Archives for posts with tag: global warming

This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.

The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.


Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.

The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.

Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.

He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams

We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology  maturing rapidly.

Here’s the video, by the way

He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.

He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.

If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?

He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.

The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.

Sheikh Zaki Yamani

He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.

He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.

He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.

The environment is starting to send back invoices.

He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.

Then he ran out of time.


Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.

Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.

Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!


Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).

The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.

On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.

Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.

He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.

He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.

Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.

For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.

Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.

Now on to Part 3

A conversation this evening with my daughter as we drove through yet another rain storm.

“Dad? What’s a hundred year flood?”

“It’s a flooding event that is meant to take place every 100 years, but nowadays we experience it about every 10 years.”

“Why is that?”

“Because the climate is changing. The world is warming up. It’s making our climate wetter and windier. And this is only the start. Some day soon, all this place may well be under water.”

“Why is the climate changing?”

“Because we’ve been busy over the past 100 years pumping more and more fossilized carbon into the atmosphere. Stuff that’s been in the ground for millions of years, it’s all being burned off in an instant. We’ve known for decades that this is a bad thing, but instead of trying to deal with it, to invent and perfect technologies that would have maintained our standards of living while reducing the carbon levels, a powerful group of influential idiots decided that the best course of action was to pretend it wasn’t happening at all. Their obstinate refusal to listen to the scientists will result in deaths and dispossession on an unimaginable scale.”

“What are we going to do about it?”

“More like what are you going to do about it. Our generation, and the ones that came before us have screwed everything up. We have left behind a mess that you, your children and their children will be faced with cleaning up. When you are my age, schoolchildren will be amazed at how we drove around in filthy fume creating vehicles, and how we were so careless with our environment. Mark my words: we’ll be cursed, and deservedly so.”

“Is it hopeless?”

“I don’t think so. You’ll have your work cut out for you for sure, but you are going to be better people than we ever were. You won’t be plagued by these insane false arguments that we constantly had to deal with. Instead of talking about change, you’ll make it happen. That gives me a lot of hope.”

My last blog post brings me nicely to a recent debate on climate change on RTE Prime Time (an Irish current affairs programme).

On the panel were Kevin Humphreys (Junior Minister in the Dept of Social Protection), Ray Bates (Adjunct Professor at the Meteorology and Climate Centre in UCD), Oisin Coughlan (Friends of the Earth) and Eamon Ryan (Green Party).

While, I think, two of the panelists (Humphreys and Coughlan) did creditably well to represent their positions, the other two, Bates and Ryan, were awful, and for two different reasons.

Maybe I should get the worst of them out of the way first. Eamon Ryan came across as shrill, ill-tempered and preachy. He butted straight into other people’s talk time, listened to no-one, waved his hands and acted like a small boy in a sweetshop whose parents wouldn’t buy him a pack of bonbons. He might feel really, really, really strong about this issue (and I don’t blame him for that), but his style completely overruled content on the night. Humphreys only had to roll his eyes a few times, and Miriam O’Callaghan to politely reprimand him, for us all to realise that Ryan’s emotions had let him down badly. He should be long enough in this business by now to realise that dogmatism and rudeness does you no favours in a TV debate, nor does it help the credibility of your party.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 1.30.53 a.m.

Eamon Ryan in full flight

On the opposite side, Ray Bates was a model of civility and patience. He was considered. He didn’t lose his temper. Which was unfortunate, because Ray Bates was, by far, the most problematic person on the panel.

Now, to be fair to Bates, he is not what I would call a First Degree Denier. He accepts anthropogenic climate change (ie. we’re responsible for it), but he disputes how bad it’s going to be and how long it will take.

Bates took pains to advertise his scientific credentials. Indeed, He mentioned them a few times. But what I heard was something slightly different than what I might expect most scientists to say. He spent his time picking some IPCC findings that suited his argument: that the margin of error was greater in 2013 than in 2007, or that 2015’s warming was less in the higher atmosphere than the lower atmosphere, or that climate models were out by a factor of 3. Pick, pick, pick. It’s like he was reading all the data, then looking for a small number of anomalies that he could use for the purposes of spreading uncertainty. That’s curious.

So here’s the thing. If you are fairly clueless on the details of global warming like most of us are, you would be left with the impression that all scientists have the same viewpoint as Ray: that they think it’s serious, but it’s not something to worry about too much. He was the only person on the panel with real scientific credentials – others were political and activism based – so that lent his view a certain amount of gravitas in the circumstances.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 1.33.26 a.m.

Prof. Ray Bates – climate models are the best we have, but sure, we can pick and choose.

But the fact is that he is very much out of step with most of his peers around the world. It’s not because they are all have some chip on their shoulder, or he’s not invited to the right parties; it’s because they are reading the data differently to him. The issue really is more urgent than he is making it out to be. After reading John Gibbons’ article about him, I tend to concur with the view that he is somewhat more protective of the Irish agricultural position than a totally independent actor should really be. I think he has an ideological position in this matter – otherwise why such a pro-agri stance? Why use the airtime to water down the findings in favour of the status quo?

