Green politicians made a big mess of the energy transition and climate scientists encouraged them with their computer models. Putin and Xi Jinping must have watched the self-destruction of the Western World with utter amazement and gratitude. Experienced engineers must pick up the pieces soonest.
For decades we have been told by climate prophets that mankind and planet Earth will be doomed if there is no rapid and drastic intervention (‘Great Reset’). As a result, people increasingly live in a culture of fear and notice that they are pushed back into poverty.
The good news is, however, that in the past 50 years the catastrophic predictions of those prophets repeatedly turned out to be entirely wrong. Another positive fact is that human ingenuity has repeatedly shown that it will provide intelligent solutions whenever needed. We should not give up, but we should adapt!
Engineers have always played a leading role in the development of powerful adaptation technology. Engineering education should therefore stay far away from ideology-driven computer models. These models steer them in the wrong direction. That is my message to the Academies of Engineering and the Universities of Technology.
In recent centuries, faith and superstition have been replaced by rational thinking (“Enlightenment”). For instance, it gradually became clear that extreme weather is not the hand of mysterious gods but is determined by a complex interplay of natural forces. Another example shows that, step by step, primitive medicine men became the qualified doctors of today. The worldview of the enlightened thinkers brought us great technological developments in all sectors of society. As a result, the quality of life improved by great strides. Central to that revolution was the concept that measurements are the source of new knowledge. Engineers played an indispensable role in inventing, designing and making the measuring equipment that is required for making new discoveries. That role has become even more important in today’s highly technological society, where natural and anthropogenic systems interact in a complex way. Today’s technical universities have a great responsibility to educate the new generation of engineers. Without them, there will be no sustainable future.
Collection and analysis of measurements allow us to determine and visualize properties of complex systems. In practice, this needs to be often done without yet knowing much of the internal mechanisms of the system. Fortunately, empirical knowledge about system properties – in time and space – is often sufficient to make important decisions about how to deal with system changes. This is particularly important when decisions are urgent, and policymakers do not have time to wait until reliable theoretical knowledge becomes available. In other words, in practice we often cannot wait for scientific explanations (via theoretical models) before acting. In such a situation, it is wise to collect and analyze measurements rather than use theoretical models with large uncertainties. Think of the Earth’s climate, where it may take many more decades to better understand what is going on.
Today, the crucial question that technical universities must ask themselves is: “Is the low-carbon-society ideology really as blessing for nature and society as we are forced to believe daily? After all, CO2 is the building block of life on Earth, isn’t it? If we want to use more organic products, we need more CO2, right?” And as for ‘green’ energy, are solar and wind energy not unreliable? And is the combination of these energy sources with hydrogen storage not unaffordable? Aren’t these the typical matters for sound engineering judgment?
In recent decades, the believe of policymakers in theoretical models has increased dramatically. This is partly due to the impressive computing power of modern computers. In fact, the confidence in computer models has become so large that modeled measurements are increasingly replacing real measurements in government policy. In doing so, governments are creating their own little world. We therefore see that more and more policies are not based on reality, but on political dreams. Ideology-based models increasingly determine what must happen. The most well-known examples are climate policy, energy policy and covid-19 policy. With this irrational development, we are falling back into the pre-Enlightenment world of belief and superstition, now determined by what computer models tell us how to act.
Instead of universities being critical of this trend, they have gone along with it. This may certainly benefit them financially, but it has driven university research into political hobbyhorses. This is bad news for the quality of university education.
For example, at my ‘alma mater’, Delft University of Technology, not real measurements but the output of climate models are assumed to be the guideline. Based on these models, technology is developed with the idea of stopping the global ‘warming crisis’. Think of the belief that wind turbines, solar panels and biomass plants will meet the world’s energy needs in a sustainable way. My university has even awarded an honorary doctorate to European Unions’s (EU) vice-president Frans Timmermans, a champion of green superstition. Because reliable and affordable energy is the key to prosperity and well-being, that honorary doctorate is a historic university failure.
The James Webb telescope is a masterpiece of engineering.
It will make unique measurements about the Universe.
These new measurements will be used to test existing theories and to develop new ones. It may be expected that new knowledge of the Universe (‘the big picture’) will also contribute to a better understanding of our own solar system and thereby the Earth’s climate.
