Catch me if you can!

Thursday, 19 June 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In my view, when movies are based on true stories, there is a lot of interest as there is no second guessing the director or the scriptwriter – you can get absorbed in the content provided. The story of Frank W. Abagnale, which is a true story of a real fake, certainly makes for interesting reading and is a testimony to the statement ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. The story was picked by Hollywood and Leonardo DiCaprio played the lead role with Steven Spielberg as the Director. The story is also about utilising someone’s innate talents judiciously as Frank Abagnale finally was absorbed as a highly-respected officer at the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). The respect of course is for his skills. He, through multiple impersonations – moving from co-piloting Pan Am jets and practicing law without a license to supervising resident of a hospital, college sociology professor and an accomplished forger – challenged society.   A challenge to society None of those exploits were easy and straightforward but he was challenging society at large to catch him if we can! Society did eventually and he paid the penalty prior to exchanging his role from a law breaker to a law enforcer. An interesting story indeed and the potential gullibility of anyone of us comes to light through his escapades. One thought that crosses my mind as one reads this story is, do we have a chance or an opportunity to benefit from the innate skills of a person who perhaps may have used his skills not in the right way initially and for some time? Once caught and with punishment, branded for life should not be the way forward when handling miscreants, especially at a young age. Today we do face a global ‘catch me if you can and please do something’ scenario which was effectively put into a film documentary by Al Gore, ‘The Inconvenient Truth’. The documentary was a smashing hit and went on to win an Oscar and also contributed to Al Gore’s Nobel peace prize. A similar documentary film ‘11th Hour’ was made by the same Leonardo DiCaprio. These documentaries are well worth watching again and again. It is about real issues arising from the increasing effects of carbon dioxide which appear to be creeping up, while all over the world we talk about arresting the rise and forcing a declining trend.     Reducing runaway molecules Unlike catching an errant individual, this task of reducing runaway molecules is becoming quite challenging and difficult. The value has crept up continuously and while it made some headlines when it passed the 400, today with the value constantly above 400 one cannot hear even a whimper. One individual – Charles Keeling – started monitoring this molecule all by him after designing the initial method for accurately determining carbon dioxide in air. Since that original effort, the place he has set up in Hawaii continues to monitor and record carbon dioxide levels. Being a structure with three atoms, ‘CO2’ is eligible to be a principal greenhouse gas. We do not seek the reduction of carbon dioxide to zero. We merely like to get the values down to pre-industrial levels if possible or a value thereabout. The value as it was measured and averaged for the month up to 4 June is 401.88. A decade ago the value stood at 380. When William Shakespeare was writing his books, the value stood around 280. The numerical value represents the number of carbon dioxide molecules per every million molecules entering lungs. As seen, the value has been going up slowly. Thanks to the presence of a certain quantity of the gas, the world has been made habitable. That is why we do not complain against the green house effect but are worried about climate change and global warming. The excess is making life intolerable and we are in the pursuit of controlling the excess.   The Keeling Curve Frank Abagnale was meticulous when planning his criminal misdemeanours. Scientists too have made enough effort in trying to understand the effect of this runaway molecule. When Charles Keeling started measuring CO2, the year was 1958. He developed his own method of testing of a compound that was only present in the atmosphere in trace quantities. There was no particular serious reason for his choice though he stuck to his observations meticulously. In fact the US National Science Foundation refused to extend funds stating that the conclusions from his observations were predictable and as such not worth supporting. Today the famous curve of carbon dioxide measurements is known as the Keeling Curve and his son is continuing where his father left off. This curve and its data points are crucial in the fight against global warming as it is a curve that serves for global warning.   Sequestration One way of catching is sequestration. One can use both natural methods as well as technically complex artificial methods. Sequestration may mean storing carbon dioxide underground in geological formations. Easiest way is having more trees though it is not an easy thing to increase plant cover rapidly. Green canopies can be effective sinks for carbon dioxide. The Keeling Curve too indicates the effect when green cover increases during the spring and summer in the northern hemisphere. As the influence of humans spreads, forest cover had taken a beating. In Sri Lanka the value is perhaps now at an all-time low. Due to the conflict in north and east, the rate of deforestation in those regions was low. Today the story may be different. The Government however has pledged to increase the cover to 35% - a laudable move indeed. The most infamous loss perhaps was when the tea estates sprung up in highlands during the colonial times. However, how can one argue for reforestation of those areas again in lieu of tea? Of course a more prudent approach is no more clearances above a certain elevation and subsequently adhering to the ruling.   Climate change Catching up to the culprit has to be through the effort of many. Many years ago in 1986 it was the scientist Arrhenius who did a simple calculation using the knowledge that existed during his day that burning of coal, etc. would result in carbon dioxide and that in turn would heat the atmosphere. He is credited with the original theoretical elucidation of global warming. His calculation indicated that heating up would be significant only after 1,000 years and he wrote that down and shelved his concerns. However, in recent times we are witnessing issues at a rate and this situation is quite unnerving. The issue that we face is how to mobilise masses for action in the climate front. We have had scares that needed concerted action by the global community. The management of the ‘ozone hole’ is a strong example. The international community agreed to move on replacing or production of CFCs – chlorofluorocarbons. Once the issue becomes clear, I see no reason for not getting everyone on board as the request for action is to embark on a journey which is going to benefit all. However, climate change has been less clear cut than the ‘ozone hole’ and that is impacting this meeting of minds!   Way forward As we have progressed through our journey of evolution, we have moved from cannibals to globalised netizens. The journey of mankind and especially the latter part has been quite impactful on our abode. The single most issue that has surfaced has been the climate change brought about by the manmade greenhouse gas emissions. All of us are not equally guilty and some are not guilty at all! It is interesting that some who are going to be worst affected are those who had no contribution whatsoever to the issue. One may complain that nature has not been fair and balanced in retribution, though complaining would not do. We can adopt strategies that actually ensure that even at this late hour the path that we take is different but responsible. Thus, we will not contribute even by a tiny amount but would be building our resilience and that is important. The Sri Lankan way forward should be with that mentality. If Sri Lanka moves on to replace fossil fuels with renewable for the transport sector, that would herald a major environmental step change. It would directly change our picture of greenhouse gas contributions as today it is the transport sector which has become a leading contributor to our nation’s carbon footprint. So in our own way we should do our best to catch and tame what we can! [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on]

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