My Full-Scale Global Focus

A hand holds a mini globe

(Source: Ismail Sadiron/EyeEm/Getty Images via Harvard Business Review)

Things are happening around each one of us on all scales; we better pay attention. Two weeks ago (November 21st), I started a series of blogs focused on what I can do after my approaching retirement in order to continue to be productive (for my sake–not for the sake of the world, although the two are loosely interconnected). I was hoping to get some input from you about these decisions. My focus, in my two previous blogs on the issue, was on using the IoT (Internet of Things) to help retrofit old infrastructures such as housing, schools, and hospitals in a way that aids with environmental mitigation and adaptation to climate change. When I raised such issues with colleagues and friends, I got answers in the form of  “You don’t need IoT for such use and you don’t need to give advice to anybody about how to use it; just try to improve the insulation of the structures to get more economical heating and cooling.” I think that we can do better.

Taking housing as a relatively “simple” example, actions such as improving insulation are helpful. However, better insulation doesn’t equip a building for the quick resilience needed in response to high-frequency or time-sensitive events. Depending on occupancy (leaving for the weekend or having emergency guests) and major weather events, our energy needs shift. We need economical ways to quickly and efficiently adapt to these changing circumstances. I think that the key IoT technology that can help here is “smart” energy metering. Such technology exists today, but it needs major improvements (many of which are probably already on the way). I thought that I would use this blog to focus on this technology.

However, as usual, current events intervened enough to convince me to change my plans. So, today I’m refocusing on the changing reality that affects me, and I’ll return to the issue of changing technology in future blogs when reality feels a bit more settled. In this decision I was driven by the following reality changes:

The first three subjects, with the links included, are now global events that have a major impact on me but on which I can not have any meaningful impact. I am left with a need to explain the connection between those three and the last one on the list, over which I do have influence.

The two climate-related courses that I taught this semester have a common element in their structure, resulting in an important common element in their final examinations. The first half of the semester is dedicated to the basic interdisciplinary background of climate change. Neither of these two courses has prerequisites, so it is my responsibility to fill this gap. The second part of the semester is dedicated to presenting developments based on recently published material. Recent reports probe their comprehension not through their text but through their data presentation. I give students a choice of two out of four graphs on different topics and ask them to write everything they know about the context of the data. This semester’s report is a recent one from IEA (International Energy Agency). It attracted considerable attention with its predictions that 2030 will see the peak of global fossil fuel use, after which renewable and nuclear energies will take over to complete the global energy transition. It is a long (350 pages), comprehensive report with many sections and figures. To avoid being hated by my students, I am limiting the scope of the final to only a small, manageable list of sections. The key question in such a report, on which I spend some time in class, is how the report tries to predict the future. This report uses three scenarios to try to predict the future of global energy use. The three scenarios are abbreviated as STEPS, APS, and NZE, and their  definitions are given below:

  • STEPS – The Stated Policies Scenario (takes into account the measures that have actually been put into effect or are at least being implemented in order to achieve announced energy and climate policy goals).
  • APS – The Announced Pledges Scenario(takes into account all climate commit­ments made by governments worldwide, including the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)).
  • NZE – The Net Zero Emissions by 2050

The NZE scenario is self-explanatory: achieving global completion of the energy transition away from net carbon emissions.

graphs comparing use of different fuels according to scenarios

Figure 2 – Global total energy demand by fuel and scenario, 2010-2050

Figure 2, taken from the middle of the report, shows the essence of the report’s conclusions in terms of fossil fuels peaking around 2030 and the differences in using the three scenarios as predictive instruments. One concrete example of the sensitivities of the predictive tools is in territory familiar to all of us – the changes in governments and policies that have taken place between the Paris COP21 meeting in 2015 and now. At least in democratic governments, changes in governments can lead to relatively high-frequency changes in policies that often lead to starkly different futures in which changing building insulation will not help much and IoT is needed for a faster response. Future blogs will expand on this topic.

COP28 started officially last Thursday, November 30th, and is scheduled to conclude next week, on Tuesday, December 12th  (the same day as next week’s blog post). The finals for the two climate-related courses are scheduled for December 18th and 19th. The final decisions of the COP28 meetings will be adopted at the conclusion of these meetings. Almost all available public communications tools are now full of news and information about climate change and I strongly encourage my students to follow as much of it as they can. To help in this, I am modifying my rules for their final to include one graph generated through the COP28 meetings. Next week’s blog is designed to help them prepare by providing some graphs that will be among the possible choices in the final.

One of the two courses in which we discuss climate change is targeted at honor students as part of their requirements. The second half of this honors course is to research whether students can (or are willing to) help to introduce the Climate Action Plan into the now-updated College Strategic Plan in my school. To help the students in their project I wrote 4 blogs starting on October 10th, this year, that address some aspects of this issue. Such an effort is part of the more general concept of using campus changes as a laboratory for various courses that I discussed in earlier blogs (search for Campus as Lab).

