The inevitable collision between the scientific and public world

14 03 2010

Cover of the latest UNEP report

The scientific community prides itself in its ability to distinguish good from junk science thanks to a thorough and objective peer-review process. While this process has proved successful to foster scientific progress, it has been recently put to test when scientific issues became entangled with public policy debates. From the toxicity of chemicals like aspartame or tobacco in the 1980’s to the recent Climate Gate, more and more scientists get dragged into the public arena where brilliant or simply demagogic rhetoric trumps long and complex discussions about statistical significance. Scientists are ill-equipped to provide opinions when they are in reality accustomed to discuss about facts. As a result, you end in situations like Climate Change where both scientists and public leaders get frustrated at each other, leaving the door open for private and other interests to shape the debate in their favor.

A couple of months ago, MIT organized a conference with Richard Lindzen and other professors from the institution. Richard Lindzen is the A. P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT and one of the most famous voices against the climate change consensus. He is widely quoted in the conservative reports denying the existence of climate change. However, when one carefully listens to him, it becomes obvious that he does not deny the existence of man-induced climate change. He just argues that the data proving a anthropogenic climate change is not conclusive for lack of statistical significance. In a nutshell, he does not deny nor confirm climate change; he is indecise. During the same conference, Ronald Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, strongly argued against Pr. Lindzen but finally acknowledged that the only difference between them relied on their different appreciation of the risk. Prinn summarized it well when he said: “My judgement of statistical significance for anthropogenic warming is very much dependent on my belief/fear that we don’t have another planet to go to.” Both were looking at the same data but saw different thing. Read the rest of this entry »

The future of fuels – Biofuels

20 01 2010


Ethanol and other biofuels have come under a lot of heat especially during the 2008 food crisis as most of them are derived from alimentary crops like corn (US), sugar cane (Brazil) and palm oil (Malaysia and Indonesia). It is almost commonly accepted that to become a sustainable part of energy portfolio new technologies will have to come online – the infamous second generation biofuels (e.g. made out of cellulose).

Governments have high hopes for renewable fuels for both strategic and environmental reasons. That’s why countries like the US establish very ambitious mandates like the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. This regulation stipulates that by 2022 about a fourth of the daily demand of gasoline (total demand ˜400 million gallons) comes from renewable resources.

While this number is great news to stimulate technological innovation in second-generation fuels, a more pragmatic look at the future reveals some tough (yet surmountable) hurdles ahead. I don’t think I have much to add to the real challenges technology wise, so let’s pretend that we manage to secure ˜100 million gallon of renewable fuel per day. In addition, I will not get into the wells-to-wheels controversy as to whether biofuels are actually beneficial as a whole or not. Allow me to focus instead on operations, as I think it is an issue too often overlooked in the biofuels debate. Read the rest of this entry »