I’m unhappy that Bates was the only scientist that RTE could find on this subject, because he badly misrepresented the scientific position on this. RTE needs to start getting away from the climate denier spokespeople – who are always available to talk – and start hearing more from other scientists who can better speak to the likely downstream issues caused by a rapidly warming world.


For years, it has struck me as bizarre how people could look at our behaviour on this planet, and assume no consequences whatsoever.

Over the last 150 years, our factories, our steam engines, our cars, our planes, our electrical power stations, our lorries and our machines of war and peace have been burning fossilised carbon. Day after day, year after year, the burning has increased as the whole world industrialises. A dramatic, unprecedented innovation, way bigger in magnitude than any volcano or any solar cycle.

The signature is there, plain to see. 400 parts per million of CO2 in the very air we breath. A record level, way above anything the planet has experienced over hundreds of thousands of years. Not only that, but this concentration was achieved, not over centuries or millennia as would be expected, but mere decades. 400 parts per million of CO2 and rising rapidly.

In this time, global temperatures have increased, just as would have been expected. The properties of carbon dioxide are well known, not from computer models, but from the lab. CO2 stores heat, and as its concentration rises, so too do temperatures.

For decades, we have been seeing changes taking place. Glaciers melting, permafrost disappearing, sea ice vanishing, oceans acidifying, climate patterns changing. The only reason for this is a warming of the planet – a warming seen in our air and ocean temperatures. A warming that cannot be accounted for through natural causes alone.

And now, we learn that West Antarctica is shedding its ice caps. One great force of nature – chemistry – yields to another: gravity. These ice sheets will fall into the ocean – they are falling already – and this in turn will lead to massive sea level rise in the next 200 to 300 years.

This is enough to convince everyone but the dangerous fools. The dangerous fools who use every trick in the book to persuade others that either it’s not happening at all, or that, sure, ’tis only natural and we’ll be grand.

Despite a huge consensus of scientific opinion, we have let these dangerous fools take power, dictate our politics, protect vested interests, poison the discourse and impugn the scientific enterprise. We have let them block, bluster and even incentivise the polluters. The result is that nothing much is done while each year, the signs get more stark, the evidence more blatant.

Damned fools. Make no bones about it, they will continue to fiddle while Rome burns about them. Such is their investment in their cause and their desire to be right. We need to move on from them. Let them play in their sandboxes while the rest of us figure out what to do. Fuck them. The world has run out of time listening to their arrogance and their idiocy.

I have rarely witnessed such passion and venom as currently besets the ongoing debate on climate change. It seems as if everyone has a view. Surprisingly for me, a very large section of opinion makers are firmly on the No side of the argument. They believe global warming is bunk.

Sifting through the rhetoric, it seems that many commentators see climate change as the ultimate liberal conspiracy. According to this viewpoint, 1990 saw an end to Communism but instead of throwing away the placards, the socialists threw their lot in with the new cause célèbre: environmentalism. Twenty years on and our leaders are in Copenhagen, addled by decades of left wing fear-mongering. They will willingly throw away any chance of future prosperity on a mirage, a dream that will never happen. It’s an understandable argument, but it misses a key point. The protesters don’t matter. The politics doesn’t matter. All that matters in this debate is the science.

I’m not a huge fan of militant activism, because activists often jump to huge conclusions based on relatively few facts. Activists have got many things wrong in the past, which leads to the conclusion that just because you are passionate about something doesn’t make you right. The corollary is also true, however. Passion in itself doesn’t make you wrong either.

Another view is that Climate Change is just one big bandwagon, upon which many people, who don’t understand the science, have crept aboard. This is quite true, but for the same reasons as above it is also irrelevant to the debate. The fact that it is a bandwagon issue doesn’t make it implicitly untrue.

The only thing that matters in this debate is the quality of the science. Climate scientists from many different fields, using multiple lines of evidence, sophisticated measuring devices, supercomputers, myriads of data points and complex statistical models, have paintakingly arrived at a conclusion that the world is warming and that a significant part of that warming is man made. If you want to argue this, you need to argue the science. This is not at all easy, which is why so few people in this debate, on both sides of the argument, are qualified to talk about it at all. Right now, there is plenty of heat, but very little light.

So, unless I hear that there is a reasonable alternative theory that addresses the data and the multiple lines of evidence in a coherent way but yields a contrary outcome, I will stay with the consensus view. Ultimately, scientists are reasonable people. It’s not normally in their interest or their nature to reject the evidence in favour of political dogma. Talk of a conspiracy among scientists is unlikely in the extreme.

This is the fourth posting in my 2019 Time Capsule series, looking at how the issues of today might be seen ten years from now. This entry is a topical one, particularly given the influenza scare over the weekend.

