FunNature & AnimalRonald G. Prinn:

Ronald G. Prinn:

When Ronald Prinn doesfootingAround the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, he takes a deep breath and likes to think that his grandchildren will be able to breathe cleaner air if possible. Rumor has it that he is a good athlete, although he is modest: “Well, in my youth I loved skiing until I had a serious injury where I broke my tibia and lost some enthusiasm. I also played football. on the varsity team, but now I’m a little old for that. Currently I like to practice thejogging, golf or tennis … less stressful sports. “
This scientist, rigorous where they are, serious-looking but smiling when he talks about his beautiful and green country, New Zealand, is determined to achieve international agreements to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases. It is not surprising in a lover of nature and country activities, although he hardly has free time. He also did not have it recently to enjoy his visit to Spain where he was invited by the Spanish Petroleum Club. “It’s a shame,” he confesses. “With what I like paella and sangria …”
?How does the greenhouse effect work?
-The Earth absorbs an amount of solar energy and radiates the same amount back into space. If this equilibrium is broken, the earth’s temperature is not maintained. Greenhouse gases retain part of the radiation energy. Imagine a small greenhouse with windows that open and close; And let’s say some of the greenhouse windows are open. It is daytime, the sun is shining, I am inside and there is a fixed temperature. This is the equilibrium situation. So, I close some of the windows. When I do this, the temperature rises, and that is what we do when producing greenhouse gases.

Explain what the students of the most prestigious university institute in the world are like. Are they always locked up studying?
-MIT students are very intelligent people to whom we recommend doing sports and not just kneeling their elbows. We need to make sure that they exercise more than just the brain.

And do they care about the environment?
-Yes, they are usually very well informed. And they not only care about the environment but also about technological solutions so that we can maintain a high standard of living, a strong economy and at the same time cause the least possible damage to the environment.

Is there evidence of the global increase in temperature and the incidence of human activity in this global warming?
-There is considerable evidence that during the last 140 years the temperature of the Earth has increased by approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius. Some scientists are convinced that human activity has caused this warming. Others, myself included, are still not convinced because some changes that occur are simply natural.

But the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ensures that such influence exists …
-In that report an attempt was made to summarize a series of quite complex conclusions. The Commission directors’ choice of words was misleading. With that expression that they had detected “fingerprints” in the global climate – in reference to the detection of human influence – the IPCC scientists demonstrate a level of security that I do not share. This choice of words led non-experts to interpret them as if all scientists agreed that the impact of man on the climate has been proven. That is not true. But, beware! Even though I have put forward arguments against this human influence on the climate, that is no excuse for not doing anything. I am convinced that we must act.

How do you see the situation of energy production?
-Most of the energy that people enjoy comes from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Both technologies are, of course, controversial. New energy production technologies must be developed focused on maximum production with minimum emission of harmful greenhouse gases.

Is there good communication between the scientists who study the climate and the politicians who make the decisions?
-In general, I think not. At MIT we have been working hard to improve it. We recently had a meeting with the staff of the United States Congress for a day and a half.

Was any conclusion reached?
-This group is very influential in the political decisions of the country. They concluded that the problem was much more complex than previously thought and that science is much more uncertain than they had imagined. But we gave them a concise message: that uncertainty does not mean “doing nothing.” We cannot ignore a rapid heating process. The IPCC, for example, speaks of up to 3.5ºC in the next 100 years. Scientists can show that a 3.5 degree warming is not very likely. However, its occurrence poses a serious risk to humanity and nature.

There are experts who dare to say that the ozone hole is a natural process and does not pose any threat. What is your opinion about it?
-The hole in the ozone layer is not a natural phenomenon. It is caused by the emission of CFCs. The coldest part of the atmosphere is above Antarctica and for this reason the ozone depletion is greater in that area.

Another of the effects that are related to global climate change is the intensification of the El Niño phenomenon. What do you think?
-The models used by the IPCC, MIT and other groups to predict future weather do not simulate El Niño. So the people who claim that El Niño is connected to climate change offer a hypothesis without scientific basis.

Do you think that in the future there will be an increase in hurricanes and storms?
-It is a case very similar to El Niño. Climate models from MIT, IPCC, and others don’t simulate hurricanes, they don’t simulate tornadoes. One of the great challenges for science in the next 10 years is figuring out the connection between El Niño, hurricanes and the greenhouse effect.

So why are scientists saying extreme events like heat waves are likely to increase?
“Ah, heat waves are something else.” In climate models, when you raise the average temperature you also increase the temperature of extreme events. The simulations are capable of producing some heat wave predictions. We cannot say that it will occur with a 100 percent probability, but the increased intensity of heat events is something to be concerned about.

What is your recommendation to the main governments?
-Economists, scientists and politicians have been working together for 6 years to try to understand the problem. One of the conclusions is that we need better weather forecasts. Another conclusion is that, if the predictions of 3.5 degrees or 4 degrees rise are correct, we will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions very substantially. To address this situation, an international agreement or treaty could be achieved between all the nations of the world, proposing methods by which rich countries invest in the energy industry of poor countries to help them reduce their emissions.

Would it be necessary for the oil companies to collaborate as well?
-Of course. Only small amounts of money are handled between governments. What is known as “international aid”. The largest amounts of money between rich and poor countries involve large international companies. Oil companies should consider the environment as part of their responsibility. Many industries are realizing that, in the future, the sales of their products will largely depend on whether consumers perceive whether they are environmentally responsible or not.

And what would you think if there was a tax on oil in rich countries and that money was transferred to poor countries?
-I think it is obvious that rich states should send more money to poor countries. But I still don’t know the best mechanism to do this. People talk about the possibility of a tax, but that is a very unpopular idea in the US Believe me, very unpopular. In developed countries, the concept of a tax will not work. Other proposals have to do with the exchange of emissions between nations. For example, if China gave the United States the right to emit part of its greenhouse gases (in China), the United States in return could invest in China to compensate. It is often much cheaper for rich countries to improve poor energy production in poor countries. It costs a lot less.

Alexander Sacristan


This interview was published in July 1998, in number 206 of VERY Interesting.

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