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Rise Up, Citizen Scientists

Climate change protest

Scientists must play an active part in informing and shaping the debate and in developing technology options. Credit: iStockphoto

By Peter J. Cook

What passes for debate over technological priorities to decarbonise energy production needs to be better informed – and scientists need to lead the discussion.

As a scientist and as a citizen, I have became increasingly concerned and frustrated at the ever-louder and less informed debate over climate change in which science and technology are often dismissed or denigrated.

I am appalled by a debate that uses terms such as “believers” and “deniers” – with the religious overtones that these words carry. I am concerned that the poor quality of this debate has led many people to assume that we could switch to renewable energy in just a few years at little extra cost, or that we don’t need to do anything in Australia because “climate change is crap” or because we only contribute 1.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

It is my view we need to take action for the sake of our children and particularly our grandchildren. The need for action needs to be separated to some extent from the emotion of the debate, perhaps by focusing on the undisputed fact that atmospheric CO2 is increasing and that the precautionary principle should apply.

But any action has to be the right action and must take account of the world – but the world as it is, not as we might like it to be. It is a world with a population rising from seven billion to nine billion in the first half of this century, whose growing demand for energy is being met largely by burning fossil fuels. Contrary to what many people might expect, the percentage of electricity provided from renewable sources has in fact fallen globally over the past 20 years.

Renewable energy technologies, and new technologies to improve the efficiency of how we generate and use energy, can contribute to slowing the rise in global emissions. However, the only technology we currently have with the potential to decrease the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels – whether for electricity generation, iron and steel production, or fertiliser manufacture – is carbon capture and storage (CCS).

CCS has copped more than its fair share of ill-informed criticism and prejudiced denigration in the climate debate. The CO2CRC has a proud record of achievement in researching, developing and demonstrating CCS technologies, so as I approached the end of my term as its Chief Executive I decided to write a book to explain CCS.

After working on it for about a year I concluded that it was not the book that was needed!

What was needed was a book that placed CCS in the broader context of clean energy technologies and carbon and climate, and addressed the general reader – people unfamiliar with the technology and thus concerned about the application of a technology they do not understand.

This inevitably drew me into the economics and politics of clean energy policy. Some may question a scientist venturing into these areas but I feel it is important that more citizen scientists venture into such areas where they have the expertise to contribute to a debate, rather than being tame scientists on tap.

There is a need for a far more effective interaction and partnership between scientists, politicians and industry in the broad area of clean energy so that society can make informed decisions on issues such as:

• the impact of carbon pricing on technology development;

• whether a carbon tax or a carbon market is the best way to price carbon and encourage the deployment of new technologies (whether it is renewable energy, nuclear or CCS);

• the impact of feed-in tariffs on technology choices; and

• the organisational arrangements for taking clean energy forward.

Stepping into policy-related areas has its hazards for scientists. Even trying to popularise science and make it understandable to the general reader, without dumbing it down, also has its hazards, but the issues are too important for scientists to resile from playing an active part in informing and shaping the debate and in developing technology options.

Professor Peter Cook was the Chief Executive of CO2CRC until August 2011. His book Clean Energy, Climate and Carbon was recently published by CSIRO Press.