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researchers on strike

I have a small dream.

I believe that the scientific community is less interested than the political one, meaning corrupted, taken in a broad sense. I mean, scientists usually work for knowledge in itself; for the purpose of serving science and helping the society as whole to develop. Some objections to this idea can be expressed if scientists are paid by companies to achieve profit-oriented goals, often far from this idealistic conception of what science should be aiming at. In the US for example, where the universities get a lot of funding from companies, I just doubt that some researchers are not corrupted by money and a restless competition for financial support. At least in Europe this trend is less present. When someone decides to do career within research, that’s mainly because of a certain thirst of knowledge. And considering the salaries of researchers in countries like France, we can assume without much risk that researchers are motivated by something else than merely monetary aspects.

What if the whole scientific community was united and acted together? Scientists are nowadays turning on the red lights on environmental disasters and the risks our civilization is running towards. They publish, communicate, but nobody seems to listen to them. Or the processes are too slow to have any significant effect on our behaviors. What if this community decided to mobilize its resources and act as one, for one single day or week, but stopping any research activity and concentrated this time only on communication with the public? What if the scientists showed to the whole world that their work and results are not worthless and meaningless, by going on strike just once, all together? Would we be conscious of what they say and press our political leaders for immediate action? Would we like to hear what scientists have to say?

This is a small dream. That this community I am now part of could take a deep breath and some day walk down the streets worldwide; speak with people not through the media but straight in the eyes; make their observations comprehensible and go directly to the facts, educate people and accelerate this revolution we need to ensure decent lives to the coming generations. Maybe then the link between research and public sphere would be reconstructed, free from the different filters set by governments, media and sometimes corporations.

Picture: researchers go on strike in Paris in 2004. In march this year, more than 18000 researchers made the public aware of their alarming situation: a graduate would earn around 1000€ a month. The text on the streamer says “save research and university”

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Exxon and co.

I have been thinking about writing something on the climate deniers. They are so-called scientists, or other persons with the ability to reach the media and publish their ideas, who spend their time trying to convince people that Anthropogenic global warming (AGW, see this post) is indeed a myth, invented by governments and other scientists in order to make themselves heard and cause chaos in our society.
Well, first of all, I would say that sometimes the guys are no scientists. Or if they are, well, they may be PhD or professors in another field than climatology. But of course what they’ll put forward is their title. A critical point to identify deniers is that they are ready to use every single piece of paper, put it out of its context, and claim high and loud that this is another proof against AGW. Another common feature is to use papers that are not intended to deny anything, maybe to suggest new ideas, and put them at the front, yelling that here it is, a new theory denies AGW. Here is a recent example, analyzed by real climatologists.

Anyway, one question is “how can they express themselves so much if they are just isolated guys?”. That’s a good question. In fact, if let’s say 95% of the scientists studying global warming are favorable to an anthropogenic theory and the 5% left do not, then it would be normal to hear the latter only 5% of the time.

But that’s in a perfect world, where freedom of speech is respected, and more important, where an equal ability to express oneself is given to all. And two factors contribute to a violation of these rules. Lobbying and money. The first one leads corrupted governments to prevent scientists to express themselves on the subject. The second one allows huge corporations to fund groups whose goal is systematically to deny AGW. ExxonMobil is one of them. Recently, Friends of the Earth put online a video aiming at sensibilizing people about such facts. There is also a petition you can add your name to. Because in the US, corporations are forced by law to publish who they give money to. Not in Europe. So Exxon and others can give out money to any denial group, without even being bothered about what the public thinks about it. This aside, they are currently misleading the public by publishing advertisements on their “reduced GHG emissions” whereas they actually increase them. So sign it please, and show that you support such groups working to counterbalance the increasing power of corporations. Thanks.

We are all drug addicts

No matter what we can say, we are all addicts. And we ask even more of our drug every single day. Let’s first examine the characteristics of a drug and what makes you addicted, to finally draw this amazing conclusion. Usually, you do not like taking drugs because of the action to take them, rather because of the effects that these molecules provide you. When you are under the influence, then the world seems different, more comfortable, nicer, your life goes smoothly without problem, etc… So this brief introduction can allow for demonstration of our addiction to fossil fuels. That’s no news for some of you, but it never hurts to repeat it here. In this post, I will concentrate on oil.

