I’m going to SciBarCamp this Saturday. The theme is open science, although we’re free to interpret that as broadly as possible. So here’s my pitch for a session:

Climate Change is the biggest challenge ever faced by humanity. In the last two years, it has become clear that climate change is accelerating, outpacing the IPCC’s 2007 assessment. The paleontological record shows that the planet is “twitchy“, with a number of tipping points at which feedback effects kick in, to take the the planet to a dramatically different climate, which would have disastrous impacts  on the human population. Some climate scientists think we’ve already hit some of these tipping points. However, the best available data suggests that if we can stop the growth of carbon emissions within the next five years, and then then aggressively reduce them to zero over the next few decades, we stand a good chance of averting the worst effects of runaway warming. 

It’s now clear that we can’t tackle this through volunteerism. Asking people to change their lightbulbs and turn off unnecessary appliances is nothing but a distraction: it conceals the real scale of the problem. We need a systematic rethinking of how energy is produced and used throughout society. We need urgent government action on emissions regulation and energy pricing. We need a massive investment in R&D on zero emissions technology (but through an open science initiative, rather than a closed, centralized Manhattan Project style effort). We need a massive R&D effort into how to adapt to those climate changes that we cannot  now avoid: on a warmer planet, we will need to completely rethink food production, water management, disease control, population migration, urban planning, etc. And we will need to understand the potential impacts of the large scale geo-engineering projects that might buy us more time. We need an “all of the above” solution.

Put simply, we’ll need all the brainpower that the planet has to offer to figure out how to meet this challenge. We’ll need scientists and engineers from every discipline to come to the table, and figure out where their particular skills and experience can be most useful. We’ll need to break out of our disciplinary straightjackets, and engage in new interdisciplinary and problem-oriented research programs, to help us understand this new world, and how we might survive in it.

Governments are beginning to recognize the scale of the problem, and are starting to devote research funding to address it. It’s too little, and too late, but it’s a start. This funding is likely to grow substantially over the next few years, depending on how quickly politicians grasp the scale and urgency of the problem. But, as scientists, we shouldn’t wait for governments to get it. We need to get together now, to help explain the science to policymakers and to the public, and to start the new research programmes that will fill the gaps in our current knowledge.

So, here’s what I would like to discuss:

  • How do we get started?
  • How can we secure funding and institutional support for this?
  • How can professional scientists redirect their research efforts to this (and how does this affect the career scientist)?
  • How can scientists from different disciplines identify where their expertise might be needed and identify opportunities to get involved?
  • How can we foster the necessary inter-disciplinary links and open data sharing?
  • What barriers exist, and how can they be overcome?