MIT’s Susan Hockfield on the Global Energy Challenge

22 02 2008

I thought I would share some opening remarks of MIT president’s Susan Hockfield, given last week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

With all the fossil fuel denialism out there, it’s sometimes good to remember that some world science leaders have their priorities straight : free access to knowledge, research in renewable (and scalable) energy, efficiency and sustainable development.

Her address can be found here in RealVideo format. (< 15 min)

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3 responses

25 02 2008
JimR

Hi JEG,

Very interesting remarks, although I’m sad to see your rhetoric regarding “fossil fuel denialism”. Even among those pushing for action there is amazingly little focus on clean, renewable energy. If we wish to talk of “denial” then many are in “denial” that we are currently dependent on fossil fuels for our energy.

To illustrate this we can look at the circus in Bali last December where thousands of politicians, former politicians, scientists, environmental groups and members of the media spent 2 weeks in Bali with one goal – to get the US to accept binding limits while still exempting the world’s largest and fastest growing emitters. The focus of the Bali conference was about binding limits, carbon taxes and cap and trade schemes. What was missing was any focus on future energy. There was not even a push to actually lower global emissions as many were critical that Japan, Canada and Russia joined the US in calling for action from developing nations such as China, India, Brazil and South Korea. How can anything be accomplished by not considering future energy needs while exempting the world’s largest and fastest growing emitters?

I think if you put away divisive words like “denialism” you might find that while the AGWers focus on punitive action against those they choose to blame for climate change many who are skeptical would welcome an energy policy that considered future energy needs. Supplying energy in the future seems to be absent from the agendas of most environmental groups as well as climate change talks where the only focus is on CO2 reduction without consideration for energy needs.

I think the global energy challenge that we face should be common ground for all.

28 02 2008
El Niño

Hi JimR,
thank you for your thoughtful comments.
The word “denialism”, though upsetting to some, is there to remind us – all of us, regardless of political leanings – that we have for the most part buried our head in the sand on the issue of the global energy challenge.
I agree with you that environmental groups are sometimes surprisingly naïve about what it would take to go the green route. They are no less in denial of the real issue that AGW-deniers.
In fact, I am preparing a post on a related issue that bypasses all climate concerns : life after peak oil . Some oil industry leaders – who generally don’t seem to give a bloody damn about our environment, except for a 1 page add in The Economist from time to time – are acutely aware that the current path of fossil fuel gobbling is materially, geostrategically and economically unsustainable. This without climate change even coming into the picture. Some have sized up the immensity of the global energy challenge and are using their brains to come up with a solution. This makes me hopeful that we can find sustainable alternatives even without much environmental good will, and it’s the result that counts.

Now, I’d be happy to hear about your Bali experience. Were you there ? I was talking to a US Bali delegate last week and got a seemingly different impression from yours…
Do you not think the Clean Development Mechanism (still largely experimental…), qualifies as an attempt to address the problem of developing nations ? We argue about its efficiency, but I don’t think it is fair to say the issue is ignored.

As for “we won’t do anything if China doesn’t”, I’ve always found it pretty childish. “You go first” never goes very far. But as much as i would yearn for an environmental justice, I now it is a utopia. More realistic is that countries developing on dirty coal are seeing the cost of their pollution rise through the roof and may well decide to curb the problem, again, without much regards for climate change – just public health. At that point, if the US (or the EU) had a clean and affordable energy technology to offer as a substitute for the coal burning hubris, i like to think they would get a MAJOR return on investment…. but I am no investor.

So in my mind it all comes back to the race for those technologies, and kudos to MIT , Caltech , Columbia, or even my own GaTech for pushing that agenda forward. Are you aware of other good initiatives ?

Thanks for stopping by, I really value your input.

5 03 2008
JimR

Hi JEG,

Sorry for the delay, I’ve been traveling attending to some family issues.

I think we agree on the “denialism”, but in general those who use that word aren’t talking about those who bury their heads in the sand about global energy. The word is most commonly used to describe those skeptical of AGW. It’s an emotion invoking word that has no meat… it’s simply used to convince people that the science is settled and anyone who doesn’t agree is in denial. I would say that especially the true believers have their heads buried firmly in the sand regarding the global energy challenge. It is my opinion that energy policies would garner widespread support which the current proposals seem to ignore. It is results that count… but an informed person isn’t going to support the current schemes that are all about taxes and binding limits on only a few nations. They are an incredible waste of time and resources that are really just a noble and futile gesture.

While I wasn’t at the conferences in Bali I followed the reports and saw nothing that even attempted to address either global energy or total emissions but simply focused on “rich nations” accepting binding limits. The fact that they repeatedly used the term “rich nations” while exempting the world’s largest emitter is very telling. It’s not simply that we shouldn’t do anything unless China does… it’s the rather obvious fact that accepting binding limits with no future energy strategy while exempting China will damage the economy and provide no tangible results. On the other hand if Bali had been an energy conference and focused on a global energy future that moved away from fossil fuels (and emissions) then it might have had a chance of succeeding. We need to work towards a sustainable future and taxes and binding limits don’t do that.

As far as the proposed Clean Development Mechanism, I don’t think it qualifies as an attempt to address the problem of developing nations. Not even close. China is considered a developing nation and yet they are now the number one emitter of CO2, they are still growing rapidly and they have HUGE trade surpluses. Does it make sense for other nations to accept some arbitrary binding limit and then have their goal offset by spending money on energy in China? Or moving to the other end of the spectrum does it make sense for nations to have their goals offset by spending money on energy in African nations that contribute little to global emissions? While it may be a noble thing to help these poor nations it isn’t going to impact global emission or address future energy needs.

Kudos to anyone who focuses on future energy since that isn’t a part of current strategies. Unfortunately most simply say that looking for new technology to resolve this issue is a pipe dream and we should make (futile) cuts now. Perhaps there could be common ground by focusing strategies that moved away from fossil fuels and focused on global energy needs since that would address the “life after peak oil” issue as well as global emissions as well as pollution. I also think that most of the wars of the 21st century will be fought over energy so a clean, renewable energy source would be good for the national security of all nations.

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