7 a.m., you alarm clock rings. It is made in China from plastic, requires metals that have been extracted with the help of cranes, trucks, etc… You take an oil shot by switching it off, thinking that this day is gonna be another bad one. Then you wake up, go and maybe take a shower; hopefully your home sweet home is warmed and the water feels good. You use most probably electricity to warm your house; if it is generated from renewables your intake of drug will be reduced though. Your country relies on nuclear to generate electricity, that’s bad in spite of what they tell you: uranium has to be extracted, treated, shipped, and you will appreciate to take an extra oil shot for your day.

You like breakfast. If you buy organic food, then don’t forget it might have been shipped from another country; if you don’t then agriculture has relied on pesticides and fertilizers to grow you food. Take one more oil shot. You begin to forget that you woke up angry and feel better. Nevertheless you have already taken way too much oil during your life, and the effects are no longer felt during the morning. Time to go to work.

The public transportation system is too crapy, you can never sit down in overcrowded busses. Moreover it stinks and has no comfort. You forget that 50 years ago it would have been a luxury, and prefer to take your car. Double oil shot for you, but you feel so good in it, with powerful sound system and the freedom to go wherever you want to. Well, it might rather show up to be the freedom to get stuck in a traffic jam, and breathe particles increasing you risk for cancer, but you feel so well right now, why should you bother about your future? At work, you arrive and realize that someone (you?) forgot to switch off the lights the day before. And the whole building has been kept warm thanks to electricity. You indirectly take another oil shot. As the day goes, you take some more shots: the food you eat, the office furnitures you use, every single item you see and manipulate is made of plastic, or has been somehow requiring oil for its manufacturing or production.

At the end of the day, you feel stressed. 22.49, you take a pill to calm down, made thanks to by-products of the oil industry. But it does not seem to have any noticeable effect on you, you only think about your problems and how you could, for a while, avoid them. Yes, you have the solution: go on holidays far, far from your home country. Take another shot and good night.

An introduction to Industrial Ecology (two terms which, in my opinion, are hard to put together) will certainly expose this equation, which describes easily the current problems our civilization has to face:

I=PAT

I is the total impact on the environment. P is the population, in capita. A is the affluence, or consumption level per capita, expressed in unit GDP per capita. Finally, T is the technological factor, expressed in impact on the environment per unit GDP. This formula has been expressed by Ehrlich and Holdren, and one could of course object its simplicity; but I find it gives us a good starting point from which we can develop.

To minimize our impact on the environment, there are thus three ways to proceed, according to this equation:

  • reduce population
  • reduce our consumption
  • improve technology so as to increase materials and resource efficiency

Of course this equation has some flaws. For example, what stroke me first was that the notion of “impact” is totally subjective. What does it mean? Impact on which time scale? Indeed, by taking the example of CO2, what we emit today will have effect in some time; so the impact right now is zero, but delayed. And impact on what? Can we reduce the environment to one single system, without distinguishing different sub-systems? And how can we pretend that the technological factor is only function of money? Can’t we change our impact without relying on new technologies, just by developing the existing ones?

Well, of course this model is ultra simple. But it has the merit to be easy, and some of the questions above can find answers. Life Cycle Analysis theory uses also the notion of “impacts”, to make the results more comprehensive to the reader. In fact, the impacts come from different “stressors”, or “emissions”: for example, emissions of CO2, CH4, CFC, SO2, volume of natural gas burned, etc… A typical LCA can include several thousands of different stressors. Nobody could sort them out and get a grasp of what these stressors mean; so they are grouped into impact categories, such as Global Warming Potential, Acidification Potential, etc… So in the end, only a dozen of impacts can be considered. This might be a way to solve one question. The other ones can find similar answers, which are in fact just methods to model a complex system.

What is striking is that we are nowadays only concentrating ourselves on the last parameter, T. We are speaking of “fuel efficiency”, electricity savings, etc… “Change your light bulbs!” is a typical example. And the business sphere obviously puts this factor on the forefront of its communication plans. Energy and materials efficiency is their leitmotiv. But well, in fact we have two other factors which are more important to address.

Some others are trying to take into consideration some changes in their lifestyle: drive less, take the public transportation instead of your car, buy organic; but these are really small changes that are not bound to reverse the global trend: GDP grows faster than population in our OCDE countries, meaning that the A factor increases as well. And as long as our policies will be based on achievement of an exponential growth of GDP, we will not be able to change A. To achieve such a goal, we would need to consume otherwise, but most of all, consume less.

