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SPIE Professional July 2007

Confronting Climate Change

As individuals, and as the scientific community, we have a responsibility to mitigate, and adapt to, world climate change.

By Brian Culshaw

The world is undeniably getting warmer. We have all contributed. Consuming annually billions of tons of fossil fuels has disturbed the thermal equilibrium of our planet with meteorological, economic, social, biological, and political consequences filling thousands of pages of IPCC—Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change—reports and millions of pages elsewhere. Making sense of all this and constructively reacting within our own personal circumstances is a serious responsibility incumbent on us all.

First of all, how to make sense of this? In February 2007, before the IPCC meeting in Bangkok in May, Sigma Xi (The Scientific Research Society) published the report Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable commissioned by the United Nations Foundation. A six-page executive summary is available on the web (see sidebar). We should most certainly all read this and digest its contents.

I would also wholeheartedly commend the full 135-page report as a digestible and responsible overview of an extremely intricate and multifaceted discourse. The more recent complexities from Bangkok have also now been well summarized, for example in the 11 May edition of Science magazine.

The reports project stark reality. The modelers confidently predict that global temperatures will continue to rise from 0.2 to 0.4°C per decade until the middle of this current century even if carbon emissions instantly stabilize. They won’t. This couple of degrees will make a very substantial change in our aspirations and lifestyles. We can expect more. Our addiction is too strong, but—and now it is back to each individual—we must all contribute to alleviating the situation.

SPIE’s membership has enormous potential, even enormous responsibility. This is, after all, entirely a discussion on energy and on its use on our planet. Energy arrives here from the sun as photons. The energy that leaves to maintain our thermal equilibrium does so as lower energy photons, increasingly absorbed by the densifying blanket of greenhouse gases. Optical engineers really should know how to handle photons.

We can all do the simple, but very important, sums. The total energy arriving on the roof of my house on an annual basis, even in the damp west of Scotland, is more than enough to provide for all domestic needs including personal transportation (though it hardly contributes to the long-haul flights). Converting this rich resource into something useful is a significantly greater challenge than simply doing the sums. With current technology, for around US$30,000, I could generate more than enough electricity from my roof for the domestic supply. Taxation structures and subsidies mitigate against this, particularly when compared to those directed toward centralized utilities.

Adequate—though far from ideal—technology exists but the political, economic, and social environment in the UK and most other countries hasn’t quite made it. Additionally, much, much more is needed to refine the art of harnessing all those very valuable solar photons.

So what to do? Wringing hands in defeat is not an option. We certainly all contributed to the problem, and we must with equal certainty contribute to its solution. Immediately set the example: replace all tungsten light bulbs, drive a smaller more economical car, take the bus! Spread the message that the sun provides enough to keep us going.

Most important, apply our collective talents—we are photonic engineers—to harnessing that source. Our community has a huge technical contribution to make and collectively must use our vision and skills to make a real difference.  

Roadmap Report

The United Nations Foundation and Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, in February published the report Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable. Writing the part-report, part-roadmap document was a two-year process by an international panel of scientists.

Confronting Climate Change covers an overview of the science of climate change, the importance of avoiding the risk of major impacts of climate change, options for mitigation, and steps that can be taken to prepare to adapt to anticipated climate change.

“Two starkly different futures diverge from this time forward,” the report cautions. “Society’s current path leads to increasingly serious climate-change impacts. The other path . . . will reduce dangerous emissions, create economic opportunity, help to reduce global poverty, reduce degradation and carbon emissions from ecosystems, and contribute to sustainability. Humanity must act collectively and urgently to change course through leadership at all levels of society. There is no more time for delay.”

Read the executive summary or the full report at www.sigmaxi.org/about/news/UNSEGReport.shtml.

Brian Culshaw, 2007 SPIE President

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200707.01

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