Does current climate science data compel humanity to make large and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions?
That question served as the focal point of the Climate Science Debate hosted by the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business’ Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.
The event, presented in partnership with the Steamboat Institute Campus Liberty Tour, featured speakers Steven E. Koonin, former Undersecretary for Science, U.S. Department of Energy, under the Obama administration and Daniel Schrag, Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering at Harvard University, in a discussion moderated by Sarah Westwood, an investigative reporter at the Washington Examiner.
Held in person at the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center, the speakers delivered 10-minute opening remarks and received a five-minute rebuttal, followed by a Q&A portion that drew from audience questions.
It wasn’t the science that was up for debate according to the speakers, but rather what is the best path forward for managing climate change risk?
When considering recent weather-related crises, rising sea levels and paltry economic spending with regard to transitioning to renewable energy technology, Schrag said that the societal response to climate has been far too slow.
“We're doing an experiment on the planet and indirectly we know that CO2 levels haven't been this high, we think for many millions of years. And by mid-century or late this century we'll be at levels we haven't seen probably for 35 million years,” said Schrag. “We are setting in motion things that we don't have the capability of controlling.”
In his counter-argument, Koonin expressed hesitancy to immediately incur expensive, rapid changes to current systems given the growing demand for reliable and affordable energy worldwide. He cited UN estimates which project as much warming in the next 100 years as what has already been observed since 1900 – 1.3 degrees Celsius. Knowing that, he said, there is no imminent climate catastrophe and there’s time to plan out a more methodical and equitable approach to reducing carbon emissions.
“During or perhaps despite that prior warning, we've seen the greatest improvement ever in the human condition. But life span, literacy, nutrition and economic activity have all increased dramatically even as the population quintupled since that time,” said Koonin.
“So it beggars belief to think that another 1.3 degrees of warming in the next century is going to significantly derail that promise.”
Precipitous emissions reductions are far riskier than climate change itself, Koonin said, and that demands careful consideration when tinkering with large-scale changes to global energy systems.
Until viable plans are brought forward, fossil fuels are required to alleviate immediate energy consumption needs, especially for developing countries which will take longer to adopt and implement more expensive renewable alternatives.
“The proposition is a techno-economic fantasy. It would take the energy system rapidly in an unnatural direction, degrading the quality of energy services, increasing costs, and leading to more disruption and destitution than any kind of change itself,” said Koonin. “Last week President Xi Jinping told his party that China would pursue its emissions goals with prudence in line with threading the new before discarding the old. That scares me because it's much more sensible than the pundit-on-fire rhetoric that we hear from western leaders and the UN.”
Conversely, Schrag noted the costs of new technology, like electric vehicles, coming down as time goes on, but agreed with Koonin on the importance of helping introduce reliable and durable renewable energy sources to developing countries.
Right now, the U.S. should be focused on increasing its penetration of wind and solar energy sources from 14% to levels higher than that of Ireland and Spain – 40%, he said. That’s a mission that will ultimately have to be taken up by future generations.
In the meantime, no one can predict exactly how climate change will impact society. However, the best information available says that it's going too far beyond where we've been, it’s happening very quickly and a response is necessary, Schrag said.
“That doesn't mean we destroy our economy in the process, that we do it so rapidly that we lose jobs. But there's a smart path forward where we develop new technology, create economic opportunity and ultimately help the whole world solve this problem,” said Schrag. “That's the kind of American leadership we should aspire to.”
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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.