Monday, November 30, 2009

Engineers, Scientists, Climate Change, and Politics

A little over a week ago, according to the New York Times, someone posted a large number of emails and other internal correspondence that the University of East Anglia said was stolen from their computer systems. What makes this important news is that the material shows the inner workings of the university's Climatic Research Unit (CRU), a leading research center that advises the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, in turn, has largely taken the lead in convincing the rest of the world that global warming is the issue of our times upon which the fate of the world turns. Or at least that's the way their outlook seems to me.

I have not examined the emails in detail, and so will not try to make a judgement on what some sources allege is a cavalier and even conspiratorial attitude the emails reveal, on the part of the CRU's leading climate scientists, to stifle papers written by researchers who oppose the idea that global warming is as serious or severe as the CRU claims. Rather, I'd like to ask the question: what are the roles of engineers and engineering organizations in a situation so fraught with politics and uncertainty as the controversy surrounding global warming?

First, there is the nature of the issue itself. We had next to no idea about what prehistoric climates were like until the last three or four decades, when techniques of ice-core measurements at the South Pole and similar methods began to enable us to reconstruct. with impressive detail, the temperatures and carbon dioxide content of ancient atmospheres. The story these data tell is a complex one, and gives us no direct information about what will happen next. The earth has been considerably warmer in the past than it is now, and certainly much colder. There is more carbon dioxide in the air now because of anthropogenic causes than there ever was before. But the more you try to pin down climatologists as to exactly what is going to happen when, and the farther into the future you go in your request for forecasts, the fuzzier and less certain the answers get. This is just the nature of trying to forecast a strictly chaotic system, which is what the global climate is. Chaotic systems always operate within certain broad boundaries, but they can produce short excursions beyond those boundaries and predicting exactly when these extremes occur is next to impossible. Only in this case, "short" may mean a century.

So the scientific problem itself is fraught with uncertainty, since it is in the class of problems that cannot be exhaustively explored either in the laboratory or with a computer. Unfortunately, since it involves the whole world, the playing out of the problem in real time will involve us all to some degree, so it combines intractibility with universality. A worse situation for the application of engineering design and prediction techniques could hardly be devised.

But if (and that is a big "if") global warming really is the crisis of our times, engineers are at least partly responsible for getting us into the difficulty. What is their responsibility in getting us out again?

There seem to be two distinct schools of thought on how to answer that question. The first school, favored by the IPCC and its political allies, says basically that modern industrial society has been a bad boy and needs to go sit in a corner for a timeout. The timeout consists of throwing over most of the fossil-fuel infrastructure and drastically restricting energy use (by governmental fiat, since free-market economics won't do the job) until we can retool our lives to live with a much smaller "carbon footprint." Doing all this would fit into the ambit of engineering, which is the application of science and technology to the wants and needs of man. But the wants and needs in this first course of action would be artificially imposed, for the most part, by a small elite who have convinced themselves that they are averting global disaster by exerting a form of political control over the vast unwashed multitudes, which will otherwise plunge themselves like lemmings into the rising seas caused by unchecked global warming.

The second school of thought, which is not discussed much in the circles frequented by the IPCC and its friends, takes the attitude that, well, if global warming's going to happen and we've got all this carbon dioxide in the air already, let's see what we can do to deal with the consequences. There are proposals to spray sulfur-dioxide particles in the air to produce global cooling that would counteract the global warming we are trying to avoid. And there are the thousand-and-one adaptations to whatever circumstances global warming will produce, from rising sea levels to changed weather patterns, which in the nature of things people would come up with one by one. If South Pacific islands slowly disappear and coastlines change, people aren't passive sheep. They won't just sit at the dinner table while the waters rise over their heads. They will move to higher ground, and complain, and the poorest will suffer the most in many cases, which is too bad. But global warming might not be the unqualified ill wind it is advertised by the IPCC to be. It might actually blow some good somewhere. This second school of thought takes a positive view of humanity's ingenuity and adaptability, which can turn what looks initially like a bad situation to advantage.

In case you haven't figured it out, I belong to the second school of thought. If indeed the leading climatologists at the University of East Anglia have, consciously or unconsciously, formed a kind of peer-review mafia to protect their own prominent political positions and resources at the cost of sacrificing scientific truth to personal advantage, well, that is too bad as well. But it wouldn't be the first time such a thing happened. Even if global warming is as bad as they say and they were simply doing wrong in a good cause, there are sound economic reasons to believe that the resources we should spend on global warming should not be so large as to seriously disrupt the world's economies, which are not in stellar shape right now anyway. Even if engineering got us into this fix, whatever it is, my view is that engineering, based on truth, as good engineering always must be, can get us out of it again.

Sources: A good summary article on the CRU email release appeared in the New York Times on Nov. 27, 2009 at In my blog of Feb. 18, 2008 ("Should We Discount Global Warming?") I discussed some of the economic arguments relating to global warming.

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