In the following, a call is made for the Universities of Technology to return to what technical universities are supposed to do, which is the development of technology for the engineering chain. In this chain new technical solutions are created based on measurements that describe reality. An inspiring example can be seen in infrared astronomy, where the James Webb telescope will make unique measurements about the Universe. These new measurements will be used to test existing theories and to develop new ones. It may be expected that new knowledge of the Universe (‘the big picture’) will also contribute to a better understanding of our own solar system and thereby the Earth’s climate (principal role of the sun!). And for man’s crucial energy supply, the multitude of technical measurements show unequivocally that nuclear power is by far the most promising energy source of the future. Not political obsessions, like wind turbines, solar panels and biomass plants, but modern nuclear power plants should be prominent on the energy research agenda. Not windmill engineers, but nuclear engineers are urgently need.
University Boards should always keep in mind that their university campus should be a breeding ground for new ideas. This requires an inspiring research and teaching environment, where new concepts are welcomed and students can develop their talents, regardless of their gender, appearance, religion, and origin. Filtering out bad ideas should be done through observation and argumentation and not by trying to silence creative minds, because they are not “woke” enough or because they do not align with the prevailing consensus.
Finally, let me conclude this summary with some advice to technical universities. For the quality of your engineering education – and therefore in the interest of your students – start a change of course in which critical thinking, truth-seeking based on real measurements, and innovative technical solutions become the starting points again. These solutions must not only be technically feasible, but also economically affordable to be of value to society. My particular advice is to keep extremism and politics far away from the university gates and never grant honorary doctorates to sitting politicians.
A cortège is a solemn procession of professors, dressed in toga. Professors walk in a procession at academic events such as honorary promotions. Here is an example from Maastricht University with EU’s vice-president Timmermans in its ranks (still without a beard in 2015).
The cortège is intended for professors at the respective university as well as invited professors from other universities and special guests.
Toga and cortège are a tradition and are supposed to express the scholarship of professors.
I. Rational thinking power
The knowledge domain of natural and engineering sciences is based on fundamental laws, which describe the behavior of the natural phenomena around us. The ultimate ambition is to explain everything that humans observe in the natural system (inside, on and outside the Earth’s surface). The knowledge of natural phenomena is stored in natural science models. With these models, natural phenomena can be mimicked and studied, nowadays with the help of powerful computers (“computer simulation”). By quantitatively comparing these simulated observations with real observations, models can be tested for their degree of reality (‘model validation’).
With a validated model it is possible to make useful future scenarios (think for example about the movement of planets in the macro-world, but also about the behavior of molecules in the micro-world). These scenarios can then be compared with real measurements later. True scientists always keep asking questions and continue to make new measurements. In fact, that is the core of science (Karl Popper).
The famous physicist Richard Feynman said about model verification:
“If it disagrees with nature, it’s wrong. And that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. ”
In other words, measurements tell us how well we can trust theoretical models in the scientific process of understanding what we observe and in estimating uncertainties about what to expect. The more complex the reality, the higher the uncertainty in the models. Consider the great complexity of the Earth’s climate system and, therefore, the large uncertainty in the output of climate models. Engineers demand the highest quality of their technical models. After all, the behavior of engineering products must be 100% predictable. There is no market for unreliable products. This may be the reason that engineers have been squeezed out of public organizations.
Basic elements in natural science models are causality relationships. Causality means that if a disturbance is introduced (cause) we can predict the response of that disturbance (effect). Thus, a causality relationship is the relationship between cause and effect. These relationships play a key role in any theoretical model.
In most causality relationships we see that part of the effect (output) also functions as a cause (input) again. This phenomenon is called feedback. Feedback makes the causality process a lot more complicated (it can significantly strengthen or weaken a relationship). A natural science model is essentially one big network of causality relationships with positive and negative feedbacks. Climate models are a textbook example of this. The development of reliable models requires rational thinking and constant comparison with reality (see Feynman). Wishful thinking is a mortal sin here.
In complex processes causality is not easy to establish because usually there are numerous simultaneously occurring influences with different feedbacks. In such a chaotic architecture, what is cause and what is effect? This observation is of great importance in this day and age when we look at politicians (almost all without any natural sciences education), who think they can control the behavior of such complicated processes with simple linear policy rules. Also, these politicians have no clue about the difference between correlation and causation. No surprise that in reality things almost always go differently than anticipated by policymakers (the political naivety of full control). This undesired outcome calls for timely policy adjustments. But policy adjustments are seen in politics as a sign of weakness and are therefore not carried out (‘by just looking away’) or half-heartedly done (‘by sticking plasters’). The greatest complexity in modern societies is caused by multi-plastered government policies. It drives entrepreneurs and citizens crazy.
Currently, there are two major natural science causality questions with extensive societal impact:
- What, and how much, is the influence of human action (cause) on the change of the Earth’s climate (effect)?
- What, and how much, is the influence of human action (cause) on the course of the today’s covid-19 pandemic (effect)?
