Perhaps one day the question posed by physicist Robert Socolow, “What would we do if we took climate change seriously?” will seem as absurd and archaic as “What would we do if we took the idea the planets revolved around the sun seriously?” For now Socolow, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, has a lot of work to do.
At 5 pm Monday, April 9, Socolow will speak at the UO’s Knight Library Browsing Room, laying out his plan to slow global warming under the assumption that the world will someday begin to accept climate change as a real threat.
Socolow is also co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative with biologist Stephen Pacala, for which the two Princeton professors created the Stabilization Wedge Game — an educational tool that demonstrates how global warming can be thwarted, or at least significantly curbed, with present-day CO2-reducing technologies.
So why is everyone from fellow Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson to Michelle Bachmann to the guy sitting next to you at the bar casting a skeptical eye on climate science?
“It’s so counterintuitive that we can change this great big planet with our own actions,” says Socolow. “We need to learn how to fit on the planet, respect other species and share the space.” Just as Darwin was scorned for categorizing humans as part of the animal kingdom and Galileo spent the remainder of his life under house arrest for revealing his discovery that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, Socolow points out that history has not been kind to scientific discoveries that paint man’s role in the world in an incendiary light.
“When we do accept, OK, we are able to change the planet, then we have to make some pretty substantial changes.” And recycling and biking to work, although helpful, are quick fixes, he says.
Socolow’s approach is three-pronged: frame the problem honestly, propagate planetary thinking and enlarge the system boundary. To greatly simplify, admitting there is a problem is the first step. The second step is acceptance that the developing world will ultimately decide the state of the planet we live on. Finally, picture the future of humanity collectively through prospicience, the art of foresight.
So what can the average person do in the face of this environmental juggernaut? “Pay attention,” says Socolow. “Don’t be afraid of the subject. The number one problem at the moment is people don’t want to talk about it anymore because it’s divisive.”
Climate change has become an increasingly controversial topic. In 2008, GOP presidential candidate John McCain said that climate change was real and that humankind was substantially responsible. Fast-forward to the 2012 GOP primary race and you have a smorgasbord of candidates who have called man-made global warming “a beautifully concocted scheme” (Rick Santorum), “voodoo nonsense” (Michele Bachmann) and a “hoax” (Ron Paul).
“In this country we are turning our backs on reason,” Socolow says. “There is so much rejection of science as a way of knowing. I hope my talk will make people think about the place of science in understanding the human condition.”