June 01, 2011

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | Getting Serious

Governments have tried to deal with climate change and failed. The world has tried diplomacy, but this too has been found wanting. So why not try science?

By Wilson da Silva 

AS I WRITE this, I am preparing to leave for Canada where I will tackle the most challenging task of my career. Not in journalism. No, this time it’s serious: it’s science.

For the past 15 months, I’ve been working with the Waterloo Global Science Initiative to develop a highly focussed international summit that, every two years, will attempt to break through the political and economic log jams of major societal problems by tackling them from a science and technology perspective.

WGSI, a new non-profit partnership between Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, will try to catalyse long-range policy and investment decisions in technological solutions for the future with a think-tank-meets-science conference.

Known as the Equinox Summit, the five-day meeting brings together scientific, technical and policy experts, who will craft a vision for the world at least 20 years from now. From these discussions, a blueprint for action will be created, one that, it is hoped, can be used as a road map for the implementation of transformative solutions.

The topic selected for the inaugural meeting is big: energy.

Why? While climate change is clearly the greatest challenge of our age, no single initiative could hope to address it in its entirety. But where science can contribute is in finding ways of reducing further warming; and since energy supply makes the largest contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, the first summit will focus on energy. In particular, the generation, distribution and storage of electricity.

And why electricity? The world is becoming increasingly electrified: it’s the fastest-growing form of global end-use energy consumption and demand is expected to outpace growth in other forms of energy. By focussing on electricity, the summit might potentially make a meaningful contribution to the solutions we will need to implement as a civilisation to address the immense challenges posed by climate change.

By addressing this problem from a scientific perspective first and foremost, and then factoring in the economic, social and environmental implications, it’s hoped that the summit will be able to arrive at a series of practical and actionable recommendations. Only after this will the political dimension be considered.

Too often, the reverse of this process is applied, frequently by governments, and it has failed. We’ve tried diplomacy, but this too has been found wanting. So why not try science? It’s hoped this approach may provide a clearer path through the confusing and competing priorities, many of which can often be coloured by political concerns.

Why science first? Well, because it works. Science has been the greatest single factor leading to health, prosperity and the advancement of our civilisation. WGSI seeks to use the power of science and critical thinking to develop worthwhile scientific and technological ideas that can help guide long-range policy planning and funding.

It takes foresight and courage to undertake something like this. Luckily, WGSI seems to have both, drawing on the talents of senior people from many walks of Canadian life, from the head of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, to the co-founder of Blackberry-makers Research In Motion; and from the leader of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to the chairman of Canada’s largest bank, Toronto-Dominion.

There’s also a public component, with TVO broadcasting its flagship current affairs program, The Agenda, live every night from the summit, while plenaries and afternoon lectures will be streamed live from the WGSI site.

Working with a talented team at Perimeter and the University of Waterloo, and relying on advice and input from a number of leading people around the world, we’ve crafted an innovative, hybrid approach to a global meeting that will attempt to develop real outcomes.

I’ll be chairing the discussions and, as you can imagine, feel humbled to be involved, mortified by the responsibility and, I’ll be honest, a little terrified by the summit’s global ambition.

But then, as I’ve often said on this page, we face immense challenges as a civilisation this century. The thing to do is pluck up the courage to do something about it.