World Wide Views on Climate and Energy

world wide views

Public Participation

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I found myself in Brussels in a beautiful Palace. I was at a conference about public participation, and went to a presentation of a very interesting project called World Wide Views on Climate Change and Energy.

The project as the name suggests involved a kind of world wide survey, involving 10 000 people and covering a large portion of the globe. It involved 97 day long debates spread over 76 countries, just to give you an idea, and the incredible thing is that they all happened on the same day. Not only that, but the results were uploaded live, and so could all be seen as they happened, a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest but without Terry Wogan.

The conference was not really about the results of the project, but the methodology and how it was actually conducted. The system has been used twice before, and was designed by the Danish Board of Technology and a host of other National and International organizations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change were one of the initiators, so as you can see it was a large project.

The Results

The results are aimed at providing policy-makers with world views. The participants were selected in order to represent the make up of each individual country and gathered for a day long experience. They were all shown the same videos, presented with the same written materials and asked the same questions.

Democratic debate and deliberation are central to the project, and it looks like an interesting use of the web to me. Obviously you can pick holes in the methodology if you wish, how representative can 10 000 people be? But I don’t think that was the point of the exercise. It is a large scale global survey of how people feel about climate change and energy transition, and the fact that countries and areas can be compared, as well as other groups taken across the globe, is a really interesting development.

The results are all posted on the website, find them here, there are also user friendly analysis tools for anyone to use.

In the report however an analysis has been done of some of the findings. As a brief outline, we can say that citizens want their governments to act, that action should be on the basis of the individual county’s emissions and wealth, and the private sector should participate.

Citizens are also expected to take part in decision-making and to participate in the process of lowering emissions.

This is an interesting project, and if you have time I highly recommend a look at the website and a play with the figures.

Politics and the Environment

Yesterday the official data came out and the year 2012 was the hottest year the US has experienced since records began. Not only that, but it was the hottest by a long way.

The Hurricane Sandy experience, as well as a recent spate of wildfires and drought, has meant that the topic of climate change is firmly on the table, but the dissenting voice still carries political clout.

There are two polar positions here, with a large political lobby arguing that climate change has nothing to do with human actions, that either the Earth is warming naturally or that there is no proof that the world is warming at all. This goes against mainstream European thinking, and we can see many differences in approach between the two continents. In Europe we no longer use plastic bags on mass, they are now almost all biodegradable, and we can only buy low wattage compact fluorescent lamps as old style light bulbs have been fazed out.

Here the government is moving towards the same goal. In Massachusetts an organization called Mass Save subsidizes the cost of replacing old bulbs with new. The money comes from the user who has to pay a supplement on the electric bill to fund the scheme, but all is not without issue.

which do you favour?

A traditional and new style lamp

These bulbs contain mercury, a naturally occurring but poisonous substance. This means that they have to be disposed of properly, as if they are just dumped into the ground they can poison the surrounding water ways, very much in the same way as batteries do. They are also much more complex than old style bulbs, they require assembly and raw materials for their components, and much of this work is carried out in China with the usual questions of human rights and exploitation that are associated with this type of process.

Some sections of the political world (the Tea Party for example) offer this as proof that the environmentalists are poisoning the Earth and that their arguments are based upon false suppositions. Statistics are produced that seemingly show that a few lamps may do a lot of damage, but they do cut down electricity consumption enormously, and here in the US a lot of electricity is still produced by burning coal, and that is an extremely dirty and polluting affair.

The amount of mercury is also disputed, bringing poison into the house, light that burns skill, all kinds of terrifying scenarios, and I am certain that these lamps do present a real issue of environmental threat, but it is not through such scaremongering that progress will be made.

For the lamps to be efficient and effective they must be disposed of properly. For this to happen the public must be informed and take action. These bulbs must be correctly packaged when they fail and taken to recycling hubs where skilled operators know how to dismantle them.

As many readers might know, the environment and all issues surrounding its protection are extremely politicized in the US. Research data is difficult to come by, and large sums of money are involved, particularly on the side of the sceptics. But cuts in electricity use must be a good thing, but only if the collateral effects of such a mass introduction of ever cheaper technology that purports to be wholly good are properly investigated and managed.

Low mercury lights are available too, but I would like to say that the amount of mercury present in even a non low mercury version is extremely small. You have a lot more in the fillings in your teeth for example, but you should still go to the dentist for a check up every now and again.

