Martin Rees: 2010 Reith Lectures

Our Radio National is a touch behind, since these lectures have just begun here in Australia. I have heard the first of them. Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, is President of the Royal Society.

In the first of this year’s Reith Lectures, Lord Martin Rees explores the challenges facing science in the 21st century. We are increasingly turning to government and the media to explain the risks we face. But in the wake of public confusion over issues like climate change, the swine ‘flu vaccine and, more recently, Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud, Martin Rees calls on scientists to come forward and play a greater role in helping us understand the science that affects us all.

In the second lecture, not yet heard in Australia but available from the BBC, Lord Rees becomes more specific about a range of issues, including Climate Change.

…Another firm prediction about the post-2050 world is that, as well as being more crowded, it’ll be warmer. By how much is a matter of continuing research. The greater the warming, the greater the risk of tipping, for instance, gradual melting of Greenland’s ice cap or the release from the Tundra of methane, which would lead to further warming. And that’s the motive for attempts to reduce global consumption of fossil fuels.

The declared political goal has been to halve global carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050. This corresponds to a ration of 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, each person on the planet. For comparison, the current US level is 20 tonnes per person per year; European figures about 10; the Chinese level’s already 1.5; and the Indian is 1.5. In cutting these emissions, the richer countries must take the lead without stifling economic growth in the developing world where emissions in the short-term are bound to rise.

Success in halving global carbon emissions would be a momentous achievement – one where all nations acted together in the interests of a future beyond the normal political horizon. The meagre progress in Copenhagen last December didn’t instil optimism. On the other hand – odd though this may sound – the political response to the financial crisis may offer encouragement. Who would have thought two years ago that the financial system would have been so transformed that big banks were nationalised? Likewise we need coordinated, outside-the-box action to avoid serious risk of a long-term energy crisis.

The world spends more than 5 trillion dollars a year on energy and its infrastructure. There’s a glaring contrast here with health and medicine where worldwide R&D expenditures are much, much higher. The clean energy challenge deserves a priority and commitment akin to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo moon landing.

It’s sometimes said fatalistically that the UK’s stance on all this is of marginal import because our carbon emissions are only 1 or 2 percent of the problem. But we have leverage in two respects. First politically. We’ve earned international influence because of the UK government’s leadership ever since the Gleneagles G8 Summit, and because we’ve already enshrined in our Climate Change Act a commitment to cut our own emissions by 80 percent over the next 40 years. Second, we have the expertise to spearhead some of the technologies needed for a low carbon economy. We need to keep our lights on to ensure energy security for ourselves, but beyond that imperative it’s in our interest not to fall behind the Chinese in developing clean energy technologies that the world will need.

In wave and tidal energy, for instance, the UK could lead. We have the geography – capes round our coast with fast-flowing tidal currents – and we have marine technology from North Sea oil and gas. And since I’m speaking in Cardiff, I should highlight the Severn barrage scheme as well.

What about biofuels? There’s been ambivalence because they compete for land use for food growing and forests, but in the long-run GM techniques may lead to novel developments: bugs that break down cellulose or marine algae that convert solar energy directly into fuel.

Another need is for improved energy storage. In the US Steve Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist whom President Obama appointed as Energy Secretary, has given priority to improving batteries – for electric cars and to complement unsteady power sources such as sun and wind and tides.

What’s the role of nuclear power? I’d myself favour the UK having a replacement generation of nuclear power stations – and boosted R&D into ‘fourth generation’ reactors and into nuclear fusion. But one can’t be relaxed about a worldwide expansion of nuclear power unless internationally regulated fuel banks are established to provide enriched uranium and remove and store the waste. Otherwise there’s too much risk of weapon proliferation.

I think an attractive long-term option for Europe is solar energy: huge collectors – most maybe in North Africa – generating power that’s distributed via a continent-wide smart grid. Achieving this would require vision, commitment and public-private investment on the same scale as the building of Europe’s railways in the 19th century.

Some pessimists argue that the transition to a low carbon economy won’t happen fast enough, and that the international community should, as a fallback, contemplate a ‘plan b’ – being fatalistic about the rise in carbon dioxide, but combating the warming it induces by, for instance, putting reflecting aerosols in the upper atmosphere or even vast sunshades in space.

