Rethinking Climate Change

Rethinking Climate Change
Apr 21, 2011

About the Speakers


MODERATOR: JOHN REILLY Co-director, MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan

Energy, environmental, and agricultural economist John Reilly focuses on understanding the role of human activities as a contributor to global environmental change and the effects of environmental change on society and the economy. A key element of his work is the integration of economic models of the global economy as it represents human activity with models of biophysical systems including the ocean, atmosphere, and terrestrial vegetation. By understanding the complex interactions of human society with our planet, the goal is to aid in the design of policies that can effectively limit the contribution of human activity to environmental change, to facilitate adaptation to unavoidable change, and to understand the consequences of the deployment of large scale energy systems that will be needed to meet growing energy needs.


KERRY EMANUEL '76, PHD '78 Breene M. Kerr Professor of Atmospheric Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric Science and Planetary Sciences, MIT

Kerry Emanuel has been on the faculty of MIT since 1981. He was previously at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on tropical meteorology and climate, with a specialty in hurricane physics. His interests also include cumulus convection, and advanced methods of sampling the atmosphere in aid of numerical weather prediction. He is the author or co-author of more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and two books, including Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, (2005, Oxford University Press).

Emanuel received his S.B. in Earth and Planetary Sciences from MIT, and earned a Ph.D. in Meteorology from MIT in 1978.


RONALD G. PRINN SCD '71 TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT Director, Center for Global Change Science; Co-Director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

Ronald Prinn's research interests incorporate the chemistry, dynamics, and physics of the atmospheres of the Earth and other planets, and the chemical evolution of atmospheres. He is currently involved in a wide range of projects in atmospheric chemistry and biogeochemistry, planetary science, climate science, and integrated assessment of science and policy regarding climate change.

He leads the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE), in which the rates of change of the concentrations of the trace gases involved in the greenhouse effect and ozone depletion have been measured continuously over the globe for the past two decades. He is pioneering the use of inverse methods, which use such measurements and three-dimensional models to determine trace gas emissions and understand atmospheric chemical processes, especially those processes involving the oxidation capacity of the atmosphere. Prinn is also working extensively with social scientists to link the science and policy aspects of global change. He has made significant contributions to the development of national and international scientific research programs in global change.

Prinn is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a recipient of AGU's Macelwane Medal, and a Fellow of the AAAS. He co-authored Planets and their Atmospheres: Origin and Evolution, and edited Global Atmospheric-Biospheric Chemistry. Prinn received his Sc.D. in 1971 from MIT; and his M.S. and B.S. from the University of Auckland, New Zealand.


CHRIS KNITTEL William Barton Rogers Professor of Energy Economics, MIT Sloan School of Management

Christopher Knittel joined the faculty at MIT in 2011, having taught previously at UC Davis and Boston University. Knittel received his B.A. in economics and political science from the California State University, Stanislaus in 1994 (summa cum laude), an M.A. in economics from UC Davis in 1996, and a Ph.D. in economics from UC Berkeley in 1999. His research focuses on environmental economics, industrial organization, and applied econometrics. He is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in the Productivity, Industrial Organization, and Energy and Environmental Economics groups. Knittel is an associate editor of The American Economic Journal -- Economic Policy, The Journal of Industrial Economics and Journal of Energy Markets. His research has appeared in The American Economic Review, The Review of Economics and Statistics, The Journal of Industrial Economics, The Energy Journal and other academic journals.


ERNEST J. MONIZ Director, MIT Energy Initiative Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Co-director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment

Ernest J. Moniz has served on the MIT faculty since 1973. He was Under Secretary of the Department of Energy from October 1997 until January 2001. He also served from 1995 to 1997 as Associate Director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.

At MIT, Moniz was Head of the Department of Physics and Director of the Bates Linear Accelerator Center. His principal research contributions have been in theoretical nuclear physics, particularly in advancing nuclear reaction theory at high energy.

Moniz received a B.S. degree in physics from Boston College, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Stanford University, and honorary doctorates from the University of Athens and the University of Erlangen-Nurenburg. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Humboldt Foundation, and the American Physical Society and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Moniz received the 1998 Seymour Cray HPCC Industry Recognition Award for vision and leadership in advancing scientific simulation.


SARAH SLAUGHTER '82, SM '87, PHD '91 DSenior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management Associate Director for Buildings & Infrastructure, MIT Energy Initiative

Sarah Slaughter focuses on issues of sustainability and disaster resiliency in infrastructure and the built environment. She currently coordinates the Sustainable Business Laboratory (S-Lab) and the Sloan Sustainability Initiative.

