A Ball Lying on the Ground
Updated: Mar 19
This week I watched two TedX talks to do with climate science. Both were presented by scientists working at Scottish Universities. The first was from Jaime Tomey of Glasgow University. She had some interesting insights. Did you know that we are adding heat to the planet at a rate of one Hiroshima bomb per second, and have been for the last 75 years? At least, that’s what she said. But she concludes her talk with a rather insipid, “It’s not too late. We need to act collaboratively. Act now”. The other video was presented by James Rae of the University of St. Andrews. He claimed that we can solve the problems of climate change by using our ingenuity to create a revolution. How? By installing more solar and wind, and by taking individual actions such as cutting our personal energy consumption.
Both videos put me in mind of the Monty Python sketch: The Philosophers’ Football Match — a soccer match between German and Greek philosophers. At 1:43 the commentator says, “There’s the ball!” — the point being that the “players” have been so busy thinking about the philosophy of soccer that no one has gotten around to actually kicking the ball.
At about the same time, a colleague shared the following quotation from Theodore von Karman,
Scientists study the world as it is, engineers create the world that has never been.
Another colleague shared a quotation on the same lines from Henry Petroski of Duke University,
In political discourse, public policy debates, and the mass media, engineering is often a synonym for science. This confusion might seem an innocuous shorthand for headline writers, but it can leave politicians, policymakers, and the general public unable to make informed decisions about the technical challenges facing the world today.
Science is about understanding the origins, nature, and behavior of the universe and all it contains; engineering is about solving problems by rearranging the stuff of the world to make new things. Conflating these separate objectives leads to uninformed opinions, which in turn can delay or misdirect management, effort, and resources.
I then took a look at the title page of the IPCC 1.5 °C report (the nearest thing we have to an authoritative document on climate change). The ‘Summary for Policymakers’ (which consists of 26 pages of dense text) presents,
the key findings of the Special Report, <are> based on the assessment of the available scientific, technical and socio-economic literature relevant to global warming of 1.5°C . . . .
This “Summary” has a total of 19 authors. Six of these have the word ‘Science’ in their title; none of them have the words ‘Engineering’ or ‘Technology’.
The IPCC report stresses the need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. But it does not provide in-depth analysis of potential technical solutions. Nor does it talk about the challenges to do with scale-up in a short period of time that any solution would face.
The chart shows that renewables (solar and wind power) have gained market share, but only slowly. They started at around 0% in the year 1965, and are now at about 5%. This is a useful increase, and every effort should be made to support their continued growth. But, if we are to replace fossil fuels by the year 2050 — a date that is frequently put forward as our deadline — then the pace at which we adopt renewables will have to accelerate — a lot. Renewables will have to move from 5% of the market to at least 80% within just three decades. So far there is no evidence that we, as a society, are willing to make the necessary financial and social commitment to such a radical change in our lifestyle.
Environmentalists and people with a social science background often lead the discussions to do with climate change, and what to do about it. They often take the attitude that there we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. Indeed, this approach is one of the themes at the Faith in a Changing Climate site.)
People who approach climate change and related issues with this point of view look for solutions in the political sphere. They hope that large numbers of people will “get it”, understand what is happening and then take action. That action can be either at the individual/local level, or it may involve large government and commercial entities.
While such approaches are important and should be continued, it has to be recognized that, to date, they have not had much effect. The Keeling Curve continues its inexorable climb.
Enter the Engineers
Dr. Rae, who presented one of the TedX videos discussed at the start of this post, talks about the need for imagination. One form of imagination is to think of new and innovative engineering responses.
For example, the Canadian company Carbon Engineering has built a large pilot plant that removes 1 gigaton per annum of CO2 directly from the atmosphere. The technology that they use is quite straightforward. Having extracted the CO2 from the atmosphere they then have to figure out what to do with it. One option is to use a modified Fischer-Tropsch reaction to create liquid fuels. These fuels can be used in the vehicle fleet to replace gasoline and diesel. (This option is carbon neutral, it does not create a net removal of carbon from the atmosphere, but it does slow down the rate at which global temperatures increase.)
Engineers can not only come with solutions, but they can ask the hard questions like, “Does it work?” “Can it be scaled up in the time available (29 years)?” “Can we afford it?” “What are the unintended consequences?” “How do we avoid Jevons Paradox?” I would love to see the large oil companies and contractors get on to this.
Will they succeed? It’s doubtful, but at least it’s worth a try. It’s better than exhortations to “be good”.