It’s a hot, smoggy day in London and I’m sitting on an overcrowded
train. It’s too hot for this many people to be in one space. In fact,
it’s too hot for this many people to be in one place: London. The city
feels unnecessarily full. And all these people so abstracted from what I would
call the real world.
Our culture consumes us. All that energy that goes into simply existing,- what
to wear (will I get sweat patches, would make-up run), how to get about, packed
diaries of events planned weeks in advance still being juggled on the day, mobile
phones ringing and bleeping, news to digest, scheduled exercise.. and that’s
not to mention buying food, washing, sleeping, eating and having fun. The world
I care so much about feels very far away despite being right under my feet.
It would be difficult to convince anyone right now to not travel in an air-conditioned
car for 45 minutes instead of this 2 hour commute although it probably matters
even more on a day like today. Really truly, will that one journey make any
difference? Really truly, in the grand scheme of things? No. Will any of it
make a difference? I don’t know. Is it too late? Maybe. These aren’t
the answers you want to hear from a committed environmentalist and they aren’t
the answers I want to give. In many ways, the whole field of climate research
is incredibly dissatisfying: the more we convince ourselves that climate change
is real, the more we are doomed. I do believe it, most definitely, and not only
because I want to and that the science I have studied is convincing. The thing
that has probably persuaded me most is meeting well respected, senior, eminent
scientists who have been convinced by the data. Unlike me, these people didn’t
enter the field as idealists and environmentalists hoping to find a solution
to the world’s problems. These men (mainly) were pure scientists, kineticists,
physicists, chemists, biologists and mathematicians whose expertise was called
upon about 30 years ago to try and figure out if the climate was changing and,
if so, how. They had no vested interest in the result: moral, political or economic.
The application of pure and applied sciences to climate research first grew
within the individual disciplines. Then, more recently, a whole new interdisciplinary
field grew, commonly known as Earth System Science. Applied science has always
existed but the focus shifted from trying to understand the intricacies of a
particular field, now, to trying to predict what may happen in the future.
I am an atmospheric chemist: we look at chemical processes happening in the
air. Because it’s only possible to know so much, we generally represent
the air as a box with arrows in and arrows out and the stuff we are really interested
in happening in the middle. Often chemicals leave our theoretical box and are
deposited to leaves (hand over to biologists), water (oceanographers), the ground
(earth scientists) and the ice (glaciologists). To figure out how the chemicals
are entering our box, we need to know about wind (meteorologists), radiation
(physicists) and emissions from the cryosphere, biosphere and oceans.
Every other discipline does the same but only in the last few years have we
reached the stage where we can stack these boxes, in all dimensions necessary
to overlaps sides with everyone, and see what happens when you try and simulate
the whole world. We have also only recently had the computer power required
to run simulations of this world into the future and back to the past. Inevitably,
the models often go wrong at the interfaces of the boxes since these areas have
had less attention in the past: we know less about what happens here.
This is where interface studies come in, like the one that sent me to Halley.
We were studying the interface between the snow and air (cryosphere and atmosphere).
Understanding these processes should help the big picture in lots of ways, from
interpretation of ice cores (a common record for past climates) to better guesses
at processes occurring in high clouds that are made of ice particles. Similarly,
there are people studying the interface between the air and oceans, forests,
cities, deserts and rock. All of this information is incorporated into models
that simulate the world, try to reproduce the past and present and predict the
future. And the more data comes in from a wide range of areas, the more certain
we become that our climate is rapidly changing and is doing so due to man-made
influences. But sitting on this overcrowded train on the hottest day of the
year, I don’t feel the relevance of any of this to me.. or of me on it.
I don’t care. There are more important things to worry about, like what
I’m going to have for dinner tonight or when I can see my friends.