One of the most inspirational scenes in the movie The Martian was where Matt Damon’s astronaut, marooned on the red planet and facing certain death, decided to ‘science the shit’ out of his problem. It encapsulated the strong belief that used to dominate our world: that science can solve our problems.
Right now, we’re seeing the rise of a new breed of populist politicians who ignore the facts and look on science with disdain because it doesn’t fit the narrative they’re peddling. Science is no longer the solution, scientists are viewed with suspicion, and meanwhile the planet is going to hell.
It’s hard for normal people to fathom the self-serving cynical depths to which pollies like One Nation Senator Malcom Roberts sink, rejecting the mountain of evidence on climate change as some kind of ‘scientific con game’; or the pronouncement last year by one-time Environment Minister Greg Hunt that the Great Barrier Reef had been taken off the World Heritage Endangered List when the latest reports from the Marine Park Authority Director show it’s in more danger of destruction than ever before. As for president-elect Donald Trump’s promise to walk away from the Paris Climate Change Treaty, and his chief of staff’s statement that climate denial will be the ‘default position’ of the Trump administration, words fail me. We are in deep shit.
Our new Environment (in name only) and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg recently welcomed Trump’s announcement that he would lift restrictions on fossil fuel exploration, commenting that it would be ‘good for consumers’. We’ve already breached 400 parts per million concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere, which means we’re headed for environmental disaster. All the carbon we have in the ground needs to stay there. Scientists have proved it time and again. But after the recent power outage in South Australia ‒ which had nothing to do with that state’s reliance on renewable energy and everything to do with the extreme weather events predicted by climate scientists ‒ Frydenberg is talking up ‘energy security’. This is code for turning your back on scientific development and increasing the mining and use of fossil fuels. It gets worse. Just last week the government pledged $1 billion to fund a railway to the new Carmichael coal mine, and shelved plans for an emissions credit scheme in the face of criticism from the far right. It seems our government is ignoring science and backing nineteenth-century technology.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Ireland, which generates a little under 25% of its energy needs from wind power, is trialling a new technology to bridge the gap between renewable energy and storage batteries. When renewable supply drops, the grid needs to be able to quickly compensate for the energy gap to give batteries enough time to come up to speed. The answer is not to augment supply with coal power but to use ultracapacitors. Standard capacitors in your phone supply a quick burst of energy to power the camera flash. The first capacitors used carbon derived from coconut husks. But since then there’s been a huge amount of development in this field using new materials, and tests in the US show that grids with ultracapacitor backups are 10–15% more efficient than battery-only setups.
The scientific progress of our industrial civilisation has caused a lot of problems, but it has also improved our lives immeasurably. That continued progress is the only thing that will save us. Telling lies or repeating the mistakes of the past – like approving the Carmichael coal mine – will get us nowhere. As Ayn Rand said, ‘We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.’
This article originally appeared in Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1