The political problems of such geo-engineering may be overwhelming: not all nations would want to turn down the thermostat equally, and there could be unintended side effects. An alternative geo-engineering approach would be direct extraction of carbon from the atmosphere. This approach would be more acceptable politically. But it seems to me right at least to study geo-engineering, to clarify which options make sense and which don’t; to explore the governance issues they raise and perhaps damp down undue optimism about a technical quick-fix of our climate.

Energy security, food supplies and climate change are the prime long-term threats without enemies that confront us – all aggravated by rising populations…

In the first lecture Lord Rees had shown an awareness of the limits of certainty that escapes most climate change denialists who are usually only too certain.

There’s no denying where science has recently had the most contentious policy impact, and where the stakes are highest: climate change.

It will feature, along with other global threats, in my second lecture, but I’ll venture some comments today too. As regards the science, there is, in my inexpert view, one decisive measurement: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it’s been for a million years, and is rising, mainly because of the burning of fossil fuels. This finding isn’t controversial. And straightforward chemistry tells us that carbon dioxide is a so called ‘greenhouse gas’: it acts like a blanket, preventing some of the heat radiated by the Earth from escaping freely into space. So the measured carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere will trigger a long-term warming, superimposed on all the other complicated effects that make climate fluctuate.

The predicted rate of warming, however, is uncertain – depending on the poorly-understood ‘feedback ‘ from water vapour and clouds, which themselves affect the blanketing. Nevertheless, even the existing uncertain science convinces me that the threat of disruptive climate change is serious enough to justify its priority on the agenda of this country and others.

This confidence may surprise anyone who has dipped into all that’s been written on the subject. Any trawl of the internet reveals diverse and contradictory claims. So how do you make up your mind? I’d suggest the following analogy.

Suppose you seek medical guidance. Googling any ailment reveals a bewildering range of purported remedies. But if your own health were at stake, you wouldn’t attach equal weight to everything in the blogosphere: you’d entrust your diagnosis to someone with manifest medical credentials. Likewise, we get a clearer ‘steer’ on climate by attaching more weight to those with a serious record in the subject.

There’s an excellent TV series by Rees which you may commence here:

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22 thoughts on “Martin Rees: 2010 Reith Lectures

  1. The declared political goal has been to halve global carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050.

    Yikes! Declared by whom? Whomever it is, it is important that they not attain any form of political power. Or, placed on a stone age island so they can see how goofy their ideas are when put into practice. I’m thinking Bransfield Island would be a good spot.

    Hey, I’ll make a bet with you. Despite what Australia does, if the entire northern hemisphere continues to do nothing about CO2, I’ll bet you that the ‘problem’ solves itself in ~5 years.

    I’ll be honest with you. It really bothers me that you, a fellow speaker of English (God’s language) have chosen to spend your remaining years arguing a silly and much disproven theory. You’re over 60, for Christ’s sake. You should be celebrating life by this point in your journey. Not whining about how man is killing the planet by way of the cause du jour (that’s French… NOT God’s language).

    You should be sipping a cocktail on the beach in Majorca, not worrying about, “What’s mankind going to do now!” Or maybe the Seychelles or Bali – whatever floats your boat. There’s so much in this world to enjoy, and so little to whine about, yet you’ve found something to whine about, and chose whine over joy.

    It bothers me because I’ll be in a similar boat in ~25 years. And I don’t want to be considered a whiny old man when I arrive there. Yet here you are, a product of the relatively easy life like myself, whining away. What’s going to stop me from being as whiny as you when I get older?

    So it’s not entirely altruistic of me when I try to get you to realize the scam that is named AGW. I want to believe that even depressed people such as yourself can find joy. If I can convert you from all of the complaining about mankind to experiencing the joy of life* unhindered by hippies and environmentalists, then I can be positive about my future old age. If not, I’ll be forced to continue to worry. They say that the brain starts breaking down ~30 yrs of age, so both of ours are pretty much on the fritz. Am I going to buy into some lame-brained cult belief like AGW when I’m old? Who knows. But your future decisions will give insight.

    So please save me the worrying and drop this belief in magical man caused global warming. Thanks in advance!

    * – This was a good place to insert more of not God’s language (French), but I didn’t want to piss Him off, so I didn’t.

  2. Declared by whom? Copenhagen, even if it was a vague aspiration.

    Kevin, stop putting your politics ahead of your scientific judgement. There was a guy called Lysenko who wrecked Soviet biology by doing that in the 1930s.

