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Speaking out about climate change is urgent in our ‘crucial century’

The approach of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in early December has global leaders from every sector thinking about technology opportunities to help meet greenhouse-gas-emissions reduction goals in an effort to mitigate climate change.

Photonics at work: A schematic illustration of
electromagnetic characterization and detection of
pollutants on a sea surface, in an SPIE Newsroom
article by researchers at Lab-STICC, CNRS, ENSTA Bretagne.
Photonics technologies play an important part in enabling and driving applications that support sustainable development and the green economy. Researchers, engineers, and developers in the optics and photonic community are continually finding new ways to enhance our lives with these technologies.

But there is another sort of opportunity for the photonics community to take up: speaking out about the urgency to take action, particularly in the face of climate-change skepticism or denial.

UK Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees is among scientists who are doing so. Framing the issue in a recent commentary in the Financial Times, he characterized this century as the first in the Earth’s 45-million-year history when “one species -- ours -- can determine the fate of the entire biosphere.”

While there may be some uncertainties in climate science, Rees said, it is certain that future generations will be affected by existing public policies and others implemented in our lifetimes.

Anyone who cares about those generations -- the grandchildren of today’s young children and others living in the next century and beyond -- “will deem it worth making an investment now to protect them from worst-case scenarios,” Rees said.

Given that, he said, the conversation needs to be based on “the best knowledge that the 21st century has to offer.”

Today’s knowledge includes work toward photonics-driven prospects such as:


Policy makers and non-scientists are supporting efforts to grow our knowledge even further, and working to strengthen the investment for future generations.

Governmental agencies and university departments collaborate in competitions such as the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. Teams design, build, and operate houses powered by solar energy, and that are affordable, energy efficient, attractive, and easy to live in. Congratulations to this year’s winner, Stevens Institute of Technology!

Citizen scientists get involved through activities such as the recent iSPEX-EU project. Using an add-on optical sensor with their smartphones, people across Europe measured and reported on aerosols during a 45-day period. The crowd-sourced approach provided information at times and locations not covered by current air pollution monitoring efforts.

As the world gears up for the climate conference in Paris next month, it will be wise to consider, as Rees has said, that “Whatever happens in this uniquely crucial century will resonate into the remote future and perhaps far beyond the Earth.”

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