Seeing Further

By Bryan Walker 05/03/2010


Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal SocietyThe name of Bill Bryson attracted me and I obtained through the library a copy of his new book Seeing Further: The Story of Science & the Royal Society, only to find that he is the editor, not the author. But he has done a splendid job as editor, collecting contributions from 21 authors, in an eclectic mix with room for novelists as well as professors. I hadn’t thought to be mentioning the book on Hot Topic, but there are three or four chapters which touch on climate change and which seemed worth reporting.  

Novelist Maggie Gee provides a chapter of nicely modulated writing on the ways in which writers explore the possible end of the world and what draws them to do so.  Some of her own novels have been described as apocalyptic and she comments that at a conscious level she uses the threat of apocalypse ’to re-focus attention  on the short-term miracle of what we have, this relatively peaceful and temperate present where the acts of reading and writing are possible.’ But she is aware that fears of climate change apocalypse are real enough. Contrasting the regular engagement of the Royal Society in the climate change debate with the quietude of her own Royal Society of Literature (of which she is a Vice-President) a little further down the Thames, she posits that writers are like most people in not fully believing it will affect their lives. Those who do take it seriously ’are thought slightly mad, or over-intense, unlike the sensible majority who just somehow know things will always go on as they do today.’ She follows with a perceptive observation of the resulting inhibitions of climate change believers. ’It’s like a religion: don’t bring it up. Belief seems like a claim to virtue, a holier-than-thou-ness which will annoy others. Thus some of us, myself included, become cowards, or lazy.’

That said, she expresses her admiration for the ’terrible striving’ she sees in some young people, but also her pity and her urge to say to them ‘Be kinder to yourself’. Some of the young ’are already assuming all the costs and allowing themselves none of the benefits of life on this planet, whereas others, older and much, much richer, have taken all the benefits and paid none of the costs.’

She offers some interesting comparisons between writers and scientists. Scientists have to vouch for the truth and solidity of what they say, whereas artists ’are protected by the worn trench-coat of irony’. [Great line! GR] On the plus side for climate scientists, they have a clear part to play. They are useful. ’Writers very often do not feel useful.’ Nevertheless they have something to offer, including this: ’We can try to defamiliarise the present, make our readers realise afresh how marvellous our living planet is.’  

There are also similarities in the roles of scientists and writers. Both have the opportunity to look beyond the demands of the present out to the wide web of life and to the future in its many possible forms.  If we refuse that attempt we run the risk of losing everything. ’The laboratories and libraries that we need and love to pursue our crafts are some of the first things that would be lost with the collapse of civilisation.’

Stephen Schneider’s chapter tackles the scientific uncertainties in climate change. Uncertainty has to be part of the science because it is concerned with the future. The question is how large the uncertainties are. Some of them centre around the so-called climate sensitivity, often estimated as the temperature increase due to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels from pre-industrial levels of about 280 ppm. The IPCC offers a likely range of 2-4.5 degrees, with a 5-17 percent chance of it being higher and a ‘best guess’ of 3 degrees. Not easily communicated to policy-makers and the public. 

It’s also difficult to explain how systems science gets done. Traditional ‘falsification’ controlled experiments are not possible. ’What we can do is assess where the preponderance of evidence lies and assign confidence levels to various conclusions.’ It would be nice to stick only with empirical data, but the best that can be done is to continually update the underlying data behind predictions and refine predictions as required.

This means that scientists, and policy-makers, grappling with climate science impacts are dealing with risk management. Judging about acceptable and unacceptable risks is a value judgment  which many traditional scientists are uncomfortable with.  Schneider is one of them, ’but I am more uncomfortable ignoring the problem altogether’.

The matter is complicated by another feature of systems science difficult to manage: the possibility of ‘surprises’ in future global climate, such as tipping points which lead to unusually rapid changes of state.

Schneider explains how the IPCC worked out a standardised quantitative scale to treat the uncertainties —- low confidence, medium confidence, high confidence and very high confidence, likely, and so on. The aim is to better inform the risk management decisions of policy-makers.

Not all is uncertain in the science. It can be regarded as settled that warming is occurring and virtually settled that human activities are the primary driver of recent changes.  The uncertainties are about how severe warming and its impacts will be in the future. These uncertainties have to be managed rather than mastered.

Oliver Morton in a chapter on Earth’s energy flows and the cycles of the biosphere, comments on the use of ancient sunlight stored in fossil form to drive the engines of industry and civilisation. In itself the amount of energy thus liberated is tiny by planetary scales. But the warming it results in is, in terms of energy flows, about one hundred times larger than the amount of energy released by the fossil fuels.

Energy from fossil fuels ties the flow of energy to the material flow of the carbon cycle in a deeply damaging way. We must simply find other flows to tap. Energy flows through the winds, the currents of the oceans, the rivers, the growing of the grass. It flows out of the ground and down from the sky. Energy of all sorts flows through the world and it’s not hard to imagine new ways in which that energy can do the work of humanity.     

Martin Rees, the President of the Royal Society since 2005, looks ahead to the next fifty years. He’s not sanguine.  Along with an exploding human population and its need for food, energy and resources, and along with the extinction threats hovering over biodiversity, he sets the threat from a warmer world and the significant probability that it will trigger a grave and irreversible global trend as in rising sea levels or runaway release of methane in the tundra.  He wants to see plenty of citizen scientists, measuring up to the social responsibility that goes with their scientific work. He ends with a vision of the vast changes in the Earth in the last one millionth part of its history, a few thousand years, including the anomalously fast rise in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s been an unprecedented ‘fever’ less than half way through the Earth’s life.  It will need some wise choices to steer to a safe outcome.

[GR adds: Martin Rees is visiting NZ this month as the guest of the Royal Society of NZ to give two Rutherford Memorial Lectures, in Christchurch on March 22 and Wellington on March 23. Details here. I’d love a report on the Wellington lecture from someone!]