    Kevn, AGW is definitely happening. Your politics make no difference at all to that fact. Get on the case for better mitigation and adaptation strategies. That will do future generations a lot more good.

  3. Damn. So if I’m reading you right, you’re saying that there is a chance I’m going to go in for a fake cause when I get old and will abandon common sense? That’s not heartening :(.

    It’s not about politics for me. It never was. That’s why I don’t buy in when someone says ‘consensus’. Never have, never will. Science, baby. That’s all there is. And AGW= religion. Not science.

  4. “AGW = scam” is absolutely not science; it is politics. You have failed to convince me that the case against AGW is stronger than the case for it. Given, therefore, that AGW is virtually undeniable the only logical path is to address the best means for coping with the phenomenon, as Martin Rees observes. To me it is both laughable and tragic that someone would be seriously arguing that nothing needs to be done.

  5. Heh. It’s over. Forbes has a sad history of reporting things months after they occur (don’t use them for financial planning!), so this is old news by now.

    Anyway, yes, I agree with you that AGW is not about science but instead about politics. I don’t really follow your logic when you jump to ‘agw is virtually undeniable’ though. I mean, being that it’s nothing but a political scam, of COURSE it’s deniable, if you bother to use science, I mean.

    The best means for coping with the phenomenon of hippies and environmentalists whining about whatever they’re whining about is to wait, and they’ll go away. They always do. Contrary to your recent opinion, doing nothing is often the best solution.

    But if you’re really itching to do something, let’s write a bill that makes deodorant free for all environmentalists. And Europeans. Also showers, but I haven’t figured out how to make that one work yet.

    Relax. Your scientifically lax side lost. Get over it. It happens to the best of us.

  6. Bullshit and logic-chopping, Kevin, and you know it. It isn’t even worth analysis. You just can’t stand the thought that our use of resources to this point has outrun our ability to control the consequences, and that this is becoming increasingly everyone’s concern. You still see resources as a bottomless pit. That, my friend, is over.

  7. Checked the Forbes article which rightly notes cap-and-trade seems dead in the USA. I am ambivalent about that strategy anyway, as I have said before.

    I note Shikha Dalmia, the author of the piece, is “a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets… Dalmia, who taught news writing courses at Michigan State University, earned a Master’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. She also holds a post graduate diploma in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communications.” Her science qualifications are…?

    Nonetheless, she is admirable on Muslims. “Indeed, if the French and Hitchens were serious about either secularism or liberalism, instead of asking Muslim women to shed the burqa, they would be shedding their own proselytizing prejudice against it.”

  8. Hmm. You make a fair point. Reason Foundation does do some serious thinking. If they weren’t so big on legalizing weed (I’m for it, but don’t really care), they could probably out-reason the world’s best thinkers – the people at Cado, Heritage, and the right honorable Sir Tim Blair Esquire. They still couldn’t hold a candle to John Howard, but I digress. Plus, LSU IS a very good school, at least on the science side of things.

    Oh, wait, I see where you are going. Yup, you’re right. She’s no scientist. The exact same thing could easily be said about you. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have. But she’s not talking science in that article. She’s talking about the death of a cult, which is very much in the jurisprudence of a person who got degrees in sociology because she wasn’t good at math (which is in fact God’s MAIN language. He just speaks the numbers in English which is why I said English is God’s language previously).

    I don’t begrudge her her position on the evil that is islam. But it certainly doesn’t dissuade me from my belief that islam is evil. The only thing that will do that is if its adherents stop killing people in the name of the evil demon god known as allah for, say, 2 years. That should do it. For two years at least.

    (I hope you don’t mind, but I gave Tim a knighthood. We don’t need a queen to do that here in the states. I’m thinking about making him a duke, but haven’t decided which plot of land to give him dukedom over. NSW seems fairly nice from this distance…. I’ll keep you informed on my decision. You know, if I deign to.)

  9. An admirably silly answer, Kevin, that evades the issue quite blatantly. I can see why you admire Tim Blair.

  10. Yes, an admirably silly answer to an un-admirably silly scientific fraud known as AGW. I’m not sure what issue I’ve evaded, but I’d love to hear about it. As would your new Duke of New South Whales, the right honorable Sir Tim Blair. Heck, I’m going to go out on a limb and make him Duke of OLD South Whales too.

    Please be respectful of your new Duke.

