In early July, Hal spoke on climate change and energy policy at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival. His presentation, titled “Fear and Hope: Climate Change and Policy Solutions,” discussed the dangerous trajectory of our CO2 emissions, and how emerging, innovative technologies, combined with appropriate policy, can reroute us toward a sustainable energy future.
Hal started with an explanation of the current climate situation, describing trends in weather, natural systems, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Scientists predict the earth will warm by at least two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. While this sounds like a small number on average, these shifting temperatures can cause catastrophic weather events around the world, like the wildfires in Australia, flooding in Thailand, and Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast. Climate change also shifts natural systems past their point of equilibrium. Human activity can push these systems beyond their tipping points, and nature perpetuates it, in what is known as runaway feedback loops. This pattern can already be seen with sea ice melt in the Arctic, and may be observed with methane release from melting tundra, and decreased CO2 absorption by oceans. Hal went on to discuss the interaction of CO2 emissions and their relationship with CO2 atmospheric concentrations, noting the importance of reversing CO2 emissions trends and bringing them down to zero as soon as possible to stabilize at a healthy atmospheric concentration. “The longer you wait, the harder it is to achieve any stable number.”
Hal transitioned to ‘hope’ to cover the ways humans can deploy existing technologies and establish effective policy to ensure a sustainable future. One of the most widely discussed, and widely disputed, energy opportunities is natural gas. Technological innovation in the extraction process has recently made natural gas an economically viable energy source. Given this, natural gas has the potential to profoundly influence the U.S. energy landscape, but only if done correctly. This will require regulation to minimize its ecological impacts, such as methane leakage and groundwater contamination, as well as ensuring that gas acts as a substitute for fossil fuels, and not renewables or efficiency. In addition to getting natural gas right, Hal also mentioned that energy efficiency must be emphasized as the most practical, inexpensive solution to reducing CO2 emissions. Lastly, Public Utilities Commissioners need to align their regulations with low-carbon energy goals in order to ensure that any of these actions are properly executed. “If the rules from the Public Utilities Commissions are set right, this transition is a breeze. If they’re not, it’s an awful struggle.”
Following the presentation, national correspondent for The Atlantic, James Fallows, interviewed Hal on a broad range of energy topics, including how the United States’ energy policy compares to that of the rest of the world. Hal noted that the U.S. does not have a national energy policy; most energy decisions are made at the state-level. Many other countries have comprehensive energy legislation, which means that the U.S. needs to develop a strategic vision of our energy future to compete on the world stage. Fallows concurred that the U.S. has the potential to be at the forefront of the energy conversation so long as it can generate enough political interest and support. “The U.S. can do anything when its attention is drawn, so the question is what will get its attention?”
China’s role in the global energy sector was also a focus during Hal’s interview with Fallows and in questions from the audience. China’s massive manufacturing efforts have driven down the price of many energy technologies, most notably for PV solar panels. While many see the downside of China dumping tons of cheap technology into the marketplace, Hal views this as a positive thing. “We’re attacking the Chinese for selling us cheap solar panels, and yet we’re trying to double our coal exports to them.” The U.S. and European countries are attempting to shift away from emission-intensive coal, and anticipate that other countries will follow their lead once the low-carbon model has proven successful. “We’re going to prove that you can run a modern industrial society without coal. The Chinese adoption patterns compress decades into months. They will follow.”
Hal concluded with some final thoughts on the global energy sector: achieving a sustainable energy future is a challenge, but it is a winnable battle. Every energy source has its problems, even solar and wind, so it is important to make sure that any adjustments made to the energy system are improving it rather than hurting it. Our challenge is to align the scope and timeline of our climate problems with solutions. “It’s nobody’s job description to save the earth.” All members of society must work toward the common goal of a healthy planet. The technology is already there, and the policy is starting to take shape. As communities see the economic, environmental, and societal benefits of these energy technologies and innovations, they must demand that their political officials enact policies that support a clean energy future.