Digital Legacies: Climate Change

Julius Wiedemann discusses the transformation of attitudes towards man-made climate change with improved climate modelling and increase in extreme weather phenomena.

by Julius WiedemannPublished on : Oct 12, 2021

One of the greatest doubts sceptics always casted on environmental change was the fact that the modelling processes used by scientists were full of failures. From now on, it is going to become much harder to dispute scientists’ assertions about global warming, after the Nobel Prize to Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work modelling different parts of the Earth's climate reliably, correctly predicting global warming. But what does that have to do with technology, precisely? Computer science is one of the few pure sciences. These days, the scientific process is very often, or almost always, the generator of technologies. The scientific process cares mostly about how things work. The question why they work so is irrelevant. Mixing the two is a common mistake that should be observed as a false equivalent. Physics, a natural science, is now a but component of the mix of platforms, frameworks, areas of expertise, and research groups that need to be used to make evident that we need to act.

Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for modelling parts of the Earth's climate and accurately predicting global warming | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for modelling parts of the Earth's climate and accurately predicting global warming Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

The greatest difficulty scientists have had over the last few years was the contrast the evolution of our developments and their consequences with the effects they have caused to the environment, and correlate them with our habits. In order to do that, the common sense has been that we need to calculate how much CO2 emissions we produce and try to understand how they interfere with a number of things, including the temperature of the oceans, ice melting, pollution, amount of rain and drought, and many other things. If models are able to reliably describe not only where we sit but where we are moving towards to, we might stand a chance to change policies that are prejudicial to the earth’s environment and consequently to our health, or even survival. When these premises start making public policy, and we start to tear down subsidies like on fossil fuels, we will start finding light at the end of the tunnel.

Drought, melting ice caps, and rising ocean temperatures are all consequences of environmental degradation due to development | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
Drought, melting ice caps, and rising ocean temperatures are all consequences of environmental degradation due to development Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

When we look at nature, we can look at the consequences of the things above. And the symptoms so far seem to be pretty clear: coral reefs dying, more forest fires, energy shortages because of the lack of water, birds changing traveling patterns, biodiversity being reduced, and so many other things. But then there’s something a little bit more complicated to factor in: how many of these things could be eventually just the consequence of natural cycles? In that sense, we need to go back to millions of years, collect data, and project that into the future. The study of the environment is a study of the past as much as it is about the future. Negationism can only survive if it becomes a sort of religion.

We must also factor in how natural cycles have influenced changes in climate, by modelling data over long periods for future projections | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
We must also factor in how natural cycles have influenced changes in climate, by modelling data over long periods for future projections Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

There are about 6.500 satellites around earth, and from those, about 2.500 operational. From those operational, about 1000 for communication, and 500 for just observing earth. With the first satellite with remote sensing being launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, the Sputnik 1, the world has seen a race to conquer the mapping of space since then. The cycle of denial has had to change its patterns many times. At first, the sceptics didn’t agree with the samples presented in research or the information that was being put forward. Later they complained about secrecy as an ego competition, which certainly exist, but didn`t change reality. Later when the current temperatures were compared with “last year” and finally, that computer modelling was not sophisticated enough to describe such complex reality. It is now clearer than ever that it does work. The amount of imagery that we have collected over the last couple decades with satellites is certainly part of the success tracing environmental patterns.

What makes us evolve is the doubt of the scientists, who need to display to institutions, peers, and sceptics (specialists and ignorant alike) what reality is made of. But ultimately, what will make a difference will be public policy. Without those, every effort could be almost annulled. In 2020, the World Economic Forum launched an initiative for a 'Great Reset' aiming at a better world after the pandemic, with the IMF backing the transition to a green economy and calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies: "We now have to step up, use all the strength we have, which in the case of the IMF is $1 trillion," to ensure that history looks back at "the great reset, not the great reversal," Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the IMF said.

A transition to a green economy and an end to fossil fuel subsidies through alternatives such as hydroelectric power might be a viable path forward | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
A transition to a green economy and an end to fossil fuel subsidies through alternatives such as hydroelectric power might be a viable path forward Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

In order to do all these measurements, we need to generate an unsurmountable amount of technology and data crunching, so that we can read and keep track of all data collected. Letting alone the exchange of information which is basically the only thing that can enrich the scientific perspective on the subject. It goes from a simple digital thermometer to a cloud-based database to store information. It goes from powerful microscopes to sharing academic work. It goes from satellites to mobile phones. Once again, science and technology will pave the way for true answers. And for saving the planet. There are three types of data that make up the composite to determine environmental change. First one is air pollution, with NOx and SO2 emissions being monitored. Then you have climate change, with climatological disasters and the participation in climate agreements being monitored. Finally, there are greenhouse gases that contaminate the environment that are showing to have incredibly negative effects, such as CO2 emissions, CH4 emissions, and N2O emissions.

The climate monitoring technology available right now might be our best bet to determine necessary measures until an all-round solution to climate change is devised | Digital Legacies by Julius Wiedemann | STIRworld
The climate monitoring technology available right now might be our best bet to determine necessary measures until an all-round solution to climate change is devised Image: Courtesy of Julius Wiedemann

Carbon Capture might be the next killer app, but we are not there yet. In the meantime, we will fight with all the technologies that we have. And it is these technologies that we have trusted to understand where we are right now. The global land and ocean surface temperature as of January 2021 was 0.80°C (1.44°F) above the 20th century average, meaning the seventh warmest January in 142-year global records. With the slightly cool start of 2021, there is only a 2.9 per cent chance of 2021 ending as the warmest year on record. This type of perspective is only possible with the effort of an army of specialists, and a ground-breaking technological apparatus.

Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.

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