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Why Rip van Winkle and the Climate Crisis  Are Closely Connected?!

By   Shlomo Maital      

   I recently spoke at a climate crisis conference. In my remarks, I asked, when did we have the earliest data about greenhouse gases and global warming?

   A lot lot earlier than you might think. Indeed – in author Washington Irving’s famous story, “Rip Van Winkle”, the protagonist, a Dutch-American villager in colonial America, falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains and wakes up 20 years later.

     Well, we the people are Rip Van Winkle. Except — we overslept a whole lot longer.


                                     Eunice Newton Foote

An American woman scientist named Eunice Newton Foote (highly unusual for her time) published a paper in The American Journal of Science & Arts, in 1856: 163 years ago.   (Van Winkle would have been awake for 143 years already). She filled glass jars with a) water vapor, b) carbon dioxide and c) air, and compared how much they heated up in the sun.

     She concluded: “The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas [CO2]” 

     In August 1908 Henry Ford produced the first of his 15 million Model T Ford cars. The age of vehicle emissions began…and we knew from Eunice Foote what the ultimate result would be. We knew that burning fossil fuels would spew CO2 into the air.

       In 1899, almost a century before the December 1997 Kyoto Protocol was signed (in which nations promised to limit emissions), Thomas Chamberlin published a book stating that “changes in climate could result from changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”    Footnote: The Kyoto Protocol was largely ignored.

     So, when did global warming actually begin? It started more or less when that Model T Ford rolled off the line – in 1905. (See graph). That is, 114 years ago. Almost 6 times longer than Rip Van Winkle slept.  

     We as a society are asleep. We failed to see the nose in front of our face.  And to see the results, and the reason we now use the phrase “climate crisis”, look closely at Australia, once a serene paradise, now a place in which a fifth of its forests have burned, a billion mammals died, and now disastrous floods occur (because the dry hard-packed ground cannot absorb the rain).

And Rip?  Well, at least he woke up.  We,  society, are still largely asleep.

Does Science Intelligence Make People More Reasonable?

By Shlomo Maital

 The latest Scientific American (October 2017) has a short piece and accompanying diagram, reporting research on the key question:

Do people who have higher ‘science intelligence’ (i.e. knowledge and education in the realm of science) understand better the risks inherent in:   Global warming (climate change); private gun possession (the more guns, the more violent gun deaths), and fracking (causes environmental harm)?   

   The answer?   It depends. It depends on the political views of the ‘science-educated person’.   If you are liberal democrat, then – the answer is yes, science education makes you far more sensitive to the inherent risks, except for guns, where the perceived risk is seen as high regardless of science or no science.

   But if you are a conservative Republican? The more science you know, the less concerned you are about the risks.   Your political views color, in fact dominate,  your scientific awareness.

   I think this finding explains a great deal.   Research on guns will not help bring gun legislation. Research on global warming (or even, wildfires and hurricans) will not bring restrictions on emissions. Research on the risks of fracking will not bring any slowdown in fracking.   And the enormous fracture in dysfunctional American politics between Dems and Republications will not be repaired by evidence, facts and research.

      Why? Because, “I have a Ph.D. in geophysics, and by the way, don’t confuse me with      facts, my mind is made up.”

How to Explain Global Warming to Donald Trump

By Shlomo Maital

                              Ocean Temperature 1880-2017

Dear President Donald Trump,

       Donald, sir, I have a problem. How do I explain global warming and climate change to someone like yourself, with the attention span just a bit less than a goldfish ?   Who does not read anything, and gets information from Fox News? To someone with untreated attention deficit disorder from childhood ?


     Here is my best shot.

     Suppose this next sentence is a Tweet, Donald. Read it as such. I mean no disrespect.

         93 per cent of the added heat generated by global warming is absorbed by the oceans; only 7 per cent, by the air.

         That’s only 23 words.   Well within 140 characters.

         Don’t believe it? Please, look at the graph. OK?

         Why is warmer ocean temperature a problem?   Why do we care that up to 30% of the Great Barrier Reef has already disappeared, because the coral can’t stand the warmer temperatures?

         Well, Donald, let’s take your own body. Uh, rephrase that. YOU take your own body. Suppose you are running a temperature. Say, two degrees. Instead of 98.6 F., 100.6 F.?   Would you go to a doctor? Feel ill? Take medicine?

