Heinz Talks discuss climate change and energy policies

As the United States presidential election approaches, Americans are reminded of two important issues that the next president of the United States will face: the energy situation and global climate change.

To address this issue, “Heinz Talks: Climate Change and Energy Policy — Advice to Our Next President” was held Monday, Oct. 20, at Carnegie Mellon’s Mellon Institute.

After a welcome by Ramayya Krishnan, the acting dean of the Heinz College, and an introduction by Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Philanthropies and the Heinz Endowments, a multidisciplinary panel of speakers, moderated by Moira Gun, began a discussion on climate change and energy issues, offering their advice to the nation’s next president.
This panel included John Holdren, director of Harvard University’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program; Lee Branstetter, associate professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University; Granger Morgan, department head of Carnegie Mellon’s Engineering and Public Policy department; and Melissa Young, a second-year student in the Heinz College’s master of science in public policy and management program.

“ ‘Global warming’ is a misnomer that has probably delayed the sense of urgency for a decade or more,” Holdren said. Holdren sees “global climate disruption” as a more accurate term.

According to Holdren, the average global temperature has risen by approximately eight-tenths of a degree over the past century. Although this seems like a small change, such changes in global temperature lead to much larger changes in the global climate system.
Holdren elaborated on the damage that these changes have already caused. In 2002, for example, the World Health Organization estimated that approximately 150,000 people were killed in the year 2000 alone due to the adverse effects of climate change. Furthermore, the sea level is currently rising at twice the rate experienced in the 20th century, while floods, droughts, and wildfires are increasing in frequency, as are the geographic ranges of tropical pathogens.

According to Holdren, without a sharp change in the current pattern of climate change, the projected average global temperature in 2050 will be the highest it has been in the past 13,000 years, and the projected mean temperature in 2100 will be the highest that it has been in 30 million years.

“[We need to] apply enough mitigation to avoid climate changes too unmanageable to adapt to,” Holdren said. “[To achieve this, greenhouse gas emissions must] peak no later than 2020, and be declining thereafter.”

Holdren therefore suggested the establishment of a tax on greenhouse gas emissions to encourage carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, as well as investment in economically feasible alternative energies.

Morgan agreed, saying, “We need to stop thinking and talking and start investing and putting people to work.”

Morgan suggested four primary areas in which the United States can reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent or more.

First, new standards are needed to promote more efficient appliances. Lighting, for example, which currently consumes 20 percent of the nation’s energy, could be made nearly 10 times more efficient if incandescent bulbs were replaced by light emitting diodes (LEDs).
Furthermore, building codes could be passed to improve the energy efficiency of new buildings by 70 to 80 percent through simple improvements such as better insulation.

Morgan noted that coal power plants will need to continue to operate in the coming decades, but will also need to utilize carbon sequestration techniques. Clean sources of energy, such as solar photovoltaics, should be researched, but they cannot alone reach the goal of an 80 percent reduction in emissions by mid-century.

More fuel-efficient vehicles are also needed. In Morgan’s view, this may be accomplished partially through the production of smaller, lighter vehicles, while hybrid cars and biofuels may also play a role. “Ethanol from corn is basically a giant farm subsidy program,” Morgan said. He also described hydrogen-powered vehicles as a “mirage.” “[Researching hydrogen-powered vehicles is a] strategy to allow the auto industry to not do all of the things that we technologically knew how to do,” Morgan said.
Branstetter then discussed the role that economic policy will play in the planet’s future.

“The global warming problem is a classic example of market failure,” he said. Branstetter advocates a “cap and trade system” as a means of putting a price on the emission of greenhouse gases. In such a system, the government would require firms to purchase permits to release greenhouse gases, thus providing an incentive to minimize greenhouse emissions, yet allowing flexibility in the manner in which this occurs. Firms capable of reducing emissions for less than the market price of the required permits would do so, while the government could spend the additional revenue on research. Branstetter noted that both Barack Obama and John McCain are likely to support a cap and trade system.

“The next president inherits an extensive [challenge] when he takes office in January,” Young said, listing the volatility of food and energy prices, the international image of the United States, and pollution as components of this challenge.

“Where alternative energy is concerned, there are a multitude of solutions that we need to undertake simultaneously,” Young said. “This is our opportunity to change the world and the United States for the better; not just to do something, but to do everything we can.” When asked whether or not she thought the elected president would be able to solve the nation’s energy and climate problems, Nisha Abraham, a student in the Heinz College’s master of science in public policy and management program and attendee of the lecture, responded, “Not in one term, [and] not without the support of Congress. For a lot of politicians, the economy will take precedence.”