I’m visiting Microsoft this week, and am fascinated to discover the scope and expertise in climate change at Microsoft Research (MSR), particularly through their Earth, Energy and Environment theme (also known as E3).

Microsoft External Research (MER) is the part of MSR that builds collaborative research relationships with academic and other industrial partners. It is currently headed by Tony Hey, who was previously director of the UK’s e-science initiative (and obviously, as a fellow Brit, he’s a delight to chat to). Tony is particularly passionate about the need to communicate science to the broader public.

The E3 initiative within MER is headed by Dan Fay, who has a fascinating blog, where I found a pointer to a thought-provoking essay by Bill Gail (of the Virtual Earth project) in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society on Achieving Climate Sustainability. Bill opens up the broader discussion of what climate sustainability actually means (beyond the narrow focus on physical properties such as emissions of greenhouse gases). The core of his essay is the observation that humanity has now replaced nature as the controller of the entire climate system, despite the fact that we’re hopelessly ill-equipped either philosophically or politically to take on this role right now (this point was also made very effectively at the end of Gwynne Dyer’s book, and in Michael Tobis’ recent talk on the Cybernetics of Climate). More interestingly, Bill argues that we began to assume this role much earlier that most people think: about 7,000 years ago at the dawn of agricultural society, when we first started messing around with existing ecosystems.

The problem I have with Bill’s paper though, is that he wants to expand the scope of the climate policy framework at a time when even the limited, weak framework we have is under attack from a concerted misinformation campaign. Back to that point about public understanding of the science: we have to teach the public about the unavoidable physical facts about greenhouse gases first, to get at least to a broad consensus of the urgent need to move to a zero-carbon economy. You can’t start the broader discussion about longer term climate sustainability unless we at least establish a broad public understanding of the physics of greenhouse gases.

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