         Well, the ocean is like our human bodies. It is feeling unwell. And it has been running a fever for quite a while. And it is getting worse. Your decision to leave the Paris Agreement made the oceans feel sicker.

         So while we think global warming is about, say, heat waves, it is really about destroying the ecology of our oceans and melting the ice caps.   The oceans are huge heat sinks. And they just don’t like it all, nor do the creatures who live there.

     Oops.     286 words. Too long. I’ve lost your interest.

     Can anyone help? Maybe – the Russian spooks you seem to love?


Four Reasons Why Scientists Can’t Communicate

By Shlomo Maital


     As a professor, I’ve become keenly aware how poor we profs are at communicating our ideas to others, in understandable clear and actionable ways.   I think we economists find meaning in life by confusing the most people we can. Now an expert comes along and explains why. Tim Ward’s blog was published in Society for Conservation Biology News and a relative in NYC passed it on to me.

“Four Mistakes Scientists Make When They Communicate:

  1. Certainty. Scientists are trained skeptics, so they back away from certainty. But outside the realm of science, people interpret expressions of certainty as more likely to be true than expressions of cautious probability. It’s a losing tactic to insist on speaking of certainty only in the scientific sense. Instead, think about how you can speak with certainty in the commonly understood sense. For example, you can say with certainty: “According to NASA, 97% of climate scientists agree the climate is warming. I’m certain the risk is great and we need to act now.”
  2. If you don’t have a seat at the table, you won’t have a voice at the table. We learned this principle from Dr. Alan Thornhill, who now works for the US Department of the Interior. He told us that at many meetings where policy decisions were being made, he was the only scientist in the meeting. There were many times others turned to him with scientific questions, only because he happened to be in the room. During other discussions he would interject with, “Hold on a minute, we have to look at the scientific research on that before we decide.”
  3. Assuming the facts will speak for themselves: they don’t. You must advocate for the facts.   Communicating for influence is a matter of survival of the fittest. It’s not enough to deliver your information. You are competing with other voices. Use memorable quotes and messages to make your facts stick.
  4. Focusing on evidence, not on relevance.   Scientists too readily dive into the details of their research when speaking in public. But in the real world, if people don’t know why the topic is important to them, they won’t pay attention, and they won’t be listening when you get around to relevance at the end of your talk.  In sum, communication is not about output, it’s about impact.”

Innovator – Ask Dumb Questions!

By Shlomo Maital

 dumb questions

   How can one person change the world?   By asking dumb questions.


   Here is what I mean. Last week I spoke with a founder of a startup called Aquarius. All four  founders are in their 50’s… not spring chickens. Not the twenty-somethings we often picture as startup entrepreneurs. One of the other founders is a serial inventor. And one day he asked a dumb question.

   The world auto industry is enormous, selling 90 million vehicles a year, with nearly a billion vehicles on the roads today. It is a major source of pollution and global warming. Car and truck engines burn hydrocarbons, either gasoline or diesel, and heavily pollute.

     Conventional car engines have worked on the same principle for at least 130 years. Gasoline is burned in a cylinder  when combined with air, driving the piston up and down. The up-down motion is converted into rotary energy, to turn the car wheels. The conversion process loses huge amounts of energy, making the conventional internal combustion engine only 20 % efficient.

     The Aquarius founder, Shay, asked: Why? Why convert up-down piston action to rotary wheel energy?   Duh… because, like, wheels go round and round, right?   For many decades, and many billions of dollars in research, huge companies have tried to improve car engines, without asking that dumb question. It’s obvious. Because wheels are round, you need rotary energy.

     Shay said, wait. Let’s lengthen the piston, and use its action to charge a battery. Then let’s send the electric energy to two electric motors attached to each of the front wheels.  No rotary conversion. No loss of energy.

     Result: 40% engine efficiency.   40%!!! Fuel saving. Plus, the key fact, far far less pollution, because by increasing air intake of the cylinder, the fuel is burned far more efficiently.     The whole engine is only 500 cc’s, about enough for a Fiat 500,   yet it is powerful enough to drive a larger vehicle. The engine generates an enormous 34 kilowatts of power, more than twice the power generated, for instance, by my Toyota Auris hybrid, (which I love, and which is wonderfully fuel efficient), which has an enormous heavy battery and generates only 14 kilowatts.   The Aquarius battery is very small, because there is no need to store electricity, it gets delivered immediately to the wheels. 