Finally comes the big taboo, P. We have a tendency to consider it as fixed, an external variable that nothing and nobody can change. Indeed, I believe this is the major factor that we actually can do something about, besides A. Simple measures are education, empowerment of women, family planning, etc… World population has doubled those last 40 years, and plotting the world population vs. the time on a large scale has something frightening.

World population evolution those last 12000 years

And a closer look at the population evolution during last century gives this:

World population evolution during the XXth century

A look at the scale shows that our numbers have been growing at an unprecedented rate.

So here we are, the three factors have been introduced… What is weird is that we see a shift from the right hand side to the left one. We are now trying to convince us that some technological fixes will help us to reduce our impact on the environment. With the aspirations of 80% of the world population to reach a western standard of living, “efficiencies”, and even a shift to greener technologies will not be enough. Some are understanding that reducing our consumption of goods is critical to sustainability, but these individuals are still considered as marginals and dismissed by the capitalist system, whose philosophy is based on an infinite growth of consumption. And too few are understanding the remaining factor, which is perhaps the one we should all be concerned about.

This post will be the first of a series, aiming at giving you a fair idea of what would be needed to effectively mitigate climate change. Let me first emphasize our core belief: global warming and the resultant climate change are anthropogenic, meaning human-induced. Some might argue that no, everything is a question of natural cycles, cosmic rays, God’s hand and who knows. For those, I’d advise some easy reading: the “Start here” page on a blog written by climatologists. But I’ll try to give you a brief description of the phenomena. The sources I use are wikipedia and the IPCC working group I report, 2007.

Sun radiates electromagnetic waves in a variety of wavelengths. For example, it radiates visible light, but also infrared and ultraviolet. Quantum mechanics predict that the exact distribution of the emitted radiation is given according to the sun’s temperature (5800 K), following a mathematical formula called Planck’s law. In reality, the black-body is just a model and the real spectra is slightly different. The figure on the left shows the solar radiation spectrum as seen from space (in yellow) and from the surface of the Earth (in red). The black body approximation is also shown, and one can notice that it fits well to the yellow curve.
Spectrum of the sunlight above the atmosphere and after its transmission

So when the sunlight arrives on Earth, some of the energy is reflected to space because the albedo of the Earth (albedo is comprised between 1 -total reflection of the incoming light- and 0 -complete absorption. Earth’s is now 0.31, but bound to decrease because of the polar caps melting), while some is transmitted through the atmosphere. The different components of our atmosphere fill absorb some energy in different frequencies, which explains that when you look at the red spectrum, measured at sea level, you do not have the same pattern as before.

The light then hits the ground and gives some energy to it, thereby decreasing its frequency (an electromagnetic wave with high energy has a high frequency, ie a short wavelength). It is then reflected to the atmosphere. A fraction will be emitted in space, but the major part of this reflected energy will be trapped and absorbed by the atmosphere and converted in heat. You will ask why this did not occur earlier, when the light went through the atmosphere the first time: that is because then it had a high energy content, with high frequencies! And molecules like CO2 are really effective at absorbing electromagnetic waves of low frequencies, rather than high ones.

So you get what is called the greenhouse effect. Without atmosphere, the temperature on Earth would be around -19 degrees Celsius, and of course no life could ever have developed in these conditions…

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased during the last 150 years, because of human activity. Of course, the CO2 concentration follows cycles; sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down. The following figure shows the evolution of temperature and CO2 concentration during the last 450,000 years.

Evolution of CO2 concentration and temperature

What is striking is that temperature is strongly correlated to the concentration of CO2. Moreover, an increase in CO2 leads to an increase in temperature through radiative forcing, and a feedback exists: an increase in temperature leads for example to higher evaporation of water, which is by far the largest greenhouse gas present in the atmosphere, so in turn higher temperature, etc… Until a new equilibrium is reached.

There are several such positive feedbacks, although for us living species their effects might be considered as negative. Since it takes some time for the CO2 recently released in the atmosphere to have an effect, the worst is yet to come. The global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from a pre-industrial value of about 280 ppm to 379 ppm in 2005. Indeed, and as can be seen on the graph, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in 2005 exceeds by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm) as determined from ice cores. There is not only CO2 as greenhouse gas; the most common ones, besides carbon dioxide, are CH4 and N2O. Scientists have tried to put some “equivalent global warming potentials” (GWP) on these other molecules, compared to CO2. For example, CH4 has a GWP of 21, meaning that it is potentially 21 times more effective than CO2. And guess how much is GWP of N2O? 310.

