Talking Green in Aspen

by Bill Chameides | June 27th, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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“Living with the New Normal” at the Aspen Environment Forum with (from L to R) National Geographic’s Rob Kunzig, Kevin Trenberth (National Center for Atmospheric Research), Bill Chameides, Interior’s David Hayes, Oberlin’s David Orr.

Desolation Row or New Morning? What does the future hold?

That’s the question that was posed at the fifth annual Aspen Environment Forum hosted by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic magazine last week in Aspen, Colorado. The forum’s theme — “Living in the New Normal” — was inspired by last year’s updated U.S. climatological averages for the years 1981–2010 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These “new normals” depict a nation with a climate under flux, including average temperatures about 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the previous normal from 1971 to 2000.

These U.S. maps show the new climate normals — and new warmer, now “normal” temperatures in every state. “Living in the New Normal” was the theme of this year’s environment forum in Aspen. (Source: NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center)

It was a fascinating two days, exploring the new normal of a world with a warming climate and a population expected to grow to 9 billion by mid-century. The eclectic assortment of speakers ranged from authors to a major general, and free-flowing discussions developed around nuts-and-bolts topics like “The New Ocean” and “The New Weather” as well as out-of-the-box ones like “Is the Military a Model?” and “How to Build a Toaster and a House.”

Well, surprise, surprise, I didn’t come away with a clear understanding of what living in the new normal will be like. Gloom-and-doom prognostications were counterbalanced with rosy, “no problem we got this covered through technology” predictions with quite a few “hopeful” discussions falling somewhere in between. Here are some of the bits and pieces from the forum that I found memorable. (Note: the italics below come from my notes of various speakers’ statements. They may not be exact quotations, but they should capture the sense of what they were saying. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies.)

Starting With Ants

“You gotta pay attention to ants.”
E.O. Wilson, biologist, Harvard University

Wilson, described by Chris Johns, National Geographic’s editor in chief, as “one of the greatest biologists of the 20th century,” led the forum’s opening session.

“I simply never grew out of [my bug period]” Wilson (as he put it in one of his many books) spoke of growing up with a fascination about ants and how his study of ants as a young scientist led to his groundbreaking work in socio-biology, the examination of social behavior within the context of evolution.

His advice for securing a better future — send the kids outdoors and let them explore.

Trouble Keeping the Home Lights Burning?

All our climate problems are energy problems.
David Owen, staff writer for The New Yorker

Our electric energy infrastructure was not designed by anyone; it was assembled ad hoc by non-experts.
Maggie Koerth-Baker, author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us

“The Book on Energy,” a discussion moderated by radio host Alex Chadwick, was not terribly upbeat. Owen began by providing this sobering statistic: the amount of oil used by the world is the equivalent of 1,400 simultaneous BP oil spills occurring every day, year in year out.

Koerth-Baker followed, lamenting the state of our electric grid and opining that our problem is essentially a systems problem: we need to design a gr
id that produces and moves electrons securely and efficiently.

Efficiency, the much-touted low-hanging fruit solution. Is that the answer to the energy problem? No, argued Owen. He pointed to Jevon’s paradox — that greater efficiency gains are cancelled by increased consumption — and pointed out how energy efficiency makes energy less expensive. The only way to drive down energy usage, he argued, is to make energy more expensive.*

What about personal behavior? Can we solve the energy crunch sans government simply by getting people to change their energy habits? No, said Koerth-Baker. The problem is too deeply tied to our energy infrastructure. Personal behavior, she claimed, “is a drop in the bucket.”

The only hopeful spot in the discussion came from Sharon Burke, an assistant secretary for the Department of Defense. She described the Defense Department’s push to be tactically stronger by getting greener and being less petroleum-dependent by, for example, deploying solar arrays instead of diesel-powered generators at military outposts. Such efforts, she argued, will push the technological envelope and eventually filter down to non-military markets. (It’s not a bad argument — we got GPS by way of the military and also the means by which you’re reading this post — the Internet.)

Taking Arms Against a Sea of Climate Troubles

Climate change is a multiplier in global insecurity.
Sherri Goodman, senior vice president at CNA and former deputy undersecretary of defense

You look where you already have instability.
Paul Salopek, freelance foreign correspondent

In the “Climate and Conflict“ discussion, moderated by ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, the consensus was that climate change per se will not cause conflict, armed or otherwise, but will exacerbate existing conflicts and instabilities. A number of potential hotspots that came up included: Pakistan, the Sahel, Ethiopia/Kenya, Bangladesh, South Sudan, and the Middle East. Goodman opined that Pakistan is among the more problematic areas: already politically unstable with radical anti-American elements, already feeling the brunt of climate change with devastating flooding in 2010 (see here and here) and 2011, and already a member of the nuclear club. That’s a lot of alreadys.

Growing Pains

Every time humans are confronted with ecological limits we transcend them through innovative technologies.
Mark Lynas, journalist and author of The God Species

The real question is how are we going to adapt to the absence of growth?
Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth

Perhaps the most fundamental question for the industrial and the post-industrial ages: Was Malthus correct — is there a limit to growth? This question, posed to the panelists in the “Is Growth the Problem?” session, was not answered with a single voice.

While I suspect that most of the forum’s participants would answer the limits-to-growth question with a yes, there was a contrarian — although he would probably prefer to be thought of as an optimist. I’m speaking of Lynas, who believes that technology will ultimately allow us to avoid calamity and keep on growing. A good thing in his opinion since he does not believe improvements in the developing world are possible without growing economies in the developed world. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”

Heinberg offered up an alternate, more pessimistic view of the future. He argued that resource limitations and overbearing debt will make the absence of growth the new normal. In his opinion the conundrum we face is not how to make our economies grow but figuring out how to live in a world that is not growing economically. He questioned whether capitalism, a socio-political-economic system predicated upon the availability of credit and economic growth to pay for that credit, will even survive through the 21st century. While Lynas looks to technology for the answer, Heinberg seemed to suggest that we will need to make a radical attitude adjustment: a redefinition of what we mean by wealth. Did someone say “Green GDP”? (See here and here.)

Dawn of the Dead?

Extinction is not forever.
Stewart Brand, president, the Long Now Foundation

Perhaps the most optimistic and certainly the most out-of-the-box session was the one entitled “Bringing Back the Dead” with Brand and Ryan Phelan, former CEO of the ALL Species Foundation, and moderated by Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of the best-selling biography Steve Jobs.

The discussion focused on rapidly developing genetic technologies that may eventually make it possible to bring endangered species back from the brink of extinction through cloning and even revive extinct species, bringing them back into the realm of the living (sort of de-extinction) using bits of DNA hanging around in museum specimens and the like.

It’s a discussion that leads me to contemplate one scenario for the new normal that I’ll leave you to consider: The grid has crashed and so you and the family are outside sitting around a fire cooking dinner with your pet sabre tooth tiger nipping at your feet, waiting til the morning comes, all underneath the sky of blue.

View more videos from the forum.



*I tend to agree that increased prices would drive down energy usage, but is it really the only way? And yes, the evidence does show that some of the gains from energy efficiency are accompanied by increased consumption (the rebound effect), but whether the increase actually results in an overall increase in energy usage is the subject of a healthy scientific debate.

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