Energy sustainability was the topic of conversation during the second annual Presidential Symposium, which was held last Saturday as part of the Meliora Weekend festivities.
The panelists leading the discussion included Nobel Prize Recipient and Director of the Berkeley National Laboratory Steven Chu ’70, Harvard Professor and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center John Holdren and former U.S. Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Susan Tierney.
The discussion was moderated by former president of the University of Chicago Dr. Hugo Sonnenschein ’61, who set the stage for the discussion with an introduction that underscored the country’s “addiction” to oil and fossil fuels.
“We all live under the same atmosphere,” John Holdren, the first panelist to present, said.
The most difficult aspect of energy sustainability, explained Holdren, lies in the conversion and use of rapidly depleting natural resources to fulfill a growing demand for energy, all while considering the environmental effects that these factors will have on present and future generations.
These effects can already be seen in the increasing frequency of catastrophic floods, forest fires, droughts and powerful storms that are directly related to changing climate conditions, according to Holdren.
He stressed international cooperation and government investment in environmental research as the two most important courses of actions to take in combating the adverse effects of excessive energy consumption.
The highlight of his presentation came when he displayed an interactive map that showed what the effects of global warming would have on Florida.
The audience gawked at the map as the entire state began to disappear under the ocean as the result of augmenting water levels.
“We’ll always do the right thing when all other options are exhausted,” Tierney said during
her part of the presentation. As managing principal of the consulting firm Analysis Group, Tierney advises companies on energy and environmental policy.
While progress in adopting efficiency standards for household appliances has been achieved, Tierney argued that those same standards has not been implemented in vehicles and the result was higher carbon dioxide emissions.
The three panelists echoed the same concerns for the increasing dependency on foreign natural resources and the economic vulnerability that this brings for the United States.
They also used an array of graphs, facts and statistics to show the urgency in transitioning to cleaner, more efficient sources of energy.
“I have tried to select issues of great importance that are highly likely to be important throughout the century,” UR President Joel Seligman said. “Global energy use and accompanying issues of environmental impact seem particularly likely to be important in a planet with a still growing population and powerful trend lines for greater energy use in virtually every corner of the globe.”
“The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal,” Tierney said as she showed a chart that depicted the percentage of coal production in each region of the globe. Although the U.S. towered above all the other countries, Tierney warned that the numbers in developing countries will climb as they continue to use antiquated and detrimental techniques of coal burning to produce energy. While this form of energy is cost effective, it is also responsible for exacerbating climate change and global warming.
“We’ll cook ourselves before we run out of energy,” Chu said. The Nobel Prize winner explained some of the research that had been done in wind and solar power to develop cleaner sources of energy. “I am confident that we will find a solution.”
However, not everyone shared Chu’s optimism in seeing a better future. “We’re screwed,” Tierney said jokingly in a terse description of the bleak outlook that the three panelists had for the future if the current trends in energy consumption and the depletion of the environment were to continue. Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.