OSTP Director Marburger: Science and Policy of Energy and Climate Change

Share This

Publication date: 
31 January 2008

John Marburger, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, addressed the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting last month. In a Union Lecture entitled "Reflections on the Science and Policy of Energy and Climate Change," Marburger shared his thinking on climate change, the role of the media, energy and how the nations of the world should respond.  AGU, one of AIP's Member Societies, recently issued a statement on climate change; see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2008/014.html  Congress grappled with climate change legislation in 2007 without success; congressional leaders will attempt to craft a bill in this session of Congress that might be successful.       

Selections from Director Marburger's address follow.  The entire speech can be read at: http://www.ostp.gov/html/jhm%20AGU%2012-10-07%20refs.pdf


"It was easy for me to select a topic for this lecture because few science-related issues have been as prominent in the media as energy and climate change. One of the important benefits of the extensive media coverage is that the link between the two has become firmly established in the public consciousness, at least I hope it has. If we had only to deal with climate science -  and by 'we' I mean we as world citizens as well as scientists - our task would be relatively straightforward. But the implications of climate science are profound for society, and we have also to deal with the extremely difficult and not at all straightforward issue of how society should respond to its emerging awareness of climate change and its origins. The problem of what to do is even more vexing for our national leaders, who are faced not only with the same personal choices as their countrymen and women, but also with choices about the broad actions they should take as leaders, with all the intricate political and sociological implications imposed by their unique positions in society."


"The energy balance of the Earth - the difference between energy absorbed from the sun and other sources and energy re-emitted back into space - is being affected by human activity. Humans have never been passive actors in Earth’s ecosphere, and for thousands of years humans have been altering its landscape and the distribution of its biota. Some of these impacts have been painful, such as the fostering of zoonotic diseases through animal husbandry, the destruction of economically important species through over-hunting or fishing, the loss of productive acreage through poor agricultural practices. We know today that these undesirable side-effects of human activity are not recent phenomena. Inexorable population growth, however, and the accompanying evolution of technology have magnified the potential human impact to global scale. And one particular impact, anthropogenic global climate change, is entirely new.

"Global climate change is different in the variety as well as in the reach of its impacts, and the first challenge to science is to estimate what those impacts might be. If we believe there are no impacts, or that they are all positive, then climate change is a normal part of environmental science, with no special claim on society’s resources. If we believe substantial negative impacts will occur, then science must rise to two more challenges, namely what can be done to avoid or mitigate the impacts, and given that some negative impacts will occur, what actions can be taken to optimize the quality of life for the affected people. These three challenges - estimating impacts, identifying mitigations, devising adaptations - can be reduced to technical issues to which science can contribute, at least in principle. Beyond these science questions, however, are matters of subjective judgment, the scale and nature of which are also unprecedented. As we meet here this evening, countries have gathered in Bali to debate among themselves how to balance their national aspirations against their obligations to humanity in general, how to value the certainties of the present against the vagaries of the future, and how to interpret conceptions of justice among peoples against the background of the immense and entirely indifferent machinery of Nature. National leaders are grappling with these issues in a glare of public attention that is as unprecedented as the issues themselves, in a blizzard of opinion and commentary that ranges from science to fantasy, borne instantly to every corner of the globe by the miracle of modern information technology."


"As a scientist, I am humbled by the power of the media in this debate. Issues that should be matters of fact are lost in oversimplifications and hyperbole. Issues that are clearly matters of opinion are marketed as scientific certainties. The complexity of the phenomena far exceeds the capacity of conventional public discourse, which is not unusual for scientific matters, but rarely do such matters intrude with such amplitude into the public domain. The visibility of the issue, which is entirely justified by its importance, guarantees that it becomes an object and an instrument of politics. Many scientists have willingly participated in the inevitable simplifications that are conventional in politics, acting from the same desire that motivates us all to have our societies do what we believe to be the right thing. From my perspective, science has lost credibility in this discussion in a subtle way. Critics and advocates all stamp their positions with the brand of science. They all claim that science supports their particular views. The subtext is that science is incapable of distinguishing among their views. The latter is more likely than the former, and the distressing fact is that science is being pressed into an awkward service here, and I know I am not the only scientist uneasy about it."


"The use of fossil fuels for energy is not the only factor that has led to the dramatic increase of CO2 in our atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution, but it is the primary factor. You know the science: the carbon from fossil fuels essentially adds to the existing carbon already in the biosphere, and ends up as additional CO2 in the atmosphere. Atmospheric CO2 persists for many decades and therefore accumulates to ever greater concentrations. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 is far less potent than methane or water vapor, but there is a lot of it and it acts indirectly to increase the concentration of water vapor which is the major direct contributor to greenhouse warming. As I already mentioned, our models are not good enough to trace this process in regional detail, but we can trace it well enough to estimate certain global effects, and the size of those effects alarms many scientists.