In practical terms, I recently changed 12 bulbs in my house and my monthly electricity bill dropped by about 20%, good for me, good for the planet, but let’s not see it out of context. The keys are nothing more than management however, good research that is available to all, education on the pros and cons of different possible solutions, and less political manipulation.

Here are two takes on the story. A critique of the way these problems arise through big business funding of the sceptic argument and a critique of from the other side.

Both politically loaded as you will see.

Hurricanes, Natural Disasters and Science

EDITOR NOTE: Congratulations to Jonny, this is his 50th post on Technology Bloggers! Feel free to thank him for his fantastic contribution to the blog with a comment 🙂 – note by Christopher

This is my 50th post and I am very pleased, so once again I would like to try to propose something a little different.

This week I have experienced my second hurricane, Sandy passed through Boston where I currently reside, tearing up trees, bringing down power lines and bucketing tons of water upon us. The disaster seen in New York was not replicated here, but we are still in a state of emergency with millions of people without power.

One interesting aspect about the whole affair was watching the state prepare for something that it could not really fully understand. The authorities did not know where the hurricane would hit land, or how much damage it would do. They had to rely on scientists’ models and experience to make plans and try to save lives and limit damage.

Car crushed outside

A car crushed by a fallen tree on our street

Which all brings me on to the topic for today’s post, scientific advice.

Another disaster is in the news this week from my other home country, Italy. 6 of Italy’s leading scientists and one ex government official have received prison terms for offering falsely reassuring advice immediately before the 2009 Aquila earthquake. They were each found guilty on multiple counts of manslaughter after more than 300 people died in the catastrophe. The BBC has a short article on the proceedings and sentence here.

All members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, they were accused of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of the quake. There had been a series of smaller tremors in the weeks and months preceding the larger one on 6th April, but the Commission had suggested that this did not mean that a larger quake was on its way.

They were wrong however, but many members of the scientific community have come to their defense, stating that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable, technology does not allow accurate prediction, and that a series of tremors such as those seen in Aquila only lead to a major quake on about 1% of occasions.

The Scientists found guilty are amongst the most respected geologists and seismologists in Italy, and this leads me to ask several questions. Who can we ask for advice in order to prepare for disasters if the best scientists are not able to provide the answers? What effect will this ruling have upon the scientific community and their willingness to give advice on such matters? Can we hold scientists responsible for such events? What effect does politics have on their decision making and advice to the public?

Here during hurricane Sandy several local government officials were criticized for not implementing evacuation procedures that were called for by central government upon advice given by scientists, and I would ask if the fact that there was loss of life might have been avoided. We all knew it was coming!

These points above could also be made about other problems, the obvious one being climate change. There are several articles on this website that address this issue including my own ‘Health of the Planet‘ series, but once more the entire subject is bogged down with political versus scientific arguments.

We are talking about risk here, and risk is not an easy thing to assess or to communicate. The Aquila scientists may argue that the 1% risk is minimal after a series of smaller shocks, but the risk may also be greatly magnified from a starting point of no shocks. A great deal is in the phrasing, and phrasing may be political.

Last year, here in Cambridge Massachusetts, I interviewed our local Congressman, Michael Capuano on the problems of making political decisions regarding science, and you can see a transcription here if you like. It makes for interesting reading.

A review of the environment and power series

Here I would like to review the series and look at the way people commented the individual posts, before concluding with a few lines about the experience.

Renewable energy renewing the Earth

In my first post I introduced the idea of environmental cost. This was the measurement that I wanted to use to address the issue of pollution, and more specifically that produced through energy use.

I tried to avoid the term ‘clean energy’, as I feel this overlooks certain aspects of all forms of production. Modern solar panels for example may provide clean energy from the sun but they themselves present issues during their manufacturing and disposal phases.

Another point I hoped to raise is that the problem needs to be viewed from a realistic standpoint. We are not all going to convert to a zero emissions life overnight any more than we are going to return to being a hunter and collector society that lives in caves. The world will continue to operate more or less as it does now, and it is through this framework that the problem should be addressed.

The first comment I received contained the following line from Vicky, and it really is worthy of note:

“I believe that each of us can help a lot in improving the health of our planet, the only problem is that we have great vision but no action. Why don’t we act first and through that action we start making some vision?” This is echoed by the quote from Gandhi that I used to open the first post, and could really be a manifesto for the series.

