"If we do not change direction, we may end up where we are heading"

Thursday 07 Dec 17

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Anders Østerby Mønsted
Communications Officer (cover)
DTU Biosustain
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The dangerous rise of populism and short-term policies makes it increasingly difficult to cope with climate change by transitioning into the use of new alternative energy sources and technologies.

We need to act now and we need to act fast. The words come from the former United States Secretary of Energy and Nobel laureate, Steven Chu, who visited the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability at the Technical University of Denmark to talk about climate change and how new technical paths can lead to a more sustainable future.

“There is no economic model for how to deal with climate change. Eventually, society will have to say that there are costs that are not included in the price of fossil fuels. The cost of human health, the cost of rising sea levels and the cost of failed states. If you have seen what four million Syrian refugees have done to Europe, then what about 40 or even 400 million climate refugees? This societal instability will be on our doorstep if we do not wake up,” says Steven Chu.

"If you have seen what four million Syrian refugees have done to Europe, then what about 40 or even 400 million climate refugees? This societal instability will be on our doorstep if we do not wake up"
Steven Chu, former US Secretary of Energy

While the world could be heading in a direction where clean energy could become the low-cost solution the technology for finding oil and gas is getting better and better as well. So the alternative to fossil fuels has to be cheaper and cleaner.

When Chu in 2009 became the first ever scientist in a US government by entering the Obama administration he initiated several projects to increase the use of renewable energy such as wind energy and solar energy to reduce the dependency of oil.

According to the former Secretary of Energy, science and technology should have a great impact in guiding public policy and defining policies in a longer-term perspective.

“Never has scientists said that what we are doing today will affect people 50, 100 or 200 years from now. The problems we are talking about will affect future generations for decades, thus, it becomes a real problem that politics in the United States are dictated by election cycles. Congressmen, senators and the president needs to be re-elected and that makes politics short-term, but to cope with climate change it demands long-term solutions,” he says.

Climate change is politicized

One of the main obstacles to accelerating the development and implementation of more sustainable energy alternatives is the fact that the public debate on climate change has become increasingly politicized during the last 30 years.

“In the US, many farmers neglect climate change even though they experience the consequences of changing weather conditions every day. It is considered a dirty political word. In public school, people are saying that climate change is political and we do not teach our kids politics. This part is very worrisome and if we are not even able to have a fair debate then it becomes more difficult to move towards a more sustainable society,” emphasizes Chu.

He estimates that up to 50 percent of the American population denies that climate change is mostly due to humans, which is a push-back for scientists and the invention of better and cleaner technologies. The best one could hope for is then that the educational system without the involvement of politics will prevail in the long run.

However, better education among children is not a fast enough solution.

“It will take 20 or 30 years to see the effects of better education. We do not have that much time. Instead, corporate leaders should take a corporate leadership themselves to go towards a sustainable future even if they are not engaged in energy industries. Take Apple who is thinking sustainability into their entire supply chain by making phones on computers for example. I am just waiting and hoping that the major oil and gas companies will go in this direction as well,” says Chu.

Messy times in the pipeline

When directly asked about his prediction for the future regarding the challenge of climate change, Steven Chu, highlights two things. Firstly, the world will realize the predicament that we are in the middle of, but it will happen in the coming decades and not in the coming years. By that time the amount of carbon emissions has put everyone in a dangerous territory and the frequency of natural disasters has seen a rise.

Secondly, he is convinced that technology is able to take carbon out of the air at a cost that society can actually pay and that carbon can be recycled in order to substitute it.

So the future will indeed be messy, but Chu is a scientist after all.

“I am going to be optimistic because scientists by nature are optimistic. They are trying to solve things that other people could not do before. In the end, humans have to figure this one out because it will really alter the destiny of the planet, he states.

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