Now, you mqybe wonder why the global atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased recently. But you know the answer. Our society is based on the consumption of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) are remainings from carbon wastes such as plants and living organisms like animals, which died millions of years ago and progressively decayed and decomposed in the soil. Under certain temperature and pressure conditions, time helping, these wastes are transformed into fossil fuels. Indeed, they are composed of molecules based of carbon. Burning them in presence of oxygen leads to formation of CO2 and water (H2O), among other substances. And that’s where the extra atmospheric CO2 comes from.

This introduction was just a short explanation of the basic physical principles behind the greenhouse effect and its extension to anthropogenic global warming (AGW). My next post will expose the solutions the scientific community recommends for an “effective” mitigation of climate change. I put it between brackets, because it is not possible to stop AGW so easily. CO2 has a half-life of 12 years in the atmosphere, N2O of 120; that means that it will take maybe centuries for natural processes to come back to our original situation, just 150 years ago. Yeah, isn’t it powerful, destroy a 12,000 years long climatic equilibrium in 150 years?

Here we are, a new blog has been created. Hard to say how long it will live, how its future will look like, how many readers it will attract and how popular it will become. I have noticed though, that many blogs feature one main author and sometimes some guest writers.

This one aims at being different.

As a matter of fact, we will be two to contribute, hopefully on a regular basis, to this blog. Two authors that could grow to three, four, even more, depending on you. But let me first explain the goals of this weblog. As I was going further through my education, I progressively switched from my main subject (mechanical engineering) to more social ones. Everything started when time came for me to look for a Master’s Thesis. As the energy sector interested me, I started to read about the different corporations that could offer relevant opportunities. This lead me slowly to understand the deep impact this industry has on the environment, and as time went I became more and more aware of a certain feeling of unease with the pure quest of personal and selfish benefit and development. I realized that our system, based on overconsumption of anything, with a special mention to fossil fuels, had something wrong in its roots. And as time went, more and more warning signs showed up in newspapers and on the web of ecological disasters, species extinction, environmental degradation.

One year later, a lot of things have changed in my life. My understanding of our system has evolved. I was in it, had been raised in it, educated by it, didn’t even questioned it. But now I deeply reckon that something is going wrong with it. I had been on the edge to become part of it, to start a career in the fossil fuels sector, taking my own share of responsibility in the destruction of our biosphere. But I got a glimpse of what would expect us if we were to continue it this way; of the social and ecological disaster that would happen if nothing could be changed. So I decided to plan my life according to my ethics and moral, not on the sole purpose of earning money.

At the same time I was perfectly aware of a fundamental problem which actually concerns all of us: we are individuals. We see through our own eyes, think according to our culture and education, have our own psychological and cultural background. We are all different. That’s what makes the world beautiful, a myriad of different beings. But this unity does not allow each of us to think effectively, since our understanding of reality is limited to our own history. Thus, no matter how much I could read, how deep I could think, I would never be able to confront my view, the one of a European, to others’. I would speak of subjects that I consider relevant, whereas they might seem totally meaningless to others. Indeed, an American, Asian, African is bound to have a completely different conception of how the world should look like, how we should adress our problems, and more important, what these problems are.

That is why I asked a friend of mine to join me in this project. Being Indian, he would have other issues to lift, other concerns, and other suggestions on how to solve them. We realized that we had different points of view, although complementary. With each one’s knowledge, we could cover a wider range of issues, and grab a better understanding of our world. We would share our opinions, our sources, our discoveries, and indeed realize that together, we would be wiser than each of us taken individually.

So this blog is not aiming at being one’s point of view. This blog has a larger, idealistic aim to become a platform of exchange of ideas between readers. We want this blog to evolve, we want you to take part in it. Your contribution to it will be a crucial reason for its existence, because you can join us in our confrontation of ideas on one theme. And the more your culture will be different than ours, the more we, as a community of writers and readers, will be enriched. We believe that mix is richness, that diversity leads to evolution, that sharing ideas implies cohesion and better understanding between human beings.

Provided that your concerns are linked to ours, and that you could feed this blog on a regular basis with relevant, scientifically sound and documented articles, then you can become a member of our team.

This blog is one in a million, but could be one of a million. Make it happen.