A Challenging Climate for our Energy Needs

By Janet McMillan, C2ST volunteer and graduate student in chemistry at Northwestern University

As the world population grows and the developing world gets richer, the global demand for energy is projected to double by 2050.

The challenge we are all faced with, Dr. Maria Zuber lays out, is to develop rational, pragmatic and, importantly, accelerated energy solutions, all while considering the growing energy needs of the developing world.  Dr. Zuber, a professor of geophysics at MIT and Chair of the National Science Board, is a prolific researcher and advocate for climate policy, quickly makes obvious both the seriousness and urgency of this challenge.

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The ten hottest years on record have been in the last 20 years, since 1998.  This observed temperature rise goes far beyond historic fluctuations due to natural changes in climate patterns, and correlates exactly with the onset of the Industrial Revolution – when CO2 emissions began rising dramatically.  While the science gives a clear answer on why global warming is occurring, the consequences of these temperature changes are far less clear cut. Predicting the effects of these large temperature fluctuations on weather patterns is incredibly complex and challenging. One factor that is straightforward to predict, however, is wind patterns, which are shifting in a way that will cause more and more hurricanes like Irene and Sandy to hit the densely populated northeastern seaboard.

To avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming, it is imperative to develop technologies that satisfy our growing energy needs in a carbon neutral way.  Many of these emerging technologies are being driven forward by research such as the work conducted by Dr. Zuber’s colleagues at MIT, work ranging from developing more affordable Lithium ion batteries, to better batteries for seasonal solar energy storage. Beyond wind and solar energy, Dr. Zuber emphasizes that expanding nuclear electricity generation is necessary to reduce our carbon emissions in a meaningful way.

Dr. Zuber reminds us, however, that developing new technological solutions is only one side of a vastly complex problem. Large scale implementation of solar and wind electricity in the United States is hampered by the highly centralized structure of the electricity grid. The free market just isn’t going to phase out fossil fuels and restructure this grid on its own at a timescale relevant to global warming: to do this will require carefully crafted policies of heavy investment in getting clean energy developed and deployed.  Better public education is also needed alongside this investment: for example, because electricity is generated from coal plants in many parts of the country, what are commonly thought of as green solutions like driving an electric vehicle isn’t always better for carbon emissions. If you live in the Midwest, chances are you are better off driving a standard gasoline vehicle, as your electric car is likely being charged with energy from burning coal.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges laid out by Dr. Zuber, there is cause for optimism amidst the catastrophic threat. Businesses and local governments are taking small steps to invest in renewable energy and educate the public. In Massachusetts, every 9th grader is required to calculate their household’s carbon footprint, giving the generation who will live with most of the consequences of our current emissions even more cause to make small but impactful changes. Despite the alarming nature of our predicament, we still have a window of time to act before we hit the 2-degree-Celsius temperature rise that will bring about the most catastrophic consequences of global warming.

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