I have a friend who says that humans have only really achieved sustainability in the sustainability panels we put together. I wouldn't go that far, but I have been to quite a few...
Today, we all nearly expired sitting out in the noon sun for nearly two hours, listening to the Lindau conference's panel about climate change and sustainability, which featured some of the usual suspects in these debates (such as the IPCC’s Rajendra Pachauri and the controversial writer Bjørn Lomborg). Also present: other Nobel Laureates (Molina, Schrock), climate scientist Thomas Stocker and a rep from the German government, lover of solar technology. The Economist's science editor Geoff Carr moderated.
The sweltering discussion took place on an island called Mainau. (It’s got a castle. Stay tuned for photos of the strange bullet-like ferry we took from Lindau to Mainau, and the boat’s decorative balloon molecules.)
So panel members mostly stuck to their typical mantras: Pachauri: the world is growing unsustainably and we need to do something about climate change. Lomborg: climate change is an issue, but we have other more pressing world problems than climate change to solve, such as world health. Molina: The planet is facing irreversible threats; we have to invest in new renewable energy technologies and cut consumption. Cornelia Quennet-Thielen (from the German Ministry for Education and Science): One million new jobs in the solar energy sectors means renewable energy can help the economy. Schrock: There are many renewable energy problems that chemistry can solve.
To be honest, I was mostly interested in finding out what the delegates would say about the upcoming United Nations conference in Copenhagen this December, which will aim to develop a workable global agreement to fight climate change... since the Kyoto Protocol has not been what one might call a stellar success. Lomborg played pessimist, “We will get together in Copenhagen and make promises, but will we keep them?,” while Pachauri was excessively optimistic. He said an agreement in Copenhagen would be found and enforced, arguing that public awareness was “light years” ahead of where it was during the Kyoto negotiations. “The world has changed,” Pachauri said, adding that this public awareness means governments would get voted out if they don’t ratify or enforce whatever comes of Copenhagen. He mentioned this increase of awareness is a key to changing our consumptive lifestyle. I’m really not convinced about the last point, and it's one I've heard before on such panels.
Although I am choosing to be optimistic about Copenhagen, and I’m even willing to hope that this increasing awareness about climate science may inspire the public to vote in sustainably-bent politicians. But knowledge doesn’t change human behavior, when we humans enjoy doing what we are doing.
Consider personal health, a subject arguably closer to the human heart than the environment. Nutritionists have been telling us for years that eating right and exercising makes for a longer life. I’d wager that more people believe that the nutritionists are correct about eating right than they believe scientists about climate change. But being educated sure hasn’t stopped the obesity epidemic. We love our twinkies and we love our cars, and left to our own devices we’d probably not curb our enjoyment of either, or at least not enough to stop both impending catastrophes. Education is not superfluous, but what we need are good polices, and ones that are enforced.
Incidentally, both the panel moderator Carr and nobelist Roger Tsien, who was sitting in the audience, asked the panelists to point out specific renewable energy needs, since there were hundreds of budding young scientists in the audience who might put their brains to the problem(s). But the only person to list off specifics was Pachauri, who called for the development of small turbines to use as biomass gasifiers. He also asked for a way to convert agricultural cellulose waste into usable fuels. Everyone else ducked the question by saying that basic research was important. (Sure it is, but that wasn’t the answer to the question!)