The second post was about cutting fuel emissions from transport systems, and it received a couple of interesting comments. Darci commented that even cutting emission by 30% (referring to the commercial use of Kites on ships) would be a great improvement, and I must agree with her. Neil’s comment included the following lines that are worth thinking about:

“It seems to me that over the past decade the builders of internal combustion engines have made some great breakthroughs in generating more energy from their engines with the same amount of input and we have seen the KW output of many engines jump significantly. It would be good to see these same producers working backwards to produce smaller engines that produce an adequate amount of power from a minimal amount of fuel.” An extremely astute comment I would say.

Post 3 entitled Cleaner Energy Production was one of the most commented of the series. I think this is because the technology described is on the verge of becoming commercially available, and because solar panels are now an every day piece of urban furniture.

The article also provoked a series of comments lead by the following from Custom Items:

“These are a great bunch of suggestions. It’s really sad that we all what we need and what is right but can’t do anything about it. I’ve always felt that the government was taking sides with the big corporations. In this world of ours, money and power talks.”

This obviously provoked discussion with the other commenters in agreement with the sentiment, some seeming to suggest that development is hindered by large corporations and governments and that although the people recognize the need for change they may be incapable of achieving it.

Not all doom and gloom though and I for one am optimistic and agree with some of the brighter outlooks expressed.

Post 4 was all about a report published by the Royal Society for Engineering in which they looked at possible ways of artificially cooling the planet. Again many comments were left, a couple of which raise issues that should be addressed.

The post involves the problematic debate around global warming. Two comments really show the diversity of belief that surrounds the issue, even though not taking radical standpoints. The following comment was made by Shane Ryans:

“In my opinion the earth has gone through many different cycles, throughout its lifetime. The earth has gone through ice ages so why would there not have been, for lack of a better word, “hot” ages. What makes today so different from the past. We are just going into yet another cycle. Now that being said, I am sure that we as a race have made the circumstances different and added to the problem and sped up the process, with all the different chemicals and air pollutants we have introduced into our environment. I do hope that scientists can come up with a viable solution”.

Although Shane does not make the line that humans do not contribute to the problem, many people do, and go on to argue that the greenhouse effect does not exist. From their point of view any change is merely a product of nature. People that espouse this line have powerful lobbies, and invest large sums of money to promote their line to the point that the debate has become a business, and dirty tricks and smear campaigns abound. See this page on Wikipedia for plenty of information and links to further reading

Returning to the post a second comment made by Virtual Stock Trading runs as follows, the edit is mine but you can see the original comment where it was left:

“I don’t think there is any doubt on global warning…….. But the process is very gradual and will not significantly affect anyone living today.”

I cannot agree with the final line. Global warming is affecting communities all over the world as we speak. Sea levels are rising and threatening the very survival of some of theMaldivesIslands, flooding is rife in low-lying countries and London has to thank the Thames Barrier to avoid Joe Strummer’s classic prediction. And a simple look at its use tells a story, it was closed four times in the 1980s, 35 times in the 1990s, and 80 times since 2000.

Post 5 was a review of inventions and power generating machines that profess to generate free or pollution free energy. It did not generate the number of comments that the previous posts managed, but Samantha returned to the non support from governments and big business argument once more:

“Actually, there are so many inventions nowadays that can actually lessen our cost and pollution as well. However, they are having problems of getting support from our government. Of course, this body is after of money from businesses like big petroleum companies.”

From a personal point of view writing the series gave me great satisfaction. I have all the articles on a single file and it looks like a small book! I wrote 2 of the articles before posting the first, as Christopher suggested, and it was a very good idea. I wanted to reply to each comment and that took a lot of time, so I found it quite a strain researching while the series was running (each post took about 6-8 hours to research and write).

I found all of the comments interesting, and thank everyone who took the time to post. I did not have the problem that I sometimes have of people missing the point. I do not like to express my arguments too openly and rely on a bit of intuition, and sometimes this is lacking and I find comments that express the opposite of what I wanted to convey. This was not the case during the series, and that pleases me.

I can definitely recommend the experience, and will undoubtedly write another.

UPDATE: Jonny has compiled a fantastic PDF publication of his series which contains every article in the series, and the responses each article got. You can view it on the blog here Can We Improve the Health of the Planet? A series by Jonny Hankins.