Three thoughts went through my mind as I listened to yesterday’s panel discussion about the role and future of chemistry for renewable energy. The first was mild horror. The second was intrigue. And the third was disenchantment.
Previously, all three winners of the 1995 chemistry Nobel – Sherwood Rowland, Paul Crutzen and Mario Molina, whose work revealed how humans were destroying the ozone layer – had spoken about the impact of greenhouse gases on Earth’s climate. Graphs showed scary recent rises in everything: carbon dioxide emissions, global population, Earth’s temperature… Facts seeped into my bones like guilt: in just one year we use fossil fuels that took a million years to create, for instance.
We’re playing a giant and dangerous game of roulette with the planet
Couldn’t nuclear power rescue us? For a while, perhaps, but the panel seemed resigned to the consequences of building hundreds more nuclear reactors: global thermonuclear warfare. Molina cast the whole issue of how much we should invest to combat climate change in simple economic terms: in short, we’re playing a giant and dangerous game of roulette with the planet. Since the last IPCC report in 2007, which stated that mankind is almost certainly impacting the climate, the need to act has become even more urgent, he said.
Each laureate gave a short statement about renewables. Gerhard Ertl mentioned photovoltaics, Robert Grubbs spoke of the need for new materials, Walter Kohn believed in the power of wind and solar to replace oil and gas, Harry Kroto would like to see water split into hydrogen and oxygen, Rudolph Marcus toyed with the idea of mini-Manhatten projects, Rowland mused about taking CO2 out of the atmosphere…
Kroto received a round of applause when he stressed the importance of left-field approaches over strategic programmes. Interestingly, Molina pointed out that the Montreal protocol, which saw a worldwide cut in CFC emissions (CFCs destroy ozone but also contribute to the greenhouse effect), has done at least five times more good for combating climate change than Kyoto.
While the panel was eminently more qualified than I to debate the issue of renewable energy, I got the feeling that we weren’t getting the full story about the potential impact of various approaches (bar Molina and Rowland, the expertise of panel members had little to do with energy technology). Fuel cells and hydrogen powered cars came up a lot during the discussion, but no answer came when Kroto asked how much energy it costs to make such “green” vehicles in the first place. Will nuclear fusion be able to save us from catastrophe? Nobody really knew the answer.
But there is something even more unsettling about listening to a bunch of the world’s top scientists discuss how to save the world. It seems obvious that the solution, while doubtless aided by certain scientific breakthroughs (the ability to split water molecules or fuse light nuclei efficiently being good examples), is only going to come about by political and social means. Indeed, relying on the wonder of science & technology to come up with miraculous ways to allow the West to continue its high standards of living often makes it too easy for politicians to justify environmentally unsound decisions.
There is something unsettling about listening to a bunch of the world’s top scientists discuss how to save the world.”
We already know how to build solar cells, wind turbines, nuclear reactors and such like, and we know that we can have a (small) impact by choosing not to fly around the world attending conferences, insulting our homes and switching off our appliances off overnight etc. The question is: do world leaders have the courage or incentive to take action? Here Molina did offer some comfort. In his experience, heads of state are now much more engaged with the issue than before.
The art of silence
After the panel event I caught up with Kurt Wüthrich, who shared the 2002 chemistry Nobel for for his development of NMR for determining the structure of biological macromolecules. He was jet-lagged having arrived from California the night before, and had missed the panel discussion, but I doubt he would have attended the event anyway.
Wüthrich is not one of those laureates who likes to speak out on issues beyond his expertise. He just says “no” when invited to do so. After surveying a printout of the membership of yesterday’s panel, Wüthrich concluded that it amounted to a few strong egos and very little basic knowledge.
“They are fighting for survival, so what does it matter to discuss scientific matters?”
He pointed out that the current economic situation is slowing down the destruction of the planet, reducing the use of gasoline by tens of percent and putting an end to the construction boom. On the other hand, he says that when industry and governments fall on hard times they’ll find excuses for not keeping promises on clean air. “They are fighting for survival, so what does it matter to discuss scientific matters?”
Yet Wüthrich is optimistic about humanity’s future. “Humans have the important feature that they tend to react rather than act. So when things get really critical, it’s simple: those who are left will react.”
He absolutely agrees that humans are having an effect on the climate, but finds it less obvious that we need to put so much effort into reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He points out that Lindau (currently enjoying unbroken sunshine) used to be covered in ice, although is quick to add that he has not studies the global warming issue in detail. It’s a shame he doesn’t agree to inject a bit of life into panel events on climate change, really.
|» Matthew Chalmers completed a PhD in physics and works as a freelance writer.|