Both questions involve complicated natural scientific processes, for which much research is still needed. The big question is whether humans do not overestimate themselves by thinking that, for example, the effect of gulf stream variations in climate change or the effect of virus mutations during a pandemic can be influenced by political decisions. Therefore, researchers must constantly continue to ask questions and convey this critical attitude to their environment.
Confucius said as early as the 6e century BC, “Doubt is the watchdog of insight.” And Bertrand Russell put it in the 20e century AC as follows: “The foolish are confident and the wise filled with doubt.”
Due to the great lack of knowledge, humans must accept natural phenomena such as climate change and virus mutations as inevitable and minimize the adverse effects by being alert in developing effective adaptation technology. In climate policy, it becomes increasingly clear that adaptation is the way to go. In pandemics, adaptation policies should prevent infections by applying transmission-blocking technologies early in the pandemic chain. Engineers must take the lead in adaptation policies. For instance, why aren’t experienced energy engineers tell us about feasible and affordable options for a sustainable energy future, and why aren’t expert engineers working on advanced technology that remove contaminated aerosols from the air early in the pandemic chain, as e.g., ion filter technology does?
CO2 is not a polluting gas. It is essential for all life on Earth. More CO2 is beneficial for people and nature. It makes the Earth greener.
CO2 is also good for agriculture. It increases the yield of crops worldwide, which helps us fight famines in poor countries (note that yield of crops is measured in hectograms/hectare).
Did you know that more CO2 in the atmosphere causes agriculture to produce more crops? CO2 is therefore an important weapon against famines in poor countries. So why spend billions to take CO2 out of the air? If we want to make most products organic, where is all the CO2 coming from?
II. Climate, energy and environmental engineers
The climate debate in recent years has been chaotic and incoherent because climate change, energy transition, and concern for the natural environment have been lumped together in one overall policy. This makes all discussions extremely opaque. After all, content-wise we are talking about very different subjects:
- Climate change is about the complex interplay of natural forces, which humans still have little understanding of and which will require many diverse scientific disciplines to make progress. Again, here advanced measurement technology is indispensable. This will require engineers who work closely together with climate scientists.
- In the energy transition, it is becoming increasingly clear that rushing to a shutdown of the existing energy infrastructure will result in a major socio-economic downturn (EU-policy). Nuclear power is by far the energy source of the future. The big challenge here is a sensible transition phase. Not technically ignorant politicians, but experienced engineers must play the key role along this transition path.
- The natural environment demands good stewardship. Concerns about air pollution, water pollution, deforestation and resource depletion are entirely justified. In addition, our planet will be faced with a gigantic amount of waste when – because of the relatively short lifespan – we must write off millions of wind turbines, solar panels and battery packages every year. Technologies that prevent harmful substances from being emitted into the natural environment and technologies that make the reuse of raw materials economically attractive must receive more attention in engineering education.
To make high-efficiency solar cells, the crystal structure of the silicon base material must not only be regular, it must also be provided with impurities (doping). The substances used for this purpose are poorly degradable and mostly bad for the environment. The processing of discarded solar panels (worldwide, this will eventually involve billions of panels) will therefore be costly and may require more energy than they have generated.
Looking at the facts of climate change, measurements show that the Earth has been warming since the Little Ice Age (since 1750). Measurements also show that there is NO climate crisis and that doom scenarios have been very wrong every time. CO2 is not a polluter, on the contrary, CO2 is essential for all life on Earth. More CO2 also makes agriculture produce more. CO2 is therefore an important weapon against the persistent famines in poor countries. Why don’t we hear more about this? And there is another positive climate message. Since 1750, global warming has been very beneficial to people and nature. So, enjoy today’s favorable climate! At some point in the future, we will return to a cold period. Let us prepare for it because mankind is not very resistant to cold.
Affordable and 24/7 available energy is the foundation of a thriving society.
The Green Deal (zero CO2 emissions) leads to significantly higher energy prices for citizens. People with a small budget cannot pay these high costs (‘energy poverty’).Do green politicians realize that in the situation of a blackout, society is totally disrupted? A corona lockdown is child’s play compared to an energy lockdown.
And do these politicians realize that their hydrogen promise is not feasible without nuclear power?
Despite growing doubts from the scientific community, Western governments still see CO2 as the major culprit in climate change. The political credo is therefore that all CO2 emissions must be significantly decreased soonest (‘Net-Zero Society’). How naïf! As mentioned already, a Net-Zero policy means lower agricultural yields and a big disadvantage for a large-scale organic production era. And the hasty replacement of our reliable energy infrastructure by highly subsidized, weather-dependent ‘renewables’ is very foolish.
