Do not give up hope on global warming
PROFESSOR Chris Rapley CBE, director of London's Science Museum, was awarded the 2008 Edinburgh Medal for his work on climate change.
The prestigious award, made as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, is presented each year to men and women of science and technology whose professional achievements are judged to have made a significant contribution to the understanding and wellbeing of humanity.
Prof Rapley held the position of executive director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, and subsequently became the director of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
While there, he gained a reputation for visionary leadership, and positioned BAS firmly in the international and national limelight as the worldwide centre of excellence in its field.
Prof Rapley is a passionate communicator of science and his particular interests include our dependence on energy and our exploitation of carbon-based fuels – and the related effects of this dependence on our climate and our planet.
Here, he talks to Ian Johnston, The Scotsman's environment correspondent, about the mounting evidence for climate change, the work of climate change campaigner Al Gore, global population levels, exploding dustbins and the battle between science and religion.
Q&A: PROFESSOR CHRIS RAPLEY
How are we doing in the fight against global warming?
I'm both pessimistic and optimistic. There are reasons to be optimistic; there has been a huge sea change in the sector of society engaged in the debate, even three years ago it was still really the science community worrying itself about this, and now you can hardly open a newspaper or magazine without bumping into some discussion about climate change.
What's more, serious people in the worlds of economics, politics and business are engaged in a way that's been totally transformed in the last few years.
I'm also optimistic because of the insight I have gained from the Science Museum by just taking volumes at random out of the 30km of shelving in our library. If you take out any one of these volumes and go through it, you get a glimpse into the extraordinary creative capacity of the technologically competent and active component of human society to do things.
If we can marshal or harness that resource, then I think you could argue that the energy challenge and climate change is a cinch.
However, then the pessimistic side of me says: "But how well are we doing at harnessing that talent?"
The story for the last seven years or so is not very reassuring.
My scary overhead is a graph that shows human carbon emissions from about 1850 up to the present – it's more or less nothing, then it creeps up and, in 2000, it was about 6.5 gigatonnes per year, the weight of the carbon going into the atmosphere.
You can then show how that curve needed to turn over and start to reduce if we were to stay within what is generally thought of as the safe limit of in the atmosphere, which is 450 parts per million (ppm) – the value, beyond which, most people agree, things get dangerous.
You look at the curve we should have been on to stabilise at 450ppm, you look at the curve we should have been on to stabilise at 650ppm if 450ppm was too hard and you look at business as usual.
Then you plot the last seven years' emissions on there and they are bang on or slightly above.
Indeed, there's evidence that we're accelerating.
In spite of all the rhetoric, in spite of all the effort, in spite of the shift in seriousness with which this is all taken, we haven't made much of a dent in this curve yet.
Do you think the world will react in time to prevent catastrophe? Professor James Lovelock, of Gaia theory (which states living and nonliving parts of the planet interact and can be viewed as a single organism] fame, believes that by the end of this century humans will be forced to live in small areas near the poles. Do you agree?
When Jim published his book, The Revenge of Gaia, I knew why he said what he did, but I have to say I thought he was in an extreme position. I did not think that all was lost.
What's been happening since then, particularly with the melting of summer Arctic ice and the acceleration of loss of ice from Greenland and bits of the Antarctic... I've got this sneaky feeling that he may have been more right than we appreciated at the time.
I think the evidence is moving his way, although I suppose I don't wish to believe (that]. He was saying the climate system had gone through a tipping point. There is growing evidence that he might just be right, that we might have already committed ourselves to a different planet.
On the other hand, you have got to be careful not to overdraw the "hope budget" and make people feel that this is hopeless. We're still obliged to take action.
Do you think people are convinced of the science behind the warnings of dangerous climate change?
Much more has to be done, and that was my motivation for coming to the Science Museum because it has huge expertise in giving people a good day out but, at the same time, giving them information, helping them think things through.
A lot more people are prepared to accept something pretty odd is going on and we probably should do something about it.
I think there's still a huge amount of confusion out there as to what the evidence really is. When I talk to people about climate change, even those who are passionate believers, they are actually very vague about what the evidence is and often have got it wrong.
Are scientists hamstrung by the nature of scientific inquiry? Scientists never like to say, "yes we've proved this is going to happen, it's absolutely certain", and it's difficult to say concretely, "this is true".
There have been so many examples in the history of science where something that has seemed to be absolutely rock-solid has been proved to be wrong.
If tomorrow, I woke up and I was the discoverer of the killer fact that showed (theories on climate change are] all wrong, nobody would be more pleased than me.
But my judgment of all the evidence is that would be incredibly unlikely to happen. I'd love it if it was me because I'd be really famous then.
