Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We've Been Reduced to an Equation

Back in February 2010, Bill Gates gave a Ted talk (found here) that explored the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on a global scale. Included in the talk was a formula that looked like this:

CO2 = P x S x E x C

...where P = Population, S = Services, E = Efficiency/energy for each service and C = The amount of CO2 put out for each unit of energy

He made two mysterious comments in the speech, however. The first one was that in order to stop global warming, we would need to get the carbon dioxide levels to zero. That means the left side of the equation would be equal to zero. He then went on to explain each factor on the right side of the equation, starting with the letter P. He mentioned how the world's population will soon climb to nine billion people. Then came this curious statement:
"Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, and reproductive health services we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent."
Wait...what? How does improving on vaccines reduce the population? What did he mean by "reproductive health services"?

The rest of his speech was spent discussing the other factors in the equation and how we will be unable to get the last factor reduced to zero (especially by using fossil fuels). He also mentioned the need to create a new system on a "global scale" and the need for "energy miracles".

Now I'm all for using various creative sources of energy (wind, solar, etc.) but this equation is unsettling. First of all, the left side assumes quite a bit. What were the levels of carbon dioxide like in the atmosphere prior to the Industrial Revolution? Have they risen and fallen naturally over the centuries? Scientists do not have a thousands of years worth of data to look at in this regard and there is another factor in warming that was not addressed in this talk at all: the effects of the sun itself.

Implicit in the equation (and the talk itself) is that we are the ones in control of the planet's temperature and that at some point, things will be pushed into "crisis mode". Will that crisis involve reducing various factors in the equation (including population) in order to turn down the temperature of the planet to...get people?

I think we are giving ourselves way too much credit (or blame, depending on your perspective).

What do you think?

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