She was CEO of MOCA Systems, Inc., a company she founded based on research she conducted as a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT. She was previously a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Lehigh University, and worked with the Center for Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS). Slaughter is currently on the Board on Infrastructure and the Constructed Environment in the National Research Council, National Academies of Science, and Vice Chair of the Committee on Sustainable Infrastructure.

About the Lecture

At a time of great political paralysis around climate change internationally -- and apparent backtracking by American politicians and the public on the science of global warming itself -- there are "reasons to rethink our approach," says moderator John Reilly. He hopes to "create a civil discourse that helps us understand better the varied concerns of people on the topic."

Panelists sketch the past, present and future of climate change. Kerry Emanuel reviews the science of climate change, noting that the greenhouse effect discovery dates back to the 18th century, and that by the end of the 19th, scientists had already begun worrying that consumption of fossil fuel and the accompanying release of CO2 would lead to an increase in surface temperatures of 5-6°C. Modern science with its ice core measurements has tracked dramatic temperature changes on earth over tens of millions of years. But the last 100 years have been unprecedented, with the famous hockey stick illustration capturing the connection between human industry and increased CO2 release. When scientists run some models forward, they show temperature increases ranging from 1.5 to 4°C. While these projections contain uncertainty, says Emmanuel, "this does not mean we should do nothing."

Diverse climate change reconstructions agree: the warmest years of the past century were 1998, 2005 and 2010. "This is happening in real-time," says Ronald Prinn, and whether or not "Florida has a cold winter," warming is occurring "at a rate that should worry us all." The amount of heat the earth absorbs is simply much greater than it can bounce back into space, courtesy of greenhouse gas already accumulated in the atmosphere, and increasingly, by the secondary impacts of climate change such as the melting of ice sheets. At MIT, Prinn's group runs models that factor in clouds, ocean mixing, and varying levels of greenhouse gas emissions. In a "business as usual" model, with no real efforts to rein in fossil fuel use, Prinn puts the risk of a temperature increase higher than 4°C at 85%. If we manage to stabilize CO2 emissions at 550 parts per million (we're at 472 today), there is still a 25% chance of getting greater than 2°C change. Prinn worries about the instability of the arctic tundra and permafrost, which stores 200 times the amount of current human emissions in carbon, as well as the acidification of oceans, placing plankton, basis of all ocean life, at risk.

Against this bleak backdrop, MIT newcomer Chris Knittel describes the policy options for tackling climate change. He acknowledges the "dismal and frustrating science" of environmental economics, which had counted on the equivalent of a carbon tax to discourage carbon emissions, only to meet a wall of political rejection. Carbon pricing lowers demand for the fuel intensive products that matter the most in climate change, and whether in the form of cap and trade, or a direct tax, also spurs technologies aimed at fuel efficiency or encouraging alternative fuels. The nation's fuel standards, set to rise to 35.5 mpg by 2016 are modest, believes Knittel, and subsidies seem to encourage carbon intensive activities rather than reducing them (nb:corn and cellulosic ethanol). States like California are more ambitious, but recent court rulings blocked its cap and trade policy "for environmental justice reasons."

"The question is whether we can substantially decrease energy and carbon intensity while accommodating economic growth," says Ernest Moniz. New technologies that emerge must drive the cost of carbon "very, very low" if they are to make a major impact. With cheap coal the primary fuel generating electricity in the U.S., Moniz offers a "Michelin guide type rating" of possible alternative, 'carbon-free' fuels: At the top are renewables such as solar; nuclear; and coal with capture and sequestration. Natural gas doesn't really figure, since it does not wean society effectively from carbon. Moniz believes the best fuel technologies require substantial innovations to bring down their prices. The nuclear industry may want to try small modular reactors of 50-300 megawatts, rather than the 1600 megawatt behemoths that after Fukushima, are even more controversial. Carbon capture and sequestration will require brand new approaches and full-scale testing. Moniz believes solar technology is making the most rapid progress, specifically in silicon photovoltaics, courtesy in part of work in novel materials at MIT. Also, the "global, peanut-sized industry" of batteries may play a "huge role in transforming the picture" of electric vehicles, possibly making them economically feasible in a decade."

Sarah Slaughter believes the incredible challenge of climate change might make possible wholesale transformation of infrastructure, energy, and other resource systems. She cites New York City's planning efforts to adapt to sea level rise, which would likely flood the sewer system. All communities must think ahead, for hurricanes, or other disasters likely to flow from warming, but rather than replicate what exists today, says Slaughter, planners should focus on "building the world we want to live in." MIT and its partners around the world hope to develop "ground breaking technologies" to help transform communities and make them safer, and healthier. Slaughter envisions solutions such as district-wide heating and cooling, and describes a system introduced in Kenya that converts agricultural waste into fuel for cooking food. "There is an opportunity to do things right as we move forward," she concludes.