The traffic in Doha is horrendous. Ask anyone who lives here. It might take you 45 minutes to commute a mere 15 km. The summers are brutal – the temperature bounces around the 50⁰C mark and the humidity threatens to drown you on the doorstep.
This is an extremely quick and dirty blog post, as I really need to be somewhere else. But while traveling to the World Economic Forum meeting in China today, I came across a new paper that piques my interest.
The paper is by David Keith at the University of Calgary (published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science), and is a theoretical investigation of how injecting large quantities of precisely engineered particles into the upper atmosphere might provide a cost-effective tool for climate intervention – geoengineering.
This evening I was invited to talk to a group of industry leaders on alternative solutions to the “carbon” problem at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. The brief was to be one of three “firestarters” – a bit of a dangerous one if you ask me. Given the informal setting (this was all off the record and over dinner), my comments were aimed at being provocative and challenging, and were probably more full of holes than the proverbial sieve – perfect material in other words for a blog! Continue reading Owning the carbon cycle→
Ten years ago at the close of the 20th century, people the world over were obsessing about the millennium bug – an unanticipated glitch arising from an earlier technology. I wonder how clear it was then that, despite this storm in what turned out to be a rather small teacup, the following decade would see unprecedented advances in technology – the mapping of the human genome, social media, nanotechnology, space-tourism, face transplants, hybrid cars, global communications, digital storage, and more. Looking back, it’s clear that despite a few hiccups, emerging technologies are on a roll – one that’s showing no sign of slowing down.
So what can we expect as we enter the second decade of the twenty first century? What are the emerging technology trends that are going to be hitting the headlines over the next ten years?
Part 9 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century
Writing about completing the circle of science and technology policy at the start of the Copenhagen climate summit seems particularly fitting. Although the climate change context was far from my mind when I started this series, it stands as a stark reminder of the consequences of unconstrained science and technology, the possibilities of using science and technology to create a better future, and the daunting complexities of crafting policies that get us as a society to where we want to be.
Whether it’s dealing with climate change or innumerable other issues, the way we develop and use science and technology needs to be responsive to the challenges we face as a society, and the social, political and economic environment within which we face them. Simply funding scientists to do what takes their fancy isn’t likely to deliver the goods in a world increasingly dominated by the three C’s – Communication, Control and Coupling. Yet heavy-handed control of the science agenda is clearly not the answer—autonomy and open-ended research are essential to scientific discovery and innovation.
So what’s the answer? How do we ensure our investment in science and technology as a society achieves what we believe it should, without over-indulging a science elite, or stifling discovery and innovation? At the end of the last blog in this series I suggested that we need increased feedback in the policy process to make it work better.
Feedback loops take some of the output of a process and feed it back into the input – they’re a way of regulating a process so that it remains responsive, and doesn’t get out of control. Of course, the business of policy is full of feedback loops. In fact the whole political process can be seen as one rather large feedback loop – unpopular leaders and decisions usually end up being overturned, although sometimes the “time constants” are rather long. The next two weeks in Copenhagen is a prime example of feedback in policy-making – even if this is a feedback loop with a rather large time constant.
An interesting aspect of today’s Royal Society report on geoengineering is the attempt to rate twelve potential approaches to engineering the climate by effectiveness, affordability, timeliness and safety – and to graphically compare the approaches in terms of these criteria.
While the ratings and the resulting diagram are somewhat subjective (the report’s authors call them “tentative and approximate”), they have some merit in helping make sense of a complex and uncertain bunch of data.
In the report, potential geoengineering approaches are displayed against primary axes of effectiveness and affordability. But as the full evaluation data are available, it’s reasonably easy to re-plot them as effectiveness against “safety.”
Part 7 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century
Yesterday, I listened to respected economists discussing geoengineering; gave a Skype interview on nanotechnology from the comfort of my own home; and watched as reactions to Michael Jackson’s death spread through virtual web-based communities. Twenty years ago, when Jackson was at the height of his artistic powers, such a day would have been the stuff of science fiction. Now, it’s just business and usual.
Looking back over the past two decades, it’s easy to see how Coupling, Communication and Control have changed the world we live in. The impact of CFC’s on the ozone layer, the looming global warming crisis and the associated acidification of oceans are all testaments to how recent human actions are increasingly coupled to global environmental re-actions. Technological advances built on the back of our increasing control over matter – whether living or non-living – have led to profound changes in what we can achieve as a species. And the global communications revolution – from the rise of the internet to the emergence of social media – continues to bend previously rigid social, commercial and geographical boundaries.
If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to unite global warming “denialists” on both sides of the aisle, it’s geoengineering – the intentional planet-wide manipulation of the environment. At least, you might be left with that impression after reading the comments following a thoughtful piece in Monday’s Wall Street Journal by Jamais Cascio.
Cascio describes himself as a “reluctant advocate” of geoengineering.
“Many of us who have been watching this subject closely have gone from being skeptics to advocates. Very reluctant advocates, to be sure, but advocates nonetheless.”
It feels good to be ahead of the curve sometimes. About this time last year, I was slaving away painting my roof white – much to the bemusement of my Northern Virginia neighbors and friends. So I couldn’t help feeling just a little smug this morning as I read that US Secretary of Energy Steve Chu is also a great fan of roof-painting to combat global warming… Continue reading Steve Chu’s White Revolution→
Twelve months ago, geoengineering seemed little more than the fancy of science fiction writers and fringe scientists. Now, an increasing number of people are viewing it as a viable – if extreme – option for curbing global warming. This shift was hammered home today by Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, in his first interview since being confirmed to the office. Given the enormous challenges presented by global warming, Holdren stated that geoengineering “…has got to be looked at. … We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.”
Holdren is right. The coupling between people and the planet is now at the point where radical action is needed to avoid a shift in climate that could have a catastrophic impact on society. And while conventional technologies might suffice in the short term to bring carbon dioxide levels down and otherwise manage global warming, they will eventually run out of steam… Continue reading Geoengineering goes mainstream→
Part 1 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century
We live in a crowded, science and technology-dependent word. And things aren’t getting any better! The global population is currently around 6.8 billion. Over the next four years it’s projected to grow to over 7 billion. And by 2050, the US Census Bureau estimates there will be over 9.5 billion men women and children on the planet; all of them expecting food, water, shelter, and a first world standard of living. The only way such demands can be met—if indeed they can be (and it’s a big “if”)—is through the increasingly sophisticated and strategic use of science and technology.
The level of scientific knowledge and technological ability that exists now underpins modern society. Remove it, and things collapse. But what is less obvious is that science and technology need to continually develop in a changing world. As new challenges, needs and wants arise, we need a steady stream of new knowledge and new technology innovation. Without science progress and technology innovation, our ability to sustain a healthy global society will not keep pace with the challenges to achieving this.
Like it or not, society is dependent on science and technology. The only way we can cram 6 billion people plus onto the earth and use resources at the rate we do, is through the support of scientific discovery and technology innovation. Take our technology-based infrastructure away and civilization as we know it would collapse.
Perhaps more worrying, our dependency on science and technology is accelerating. The world’s population continues to grow, lifestyle expectations are going up, and supporting technologies are becomes increasingly sophisticated. But this “progress” can only be sustained through increasing the rate with which new discoveries are made and new technology innovations are implemented.
At some point this cycle of technology addiction probably needs to be broken if society is to avoid a rather nasty crash. But I suspect that such a crash is some way off yet. And it is entirely plausible that the solution for avoiding such a crash will itself arise from technology-based innovation.
Which means that if global society is to continue to mature and prosper, we have to get the whole science and technology enterprise right.
The only alternative is to face a radical “recalibration” of society, leading to a population level and demands on resources that are more in keeping with the Earth’s load-carrying capacity.
Given the recent surge in 2020science readers (thanks to Lon S. Cohen at Mashable), I thought it about time I did a short retrospective—a taster for the type of stuff you can expect to read here. So here are five pieces from the past year that cover everything from nanotechnology to synthetic biology, and ethics to the trials of being on the scientific meeting circuit—all from the perspective of emerging technologies.
Asbestos-like nanomaterials – should we be concerned? It seems that when the possible downsides of nanotechnology are broached, it doesn’t take long for the “A” word to surface. But what is the truth—if any—behind comparisons between nanomaterials and asbestos? From January 2009.
Nanotechnology—In bed with Madonna? How do you squeeze Madonna, John Kerry, nanotechnology and Elle magazine into the same blog? With difficulty is the correct answer I think, but somehow they all managed to appear together in this piece from April 2008.
Synthetic biology, ethics and the hacker culture. What the heck is synthetic biology, is “biopunk” a real word, and are the 21st century equivalents of computer hackers going to reconfigure life as we know it? I can’t promise any easy answers, but hopefully this post from June 2008 helps set the scene.
Enough meetings already! Ever get jealous of the scientific jet-set, swanning between “prestigious” speaking engagements in exotic places? Don’t bother—the reality is far from glamorous, as this post from May last year tries to capture. Fortunately, there are occasional compensations, albeit in unlikely forms!
Reading through these and other accounts, it seems clear that the deliberate modification of the Earth’s environment on a vast scale is rapidly moving from the realms of fantasy to those of possibility. Almost overnight it seems, geoengineering has become respectable.
Climate change is largely responsible—it has hammered home the message more than anything else perhaps that humanity is now able to influence the environment on a global scale. Just the sheer magnitude of the possible impacts of global warming has made people think seriously about countering the effects through mega-engineering. And the simple realization that our actions can make a difference to the global environment has contributed to an intellectual leap of imagination; scientists and engineers now have the audacity to think “yes we can” when it comes to countering anthropogenic climate change with engineered interventions.
This would all be wishful thinking though if it wasn’t for rapid advances in science and technology that are underpinning the emerging “yes we can” geoengineering mentality. Although its early days still, scientists and engineers are beginning to develop the understanding and tools to put grand schemes into place, and start playing around with Earth’s systems on a global scale.