Monday, November 30, 2015

A student's questions about scientists responding to climate change

A first year undergraduate student who is deeply concerned about climate change asked me a number of questions by email and then came to my office to discuss them. Since I think they are excellent questions I thought I would post them here (with his permission) and give a brief version of my answers. I welcome readers to give their own answers.
I am interested in and passionate about climate change. At the moment, I'm considering my uni options - wondering what I can study to best equip me to help in the great, global effort to mitigate (I'm a bit less interested in adaptation) climate change. I have a couple of questions to ask of you.
1. How would you respond to each of the following, somewhat contradictory statements: 
- 'Climate change can be mitigated by developing and deploying renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, without significantly impacting on our standard of living.' 
- 'Environmental crises, including climate change, require us to move away from a social and economic system based on consumerism and growth' .
First, I am no expert on this complex issue. An economist at UQ who is an expert is John Quiggin. But, my view is that with energy efficiency measures, renewable energy, and some modest lifestyle changes significant progress can be made towards mitigating climate change. On the other hand, I think there are compelling social  and political reasons why the world, particularly the Western world, would be better off if we moved away from this mindless and insatiable pursuit of consumerism and economic growth.

But, I really think the biggest obstacle to concerted and significant global action is a lack of political will and leadership. This is particularly driven by "fear mongering" from vested business and political interests who claim the first option is true. "If we don't burn more coal we will all end up back in the caves or at least riding bicycles..."
I don't think the biggest obstacle is missing technical and economic solutions. Of course, if someone can make a durable and reliable photovoltaic cell with 20 per cent efficiency, that costs 20 cents per square metre to manufacture, and with a lifetime of 20 years, it would "solve" the problem. But, I only foresee incremental advances in the next decade. The case of Gratzel cells is quite discouraging.
2. If the institutional ethos of the UQ science faculty were a person, how would he/she respond to the above statements? 
I think you would really encounter a range of views, probably reflecting a rang of political convictions. I would hope most staff would believe that climate change is real, a result of human activity, and a major issue to address. On the other hand, I am occasionally surprised and disappointed to meet scientists, who are skeptics, even though 97 per cent of climate scientists are not.

I think you would find that some would also claim we need lots more research money (especially for new technologies) to address these issues, but they are clouded by self interest.
3. What facets of science would you recommend that I study:  
- Earth science (better understanding of the climate system)
- Physics/Engineering (renewable energy technology) 
- Psychology (Why do people behave the way they do) 
- Ecology (how ecosystems respond to climate change and other pressures)
Given that I think the major obstacles are political I think that becoming a political activist you may have the biggest impact. Studying sociology and psychology may help design the most effective campaigns. But you do need to understand the technical issues.
On the other hand, you should consider what you are good at and enjoy. There is no point trying to put square pegs in round holes.
Hence, I think you should let your own interests and abilities be a consideration. But studying a mix of the above could be very helpful.
I am wondering if UQ has plans to develop a specific course, or even a program, devoted to climate change?
Not that I am aware of. There are significant postgraduate activities at The Global Change Institute and the Energy Initiative. There was recently a review of the Bachelor of Science. The possibility of some elective courses that are multi-disciplinary has been floated and climate change is one. However, my experience is that such courses become a can of worms once you get multiple departments involved. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, to do it their way, but are not willing to take responsibility, or to "force" their own students to take the course so it is viable. Hence, I doubt you will see the kind of course you are hoping for during your time here. Sorry.

We ended our discussion with me lending the student a copy of The Eye of the Storm: the autobiography of Sir John Houghton. He is nice example of someone who moved from basic research in climate science to public policy and advocacy.

I wish I had more discussions like this with students.

I welcome people to give their own answers.


  1. This is someone who is truly thinking about his goals in life and how to be most effective in reaching them. Kudos.

    While I don't have "the" answers, I would recommend to gather information expressed by people with different points of view.

    Regarding the first question:
    I am currently reading Thomas Friedman's "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" book - I believe from 2008, so it's already a bit dated.
    While he is quite strongly in the camp of "we need a revolution" (as opposed to the "25 easy ways of saving the earth"-approaches advocated by every major magazine to placate their self-imposed green image), the book contains a lot of thought provoking or even extreme statements, as well as a lot of good ideas

    Regarding the third question:
    If personal interest matches this, I would suggest studying science (physics/engineering, earth science, or ecology) with a minor in political science.

    In the US there are APS congressional fellows where (I may have the details wrong, but:) young scientists get placed with congress people or senators, making the voice of science heard within the political realm that governs decision making.
    If something like that exists in Australia, I would contact those people to see what they advise regarding how most impact is made. These are the people that see both the science and the politics (which includes applied psychology!)

  2. I'm inclined to think the second statement is generally incorrect. We need to realistically price the cost of pollution and make sure it is borne by the polluters. That's a big change, but well within the bounds of the present economic system.

    And I agree with the social reasons for examining and changing our priorities. I think I'm more optimistic than some about our prospects of doing so. We can forget how recent and fast our progress towards historically unprecedented peace and prosperity has been. And we really are starting to change the way we look at the world, even if that change feels slow.

  3. I do not think that most climate change goals discussed by politicians in government are going to be met.

    Declaring your position on a problem and suggesting a framework for solving it does not solve it unless the framework is workable and implemented well. A good example of this principle is the recent news that black lung is a danger again in QLD. A framework has been in place for years to diagnose and manage black lung in the mining workforce, but apparently no mine is actually compliant and thousands of diagnostic tests have gone unreviewed because no capable doctor has been hired! I thought this was a GREAT example of how hollow political initiatives and legal/social frameworks can be when there is no follow through.

    Even if an agreement was reached, I think that all bets are off if another major war erupts between industrialised geopolitical powers. As more geopolitical powers appear and become industrialised, this risk grows. A key point to make here is that the atmosphere integrates emissions with a timescale of 10s of years. The average frequency of wars between industrialised powers is probably of similar magnitude, based on the last two centuries of geopolitical history (as I know it).

    So, I don't think this problem will be _fixed_, in the sense hoped for. Furthermore, I am getting really worried that "Climate Change" is becoming so trendy that it is over-dominating the discussion of how human activity is related to environmental (built & natural) conditions and how this may/should be managed as the population grows.

  4. And… just to put an edge on the point above… I'll just remind everyone that Russia appears to be intent on a rigorous test of Article 5 of NATO in the near future - at least this is my take on what they are doing with Turkey...