LAFAYETTE -- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Director Paul Alivisatos recently reconfirmed an adage: "The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know."
Ironically, it wasn't only the record crowd of roughly 120 at a Nov. 27 Science Cafe presentation about global warming who "didn't know" -- it was Alivisatos, who underestimated his audience.
Gathered in the Lafayette Library and Learning Center's Community Hall, a knowledgeable, informed, up-to-date-about-climate-change audience was eager to hear about Lawrence Berkeley's groundbreaking work in climate modeling, energy analysis, building efficiency, combustion, batteries and energy storage, biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, solar PV and artificial photosynthesis.
Instead, Alivisatos ditched his original plan to reveal the lab's coolest new research and offered a "101" course on global warming.
"I'd like to explain how it is that the scientific community has come to understand that global warming is occurring," he said.
Hoping to forever end the discussions and discourse over whether or not the phenomenon is real or just the scare tactic of green-minded activists, Alivisatos said the argument is impeding the progress of science. The only way out of the boondoggle is with an adequately informed public.
With that, Alivisatos launched an entertaining, fact-packed exposé of scientific history related to global warming. If it was redundant for erudite audience members, no one complained -- and judging by the number of post-lecture questions Alivisatos fielded, few people went home dissatisfied.
"Carbon dioxide was steady until 1769, when James Watt's steam engine was introduced," he began. "Does CO2 effect global warming? It's not a new question. Scientists have been thinking about this for a long time."
Tracing pivotal, early research, Alivisatos showed how scientists came to understand the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere, how infrared light was absorbed by water and to what degree CO2 played the control function in the Earth's temperature.
"It took a lot of work through the first half of the 20th century for the scientists to make all of this a solid, completely understood subject," he said.
Over time, solving energy problems for how to power things and move people created environmental concerns. The question became not, "Does CO2 effect global warming?" but, "Is CO2 increasing due to human activity?"
One of Alivisatos' many graphic displays showed oscillating red, blue, yellow and black diagonals -- with CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels exponentially increasing in the atmosphere between 1960 and 2010.
"What's making it difficult is that we are making such an abrupt change (to the atmosphere). The change is now taking decades, compared to 100,000 years for similar change in the past."
Can't we simply adapt to the changes? Alivisatos said the answer to that question is clear, but not simple, as scientists line up on either side of the equation when it comes to their vastly different predictions.
"Scientists say that a 5-degree temperature change could result in massive shifts in where people live," he said. "But we don't know the exact value of climate sensitivity. People say, 'Why can't you guys figure this out?' Well, because it's highly complicated."
Alivisatos said lifestyle choices matter, and what happens in large countries like India and China are influencing the earth's warming more than the U.S.'s energy consumption.