Thursday, January 18, 2018

How to convince the public of the danger of anthropogenic global warming




Last year, the vagaries of life led me to chair a commission charged with examining the candidates for the admission to the Italian Chemists Association. It was a rather formal exam that was supposed to provide the successful applicants with the legal status necessary, for instance, for certifying chemical analyses. Overall, the applicants did poorly, but one of them, a young lady, did much better than the others. So much that I thought I could encourage her to do even better. So, let me tell you about a question I asked her during the examination.


Me. Dear candidate, I would like to conclude this exam with a question that may be a little outside your area of expertise, but which I think will give you a chance to show your understanding of some basic concepts of chemistry. The question is: can you propose an experimental test that would prove that human-generated greenhouse gases are warming the Earth?

Candidate...............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

Me. It is not such a difficult question. I am only asking you to apply to the problem what you know of chemistry and of spectroscopy.

Candidate...............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

Me. Let me help you. Maybe you can start by telling me something about the thermal effects occurring when you expose an infrared active gas to infrared radiation.

Candidate...............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

Me. I am sure that you heard about global warming. Can you tell me what is the mechanism of the so-called "greenhouse effect"?

Candidate..........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................

Me. Well, I guess that it is time for the commission to retire to examine your application. You did well with the other questions, so don't worry.

____________________________________________


Now some comments:

- The question of the "proof" that humans are causing the observed warming is not an easy one to answer and indeed is a favorite question by anti-science trolls. For instance, this recent post on "Carbon brief" claims to bring this proof but if you examine it carefully, you'll note that it only proves the existence of a correlation between the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and the temperature. Which is a strong indication in favor of the current interpretation of global warming but, strictly speaking, not a proof. Correlation, as it is well known, doesn't mean causation. Conversely, you can find a good discussion on the empirical evidence of anthropogenic global warming based on spectroscopic measurements in this post on skeptical science. This is what I hoped the candidate would have been able to devise by herself.

 -  The students that come out of our classes are persons who know so much about so little that, if the trend continues, soon they'll know everything about nothing. The young lady I had been telling you about went through five years of training in chemistry at a high-level university (at least in terms of Italian standards). Yet, she had learned strictly nothing about climate change, an issue that involves the physical survival of humankind (and of that young lady as well). The decline in the preparation of students is a qualitative consideration of mine, but it is confirmed by almost everyone I know who is involved with what we call "higher education," and not just in Italy. How it has happened that universities transformed themselves from enlightening institutes into brain-dumbing machines is beyond me to understand. But I think it is, mostly, because our society doesn't reward people for being smart (unless it is Putin's fault - as always).

-  Climate science is difficult. The basic principles of climate science are not so difficult, but their implementation in the real world is devilishly complicated. Try to answer the question of why the stratosphere cools when the troposphere warms and you'll see what I mean. Devilish, indeed. So, when I read someone proposing to educate the public in order that they may understand climate science, well, it is a laudable idea, but so difficult to be impossible. There are some valiant efforts, such as the "climate kids" site created by NASA, but, really, most of the well-intentioned people who are convinced that anthropogenic global warming is real, think so because they trust the scientists. It is mostly a question of trust, not of data.

- Our strategic plan seems to have been, so far

1. We educate the public in science and in Climate Science in particular.
2. A majority of people understand that Anthropogenic Climate Change is real and dangerous.
3. They elect wise and enlightened leaders.
4. The world leaders act swiftly and effectively against Climate Change.
5. The problem is solved.

Hmmmmmm . . . .





8 comments:

  1. Ugo
    There is an update - you may have seen already - of comparisons with the PETM hyperthermal. I look forward to the full publication. Abstracts are here https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2017/09/hyperthermals/

    best
    Phil

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Our strategic plan seems to have been, so far

    1. We educate the public in science and in Climate Science in particular.
    2. A majority of people understand that Anthropogenic Climate Change is real and dangerous.
    3. They elect wise and enlightened leaders.
    4. The world leaders act swiftly and effectively against Climate Change.
    5. The problem is solved.
    Well . . . ."


    “if there is a conflict between what you say and what you do, what you do will convey a much stronger message’ - Dennis Meadows

    we are not doing anything substantive, all we're doing is talking about it, theatre, scapegoating or some combination. We are still flying from all over the world to go to an IPCC conference about the dangers of flying all over the world and those on the inside seem bemused when those on the outside are mildly incredulous

    Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves -
    Leo Tolstoy

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    Replies
    1. "3. They elect wise and enlightened leaders."

      I think I see your problem.

      "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made" Kant

      Global warming is really only a threat if it triggers a major nuclear exchange, which is possible, but it had better hurry as there are other possible triggers way ahead of it.

      As long as we avoid a full-blown launch between the major powers we will continue to muck along waiting for the SMOD (as we evolve).

      another fred

      Delete
  3. It is of course sad that not even universities are able to educate their own graduates in Climate Science, or at least give them the tools to make sense of it by themselves.

    Or at the very least to work out the guts to improvise an answer during what is probably their life's most important exam.

    But I find the idea of "solving climate change" misdirected. The idea that a small elite of enlightened intellectuals convinces the majority and that democratic rule will solve the problem is delusional.

    We can barely sketch what the problem is, and we have very little idea of what the solutions are. We do not have the slightest idea of how society and the environment will react to the solutions, if we ever implement them.

    Reducing emissions will probably need economic stagnation or decline. We already have tremendous resentment against elites everywhere in the Western world. It will get worse as the economy worsens.

    What makes people think that social structures will just stay intact and fight global change while they are at it?

    Democracy at its best finds mediocre solutions to small problems: it is just not the right tool to take radical decisions on very large problems.

