Overview of Issues in Energy and Climate

We reside at an unprecedented point in human history for which the physical sciences hold the key to developing a strategy for global scale decisions of critical importance to this and subsequent generations. One example is the challenge of producing the energy required to meet the rapidly escalating demands of a global society that will approach a population of 10 billion by 2050 in combination with a rapidly increas­ing standard of living in developing countries.

Today, energy production, storage, and distribution is a $6 trillion per year economic enterprise occupying a central position in each nation’s security and economy. Lacing together the physical sciences with economics, national security, international negotiations, legislative action, and legal structures, energy produc­tion provides an array of challenging possibilities—a 1% niche solution in this global enterprise is a $60 billion per year opportunity.

This increasingly powerful union of science and society places the physical sciences not only in a position of opportunity, but also in a position of direct re­sponsibility for establishing a rational foundation for progress. Current university graduates face coming to terms with a number of questions: 

  • What technical forces are shaping the modern world?
  • What are the most pressing problems this and subsequent generations will face?
  • Where are the frontiers of innovation and what implications do they hold for professional endeavors in science, technology, international economics, government, ethics, public health, law, and education? 

From the emergence of modern humans as a species 160,000 years ago, it required 7000 human generations to reach a global population of 2 billion in the middle of the 20th century. In the span of a single human lifetime, 1945 to 2045, world population will increase by a factor of five to approximately 10 billion. To recognize the scale of human demand for energy given this population increase, combined with expected growth in the standard of living in the developing econo­mies in Asia, Africa, and South America, our global society must build the equiva­lent of two large coal burning power plants per day between now and 2050; alter­natively, a nuclear power plant every day between now and 2050. This sets the scale of the challenges—but what are the consequences?

The consequences of choices for primary energy generation directly engages the issue of climate. While the issues of energy and climate may be complex and contentious, ultimately they intertwine to reflect, in stark simplicity, one of the most fundamental principles of science: the First Law of Thermodynamics.

A key axiom that can be drawn directly from the First Law of Thermodynamics is: it is the net flow of heat into the reservoirs of the climate system that define the course of events as we move into the future. It is the irreversible changes to the climate struc­ture that result from the retention of that heat that matters most to society, not simply “global warming”. An important example is the floating ice encompassing the Arctic Ocean that has re­mained in place for the past 3 million years. However, in the last 30 years, 50 percent of the permanent ice has been lost from this system initiating potent feedbacks that accelerate the removal of the remaining ice. It is now possible to pass unencumbered from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in summer - the “north­west passage” that drove exploration from the 15th century on. This loss of ice volume means that a net 5 • 1021 joules of en­ergy, as heat, has flowed into the Arctic Ice Cap over the past 30 years. Yet the energy per unit time required to melt this Arctic ice is but one part in 50,000 of the infrared energy circulating between the Earth’s surface and the water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and cloud structures in the atmosphere. In order to place this in context, we must understand energy scales and the relative orders of magnitude associated with categories of en­ergy. We must also develop an understanding of feedbacks and the role they play in physical and biological systems.