  11. Sure, your church of AGW lost most of its converts. But so what if no one buys into your religious beliefs about man caused global warming? You still believe, right? That’s all that matters.

    And don’t be afraid to cry about the end of belief in AGW like a woman. Heck, LOTS of gay guys cry like women. It’s most of what makes them endearing, although it also makes them pretty annoying. Hmm, just to be safe, do your crying in the bathroom. You know, like a woman.

    Heh. Freedom won over fear mongering. Let’s rejoice!

  12. The most recent Australian polling I could find shows 94% of Australians believe climate change is wholly (24%) or partly (70%) caused by human activity. Only 5% do not believe in AGW at all. (12-14 February 2010)

    So sure, the “believers” are in sharp decline — not!

  13. Just to underscore the urgency of this, China’s level (for example) is now actually 4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per capita (as at 2007) rather than the 1.5 tonnes you quote, Neil. My figures are from Wikipedia and I haven’t checked their referencing but a need to make frequent adjustments to our data is indicated as levels are known to be increasing at a rapid rate at the moment.

  14. Quite right, Martin: “China Energy Consumption Surpasses US, Now Highest In The World.” — 20 July 2010

    On the other hand the 22 July 2010 People’s Daily claims:

    To promote the development of the emerging energy industries and meet the carbon emissions reduction targets of 2020, the National Energy Administration (NEA) has compiled a development plan for emerging energy industries from 2011 to 2020 that will require direct investments totaling 5 trillion yuan, according to the NEA on July 20.

    Jiang Bing, director-general of the Policy Planning Department under the NEA, said that the plan has specified major policy measures for the development and utilization of nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, unconventional natural gas and other new energies. The plan has also detailed the industrialized application of new clean coal, smart grid, distributed energy and alternative-fuel vehicle technologies.

    According to initial calculations, the new plan will greatly ease China’s excessive reliance on coal in 2020 and cut sulfur dioxide emissions by about 7.8 million tons and carbon dioxide emissions by about 1.2 billion tons in a year. Furthermore, this will contribute 1.5 trillion yuan in added-value per year and create 15 million job opportunities…

    See also from The Guardian “How China overtook the US in renewable energy”.

    China has overtaken the US for the first time in a league table of investments in low-carbon energy among the G-20, according to a new report by not for profit group the Pew Charitable Trusts published this week.

    The report found that despite an overall 6.6 per cent global decline in clean energy investments last year, China invested almost twice as much as the United States in clean energy during 2009…

  15. Actually, I should probably concede that he is referring to CO2 emissions and I was including other ‘Kyoto’ greenhouse gases in my total.

    Nevertheless, the per capita figures and your reply both underscore the moral debt the US and ‘developed world’ currently owes to China, IMHO.

  16. Oh noes! Now we have MORAL debts! Heh. You hippie environmentalists crack me up.

    Neil, I don’t agree with your most recent poll that says that most Australians are fools. Sure, 24% of them might be (it’s the same in our country), but the 70% figure is misleading. Man can cause a few millionths of a degree temperature rise just by paving a road with asphalt. So yes, our actions can cause minor increases in temperatures. It’s just negligible, as I’m sure 70% of Australians would agree.

    If you didn’t lose the AGW argument, why won’t Gillard bring an economy destroying bill to the floor? Face it, you lost. Get on with your life. And take my one word advice – Seychelles. You won’t regret it.

  17. See? He even speaks funny like you! Celebrate life. And let the rest of the world do the same. Quit whining about carbon, the building block of most that’s good.

  18. The 70% figure is not misleading, the 24% are ill-informed, and the 5% agree with you.

    I am totally convinced now that more notice should be taken of the best minds in the scientific community world wide rather than those who seem to regard global warming as in inconvenient warning against business as usual.

    Tim Blair is a comedian with nothing worth saying on the science of climate change.

    People in 2110, if they remember him at all, will wonder how he could possibly have been so stupid.

  19. Good post on the “global warming has stopped” furphy: Has Global Warming Stopped?

    …So no, global warming has not stopped. It takes some serious wishful thinking to say that it has.

    [Lastly, I want to make the prediction that global warming will once again “stop” in 2013. Even if temperatures continue to rise over the next 3 years, the 15-year period from 1998 to 2012 will begin with the record setting 1998 El Niño year, which will make statistical significance unlikely. Beware, the return of the “global warming has stopped” argument!]…

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