An Evening With Ernest Moniz

by Richard T. Stuebi

Last week, the MIT Club of Northeast Ohio hosted a talk at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland by Professor Ernest Moniz, the Director of the MIT Energy Initiative, and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Over the course of about an hour of spirited commentary and responses to questions, Prof. Moniz made a number of interesting points. A few highlights:

  1. Arguably the key challenge facing the energy sector is the virtual monopoly that petroleum has on the transportation sector. Producing more non-petroleum options/alternatives for transportation will be pivotal to a better future. By virtue of its considerable domestic resource and lower carbon intensity, natural gas is an attractive option — either as a transportation fuel directly (e.g., CNG), or in generating electricity to support electrified vehicles.
  2. One must never lose sight that energy is a capital-intensive commodity industry subject to “complex politics”, which in turn means that the asset base changes very slowly, and (unlike other economic sectors such as consumer products) is driven first-and-foremost by considerations of cost. Technologies exist today to address most of our challenges, but “inconveniently” they are considerably more expensive, which is not attractive to either customers or politicians.
  3. Although more study at greater detail is always helpful, climate scientists have erred in framing public debates via increasingly sophisticated analysis. Over a century ago, predictions were made about carbon dioxide levels and planetary impact that are a good first-order approximation of what is being evidenced today. Rather than being required to prove that human-induced climate change is occurring, the burden of proof should be on others to show convincingly that human-induced climate change isn’t occurring — that second- and third-order effects (such as feedback loops and consideration of other variables) are somehow dominating the first-order linkages between carbon dioxide concentrations and average planetary temperatures.
  4. The exact future impacts of climate change are unknown, but the distribution of probable planet-wide average outcomes is fairly well described. An increase of 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 — what many consider to be the point beyond which planetary impacts become much more problematic — is on the lower-end of the range of possibilities even if global per capita carbon dioxide emissions are cut by 80% from today’s levels. If status quo is maintained, there’s virtually no statistical chance of containing temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.
  5. From a technological standpoint, advancements in all forms of low-carbon electricity generation — nuclear, renewables, and coal with carbon sequestration — will need to be pursued intensively. In addition, because some amount of future climate change is virtually predetermined given our past history, adaptation strategies and technologies should get much more attention. Although premature to employ, and scary because of the principle of unintended consequences, serious research should at least begin on planetary engineering approaches (e.g., deliberate emissions of sulfates) to offset the effects of an increased level of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
  6. The recent climate negotiations at Copenhagen never had much of a chance of producing a meaningful agreement without U.S. Congressional action. Hopefully, Congress will act to pass good legislation on climate change, because the prospect of EPA regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act is “horrific”.

In Prof. Moniz’s view, there is significant urgency for action, and a good chance of a not-very-good outcome. But, all we can do is the best we can do, so we have to move forward in a mood of determined optimism.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

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