Coming to Grips with Global Warming: PEI at Work

Emily Aronson ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

The earth is growing warmer, thanks to elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases, and the vast majority of scientists now believe that human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, is primarily responsible.

In June, the National Research Council concluded with a “high level of confidence” that the earth is warmer now than at any time since 1600 and, quite possibly, since 900, and this global rise in temperature is expected to accelerate if the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide is not curtailed.

The consequences of unchecked global warming, even within the limited timeframe of the next 100 years, are potentially disastrous. Higher temperatures will erode the polar icecaps — Greenland’s ice is melting three times faster than it was only five years ago — and lead to significantly higher sea levels, inundating low-lying areas; evaporation and precipitation will intensify, increasing the severity of hurricanes and the likelihood of flood and drought; ecosystems will be disrupted and food production jeopardized; and tropical diseases will spread to higher latitudes.

Fortunately, the dangers of inaction are becoming more and more apparent to society, and research into the wide array of questions posed by global warming is well advanced in many countries. On our own campus, the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), a multidisciplinary venture launched in 1994, is playing a pivotal role in the global search for viable solutions not only to the scientific challenges presented by global warming but also to the complex social and economic problems associated with it.

PEI brings together the talents of scientists, engineers, social scientists, humanists, and policy experts from across the University. Indeed, it can be argued that PEI represents a greater concentration of talent in this field than any research university in the world today, thanks, in part, to its close relationship with two laboratories on the Princeton Forrestal campus, the federal government’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which specializes in climate modeling, and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which focuses on fusion energy and its potential to provide a limitless supply of clean, safe, and inexpensive power.

Under the aegis of PEI, hundreds of scholars, researchers, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students are conducting fundamental research on climate change; developing technologies that will make a major reduction in emissions possible; and exploring the material and human costs of conducting business as usual versus changing the way we consume and generate energy.

This is interdisciplinarity at its best. By creating a flexible but intellectually rigorous framework in which the brightest minds at Princeton can pool their knowledge, and by establishing an equally fruitful partnership with government and industry, PEI has the perspective it needs to assemble a blueprint for keeping the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere within relatively safe limits.

The good news is that for the next 50 years, a viable blueprint is substantially complete. As the co-directors of PEI’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative, Professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala (who also serves as PEI’s director) point out, “Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century.”

The Carbon Mitigation Initiative, which has been generously funded by BP and the Ford Motor Company, has developed a practical framework (known as the “wedges concept“) to stabilize emissions at their current levels prior to achieving an overall reduction in the second half of the 21st century.

Mutually reinforcing strategies to achieve this goal range from the adoption of carbon capture and storage technology, which has the capacity to prevent roughly 90 percent of the carbon dioxide now released by power plants from reaching the atmosphere; to the production of biofuels such as ethanol; to the prevention of tropical deforestation; to improvements in energy efficiency. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this vision is that it should be possible to achieve and still maintain the economic vitality necessary for our own well-being while allowing the developing world to climb out of poverty.

It would be naïve to think that halting the growth in emissions will be painless and straightforward, or that every variable and contingency can be addressed as scholars endeavor to project the course of climate change and the kind of changes we will have to make to both sustain our natural environment and the economic health of the global marketplace. There are also many problems still to solve. Scientists have found it easier to develop global climate models than to calculate the effects of global warming on specific localities, such as Africa’s Sahel on the margins of the Sahara Desert and the tropical forests to the south, where even minor changes can wreak havoc.

Engineers are grappling with challenges that range from perfecting new combustion processes to preventing leakages of geologically sequestered carbon dioxide, particularly through abandoned oil wells. And economists and political scientists are probing everything from the merits of “cap and trade” programs for emission reduction to the relative costs of securing foreign-based energy supplies and achieving energy independence.

PEI is making a difference on all these fronts, adopting a broad and positive approach to addressing environmental challenges. And while the research I have described is enormously important, so, too, is PEI’s teaching mission, which seeks to give our students the insights they need to comprehend and, one day, shape our delicate relationship with our environment.

This fall, an undergraduate seminar will consider what our own University community can do to counteract global warming, pushing us to define what our fair share of this worldwide effort should be. This initiative, like the work of PEI as a whole, gives me hope that both the will and ingenuity exist to bring an end to man-made climate change, if not for our sake, then for our children’s.