    Eventually there will be less people on the planet who will use less fossil fuels and pollute less. We are just not going to get there in a planned way.

    ReplyDelete
  4. 1. We educate the public in science and in Climate Science in particular.
    2. A majority of people understand that Anthropogenic Climate Change is real and dangerous.
    3. They elect wise and enlightened leaders.
    4. The world leaders act swiftly and effectively against Climate Change.
    5. The problem

    Ugo, I love your synopsis of the Great Climate Change Action Plan!

    What a tangle. One thing I've noticed is how much the intellectual elite overestimate the educability of the population. Between the unyielding bell curve, constant entertainment and the knowledge and curiosity crushing educational system, what is to be expected?

    A second element is that generally we believe in things that make us feel good. Usually that means something that brings tangible material benefits in the short term, or acts as a pleasant emotional pacifier without any real cost. Do we expect to convince people hacking the Amazon jungle to stop, stay poor and buy less things? We can't even get wealthy neighbours to stop frivolous and elective tree cutting, much less leave their car on the driveway.

    Third, wise leaders... Which leader gets elected that is not perceived as wise? Their wisdom is focused on their very clear understanding of another bell curve, this one plotting gullibility. People who crave power take power.

    Fundamentally why would this power hungry elite enact things that would destabilize their status? Large masses of people seeing their standard of living sliding down get unruly and would vote them right back out to say the least.

    You are certainly giving me some Ideas for things to write about on my own ( very modest ) blog!

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  5. By coincidence I heard of a lecturer at a British University who was dismayed that so many of the first year biology students thought that climate change (warming) would result in a drop in sea level because of greater evaporation. At least they will get a better education from now on.

    When I was briefly teaching school-age children 50 years ago they learnt about the hydrological cycle, carbon and other cycles and for good measure growth rates, including those for human populations. Hmm ...
    best
    Phil

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  6. I do think that it is good for technical people in general to have curiosity about technical issues in general and have some ability to think through them even if unfamiliar with them. (Or even think through HOW you would think through them.) All that said, I don't think this is such a common thing and should not be held against a lower level candidate.

    The concept of the greenhouse warming is actually an integrated problem that is more of an engineering topic than a typical chemistry one. Since you are dealing with fluxes, transport, etc. A mechanical engineer may not know the details of the CO2 IR flexing modes, but this is actually a detail that is not central to the problem (could be a black box). The key issues have to do with radiation directionality. This is something the mech E can see from analogies with with neutron thermalization in the water surrounding nuclear cores (even called a "reflector"!) Very similar situation where the thermal neutron flux density is raised by design of the external water blanket [or in GW earth equilibrium thermal temp is raised by the CO2/CH4/H2O blanket]. Other analogies of course are airless planets, slightly airy planets (Mars), or extreme GW planet (Venus).


    -------------

    I know you enjoy these peak oil and climate science topics. And I think a technical person should be able to look at other fields and get many insights from the effort. But you should also have some humility in that you are not a geologist, petroleum engineer or climatologist. So, at a minimum it would take intense reading (and I don't mean fluffy stuff like blogs...but hard core in the field science papers full of math and pulling references to references and skimming books and the like) to really make critical judgments about competing experts.

    In terms of your chemical work and instruction, I hope you continue to instruct the students in stoichiometry (sounds trivial...but so important and has great mental training for energy and mass balances in engineering), quant/qual analysis (and don't ignore qual...solubility rules are a great framework for many processes), etc. [Sometimes, I get the sense this is old hat for you. So the interest in these applied more complex topics. But the basics are not new for the students. You get a free batch every year.]

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  7. David Archer has taught and refined a course on Global Warming Science & Modelling, at the University of Chicago, and its available for free (or US$ to get a certificate for passing) on Coursera - https://www.coursera.org/learn/global-warming. I've done the course, read his book "Understanding the Forecast". Only a smallish proportion of students will ever actually bother to do such a course, out of those that are capable of doing it with the interest, intelligence, background skills required.

    Unless the background capacities and appropriate level explanations is integrated into all years of schooling with reinforcement, then we don't really get to Step 1. After all, I've never seen a spectroscope, and without practically working with one, wavelength absorption lines for me are just pictures in a book.

    As for Step 2, we have to value sustainability goals, rather than the human group selection processes of rampant competition for resources. Survival instincts and group survival instincts work at the pre-cognitive level, because we are the survivors of evolution.

    3. We will choose trade and prosperity , as this maximises group cooperation, and those with the most vested interests will get elected, or take power in some other way. Trade increases the amount of resources consumed, especially energy resources. Competition between large groups leads to the formation of states, "War made states, and states make war".

    With prosperity we get increasing numbers of elites, who are also trying to maximise wealth production for themselves, and motivate group cooperation towards this. This leads to competing factions of elites.

    I note an article that says the next gathering of 'people that matter' at Davos, won't be seriously talking about Climate Change, they'll be networking, and seeing where there next wealth making acquisitions and alliances are going to be.

    http://reneweconomy.com.au/climate-solution-no-one-davos-will-talking-10226/

    The article also implies that while governments have some kinds of institutional silo'ed acknowledgement of global warming and energy crisis, it doesn't figure so much in the main competition/cooperation survival game between nations. Trade, growth and competition goals go against it.

    Adaptation to climate change and mitigation of fossil fuel resource depletion, has to be sold as a long term group selection advantage, to elites and national governments. Too bad that the geographic and social distribution of such advantages is uneven.

    It appears that ultrasociety - (as in Book by Peter Turchin), is fragile, all our group efforts are used up in building it and just holding it together. It only holds together till the next crash, and it takes a century or two afterwards, to bring the societies back up to scratch again. This time it might take a lot longer, if humans get so lucky.






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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017