Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Addendum to my interview with Dr. Cooksy

This post is meant to be read after the one below.

A few clarifications I should have made prior to posting.

In response to questions number one: "Are you saying that atmospheric scientists are saying that it exists without question or there have been no questions because it just doesn't exist? I can read it both ways..."

Dr. Cooksy:

I believe that the question was asked and was answered, to the extent that anything in climate science can be, years ago. The answer they find is, the global climate is changing with unprecedented rapidity, and the change can be largely attributed to human activity. Questions will always remain as to the precision of models that try to predict the future. Waiting for those questions to be resolved is futile, because science by its nature doesn't provide any answers with absolute certainty. But if there is any appearance of substantial controversy beyond that, it lies entirely outside this community of scientists.

Still question number one, me: "Their prediction being that global warming is or is not going to be a problem? I hope this doesn't sound naive but sometimes it is hard to differentiate where the information is coming from. Depending on the source, 'scientists' seem to be claiming the whole spectrum of various problems/non-problems. Especially in the last ~year or so, it has been REALLY difficult to nail down what the scientific community, as a whole, thinks about various things. Not everyone will concur, of course, but it's never seemed so impossible to find the mean of opinions/theories."

The only climate models I'm aware of are those that predict long-term global warming, acidification of the oceans, significant increases in severe weather, and so on. And as these effects were predicted years ago, and are already being observed today, early versions of those models have already passed a significant test of validity. If there were believable climate models that showed this just going away, we'd hear about them in a big way.

To emphasize something from the above, scientists aren't going to give you an absolute answer. Even if there was an absolute answer to give, scientific enterprise would move away from that to the areas where questions remain. So if you read any scientific papers on the subject, there will be a lot of emphasis on the uncertainties -- that's a constant of good science. It's important to maintain that questioning perspective, even if you're dealing with an issue of potentially enormous societal impact, because to abandon it threatens the quality of the science.

For that reason, I'm intentionally vague about the value judgments, like what constitutes a 'problem.' As scientists, it's not for climate researchers to tell us whether it's a bad thing that there won't be any Arctic sea ice a century from now. But they're not studying *if* it's going to disappear any more; they're just studying how long it might take.

If you want to know what scientists think about those value judgments, I'd recommend seeing what their organizations have to say. These bodies are expected to review the science, and synthesize what they can to obtain a big-picture viewpoint. In the US, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences serve this function. I don't think that they've been vague about this at all. AAAS in particular has been vocal about the scientific consensus for years. For a non-US perspective, the Royal Society in the UK is analogous to our NAS.

If you read about any science secondhand, it can be made to look controversial because it never answers any questions absolutely. On top of that, I think there are perfectly valid controversies about the ramifications of global climate change from the standpoints of politics and economics, to say nothing of scientific questions that involve greater or more complex extrapolation (such as far-future climate prediction, biological and ecological impacts). It's easy for the scientific and the non-scientific controversies to become confused in popular reporting.

Good stuff!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

This IS the scientific community

So, I'm starting a new feature called...

This IS the scientific community

The idea came from a conversation I had with a former colleague at Johnson & Johnson. He is a medicinal chemist and we had a short conversation about the state of the world briefly in the chemical dungeon I worked in (I'm making it sound much worse than it was, of course). Anyways, he had some interesting things to say and I thought 'anyone who gives a damn about the environment, whether they knew anything about it or not, would probably be interested to hear what scientists have to say about it.' I think the interesting part comes not only from those who study it directly but also those who do not but, none-the-less, stay informed on the issue.

So, that's my idea, what do the scientists say. And here is the first one.

Dr. Andrew Cooksy, Associate Professor of Physical Chemistry

First, because I would want the same, a website plug.

Dr. Cooksy teaches the physical chemistry class that I am currently taking and, at the risk of sounding like I'm brown-nosing, does a damn good job at it. Physical chemistry deals with the physics of chemistry and how atoms and molecules interact with each other on both a micro and a macro scale. I won't beat around the bush, this class is very difficult but it helps to instill important understanding about what we're actually DOING in the lab.

On with the questions!

What is your honest opinion regarding the state of our environment and the existence of global warming? Do you believe that this is a serious issue to address or a misinterpretation of data?

I’m not an atmospheric scientist; I can only claim to be a reader of the scientific literature. From that, I haven’t seen any serious question among atmospheric scientists about the existence of global warming for at least twelve years, nor any serious question about the significance of anthropogenic contributions for close to ten years. I’m not referring to scientists in general, but the people who are actively pursuing research in this field. This is already an old enough field that many of its early prognostications have been tested. The ability of computer simulations to predict qualitative trends in the climate over the past decade strikes me as surprisingly successful for a field that amounts to, in essence, forecasting the weather. I think the climate science community has made a compelling case that many of their extended predictions are likely to be accurate, if not precise.

What is the most important thing that the average earth inhabitant can do to improve or avoid any current or future environmental impacts? Is there anything you do personally?

Reducing population growth seems to me the most direct way to reduce human impact on the environment, whether for better or worse.

How important is a move toward sustainable transportation, in your opinion? Do you think it is worth the effort that it will take? Is it a waste of time or an absolute necessity?

Certainly it’s in the long list of things that would have to be addressed for long-term sustainability of human enterprise in general. I don’t see how it could be a waste of time, since the exploration of new ways to do things is how we advance.

In terms of research, where do you think the most money and time should be spent?

Offhand I’d be interested in investigating how to get around materials science and materials availability problems related to solar power, and also in exploration of new mechanisms for energy storage.

If you had the power to do so, regardless of your opinion on the state of the environment or petroleum, what technology would you pick to power our society? Why?

Assuming a number of questions could be addressed, I’d pick solar. Clean; perhaps not very efficient but widely available so not so subject to storage and transport issues as other options.

Do you think that public transportation development is important for major cities? What do you think about the system in San Diego?

I do think it’s important. I don’t know any other way to get to and from a ballgame.

The system in San Diego is serviceable. It’s slow, so I use it when I have time and can bring something to work on, and when it’s relatively direct. The trips I’ve taken on public transport in San Diego probably average about an hour each way, counting the time it takes to walk to the route and wait for the trolley or bus. For me, that would be onerous to do every day. I’ve also lived in DC, where a trip downtown from the edge of the city takes about 30 minutes altogether (for me, that’s a bus plus a subway train), and driving takes at least that long.

Thank you!


Please see the addendum to this interview, found here (or just above this entry, chronologically).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

It's live! is up and running!

Please take a few minutes to check it out and let me know what you think in my comments. "Official Release" going out soon.