Saturday 5 May 2007

Messing up the environment

If you haven't watched Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth", go check it out. Not only because you'll find the coolest ideas for preparing your next slideshow. It made me wonder what the US and the world would have been like if the votes had not been recounted that day in Florida. But I guess not much different because the only inconvenient truth for a high ranking polititian is how difficult it is to satisfy all the companies that sponsored the campaign.

Anyway, the reason I went into science is that I don't want to deal with those things too much. Let's take a look at the chemistry behind the greenhouse effect. Why can CO2, methane, N2O, and SF6 absorb but N2 and O2 can't? Yes, it's because they have IR-active modes. The more they have the worse it gets, it seems. That's why burning methane is better than letting methane into the atmosphere. It works in chemical plants but I don't think they've found a way to convince cows to light a match before belching (yes, I am impressed that they can live on cellulose but can't they keep an oxidative environment in their stomachs?).

Game theory is why I sometimes think that biology is cool. As I know after reading Dawknins' "Selfish Gene" pretty much all of life comes down to prisoner's dilemmas. Prisoner's dilemmas can be overcome if the two individuums meet each other often enough. The problem with environmental policies is that so many people are involved that the solution is more difficult.

Let's look at the following situation: a town with 1000 inhabitants. The question is if they choose to drive their car to work. Driving a car is nice, let's say every inhabitant that drives their car gets 100 happiness points. On the other hand cars are bad for the community (they are noisy and smelly, they clog up the streets, they endanger pedestrians, ...). Let's say every car costs 1 happiness point to every member of the community. Will a rational citizen (according to these rules) take their car? Of course: It's a net increase of 99 happiness points. If everyone drives their car, he gets 100 happiness points out of that but he loses a 1000 happiness points because of all the people driving cars. The net effect is -900 happiness points.

Now a courageous Austrian ex-actor becomes the mayor of the town (after retiring from California). Car driving becomes against the law. First everyone is angry because they lose 100 happiness points. But then they find out that they can open their window without constant noise, that they can ride their bike without being stuck in traffic jams, that they don't have to be scared crossing streets anymore, ... Everyone is 900 happiness points better off than before.

The problem is that it is better for the individual to do a bad thing but it would be better for the whole if he doesn't. That's why environmental laws are so important (unless people are nice by themselves). US and Australian readers may feel bad now because they are out of the only developed countries that did not ratify the Kyoto protocol. I can assure you, it's alright: we Austrians (without "al") are just as bad. It's ratified but we have no idea how we could reach the goals. So it's also our fault that the world will be a horrible desolate place in 50 years.

Alright, that was my political, improving the world post but I have to say that I like writing about basis sets and drawing funny pictures better. By the way, there is a pretty cool post on carbon capture technologies.

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