Al Gore’s global warming roadshow

Al Gore visited Sheffield University yesterday, so I joined the growing number of people round the world who have seen his famous Powerpoint presentation on global warming (to be accurate, he did it in Keynote, being a loyal Apple board member). As a presentation it was undoubtedly powerful, slick, sometimes moving, and often very funny. His comic timing has clearly got a lot better since he was a Presidential candidate, even though some of his jokes didn’t cross the Atlantic very effectively. However, it has to be said that they worked better than the efforts of Senator George Mitchell, who introduced him. It is possible that Gore’s rhetorical prowess was even further heightened by the other speakers who preceded him; these included a couple of home-grown politicians, a regional government official and a lawyer, none of whom were exactly riveting. But, it’s nonetheless an interesting signal that this event attracted an audience of this calibre, including one government minister and an unannounced appearance by the Deputy Prime Minister.

Since a plurality of the readers of this blog are from the USA, I need to explain that this is one way in which the politics of our two countries fundamentally differ. None of the major political parties doubts the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and indeed there is currently a bit of an auction between them about who takes it most seriously. The ruling Labour Party commissioned a distinguished economist to write the Stern Report, a detailed assessment of the potential economic costs of climate change and of the cost-effectiveness of taking measures to combat it, and gave Al Gore an official position as an advisor on the subject. Gore’s UK apotheosis has been made complete by the announcement that the government is to issue all schools with a copy of his DVD “An Inconvenient Truth”. This announcement was made, in response to the issue of the latest IPCC summary for policy makers (PDF), by David Miliband, the young and undoubtedly very clever environment minister, who is often spoken of as being destined for great things in the future, and has been recently floating some very radical, even brave, notions about personal carbon allowances. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have demonstrated their commitment to alternative energy by their telegenic young leader David Cameron sticking a wind-turbine on top of his Notting Hill house. It’s gesture politics, of course, but an interesting sign of the times. The minority third party, the Liberal Democrats, believe they invented this issue long ago.

What does this mean for the policy environment, particularly as it affects science policy? The government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, has long been a vocal proponent of the need for urgent action on energy and climate. Famously, he went to the USA a couple of years ago to announce that climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism, to the poorly concealed horror of a flock of diplomats and civil servants. But (oddly, one might think), Sir David doesn’t actually directly control the science budget, so it isn’t quite the case that the entire £3.4 billion (i.e., nearly $7 billion) will be redirected to a combination of renewables research and nuclear (which Sir David is also vocally in favour of). Nonetheless, one does get the impression that a wall of money is just about to be thrown at energy research in general, to the extent that it isn’t entirely obvious that the capacity is there to do the research.

12 thoughts on “Al Gore’s global warming roadshow”

  1. I don’t mind Nuclear Power but the fixed capital costs for Nuclear Power are higher than for emerging roll-to-roll (printable) solar cell technologies. “Electronics Plastics” R + D is cheaper than is Nuclear Power R + D. Ideally you want a storage technology to capture erratic solar power generation and store it. Solid state hydrogen storage technologies look best to me but they are not as mature as are printable polymers and are less assured an engineering target.

    I’d recommend funding any roll-to-roll plastics printing infrastructures for research or industrial output. Any polymers that have interesting electronic properties are fair game whether solar cells, “electronic paper”, OLEDs…

  2. I’m agnostic on nuclear power, in that while I appreciate that new reactor designs are more intrinsically safe and produce a lot less waste than earlier models, waste and proliferation are still problems. The official UK government line is “Government considers that nuclear has a role to play in the future UK generating mix alongside other low carbon generating options”, but it is no secret that many influential people are a lot more enthusiastic than this. Of course, I absolutely share your enthusiasm for printable polymers. You’ll know, perhaps, that the Cambridge University spin-out Plastic Logic has recently announced that it’s going to build a factory in Dresden for commercial scale production of printed electronics for e-paper applications. I’m sure we’ll see commercial-scale printed photovoltaics before too long.

  3. Hello,

    Sounds like you have some very credulous politicians if not a single one of them sounds a note of skepticism about anthropogenic global warming. The ice core records show that CO2 follows global mean temperature, not the other way around. The current view is like saying that since you always put on warm socks when it snows, snowing is caused by warm socks.

    The simplest fact of the matter is that cold water holds more CO2 than warm water (counter-intuitively) when the globe gets warm, the ocean give up more CO2 and the air trapped in ice cores reflect this fact.

    The earth is getting warmer but our releasing of CO2 has little to do with it. The total max rise in CO2 in the next century will be from the current 0.29% to 0.5% still less than 1 full percent and far too little to affect heat retention by our atmosphere. Any climatologist that says otherwise is selling a product tailored to a certain agenda.

  4. Guy, for a good place to start to see why I think you are wrong about CO2 see here.

    As for “a product tailored to a certain agenda” there’s another big difference between the UK and the USA which perhaps explains some of the difference in political climate. In the UK there are no large companies whose party line is to oppose the idea of anthropogenic global warming – in particular, the two oil majors based here, BP and Shell, have long accepted its reality and have been actively planning on this basis to make sure they have a business in 50 years time. So there’s no significant money going to lobbyists for contrarian views, and there’s no financial incentive for politicians to accept this kind of corporate line. Interestingly, the first major politician in the UK to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming was the impeccably right-wing and pro-business Margaret Thatcher; she did remember something from her degree in chemistry, and whatever her other faults she was never prone to the vice of wishful thinking.

  5. Guy, the singular core samples you referred to were tainted by melting. *All* other Antarctic and Greenland ice core samples, and *all* coral reef records globally and *all* ocean sedimant samples (still with me Republican or did you forget how to read?) reflect global warming, as does our scientific understanding of the process, and our best computer models (run on our best supercomputers).

    Richard, I understand UK has a more progressive government than the US (in fairness, fighting the Soviets takes alot out of you for a while) by about a 1/2 generation, I just wish Blair wouldn’t so publicly emulate Bush, like with his cowboy swagger. I can’t believe our Australian, UK, and American allies are so willing to destroy a land that gave birth to civilization.

    I’m curious if UK nanotechnology infrastructures aren’t ready for the funding now (normally funding is always scarce but tiny UK debt loads make long-term nanotech funding a certainty); if the UK would accept ownership shares over research in other EU countries, maybe even Asian jurisdictions (okay, we’ll fund your quantum database algorithm but we get 25% the patent’s proceeeds…)

  6. Sorry Guy, I should have said “Mr. Republican” in the previous post. I meant it as a political insult, not a personal one.

  7. Phillip, I don’t think this blog is the right place for political insults. Similarly, although there is much I could say about the politics of the Anglo-American relationship, that’s also something I don’t want to start here.

    As for infrastructure, it’s really human capital I am talking about. It’s easy at fairly short notice to build some buildings and fill them with nice equipment, but it’s finding the talented people with a suitable background to work in an area that is more problematic.

  8. It is an interesting point to suggest that we do not have no large companies whose party line is to oppose global warming. As far as I know, this is true throughout the European Union. The question of why this is the case is an interesting one, and it is down to the very nature of Europe as an entity. The rather fragmented subsidiarity of the European project is a significant barrier to lobbyists. If you want to influence policy, it is a waste of time going after Tony Blair if you cannot get Angela Merkel on board. In some ways this is a recipe for stagnation, but it also allows national “best practice” to be adopted elsewhere. I love the market economics in policy, and I fervently hope that we do not follow the federalists’ path to a dirigiste Europe.

    Incidentally Margaret’s Damascus-like conversion to environmentalism was a frightened response to a rather successful polling by the normally irrelevant Green party in European elections in 1989. As much as I admire the great woman, this was not conviction politics.

  9. Actually in my last point, I implied that Lady Thatcher did not believe in environmentalism. I believe that she genuinely supported a green cause. Her push towards environmentalism was, I believe, forced by the Green Party’s success, but this does not mean she did not believe in green policies.

    Whilst I am here, I also found the comment that Britain does not have the capacity to do the energy research that the government seems likely to be very keen on. This is almost certainly true, and may well result in some shoddy science being published, or maybe it will result in the big players getting even bigger. Or maybe a bit of both. In any case, it is a good means of directing science away from the dreary and mundane. Of course, I hope that the government is not too heavy handed about how it directs the money, but overall, I think that the government has an important role to play in how taxpayers’ funds are distributed.

  10. Various future nanotechnology applications enable new weapon systems.

    Developing nanotech is capital intensive process (a fact this blog helped me discover), so by definition it will be affluent individuals who initially control the manufacturing of these weapon systems (better body armour, better lasers, lighter mobile power systems, etc).
    There are some individuals who will use future nanotechnology weapons systems to kill large numbers of civilians in developing nations. There are some who won’t. I can’t see a way of divorcing politics in this context. I don’t want actors like the People’s New American Century who run the USA presently, to attain these nanotech products first *if* other more responsible actors can potentially harness them.
    I’m sorry Richard, I guess I was using this site as a nano-politics surrogate, I’ve recently been banned (I assume) from posting at my previous MNT technical/societal mouthpiece: CRNano. I’ll keep the political asides to a minimum, I don’t want to get banned here too.

    Does anyone know if any blogs/lists/sites where nanotech political and technical commentary is welcome, especially the speculative MNT component of it? Ideally I’d like something without a hard right-wing profile.

  11. Phillip, comments on the political and policy implications of nanotechnology are welcome, I simply don’t want to see political insults directly aimed at other commenters.

Comments are closed.