The past 150 years have shown that affordable and reliable energy is the key to prosperity and well-being. The Netherlands, for instance, has the world’s cleanest and most reliable fossil fuel power plants, but they are now closing them down without suitable fallback options. No surprise that energy prices are rising, inflation is rising fast, and citizens are getting poorer. On top of all this political stupidity, we now see a new disruption due to an even more stupid East-West war. Of course, as usual, Western politicians will not blame themselves, but they will blame climate change.
Honorary Doctor Frans Timmermans has reported in the podcast ‘Reliable Sources’ that Putin’s row with NATO over Ukraine is a smokescreen to camouflage climate change in Russia.
Keep in mind that the much-praised hydrogen solution for storing wind and solar energy involves as much as 60% energy losses (hydrogen does not occur in nature and we must make it ourselves first). This makes wind and solar energy even more expensive. In addition, with a rapidly growing share of intermittent electricity from wind and sun in existing electricity networks, the large-scale use of plug-in cars is irresponsible.
A special message for Universities of Technology. Focus on the energy source of the future: NUCLEAR ENERGY. Nuclear power plants require relatively little space, cause no air pollution, and they make hardly any noise. They are super-reliable, super-safe and provide not only affordable electricity, but also affordable high-temperature steam. Moreover, the waste problem is very well regulated internationally. Progress is moving fast now.
The third-generation nuclear reactors, which are now coming online, have a capacity of about 1500 MW (new EPR reactor in Finland even 1660 MW) and deliver that power 95% of the time with high security of supply. A large wind turbine has a capacity of 10 MW and delivers that power only about 30% of the time with high supply uncertainty. So about 500 space-extensive, landscape-disfiguring, noisy wind turbines with high supply uncertainty are needed for one space-intensive quiet nuclear power plant with high supply security. For densely populated countries like the Netherlands this is not an option! Wind is at most an insignificant niche. The same goes for plastering natural landscapes with solar panels.
A solar field of 1 ha (= 10,000 m2) with standard solar panels produces 500 MWh of intermittent electricity in one year in countries like the Netherlands. A nuclear power plant with a capacity of 1500 MW does that without interruption in less than half an hour! And, also interesting, 1 ha of arable land yields 25 tons of potatoes. And looking at the current housing shortage, on 1 ha we can put 25 homes, each home with a garden. The choice does not seem difficult!
Moreover, there is another positive piece of news about nuclear power. The latest small reactors (SMRs) are being made in the factory. They function as a kind of rechargeable mega-battery. And even better news, the superior Thorium reactor is on its way. This type of reactor may lead to man’s Golden Energy Age.
Honorary doctorate for Frans Timmermans
The foregoing brings me to the honorary doctorate, being awarded to EU Vice-President Frans Timmermans. This politician has done just about everything in the past to abuse science for his political ambitions. He did so by mixing up scientific truth-finding with political power-building. That has led to the glorification of a third-rate climate theory that does not correspond whatsoever to what we observe in nature – meaning that it is scientifically wrong – and that this wrong theory has led to the introduction of a climate policy that has plunged Europe into an energy crisis. And this energy crisis has led Europe into a negative socioeconomic spiral. The Russian invasion of Ukraine occurs at a period that EU’s negotiation position is extremely weak due to its vulnerable energy policy.
III. Toward a truly sustainable future
Universities serve society by creating new scientific knowledge and passing it on to their students. Today, quality universities have become a unique source of wealth in the region where they are located. The higher the scientific level achieved, the greater the contribution to prosperity. Universities must therefore always promote excellence. This means that they should not be content with docility but should strive for leadership in their scientific areas of expertise. It also means that universities must be communities without ideological and political goals. And above all, at universities, the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of research must under no circumstances be negotiable! Universities must keep politics far out of the university gate and never grant sitting politicians an honorary doctorate.
It is time that an open climate debate is started with uncomfortable questions on the agenda, such as:
- Is the current global warming really a crisis?
- Is CO2 really the big culprit?
- Does massive wood burning really contribute to less global warming?
- Why does the output of ‘settled’ climate models not match real observations?
- Why do universities still go ahead with supporting green energy policies, while these policies will lead to severe poverty? Why did universities not make a plea for nuclear technology? Why was such a debate forbidden at COP26*?
Finally, to judge the costs and benefits of any energy source, we must evaluate the entire chain: from construction of the energy production facility all the way to consumption of the energy. Favorable properties of one specific segment in the chain may never lead to the selection of an energy source.
Dr. A.J. Guus Berkhout is Professor-emeritus of Geophysics,
President of CLINTEL and
Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
* CLINTEL proposed the IPCC to organize such an open climate debate, but they were not interested.