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Looking and Seeing ~ Listening and Hearing

V. Modifying Evolution

Of all the upheavals of climate change, most disturbing, upsetting and life-ruining to me has been the failure of the greater part of humanity to “get it,” to comprehend that something of truly earth-shaking and life-shaping consequences is happening. My own reaction was instantaneous: “we’re screwed.” I cannot think of an individual I know who has had a similar reaction. Certainly a small nummber of technically trained friends understood what was happening, but the general reaction was, until very recently that this too shall pass.

Comprehending science takes a bit a work. The concepts are not part of everyday experience. Taking a four yeaar course in a scientific field gives all of this plus much more time to sink in, and it must sink in. A good example might be explaining a atomic bomb to someone. It is trivial to view it as a big explosive, really big but not fundentally different from TNT and in fact early on an atom bomb was equivalent to so many tons of TNT. Until someone brought up how it works. And you said simply E = MC2 and explained that this meant “the conservation of total relativistic energy.” Bingo. You lost me. A lot is wrapped up in that little equation including the concept of a “conservation” law. I think you get the idea.

To an engineer (like me) there is also the idea of risk analysis. What is the worst that can happen, and how quickly could it happen and what do I do about it. Well, you size it up ASAP and jump on it before it gets out of hand, which is what should have happened when the oil companies own research found the carbon dioxide problem or Edward Teller lectured them on it at the 100th anniversary celebration of the start of the oil industry. Now, that is what I know and how come we are up shits creek sixty years down the road.

It strikes me as the influence of two things: 1. the difficulty of the science; 2. the psycholological problem of dealing with long range and far away (for most people) problems.

The science part has the extra dimension of it being hard to explain and hard to understand. So unless you are quite bright and open minded you pull a D. Trump and just dismiss it. And that is still happening. The news reports are that many more people believe in climate change and that it is caused by humans, but their comprehension of what must be done to deal with it is very limited. It is far easier to join the red side and dismiss the whole thing than to do what is needed.

Worse. Like it or not, the president of the United States is in charge. The world may not like him, but he sets the attitudes of the United States and that spills over without anyone realizing it. Imagine, well who? A superb speaker, steeped in the knowledge of the climate, comprehending fully what needs to be done, having the full weight and power of America behind him or her addressing the United Nations. A grown up scientifically educated Greta Thurnberg. A combination of Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Elenor Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Winston Churchill. Now that would be one amazing set of genes. If you had to turn the aircraft carrier Lyndon Johnson on a dime, that is what you would need. And that is what we need to do.

IV. A To-Do List: The MIT Model

What expertise I have tells me it is time to turn the problem over to those with some expertise. My alma mater has perhaps the most formidable program underway, although it is still lacking the sense of urgency I believe is necessary.

MIT has created an informative, creative and useful aid to determining the effect of different combinations of actions on climate change. The MIT CLIMATE SOLUTIONS SIMULATOR lets you simulate any number of plans that, if chosen carefully, could solve the climate crises and even bring the expected temperature increase down to nearly 1.5°C, which is the goal of the Paris Accords and the best that experts believe could be accomplished.

However, even the extra 0.5°C would leave us considerably worse off than we are now.

(Full disclosure: I have three engineering degrees from MIT: SB 1963, SM 1965, EE 1967. The EE is given as a consolation to those in electrical engineering who complete all requirements for a PhD but do not complete a dissertation.)

MIT is conducting a series of six symposia on climate change. These can be accessed for viewing at the MIT CLIMATE PORTAL).

However, with the simulator, as well as with the programs presented at the symposia, the fundamental problem remains: how to get the leaders of the world, who do not understand the problem, to face the collosal job ahead to decide on a program and to implement it. This problem, I believe, cannot be solved without a nation or nations, taking the lead and virtually imposing a solution on the world.

Without this, because of decades wasted and incompetence in science, we may be at a place where nothing we do can save us from the “horrible” fate of a greater than 2°C temperature increase.

Whatever the situation, a glance at Figure 1 (above) shows the necessity of negative emissions which means taking carbon dixoide out of the air. If there is to be a bearable future for the earth two elements are necessary: shut down emissions as rapidly as possible and remove carbon from the air as rapidly as possible. I believe the first will require nuclear power (see the MIT report) and the second research to find the best methods and deployment as rapidly as possible. Both together will require trillions of dollars. It will take some convincing, but there are no other tolerable choices.

There is more bad news.

MIT developed its models prior to the most recent events: 90°F in the Arctic, 7 times faster Greenland melt than expected, the destruction of the Amazon rain forest among others. The models cannot keep up nor can they take into accout human stupidity happening all along the way. We are in a place where models do not do it and the only possibility is to move as fast as possible on all fronts and damn the money. But to make the world understand this is impossible Australiaa is selling coal and China and India are building coal fired power plants. Urgency is everything and you must comprehending the deep essence of what is happening and be willing to turn on a dime. There are no signs of this.

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