoto, but Lomborg questioned how effective this has been. There is a new meeting in Copenhagen that is again going to focus on targets and consensus. Overall Lomborg was extremely wary of such meetings, saying everyone who comes there agrees and decides to do something and gives beautiful speeches, but nothing is actually done. Citizens don't always follow the guidelines. At this point Pachauri made the rather remarkable prediction that after Copenhagen this year, people will vote governments out of office if they don't combat climate change. Given what has happened earlier this might not be impossible, but I cannot see it being manifested dramatically anytime soon. Let's hope the world's citizens prove me wrong and Pachauri right.

In the end, any progress against global warming is going to dependent as much on basic scientific research as any other factor. The development of new technologies to mitigate the severity of the problem is going to come from bright young researchers investigating the interesting properties of fuels, materials and living systems. Roger Tsien who won the chemistry Nobel Prize last year rose rather animatedly from his chair for a comment and said that this lesson should never be forgotten, that attention to basic science should never falter and in fact should receive a significant boost. To this end, he asked the panelists what specific technologies they see as contributing to the solution. One of Tsien's goals was for the young researchers gathered at Lindau to get a perspective on the future. In this context no one technology is going to be a panacea and only a combination would help. Only Molina mentioned nuclear power, while most others mentioned solar and wind power, biofuels and cellulose gasification. Each one of these has problems- for instance base-load power needs to be provided when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing- but Schrock underscored the always open-ended nature of research which holds endless promises.

Nobody mentioned what might turn out to be a revolutionary technology; the development of genetically engineered carbon-eating plants that could carpet lost forest areas. Considering that the twentieth century would likely be a century of biotechnology this does not sound so far-fetched, and both Freeman Dyson and William Nordhaus have suggested this. Dyson's main premise for the suggestion is the basic observation that plants exchange carbon dioxide with the atmosphere more rapidly than any other entity. I believe that this technology should be considered very seriously.

This was when the discussion came to an end. However I could not shake off a strange feeling of déjà vu, a feeling that endured long after I left the hot and humid location to wander around in more temperate areas of the beautiful island. Lifestyles changes, solar power, attitude changes, education, comprehensive information access; hadn't we all heard these issues being discussed hundreds of times before? In one way, the panel had the strange air of a group of retired, proper ladies meeting for tea and holding forth with erudite opinions on the state of humanity. Of course the panelists were much more experienced and wise, and yet their pronouncements had a strange analogy with the pronouncements of the prim, old ladies. But a better and more disturbing analogy is a Greek tragedy, where the world inevitably hurtles towards destruction even as its denizens sit around a table year after year and discuss how to save it.

Is this what will happen? Only time will tell. But unlike Greek tragedies, 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.


All english entries of our blog can be found here. And there is a section with interviews with Nobel Laureates.

 » Ashutosh Jogalekar studied chemistry and is currently a postdoctoral fellow. Ashutosh_45.jpg


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Oh great Cowan wants to make the whole lack of evidence-based policy even wosrse by doing a bit of social engineering as well. The stated purpose of carbon taxes is NOT to promote 'equity'; it is to change consumer behaviour in favour of new/alternative energy sources and/or to use less energy from existing sources in order that the economies and businesses will move to a less carbon-intensive position. Stop with all the moralising - this is not about ethics or morality it is about science. And that debate is far from settled. PS the trains, planes and automobiles debate is also not settled - see Mikhail V Chester and Arpad Horvath, Environmental assessment of passenger transportation should include infrastructure and supply chains. Environ. Res. Lett. 4 (2009) 024008 (8pp)

By john bates (not verified) on 13 Jul 2009 #permalink

The information that people have in 2008 they did not have in 1998 is that the planet has been cooling for those 10 years. Knowing that the planet is cooling despite rising C02 levels makes AGW look like the hoax that it is. Lomborg has said many good things, like deciding where money should be spent, adapting or trying to fight climate change. Fighting climate change is like the war on absolute waste of money. Lomborg also said that instead of raising energy prices so that people use less (really, try not to turn on your furnace when you are freezing), governments should make renewable energy so cheap that we all want to use it. To do that, the money must be invested into research to perfect renewable energy and make it afordable.

Furthermore, the emission cut legislation that was passed by the US House of Representatives (called "ACES") mandates over a wildly unrealistic 80% cut by 2050