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Science of climate risks

The recent news about the decision on Bt brinjal has received a great deal of attention from the public and the media. Issues involving radical change often invoke radical reactions. That the use of genetically modified (GM) foods is a major departure from long-standing practice and belief is clearly a reason for the very diverse views being expressed by different sections of society. It is also a fact that major technological changes of this kind would need to be tested against a number of unknown and unseen impacts that could emerge only over a long period of time and with safeguards being fully established.

Scientific innovation and scientists today are accountable to society at a level that has not been seen before. It is also true that scientific innovation now invites deep concerns and suspicions that have not been seen in the past. Much of this, of course, is the result of unfortunate experiences that societies have had in the past, such as those that were brought to light by Rachel Carson, eloquently exposed in her book The Silent Spring. Indeed, Carson's work laid the foundation of widespread global concern on environmental damage caused by increasing use of chemicals of various kinds in our daily lives.

But in her lifetime Rachel Carson faced enormous resistance and dangers, because those responsible for the production of the chemicals and products that she had exposed clearly saw her as a major obstacle to continuing profits from business as usual in the future. But that resistance turned out to be short-lived because society in the developed countries, in particular, realised some of the perils associated with growing use of chemicals and other products which had very high potential for environmental damage and adverse effects on human health. Yet, today we know that with the population of this planet approaching seven billion people, and with incomes reaching higher levels, the adoption of lifestyles and consumption all across the globe are often a replica of what the developed countries did historically in the past. If we continue on present trends, the dangers of blindly emulating the developed nations would leave us with very few options to bring about timely change. If change is to be brought about, and we are to restore the balance and move human society towards a distinctly sustainable pattern of development, then some "disruptive" technologies would become essential and desirable.

Large-scale solar energy use would come from such disruptive technologies. How can scientists cope with the challenge of innovation that would bring into place radically different technologies from those employed today and yet be able to ensure acceptance from the point of view of human health, economic well-being and environmental protection? This would require a great deal of coordination between research organisations, industry as well as government. What would also be essential is a broad policy-driven approach to scientific innovation because, almost at the stage of conceptualising new technological innovation, its implications for society across the board would need to be understood with some degree of thoroughness. The elimination of risk would have to be an important part of technological innovation throughout the process by which it is produced.

While change may bring risks of a certain kind, society also has to look at the risks associated with no change. For instance, this is truly the case with human-induced climate change. The scientific community and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have provided overwhelming evidence of the manner in which human actions are affecting the earth's climate and a detailed account of the impacts that would be felt if nothing is done to alter the current system and to stabilise the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Business-asusual, in this case, would create risks, the probability of which in several instances have been estimated as significant.

Yet there is an inertia in the system which seems to be preventing the induction of technologies and processes that could make a difference in the right direction. Even in the case of, say, transportation technology, there are countries in the world which have advanced significantly while others are lagging behind, largely because of differences in the policy framework which in one case promote energy efficiency and low-emissions solutions while in the other there is an inert continuation of systems that have been largely responsible for the problem in the first place. The question is often asked whether anyone who has a rational basis for behaviour and action would ever get on a flight which has even a five per cent chance of a crash? In the case of mitigating the emissions of GHGs and thereby tackling the growing problem of climate change, several sectors of society are hesitant to take action even when the likelihood of adverse impacts are very much higher than five to 10 per cent. There is something disproportionate in the way that people perceive risk. For instance, continuation of practices that might result in risk appear to be discounted heavily as against those that might require change.

The biggest challenge in bringing about change within a democratic system lies in sensitising the public on choices that are explicitly to be exercised.

Unfortunately, there is a gap between the work of scientists and the public at large, which despite an increase in the speed of information flows has not been bridged. Often, therefore, misinformation or extreme shades of information fill in the existing gap. Rationality as a result becomes a casualty. In the absence of proper information we could have situations where the undesirable impacts of technological innovation would surface well after the decision has been made.

The same thing to a much larger degree would happen in the event of indecision which may be the result of political, attitudinal or other forms of inertia. In the case of climate change this clearly is the issue that the public must understand.

A delay in taking steps that would lead to higher levels of energy security, lower levels of air pollution and in general a sustainable energy future need to be taken with a sense of urgency. These, incidentally, would also stabilise the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere.

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