OpenXChange launches “Open Office Hours” with panel on climate change

Nov. 20, 2015, 2:02 a.m.
OpenXChange held the first of six “Open Office Hours” on Thursday, Nov. 19, featuring a panel on climate change. (TARA BALAKRISHNAN / The Stanford Daily)

OpenXChange launched its “Open Office Hours” program on Thursday with a panel discussion on climate change. The event was the first in a six-part series.

“Our hope [was] that, like office hours, the event [would] serve as a venue for people who want to learn about a complex topic to ask questions and engage with faculty,” wrote Sharon Palmer, Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, in an email to The Daily.

The discussion was moderated by professor Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Attendees had the opportunity to hear from five panelists from a variety of academic fields.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam opened with a few words about the new Open Office Hours program. The intent is for each event to imitate real office hours, giving students and experts the opportunity to “exchange ideas.” There will be five more discussions this year on the topics of human rights, immigration, Black Lives Matter, sexual assault and mental health.

Elam then offered the floor to student representatives from Fossil Free Stanford to read a statement they had prepared. They expressed their gratitude toward the University administration for acknowledging the importance of climate change and for this event.

“We hope that meaningful action can and will emerge from the discussions that take place today,” one student said.

They also noted their disappointment that some administrators “have not engaged with us” at Building 10 during the sit-in. They invited everyone at the event to talk with them at the site if they have questions or concerns.

“Fossil Free Stanford hopes that OpenXChange will be used as a springboard for action, rather than an excuse for inaction,” they said.

Matson launched the panel discussion by highlighting the urgency of the climate change issue and the challenges of responding effectively.

“This is the kind of discussion we need to be having in the University,” she said. “This is an era of responsibility. The actions we make today will affect our kids and grandkids and future generations.”

Each of the five panelists spoke about their experience with climate science or policy and offered unique perspectives on the next steps we need to take to address the issue both as inhabitants of the earth and as members of the Stanford community.

Katharine Mach, senior research associate at Carnegie Science’s Department of Global Ecology, discussed the challenges we face in limiting climate change into the future. She specifically addressed warming limits and the timeline for reducing carbon emissions. She explained that if the world keeps emitting at its current rate, we will reach the current warming limit, two degrees Celsius, in a little over 20 years. Total global emissions will have to be zero in order to not surpass the limit once we get there.

“It’s not a question of if we get to zero emissions, but when,” she said. “This challenge can be an opportunity to build a better world.”

Arun Majumdar, professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, discussed possible technologies that would help with a smooth transition to sustainability.

“The big question is how do we decarbonize our system while continuing economic growth?” he said.

While many people believe these two efforts are mutually exclusive, he rejected that assumption. He outlined his top 10 technologies for making the two more “inclusive,” which included reducing the price of carbon capture, improving battery storage, increasing enforcement of building codes and increasing efforts in genetic engineering.

Larry Goulder, professor of environmental and resource economics and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, provided insight into the economic and political levers for addressing climate change. He noted how some special interest groups have stakes in forestalling action, and many say that the cost of taking action to reduce climate change outweighs the benefits. But from an economic standpoint, Goulder said, this is a false claim.

“Appropriate public policies can deal with the problem and can create… benefits that are greater than the sacrifices,” he said.

He emphasized the need for public policy to combat climate change, citing two specific types of policy that would be most effective. The first is policy that discourages the demand for carbon-based fuels (i.e. cap and trade), and the second is policy that directly promotes clean-energy innovation.

Goulder also noted that education, voting in elections and local environmental actions are also crucial in the fight against climate change.

Alicia Seiger, deputy director of the Steyer Taylor Center For Energy Policy & Finance, discussed the Steyer Center’s efforts in clean energy investment. She proposed recycling old tax policies from oil and gas industries and applying them to clean energy and analyzed the risks and returns of certain actions involving capital to combat climate change.

Law professor Michelle Anderson discussed the relationship between poverty and climate change, which she described as “the two central challenges of our era.”

She responded to a widespread view that the goals of reducing inequality and limiting climate change must be “pitted against each other.” Instead, she believes that we can work toward achieving both goals without sacrificing benefits in one area for benefits in the other.

After hearing from the five panelists, Matson asked them a few questions. The first, directed toward Goulder, questioned what policies are “win-wins,” or the most effective in terms of costs and benefits. Goulder said that removing subsidies for coal, oil and gas would eliminate some deadweight loss to the economy as well as benefit the environment. A carbon tax would also be effective, he said.

Another question addressed possible technologies. Majumdar talked about efficiency and what he thinks are the best steps moving forward. He specifically discussed enforcing building codes, reducing the cost of carbon capture and eventually increasing nuclear power.

“We need to reduce energy consumption without sacrificing energy services,” he said.

Matson then turned to the topic of divestment. How do we reconcile the fact that “not all oil and gas actors are evil?” she asked.

Seiger said she is particularly upset with companies such as Exxon that purposely hide information about climate change. However, she explained that we need to understand that not all companies are the same, even if some are particularly egregious.

“Actively obscuring information is something we shouldn’t be standing for as citizens,” she said.

The panel finally responded to questions from members of the audience, many of whom were students involved in the sit-in calling for divestment from fossil fuels.

One person questioned the emphasis on GDP as a measure of the well-being of society. Majumdar agreed that there may be better measures of quality of life, particularly Human Development Index.

Another asked about top-down versus bottom-up approaches to fighting climate change. With the COP21 in Paris coming up, she mentioned that the United Nations historically has taken a top-down approach. Goulder responded by discussing how as more and more countries realize taking action is in their interests, negotiations such as the upcoming summit will move toward a bottom-up approach. Majumdar pointed to the recent joint statement between the United States and China as a “critical” example.

Mach addressed the issue of divestment from fossil fuel and what kinds of challenges are present based on the way Stanford manages those kinds of decisions. She also offered information to those interested in promoting change, like the students who attended the event representing Fossil Free Stanford and the divestment movement.


Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at sortlip ‘at’

Sarah Ortlip-Sommers '18 is a senior staff writer and former Student Groups desk editor. A senior studying political science, she grew up on the beautiful island of Martha's Vineyard (yes, people really live there; no, she hasn't met Obama). Catch her ordering her fifth cup of coffee from Starbucks, singing with Everyday People, or watching Grey's Anatomy. Contact her at sortlip 'at'

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