"What to do about this is obvious if you are only concerned about climate change. In the short run you should produce fewer greenhouse gases and increase absorption of those already in the atmosphere. In the long run you should eliminate releases of fossil carbon altogether, or limit releases to an amount much smaller than current values. And you should start doing this immediately because Earth's heat balance is already tilted and some effects of massive CO2 production are already evident. The current annual release from the world’s energy economy, by far the largest contributor to increased atmospheric CO2, is about 27 billion tons of CO2 –  40% from coal, 40% from oil, and most of the remaining 20% from natural gas (2005 numbers). Here are some figures to keep in mind: the U.S. consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil per day, 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, 3 million tons of coal per day. This is about a fifth of the world’s energy consumption. World-wide, coal accounts for about 45% of electricity production, natural gas about 24%, nuclear about 12%. Oil is used mainly for transportation and as a feedstock for the chemical industry.

"These numbers are sobering. Fossil fuels have made modern economies possible. The economic development path is paved with fossil fuels. For any given economy CO2 production is proportional to Gross Domestic Product. The coefficient of proportionality is sensitive to technology, recently developed or developing economies being significantly more 'carbon intensive' than older developed economies. This is good news. It means introducing modern energy technologies in the rapidly developing parts of the world can slow the growth of fossil CO2 relative to the historical development path. The objective of a CO2 mitigation strategy should be to reduce the carbon intensity of the world's economy toward zero."


"If we are to make any progress in mitigating anthropogenic climate change, it will be necessary to break the link between economic development and fossil fuel emissions. Simultaneous economic development - i.e. growth in GDP - and CO2 reduction implies reducing carbon intensity. This is a point of the utmost importance in crafting a successful global climate strategy.

"The link between GDP and fossil fuel CO2 emissions is technology. Technology choices in a society, especially pervasive ones like energy technology, are dictated by cost. So what are the prospects for reducing the cost of low-carbon-emission technologies to the point where they will replace high-emission technologies in rapidly developing economies? I phrase the question this way to emphasize that dictating limits on carbon emissions to such a country is a fruitless exercise unless alternative low emission technologies are available. And let us be clear that if we are serious about combating anthropogenic climate change, fossil fuel carbon emissions must be reduced in ALL major economies. It is not enough for only the 'old rich' economies of Europe and America and Japan to eliminate their emissions. ALL populous countries must eventually adopt low- or no-carbon energy technologies. This poses a vexing economic conundrum, because adjustments in energy technologies must occur during precisely that epoch in post-cold war history - our epoch - when a major transformation in global patterns of trade, wealth, and economic power is also occurring. Any country that intervenes in its own economy to increase the price of low-cost high-carbon-emitting energy in order to make higher cost lower-emitting technology more competitive, will inevitably put itself at a competitive disadvantage with countries that do not have similar policies. And there will always be dissimilar policies as long as significant differences in standards of living exist among economies around the world.

"No realistic response to climate change can ignore the current geo-political preoccupation with economic competition among nations. Our own science communities have identified the 'Gathering Storm' of global competitiveness as a major justification for increased funding for innovation-boosting research, and a major cause of concern for weakness in our education system. Concern about competitiveness affects immigration policy, tax policy, and trade policy. And it affects climate policy, not only in the United States but in nearly every other country whose economy is 'globalized.'"


". . . .what constitutes a rational path forward? First, every major economy in the world needs to make some kind of commitment to long term emissions reduction. I do not think it is possible to force such a commitment. Each country must conclude that it is ultimately in its best interest to join in at least what has been called an 'aspirational goal.' Developing nations must be included in this  framework. Second, technology development must focus on scalable sources – nuclear and coal, while maintaining progress in other areas such as renewable power and efficient end uses. Third, although I have not made a point of this, we need better data and agreement on data definitions and measurements that permit comparisons of energy use not only among countries, but also in different economic sectors within the same country. This is essential to the effectiveness of any international agreement. Fourth, we need some sort of international financial framework that takes into account private as well as public investments in energy infrastructure. Fifth, much, much more attention needs to be given to adaptation. And finally, increased focus on research in low carbon energy technology in all countries. Most of these points are addressed in President Bush’s recent initiative with the major economies of the world to develop a framework of action to create and achieve long term carbon emissions goals."

"Already in 2001 it was clear that a major factor in climate policy had to be a realistic strategy for recruiting large developing economies into an international framework. It was equally clear that climate policy is strongly linked to energy policy, and that the scale of the problem would require a campaign that would have to be maintained over the better part of a century. And it was clear that the already polarized nature of the public discourse was obscuring the scale and nature, not so much of the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but of the societal response that would be required."

"An objective reading of President Bush’s statements and actions on this subject, beginning with the speech he made on June 11, 2001, just before his departure on his first trip to Europe as President, reveals a much deeper appreciation of these issues than is generally assumed. Here at the end of my remarks I will not lapse into defensiveness, but there is no question that the U.S. has positioned itself to deal more realistically with climate change in all its scientific-sociopolitical-economic complexity than most people realize. The President’s program to bring together the nations with the world’s largest economies is only the most recent of a long history of initiatives to forge a realistic response to the enormous challenge of climate change."

Explore FYI topics: