Sustainability

Institute professor stresses fact checking

After three years of studying sustainability and the climate, I have yet to come across a more rousing and thought-provoking lecture than that of a Nobel Laureate and former RPI professor. On Wednesday, the Physics Colloquium at RPI hosted a talk by Professor Ivar Giaever on “The strange case of ‘Global Warming.’” He accuses the climatologists, 97 percent of whom actively publish the confirmation of anthropogenic global warming, of practicing pseudo-science and cherry-picking data in their studies. Although I believe those instances happen scarcely and do little to undermine the general premise, Giaever provided many examples on the dangers of the misuse of scientific data.

Giaever discussed a variety of topics and environmental concerns, such as temperature fluctuations and ozone depletion. While he did not necessarily disagree that chlorofluorocarbons harmed the atmosphere, he adamantly opposed the United States ban on chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol cans due to cost and decreased efficiency. I found this assumption misleading since current refrigeration units use at least 50 percent less electricity than units made in 1974. Consumers pay more in electricity costs than the refrigeration unit itself, so the industry has done very well in addressing efficiency. In comparison, Giaever addressed the paradox of nuclear opposition in spite of near-zero carbon dioxide emissions and increased reliability.

Giaever spent a good portion of his lecture discussing human greenhouse gas output from breathing and eating, calculating it to be 1–4 percent portion of our carbon dioxide emissions. He proved any significant attempts of dieting would do little in terms of reducing emissions, but logically “attacked a straw man” in the process. Even though breathing and our bodies’ cellular respiration puts out relatively little greenhouse gas, dieting to reduce emissions was never a chief concern. Rather, the fossil fuels that go into food production and methane emissions are more significant. For every calorie in our food, it takes 8–10 calories of fossil fuel to grow that food. The calculations signify an important principle though. Personal attempts to reduce emissions do very little in terms of atmospheric conditions. Nationwide and even worldwide policies are needed to ensure climate stability.

Giaever gained publicity in conservative media with the phrase, “I am a skeptic … Global warming has become a new religion.” I asked him what he thought about Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma senator and climate skeptic, claiming to be “doing the Lord’s work” by calling global warming a hoax, even when his own church states just the opposite. He reaffirmed his statement and informed me that he was glad he said it. While I refrain from mixing science and religion or accusing others of doing so, I do admire his chutzpah of questioning the severity of the climate change issue. Giaever admitted he only spent a few hours on Google researching the issue, but his concerns were primarily the scientific procedures of climatologists. I then realized the necessity of collecting data correctly and reporting and displaying evidence in a responsible manner.

The speech prompted many thoughtful conversations among students and professors, much more so than the average climate talk. As climate change will affect everyone, every person deserves a say on the causes and solutions. Despite scientific consensus in many reputable organizations, the debate will continue. Statoil, an oil and gas company that sponsored Giaever, states greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. These contradictions do not necessarily discredit the science, but they shift the debate from science to lifestyles and politics. Try to avoid inconsistencies and practice what you preach. If you accuse a party of using highly selective data, make certain your facts encompass every level of merit. In addition, if climatologists advise reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid climate change, they had better take many personal measures to do so. I have the utmost respect for Giaever for giving his opinion on climate science and the need for transparency and unbiased scientific research. In the end, whatever is going to happen is going to happen; active scientists must use all the data to make an educated hypothesis on the outcome. Winston Churchill said it best: “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

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