On October 7th this year, an attack by Hamas on Israel resulted in 1,200 Israeli deaths (mostly in Israeli villages not far from Gaza), and the kidnapping of more than 200 Israelis. Not surprisingly, Israel has retaliated with its full force, with three stated objectives: returning the kidnapped Israelis, destroying Hamas as a military and governing organization, and restoring security to Israel. The retaliation has included massive bombardments that have killed thousands of Gazans. It is not surprising that these events have raised massive demonstrations throughout the world, with major participation on university campuses. My campus is no exception.

My background during the Holocaust has been described in earlier blogs. In September 1945, immediately after WWII, I went to Israel (British Palestine at the time) as a refugee. I grew up there, all my formal education was acquired there, and I have friends and family there. I care for Israel but I never included political discussions in my class and almost never mentioned the conflict in my classes. The distance between Gaza and NYC is close to 6,000 miles (more than 9,000 km) yet, almost every student has a strong opinion about the situation. Many of them have joined demonstrations for one side or another. The resolution of this conflict will have no direct impact on most of their lives. Mitigation and adaptation of anthropogenic climate change, on the other hand, will have a strong impact on the lives of almost all students, worldwide. My question to my students was whether they could find and mobilize some of the same political enthusiasm that they show for the remote conflict between Israel and Hamas to help minimize the impact of climate change. I will report the answer to this question after the end of the semester.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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4 Responses to My Full-Scale Global Focus

  1. Kai Wen Chen says:

    Hi professor Tomkiewicz,

    The idea of redirecting some of this political enthusiasm toward minimizing climate change is very intriguing. This is something that I’ve often thought about in my own time (even if not explicitly in the context of international political affairs). Why can’t we redirect our interests from such political affairs towards some that could better humanity as a whole? As what I’m about to say may be very contentious, I warn against the validity of what I say now as a reflection of myself and future ideals. In a Medical Ethics class that I took this semester, the topic of the death sentence was discussed. Notably, how such a sentence could potentially be carried out without doing harm to others; For instance, no one should need to know that they were responsible for the death of another human. And, this led to discussions about different methods of execution. In the end, I left class that day with a slightly better understanding of why execution needs to be humane but I was also left with a question: ‘Why do we make the effort to make executions ‘humane’?’ At the core, I think coming up with ‘humane’ methods of execution is a selfish way to maintain our own ideals of what it means to be human and moral. Falling in line with this idea, I think it’s very easy for us to subscribe to the protest of these foreign conflicts because it is a shortcut to mending ideas of our own morality.

    I do not write this all to say that we do not have our priorities in order. Quite the opposite actually. I hope to convey the idea that we, as humans, should most certainly respond when the ideas state leaders put the greater humanity at risk. However, this should not come at the cost of detracting from issues that are too foreign from OUR present moment to be of grave concern. That is to say, even if climate change doesn’t viscerally afflict us to the level of protest, we should -at the very least- recognize that it IS a very present issue and (actually) take steps towards a solution.

  2. Zoe P. Davis says:

    Hi Professor,

    I would like to respond to your thoughts about student involvement and activism.

    My favorite thing about your class is that you constantly remind us that our voices matter. When some of us included Fridays For Future – a student/youth-led strike movement for Climate Justice – in our presentations, you said that it was, “very important.” You also told us about our school newspaper and encouraged us to reach out to them if there were any issues pressing on our hearts. Not every professor does that, but you did.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but as a student, I understand how important my voice is. I understand that I have the ability to push for change wherever it is needed. I think that most of my friends and schoolmates would agree. It is true that Gaza is miles and miles away, but I am a global citizen. When innocent lives are taken – when maternity centers, hospitals, public spaces, etc are bombed – I care. Climate change IS a direct threat to my life, but I do not need to be directly impacted by an issue to care about it. If I only cared about the issues that impacted me – if I refused to pay attention to anything or anyone else – I would be doing a great disservice to my neighbor, who I have been instructed to love.

    I’m sure you understand this 🙂

    I do agree though, that I don’t see a lot of my peers posting about the climate. The conversation on Climate Change should NEVER slow down. As you said, it is an immediate threat – an absolute danger to all of our lives and not a lot of people understand that. The choices that we make matter. Students are capable of so much (Fridays for Future has shown us that haha). I promise to never forget that. I aim to be part of the solution, not the problem.


  3. Hello Professor!

    I agree greatly with the comment above. It feels as though no one seems to post nearly as much as they should about the climate change issue, especially as it has been impacting most of us our entire lives (and even our parents lives). This is definitely something that everyone (the youth especially) should begin to pay attention to.

    Nikita Bangiyev

  4. VingGa Kong says:

    Hi Professor,

    I like how you included the current conflict with Israel and Palestine at the end. I have always thought this myself, as I can see that many people have very strong opinions regarding this issue. Even though climate change has been impacting our lives for a long period of time, there is still not enough recognition for people to actually start to create change even though it will directly impact their lives. Everyone posts about the Israel/Palestine conflict on social media, but I have yet to seen someone continuously post about climate change and what we should do to combat it. I believe that it is time we see climate change as important as the current issue because the whole world is in danger.

    Thank you,

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