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?

This is depressing.

We were at the bank this morning, setting up some investment plans for retirement and for the kids to go through University (In Canada-speak: RRSPs and RESPs). We started to pick out a portfolio of mutual funds into which we would be putting the investments, and our financial advisor was showing us one of the mutual funds he would recommend when I noticed the fund included a substantial investment in the Canadian Oil Sands. “No way” says I. So we went to his next pick. Same thing. And the next. And the next….

The oil sands have been described as the most destructive project on earth. They are the major reason that Canada will renege on its Kyoto treaty obligations. They will devastate a huge area of Alberta, and threaten clean water supplies and the wildlife of large parts of North America.

So, I was struck by the irony of funding the kids through University by investing in a project that will so thoroughly screw up the world in which they will have to live when they grow up.

But then I thought about it some more. Pretty much the entire middle class in Canada must have money invested in this project, if it shows up in most of the mutual funds commonly recommended for retirement and education savings plans. Most of them probably have no idea (after all, who actually looks closely at the contents of their mutual funds?) and of those that do know, most of them will prefer the high rate of return on this project because they have no real understanding of the extent of the climate crisis.

Those funds are being used to maximize the profit from the oils sands, by paying for lobbyists to fight environmental regulations, to fight caps on greenhouse gas emissions, and to fight against alternative energy initiatives (which would eat into the market for oil from the oil sands).

How on earth can we make any progress on fighting climate change when we all have a financial stake in not doing so?

We’re fucked.

In our brainstorm session yesterday, someone (Faraz?) suggested I could kick off the ICSE session with a short video. The closest thing I can think of is this:

Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip

It’s not too long, it covers the recent science very well, and it is exactly the message I want to give – climate change is serious, urgent, demands massive systemic change, but is not something we should despair over. It also comes with a full transcript with detailed references into the primary scientific literature, which is well worth a browse.

Except that it scares the heck out of me every time I watch it. Could I really show this to an ICSE audience?

In my first post, I said that the climate crisis will make the current financial turmoil look like a walk in the park. Several people thought that the line was too strong for a blurb advertising a session at a conference such as ICSE. They’re probably right, but only because it might serve to distract from the discussions around research ideas that I want to have.

But I stand by the observation that the whole unsustainability of industrialized capitalist economies is a much bigger problem than the credit crunch, and will lead to a much bigger crash when it all falls apart. As usual, Joe Romm can put it much better than I can: Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme, are we all Bernie Madoffs, and what comes next?