Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Great Climate Changing Debate

The end of the world is nigh! We are all going to die. Or fry. Or get 2 degrees warmer. Or something. Anyway, it’s not good, and Something Has To Be Done.

The Great Climate Debate at Reading University had a number of eminent scientists, researchers and thinkers; all sharing their views. The debate was about geo-engineering, or Playing God as it might be more succinctly described. Geo-engineering is all about manipulating the earth’s climate or atmosphere so as to moderate global warming. It doesn’t fix things; it just slows things down or reduces the effect. But it has to be large-scale - geo-engineering is not about tinkering – only grand gestures have any chance of doing good.

Unhelpful flippancy aside, it appears that something does indeed have to be done. Whilst the debate about the climate goes on, there is little doubt that we are pumping unhealthy amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And there is no immediate likelihood of us stopping – we like to light and heat our homes, we like driving wherever and whenever we want to. So we have to look at all options. The question is which ones, and to what degree do we fund them?

Do we paint the roads and buildings white? Well, no. As it turns out we inhabit too small an area of the earth’s surface for that to be useful. What about pumping sea-water into the clouds? Yes – good idea – but it needs money for research and how reversible is it? It is certainly a novel idea to cool down the planet - a bit like giving it a cold shower every now and again.

All of this is based on modelling what we think might happen if we go on as we are at present. Of course there are lots of assumptions in this – not least of which is that we will go on as we are now. This is a big assumption, because we may not. Energy prices might increase to the point where we start switching off lights we don’t need. Or new, cleaner ways of generating electricity might come on stream. I’m thinking of nuclear fusion, of course, which is admittedly still some years away, but so is all this geo-engineering.

What was most impressive about the debate was both the quality of the professional presentations, and the heat of discussion afterwards. Forgive the pun, but people really did feel strongly. There was enormous disagreement about how to move forward, but then I think that’s true of the energy debate overall. But people were certainly engaged in the issues. It was a thought-provoking and very worthwhile evening.


  1. I agree, in particular with the last paragraph.
    I am Chairman of the Great Debates committee and this was a singularly good event for me as it is the last one I shall do and so a really good and high point to be leaving. This has come a long way in the five years since I did the original 'Great Metals Debate', totally on my own so, what is more pleasing than anything, is the cooperation over the years with other Institutions. This shows how professionals can come together in the face of a perceived threat.
    Well done and good luck.

  2. Thanks for your comment. It was indeed a great Great Debate with a good cross-section of views both from the speakers and the audience. Given the lack of hard data in amongst what was discussed it would have been nice to have seen a higher profile for the BCS but I am sure our time will come!