A sustainable future is within reach, but it won’t prevent the world from experiencing the potentially catastrophic environmental and political consequences of climate change and environmental degradation, former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu told a Stanford audience.
Chu, who shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics and served as the energy secretary under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013, held a seminar at CISAC on Tuesday on climate change, sustainability and security.
The consequences of the damage wrought by unsustainable resource depletion and air pollution will manifest in a hotter, more dangerous world, said the Stanford physics professor.
Average global temperatures have skyrocketed past normal levels since the Industrial Revolution and have plateaued in the last few months at the highest points in history. Chu said the plateau is likely due to it taking a long time for the lower depths of the oceans to warm up.
“There is a built-in time delay between committing damage, which we’ve already done, and feeling the true consequences. All we can say is that temperatures are likely to climb again, we just don’t know when – could be 50 to 100 years – and by how much,” said Chu.
Even if the world were to stop using coal, oil, and natural gas today, he said, it would not stop the oncoming consequences. “It’s like a long-time chain-smoker who stops smoking. Stopping does not necessarily prevent the occurrence of lung cancer.”
Chu said the battle between scientists and the tobacco industry in the 20th century is analogous to today’s conflict between scientists and the energy industries.
“A lot of what you hear from the incumbent energy industries and their representatives are the same kinds of arguments that the tobacco industry made when the science showing the harm cigarettes caused came out,” said Chu.
Ironically, the same science showing the damage cigarettes cause to health can be used to demonstrate the hazards of air pollution today.
Chu noted that a recent study found that for every 10 micrograms of pollution per cubic meter, the chances of contracting lung cancer increases 36 percent. This lends alarming perspective to pollution in places such as China and India.
“The average level of air pollution was 194 micrograms per cubic meter. So it’s possible that breathing the average air in Beijing is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” he said. “Even if it’s a third of that, it’s still really bad. But again, there is going to be a lag time between now and a possible rash of deaths by lung cancer.
In addition to causing large-scale health crises, global warming and environmental degradation may exacerbate, or even cause, potential conflicts between countries.
“I think water insecurity concerns me more than even rising sea levels,” said Chu, noting that today’s conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa are exacerbated by water insecurity.
“India is already nervous that China will direct water runoff from the Himalayas to water-starved Northern China and away from India or Bangladesh, which are also water-starved,” he said. “India is also concerned that millions of Bangladeshis could become environmental refugees and start streaming into India.”
Chu recalled that when he was energy secretary, one of his biggest climate-change allies was the Department of Defense
“They will be the ones called on to help with those stresses and they see serious geopolitical risks due to climate change,” he said.
Despite the dangers ahead, Chu is optimistic about great strides in sustainable technology.
Chu and some of his colleagues studied a phenomenon that may bode well for creating a more environmentally friendly economy: putting efficiency standards on electronic appliances, which eventually could lead to a decline in the cost of appliances.
In addition to economical energy standards, new and cheaper green energy technology is within sight. Chu is working with Stanford Professor Yi Cui on creating a lithium-sulfur battery that may be significantly lighter than the current electric batteries used by cars such as Tesla and charge 200 miles in 10 minutes.
Additionally, wind energy is set to become cheaper than natural gas. Chu said that in the Midwest, where the wind is best and cheapest, contracts are selling anywhere between 2.5 and 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. If you build a new natural gas plant, it would be about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
“To be fair, wind does have the benefit of a production tax credit and if you take that away, wind would be somewhere around 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. But I think within the next dozen years wind will, on its own, be cheaper than natural gas,” he said.
Solar is even more surprising, said Chu. In July 2008, contracts were going for 18 to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour. In Texas in 2014, two contracts were signed one for 5 cents and the other for 4.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. Solar has the advantage of being scalable and the amount of solar resources available around the world is substantial.
“There’s plenty of solar energy available to power the entire world several times over,” he said.
Nonetheless, public policy nudges are still needed.
“There is still no serious discussion in the U.S. about creating a national grid with long distance transmission lines, which will be necessary for a sustainable future. But before that can happen, the campaign by incumbent industries to discredit and doubt climate science has to be defeated.”