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The Energy/Climate-Change Challenge and the Role of Nuclear Energy in Meeting It

10/25/2010 4:00 PM Wong Auditorium
The Honorable John P. Holdren, '65, SM '66, Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President

Description: In a meaty lecture that serves as a concise and comprehensive primer on the twin challenge of energy and environment, John Holdren lays out the difficult options for contending with a world rapidly overheating.

"There is no question the world is growing hotter," says Holdren, "and we do have a pretty good handle on influences on climate that are changing the average temperature of the Earth," he says. Since the mid"19th century, there has been a 20"fold increase in the world's use of energy, the preponderance of which comes from burning fossil fuels. The U.S. is 82% dependent on these fuels, and the rest of the world is racing to catch up. If all nations continue business as usual, says Holdren, by 2030 energy use will increase by about 60% over 2005 levels, with fossil fuels comprising about 70% of world energy use. While there is legitimate concern about the economic, political and security risks of fossil fuel dependence, he says, CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions that result from fossil fuel combustion pose an immense, immediate threat to the planet. From urban and regional air pollution to massive wildfires and fierce storms that bring coastal inundation, dramatic climate disruption is upon us and demands action now.

In order to avoid the biggest risks, such as a temperature increase of several degrees centigrade, we must "sharply change the ratio of energy used essentially immediately," Holdren says. But it would cost around $15 trillion to convert the world's fossil fuel dependent energy system into something less destructive, and this conversion would take too long, even if nations could agree on an alternative system. So we are confronted with striking a balance between mitigation and adaptation. Scientists think stabilizing CO2 emissions at 450 parts per million by 2030 might give humanity a shot at avoiding a planet with temperatures as high as those 30 million years ago (when crocodiles swam off Greenland and palm trees swayed in Wyoming).

Looking to cut CO2 emissions drastically, the Obama Administration is intent on achieving changes in vehicle fuel efficiency, promoting public transportation and other measures. But realistically, adaptation must also come into play, including changes in agricultural practices, engineering defenses against rising coastal waters, and warding off tropical diseases. The longer we wait, says Holdren, the more expensive mitigation and adaptation become.

The wrenching changes needed across the board to reach the ambitious goal of 450 ppm require "barrier"busting incentives," and cannot be accomplished without eliminating "perverse incentives" that encourage business as usual. Holdren believes carbon pricing is essential and inevitable, despite the current climate in Washington. Nuclear power has a critical role to play in this transformation -- including the elusive goal of fusion reactors -- but it must be part of a larger surge in R&D spending on new energy technology ($15 billion versus the current $4 billion per year). The political will to meet this challenge remains a sticking point, and so scientists must do a better job explaining climate change to people, says Holdren. Since there is no silver bullet for the problem, he concludes, "we have got to do it all. If you look at the magnitude of the challenge and the amount by which we must reduce the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to useful energy supplied to the economy, we can leave no stone unturned, and that's what we're trying to get done."

About the Speaker(s): John P. Holdren, President Obama's "Science Czar," previously served as Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, as well as professor in Harvard's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Director of the independent, nonprofit Woods Hole Research Center. From 1973 to 1996 he was on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, where he co"founded and co"led the interdisciplinary graduate"degree program in energy and resources.

Holdren holds advanced degrees in aerospace engineering and theoretical plasma physics from MIT and Stanford and has specialized in energy technology and policy, global climate change, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as foreign member of the Royal Society of London. A former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his awards include a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship, the John Heinz Prize in Public Policy, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and the Volvo Environment Prize. He served from 1991 until 2005 as a member of the MacArthur Foundation's board of trustees.

Host(s): School of Engineering, Nuclear Science and Engineering

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