   Management consultant Peter Drucker once wrote a powerful article in Harvard Business Review, in which he challenged managers to challenge all their basic sacred cow assumptions. This is harder than you think.    We are often not aware of the things we believe are true, that in fact should and must be challenged. Drucker has a checklist that helps us run down all our assumptions and smash every single one, in search of a way to change the world.

   Remember the name. Aquarius. Will we live in the Age of Aquarius in the coming years? Stay tuned.


Gardens of the World – Seeing is Believing

By Shlomo Maital

   Gardens of the World singapore

Yesterday, Sunday, my wife and I visited Singapore’s remarkable Gardens of the World – domed gardens, showing the amazing flora and fauna of various regions of the world, including a man-made mountain with a walkway (that spiral trail you see is where you walk, viewing an incredible man-made waterfall).

   Singapore is only a small archipelago with some 5 million people.  Yet it has higher GDP per capita, by some measures, than the U.S.  It exports twice as much as its GDP.  How?  By value-added manufacturing – import components, assemble them, export them. 

   Singapore, the country, has exceptionally deep pockets, that enable it to afford such incredible structures as Garden of the World.  Its Central Provident Fund is the repository for compulsory savings – about a sixth of every pay packet by the employee, and an equal payment by the employer.   Singaporeans can draw on this not for consumption but for things like housing.  So by law, Singapore’s personal saving rate is a third of national income. 

   Singapore has a remarkable mindset.  As a small country, in a neighborhood that is not always totally friendly to Singapore,  it must be alacritous and resilient, to ‘remain relevant’, as a close friend from the Singaporean Foreign Ministry told me.  To remain relevant as a small country,  you have to be the best at everything you do. Singapore Airlines must have the most video movies of any airline and the best business class.  Singapore itself must have attractions for tourists that surpass anything you can see elsewhere.  Singapore has to be #1.  No excuses. And that no excuse mindset creates remarkable excellence. 

     Moreover, Gardens of the World has a strong message.  Here is the full beauty of G-d’s world, laid out before you, flowers, plants, trees…    and we are ruining it through climate change.  Let’s take action.  When you see the message vividly, first hand, in this manner, it is very powerful.  Will our children and grandchildren see the world of beauty as we do? Or will it be gone, as will be the case if we continue to pollute our air and our water and our land. 

The World Can Live WITHOUT Perpetual Growth—and It Must

By Shlomo Maital  

                                                            Zero Growth

Today’s Global New York Times (June 5/2014) has a fine column by Eduardo Porter.  He refers to Prof. Tim Jackson’s 2009 book, Prosperity Without Growth, and Jackson’s back of the envelope calculation.   It shows a bitter truth:  The macroeconomic assumption, that continual perpetual growth in GDP per capita is both good and feasible, cannot be sustained.  We have to have policies that seek a stable level of per capita GDP, while redistributing wealth and income from rich countries to poor —  a very tall order.

   Here is the simple arithmetic.   Assume that developing nations citizens are entitled to roughly the same level of per capita income as Europe, by 2050 (that’s 36 years away, about a generation and a half!).  By then there will be 9 billion people in the world. 

  • If European incomes grow by 2 per cent annually through 2050, and
  • If we want to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C. (3.6 degrees F.) above what it was before the industrial era [in order to prevent violent, unpredictable environmental upheavals],   then: the world can emit at most 6 grams of carbon dioxide for each dollar of GDP it produces.   


     Hmmm…   Advanced nations emit 60 times that much, at present!   Developing nations emit 90 times that much!    

     If we want to eradicate poverty (we do) and save our planet (we do), we are going to have to reduce carbon emissions by an order of magnitude. A very tall order, one that will take massive investment of resources, huge creativity, a pro-environment mindset, global cooperation, and a wide variety of new technologies.

      President Obama’s new proposal, for limiting carbon emissions, falls far short of what is needed, and even THAT could be sabotaged by Congress (though Obama claims he will implement it as an executive order).    

     Is no-growth economics possible for rich countries? It is. Look at Japan. Despite Japan’s huge efforts, its per capita GDP has grown very little for two decades. Yet Japan remains a prosperous country, with a high living standard. Is Japan a natural experiment, showing that zero growth is not only possible, but desirable – provided we change our mindset?


        I’m afraid that my generation is delivering a ruined planet to the younger generation. They have the right to put us all in jail for this.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital