The future of science: A conversation with Mark Jacobson

Feb. 8, 2017, 8:41 a.m.
The future of science: A conversation with Mark Jacobson
(CATHY YANG/The Stanford Daily)

The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election aggressively covered topics from health care to foreign policy, from economic growth to national security. However, one important topic went largely untouched by either party nominee. The question of the future of science — how it will affect or be affected by major policy decisions.

In discussing science and the future, the topic that inevitably dominates the conversation is energy. How to clean it up, conserve it, generate it and secure it. The scientific community has said for years that our current methods of energy production are unsustainable, and yet, the proposed policies for U.S. energy seem to follow the patterns of the past.

Mark Jacobson is the director of Stanford’s Atmosphere and Energy program and a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. For the last 20 years, he has been involved in some of the U.S.’s most important steps in understanding and combating global warming and implementing clean energy solutions. In an interview discussing the relationship between energy solutions and public policy, Jacobson spoke to me about some of his concerns regarding current global-warming countermeasures and the real problems they do and do not address.

Climate change has been identified by 99 percent of the scientific community as an urgent and incontrovertible threat to humanity. NASA has documented rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns and ocean acidification in unprecedented levels within the last few decades. The CDC cites climate change as a major accelerant of such diverse health hazards as asthma, malnutrition, Lyme disease, cholera and cardiovascular failure. In the U.S. alone, dozens of scientific organizations concur that these consequences, evidenced by a growing stockpile of data and research, are undeniably tied to human action.

Clearly, the problem exists and needs to be addressed. Luckily, many climate scientists — including Jacobson — have already laid out possible solutions to the problem. Jacobson’s 50-State Plan is a comprehensive, step-by-step program designed to convert the U.S. to clean energy sources on a tailored, state-by-state basis. It covers required land resources, the predicted contribution percentage of each clean energy source, the savings in medical and energy costs and the approximate time it would take for the plan to return 100 percent of its cost to each state (around 13 to 30 years). In theory, this plan is a financially plausible — and even beneficial — solution to the immense environmental threat of energy- and carbon-related pollution.

But maybe you don’t believe in climate change. Maybe climate change is far off and abstract. Maybe ocean levels and warmer summers aren’t really a big concern for you — there are enough problems to deal with in everyday life after all.

According to Mark Jacobson, you should absolutely want to transform the energy industry anyway. He comments, “You don’t have to believe in global warming to believe in changing energy structure.” His research shows that the benefits of transitioning to 100 percent clean energy are enormous, even if you disregard the benefits to the environment. From a health perspective, a job security point of view and even in the realm of personal finance — clean energy provides solutions.

Reducing carbon and pollution emissions would directly reduce pollution-related health costs substantially. In the U.S. alone, 60,000-65,000 people die every year due to air pollution, and thousands more become ill. Jacobson notes that the cost of caring for those individuals may be as high as $500 billion per year, an astounding 3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

On an economic note, Jacobson estimates that the switch would generate 2 million net jobs in clean energy production and maintenance. It would also lower the direct cost of energy to consumers. Right now, wind and solar energy are the cheapest forms of electric power in the United States. Electric cars save about $20,000 in fuel costs per 15,000 miles.

And yet for some reason, climate change and renewable energy sources just aren’t on the national agenda — not on the scale they by all rights should be. Clean energy is imperative for environmental safety and has the potential to enormously reduce health costs and the cost of energy while simultaneously creating a huge new job market. Even for those who aren’t interested in the environmental benefits, the data shows a huge incentive to make the switch.

So why isn’t the solution to this massive problem the number one priority of both the U.S. and the international community? We know that the problem exists, and we know we have the necessary resources for change, so what’s the hold up? Why do we still view environmental deterioration as a near-insurmountable global problem?

As it turns out, the crux of the energy dilemma lies far more in the “public” and “policy” side than in the “science” side. In 2015, Jacobson commented, “The main barriers are social, political — and getting industries to change.”

The political attitude toward structured energy change has opened up only recently with President Obama, and that window of goodwill might be smaller than we realized. The Trump/Pence platform for energy and science during their campaign season gave much of the scientific community pause. Whether the president and his administration will go through with their proposed plan to “unleash America’s $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil and natural gas reserves plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves,” remains a question that has researchers worried. Jacobson expressed dismay at “such a dangerous plan,” saying that an increase in fossil fuel consumption is an action that “definitely can’t be addressed safely.”

While there is a lot that we just aren’t sure of with our new president, Jacobson — and plenty of other energy professionals — agree that Trump will try to go forward with his plan. His possible success, however, will depend on people. Jacobson emphasizes that the key factor will be “how much resistance” there is and “how much states will acquiesce.” This leads us to the most important and probably most difficult part of the puzzle.

Yes, there’s a problem. But what difference does it make to most people if the oceans level rise? Most of us are never going to see a polar bear anyway — does it matter if it’s because they’re dead instead of just far away? Everybody knows the Big Problems of climate change, but so often those issues become secondary concerns compared to the problems of daily life. The burden of fixing the planet is generally agreed to simply be too much for one person to make a difference.

However, this attitude leads down a very dangerous road. The switch to clean energy is a huge task, but as Jacobson comments, “We have to do it — there’s no other option; the climate problem is so immense and dangerous to humanity that if we don’t have a transition, there will be huge costs and mass mortality and morbidity due to heat stress, heat stroke, more wildfires and air pollution, greater storminess and floods and famine.” As for people who believe immediate change to be too much, too fast, Jacobson says, “If they say it’s daunting, it’s because they don’t understand the scale of the problem.”

And lack of understanding is a huge issue. In a lot of cases, scientific information is either skewed or ignored by the public eye. As Jacobson laments, “There are 7 billion people, and as a scientist you might reach three or four thousand… You just can’t reach that many people very easily.” It is near impossible by current methods to accurately convey the very real and very dangerous effects of our environmental footprint. Without personal investment in knowing the implications of global warming for human health, food and water production, disease control and ecosystem maintenance, it’s easy to brush the energy problem off as a topic for other people to worry about.

But organizations like the Solutions Project are making a brave attempt to make environmental information more accessible and actionable to the general public in an attempt to cultivate a passion for change. The Solutions Project publishes details necessary to large-scale policy change and hits hard on the notion that the a clean energy infrastructure is entirely possible. We just need to reach for it. Given the scale of the problem, public and individual engagement are vital not just in supporting environmentally friendly policies and representatives, but also in making changes on a small, personal scale.

Jacobson stresses that informing and educating people is about “not only the problems, but how straightforward the solutions are.” There are plenty of things that every citizen can do to reduce the U.S. carbon footprint. You can retrofit your home, replace gas stoves with induction cook tops, use LED light bulbs, switch to electric cars. And while all of these changes do have an initial cost, Jacobson estimates the changes could “reduce field costs by a factor of four or five.” The economic and humanitarian value of making responsible environmental choices far outweighs the superficial price tag.

Per Espen Stoknes is a lecturer at BI Norwegian Business School and an author and researcher in foresight psychology. In a 2015 interview with Yale Environment 360 discussing his book, “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming,” he posed an important question:

“Is humanity up to the task [of combating climate change], or are we inevitably short-term thinkers? Or to put it a bit more constructively, what are the conditions under which humans will begin to think and act for the long term as far as the climate is concerned? Is it possible to pinpoint the mechanisms or functions in the human psyche that would enable us to act for the long term?”

Climate change and global energy security are societal problems — and each member of society is responsible for pursuing a healthier, more sustainable world. Those representatives in power have the ability to enforce new policy, but individuals in their own homes can support, resist and decide what those policies will be. You don’t need high-level scientific knowledge to affect change. Restructuring the energy industry — and our own energy habits — around clean, sustainable sources should be a priority for all. Whether in the interest of personal financial benefit or in wide-scale altruism, we need to change our behavior, and we need to do it soon.


Contact Maximiliana Bogan at ebogan ‘at’

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