What matters to most scientists is not how much money they earn, but the esteem of their colleagues,(which] is hugely influenced by certain standards that the science community applies.
When they listen to (other] scientists, (members of the scientific community] ask, "are they being rigorous and transparent about the things they don't know?" It's very difficult for scientists to engage with people – and especially the media – who just want a simple story, because they are constantly having to add in all of these caveats.
It's why Al Gore has been so much more successful than most scientists at getting the message across, because he's not constrained by quite the same set of rules.
He's able to be a little bit more polemic, to run a little closer to the wind and to use all the ploys of a storyteller – pulling on people's heart strings and playing on the audience, which would be an absolute no-no for a scientist.
What would you say to a climate change "denier"?
I'm right in the middle of writing an e-mail to one at the moment. To me, the story is really, really simple. It's our carbon and it's up there. This is not controversial, it's unequivocal.
We know how much fossil fuel we've dug out the ground. It's been a fantastic story... we discovered coal, oil and gas and it has totally transformed the human condition.
I came across this statistic the other day: one barrel of oil has the energy in it that allows work to be done equivalent to 4,500 humans for a day. That's amazing stuff.
We've burned it and half of the it has released sits up in the atmosphere, the other half has been taken up by the oceans and plants on land. We've measured how that concentration has changed by looking at bubbles in ice cores that take us back one million years and by making more recent measures. We've put it up there 1,000 times faster than any natural process, so it's going to shock the system.
If there's any doubt about it being our carbon, not only can you do the sums about how much you've dug out and burned, but it's got an isotopic signature that says it's ours. That's the first fact.
The second fact is that the surface of the Earth is a lot warmer than it would be if there wasn't a thing called the greenhouse effect and is a player – it's not the main player, but it's an important player.
As a physicist, if you add , I need somebody to explain to me how that wouldn't enhance the greenhouse effect. How could it not?
The greenhouse effect overall is about 30C, so if you tweak by pushing it up the way we have, it's not surprising you might see a degree or so of warming.
You have warned that the growing world population is unsustainable. How do you persuade people not to have children?
First of all, you scare the hell out of them, I suppose, but that's not a very sustainable or ethical position.
Clearly a planet that has ten billion people on it is going to have a bigger human impact than a planet that has eight billion people, assuming they reach the same levels of prosperity.
If you helped people pursue their own aspirations to have smaller families, you get about 1,000 times the reduction per euro spent in future carbon emissions than you would if you were trying to develop nuclear power or wave and wind power.
There are still areas of the world where access to family planning and the social conditions to exercise your choice aren't available to people.
It's certainly the case that if you had a billion people on the planet rather than ten billion, that billion would be able to lead, in principle, an extremely rich lifestyle both physically and culturally, with all of the benefits of the modern world and do so in a sustainable balance with the planet.
I don't know if the figure is one billion, half a billion or two billion. I'm not saying we should be seeking to go from 6.5 billion to one billion, but .... if you can go in that direction rather than upwards, it is probably better.
Does Britain place enough emphasis on science? Are we producing enough graduates, coming up with enough inventions? How do you persuade people to study physics and maths, rather than media studies or history of art?
We're all so totally dependent on science and technology, it's a bit frightening that so relatively few people see science and technology as a worthwhile career.
But I think it goes much further than that. As a scientist, I can take pleasure from the world I see around me because I have a pair of eyes that equip me to look at things and say: "Wow, that's fantastic."
The world (becomes] a more amazing place the more you understand the scientific and technological underpinning, the principles upon which it works than if you just wander around and look at it.
I feel it's a tragedy so many people don't have access to those insights.
Are you concerned by the rise of religion/spiritual beliefs in politics and everyday life, clashes between scientists and supporters of "intelligent design"?
The retreat from rationality is worrying, but sort of understandable. The world is incredibly complicated – people are confused and a little bit frightened by it, possibly they feel powerless to have much influence over it, so I can understand why there is a growing interest in religion because that may well offer some solace, some answers and some comfort.
But I would argue that is quite dangerous.
If people make decisions, both in their own lives and collectively, through whatever societal processes there are that are not based on the best evidence and the best assessment of that evidence possible, then that's very risky.
Why did you become a scientist? What was your favourite subject at school, were you good at science and what mark did you get?
It was interesting because I did as well at history and English and other things. I think (my favourite subject] was probably Thursday afternoons in the chemmy (chemistry] lab, because we could do all sorts of amazingly interesting and slightly dangerous things, which probably wouldn't be allowed these days.
You could manufacture explosives, for example. I blew up somebody's dustbin once.
I hear people say health and safety has so limited what you can do with kids in the lab and that it's taken a lot of what you might call the fun and excitement out of science. I don't know if that's true, but it seems plausible.
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