Global Warming

Global WarmingThe scientists are largely agreed: our world is warming up, and the long term effects on the environment are likely to be very substantial indeed. The principal cause is a massive increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to “anthropogenic factors”. In other words: us folk is wot have done it, m’lud. Guilty as charged. Over the last two centuries, we have been busy burning away Earth’s fossil fuel reserves – coal, natural gas and oil. All around the world, average temperatures are on the increase, while glaciers and ice shelves are on the retreat. Weather effects such as bushfires, droughts and stronger hurricanes provide us with hints of a coming crisis. Although climate change deniers still exist, the main scientific debate now rages about the depth of the crisis seemingly awaiting us. Will the effects be as bad as scientists are predicting? Ten or twenty years is probably too short a time to say for certain. However what should have changed by then is the extent to which we will we have started to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels. Will nascent technologies such as wind, wave, geothermal, biofuel, nuclear power and solar power be much more in evidence? Will a new source of energy be discovered? How will these technologies affect how we live our lives? How will they affect world politics? Interesting times.

Killer pandemics

pandemicOne of the big wildcards, when it comes to speculating about the future, is the possibility of a nasty virus originating in somewhere like South East Asia or the jungles of the Congo, and devastating the world’s population within a matter of months. It has happened before and many people will tell you that it is only a matter of time before it happens again. Influenza is regarded as one of the most probable culprits due to the ease by which it infects new hosts and how amenable it is to air travel. While there is always a worry that such a scourge might rear its head at any time, a more interesting question is whether scientists might have it beaten. A recent breakthrough in Australia indicates that a weak spot might indeed have been found, and that we might be able to immunise people from all deadly ‘flu viruses in the near future. We hope so. Viruses, owing to their vast numbers and their propensity to mutate quickly, are never beaten for very long.

Next in line: The economy.

Phelim McAleer is a film-maker who has produced a documentary challenging the climate change consensus. He appeared on an Irish political program this evening to  debate with a climate scientist, Dr. Kieran Hickey. Now I haven’t watched much of this guy’s documentary yet, but even so, his argument was full of glaring logical fallacies.* 

1) A key plank of McAleer’s argument by the sounds of it is that because the scientific consensus got DDT so badly wrong that they must be wrong this time. 

Rubbish. Even if the scientists did get DDT wrong (and I’ll bet there’s a bit more to this story than meets the eye), that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong on climate change. Methinks there is some selective thinking going on here. What about other scientific consensuses he omitted to mention? The connection between HIV and AIDS? Cowpox vaccination and Smallpox? Microbes and cholera? Smoking and lung cancer? Indeed, when it comes down to it: Gravity, Genetic theory, Plate Tectonics, Quantum Mechanics and Evolution are all scientific consensuses. It’s just a classic case of poisoning the well

2) Scientists have an agenda. 

The allegation here is that climate change is a big liberal conspiracy. This is an odd one, because the biggest vested interests in the climate change debate have always come from the other side! Get this: the combined revenue of the top 5 oil companies last year was 1.5 trillion dollars. 1,500,000,000,000 dollars. 1.5 million million dollars. That’s more than the entire GDP of Canada. Climate scientists were persona non grata in the White House for most of the last 8 years of the Bush presidency. If it’s a big conspiracy the financial backers must be an odd bunch indeed. Just because scientists are (according to you) bad people, it’s doesn’t make them wrong, Phelim. 

3) Climate change is a fad.

Apparently Phelim was taught in school in the 1970’s that the Ice Age was approaching in our lifetimes. In between there have been lots of fads, many of which have never come true. This argument attempts to conflate fads with real science, which is just ridiculous. Many of these fads never had any sort of consensus scientific backing. They were just media baubles – minority views that caught the imagination of the press for a period of time. Climate Change originated in the 1970’s as a seriously minority view. There was an activism bandwagon on climate change in the 1980’s which was often shone more heat than light. Cultural fads like this come and go, but the difference in this case was that real science began to weigh in over the past 20 years or so. This has swung the pendulum away from pure fad and into the realm of fact. An analogue is Wegener’s continental drift model that began as a minority view, but became in time accepted as a valid scientific theory when the science began to validate many of his arguments. Fads are not science. They lie on the margins, waiting to be validated or disproved. A lot of hard work needs to take place for a fad to become science, and in the case of climate change, this work has been carried out, with the argument pointing in no uncertain terms towards a deeply worrying future for us all. 

Here’s my biggest gripe with the whole thing. Debates are good when one person’s opinion is pitched against another person’s opinion. So if you bring the audience around to your point of view, you’ve won. Well done. A big prize to you. However, when you have a debate against a scientific consensus, then it doesn’t work so well. Even if the audience all agree with you, even if they carry you around on their shoulders in adulation, that doesn’t make your argument right. Science is not determined from public opinion. It has nothing to do with public opinion. It’s based on evidence, and the only way to challenge the science is to use the tools of science against it. These challenges do happen, but they don’t take place in public debate forums. No, they happen in scientific journals, conferences and papers, where each piece of evidence is scrutinised and debated until, you guessed it – a consensus emerges. So, even if the science is wrong in this case, Phelim, what is your alternative? Film-making?

* If you have never heard much about logical fallacies, I recommend you to take a look through this site. It may be the most educational hour or so you will spend this year.

%d bloggers like this: