Climate change : a Nobel cause

22 10 2007
The past few weeks have been quite intense for the public recognition of climate science.

On Oct 8-10, a symposium was held in Postdam, Germany, entitled : ” Global sustainability : a Nobel cause“. It gathered 15 Nobel laureates of all disciplines, as well as decision-makers and heads of states like Angela Merkel (herself a theoretical physicist, interestingly), to focus attention on this “challenge of the 21st century”, and pointing out “the need […] to embrace a multi-national innovation program on the basic needs of human beings, requiring the scale of […] the Apollo Program.”

You can find more insider’s information from Stephan Rahmstorf here.

A few days later (Oct 12th), and to great media drumroll, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) won the 2007 Nobel Peace prize, “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”. As expected, there was considerable uproar from Gore-haters and climate denialists of all kinds, like here, here or here. As expected, it is the usual (interchangeable) mishmash of ad hominem attacts, fallacy of motive, irrelevant conclusions and other logical fallacies – the exact catalog of which is left as an exercise to the reader. The real common reason behind them all is an emerging mental disease known as the Gore Derangement Syndrome. But that’s only US politics, and the syndrome only affects less than 2.5% of the global population. The IPCC, on the other hand, is harder to attack : with 850 authors spanning 130 countries, it’s harder to fit into bipartisan mudfights. It is a unique scientific body in the history of mankind, one mandated and funded by the UN to inform decision of all world leaders, one that undergoes a uniquely thorough review and discussion process, and in my mind epitomizes the absolute best that science can do for society. Sure, it’s not perfect (nothing is, in case you hadn’t noticed), but it is a unique combination of unmatched expertise and generous volunteering. But don’t think it would stop the GDS-demented. Anyhow, enough politics already : it’s not this Frenchman’s business, as you well know – at least not until i can vote here.

Instead, i’d like to talk about the epistemology of it. As a member of a pariah branch of physics (climatology) rarely honored by our peers, and in particular by the Royal Academy of Sweden, i welcome this shower of Nobel attention with unspeakable pleasure.

So far, the only geophysical problem graced by a Nobel prize is that of the Ozone depletion, rewarded by Swedish gold in 1995, to Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowlands, in Chemistry, not physics. Other areas of geosciences make extensive use physics or chemistry, but typically lag behind those fundamental sciences, and as such are looked down upon by the fundamentalists.

That is not to say that geophysics are carried out by a bunch of nitwits – but amongst bona fide physicists, you quickly get a look of contempt upon stating your field, because if you’re not doing quantum, theoretical or particle physics, you can’t really be doing anything worthy of the name.

It is ironical, because physics, etymologically, is the science of physis (“nature”), and much of the original problems that Natural Philosophers set out to solve were macroscopic and mightily Earthly : why does it rain, what force attracts us to the ground, why are there seasons, tides, etc ? But perhaps it is all to elementary, it’s been done over and out, and much smarter people than us have turned to much smarter subjects like string theory, which is sooooooo damn smart that it’s not even testable by experience, thereby avoiding the inconvenient Popperian confrontation.

Some contend that the discovery of deterministic chaos by Ed Lorenz is one of the greatest discoveries of modern physics, because (together with contemporary discoveries by Takens, Ruelle and Smale) it shook the belief that irregular behavior necessarily arises from the interaction of many degrees of freedom (a central concept in statistical mechanics). Granted, the people making that claim are geophysicists. The rest of the physics world never thought it worthy of a Nobel prize.

Geosciences , and climate change in particular, do pose their own set of exquisitely delicate epistemological problems : for one, they have this in common with astrophysics that their large scale makes controlled experiments impossible in most cases, rendering hypothesis testing exceedingly difficult. Hence the only laboratories we have are numerical – hard data only come in the form of indirect evidence from a more or less distant past. The more distant the past, the more indirect the evidence.

For climate change, the fundamental problem is this : testing our theories to a satisfying level of accuracy requires a long, global record of good instrumental data (e.g. surface temperature), which we don’t have : and we have every bit of reason to believe that we can’t just spend the next 200 years (at least !) sitting and watching our instruments until we validate or invalidate our theories. Our climate IS changing fast, it is virtually certain to be due to anthropogenic activities, and projected consequences on ecosystems and societies will be serious within 50 or 100 years even for conservative projections of future change. So, a few rational people have gotten understandably worried. But those that demand “scientific proof” like it’s a matter of running a 5 minute laboratory experiment simply don’t grasp the problem. How we all wish it were that simple !

Now, Earth Sciences suffers from other epistemological deficiencies of its own. To name a few :

1) it demonstrates facts that are in direct contradiction with Christian theology, as regards, for example, the Age of the Earth. (a scientific account of which can be found here ). Evolution theory relies heavily on paleontology, at the intersection of biology and geology. No one needs to be reminded that the very concept is still taboo in the Bible belt. Plate tectonics also has interesting things to say about Biblical floods and disasters.

2) Earth Sciences makes predictions that are sometimes in direct contradiction with existing political and economical structures. Some of these findings include : “It’s a bad idea to build a major city next to a major faultline“, or “Founding a civilization on a non-renewable source of energy, massively emitting a by-product that dangerously interferes with our climate, is completely unsustainable”. This is the sort of idea that is not terribly popular on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.

3) its predictions, if taken seriously by decision-makers, could influence the future evolution of the Earth system itself : a circularity between a science and its object that was heretofore a privilege of Economics. Indeed, quarks and muons seem to pay little attention to the findings of particle physicists. In contrast, financial markets do listen to influential economists, to a certain extent. Climate may one day listen to climatologists, via decision-makers.

Taken together, this makes the better part of Earth Sciences a hard pill to swallow by religious, political and economical institutions. The consequence is a considerable resistance to its diffusion, sometimes involving intimidation not seen since the regretted days of the Spanish Inquisition.

In a future blogpost (book ?), I hope to expand on these unique epistemological aspects that make Earth Sciences (and climatology in particular) both so difficult and so fascinating. So far, and perhaps because it had not fully constituted itself as a science at the time of Alfred Nobel, it has enjoyed very little intellectual recognition. Yet it has been overwhelmingly clear that by dealing with the environment from which we derive out livelihood, its discoveries can benefit all of humanity.

This all changed in the past week, with the solemn acknowledgment, by some of the world’s most accomplished minds in the humanities and sciences, that sustainability is the greatest intellectual and practical challenge facing mankind in the coming century. To such an extent, even, that it will very likely condition future conflicts, population fluxes, and the fate of many societies. As such, its actors deserve public attention and scholarly recognition. I dearly hope that rational minds of all political persuasions will pay mind to this : climate science is now Nobel-grade science, not “junk science”. Not only that, but the Nobel academy saw it as a science of such vital importance to society that it transcends the usual academic lines. It is no longer a matter of Physics or Chemistry – noble as they are – it is simply a matter of world Peace.

What is the next step ? We are still a long way from public acceptance. For my part, i’ll continue to try to educate and spread knowledge at all levels that i can, so that this science does not stay it is newfound circles of honor, but reaches every single mind on this planet, to understand that we’ve got to change our behavior, and pronto.

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