April 27, 2023
Symposium explores the ‘everything problem’ of climate change – and the path to combat it
The transition to a clean energy economy requires interdisciplinary solutions, as reflected in the VCU institute that is hosting this week’s event.
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At the inaugural Symposium on Sustainable Energy and Environment, held this week at Virginia Commonwealth University, a top White House energy adviser described how innovation across disciplines will be needed for the U.S. to achieve its goal of rapidly reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions to avoid climate change’s greatest threats.
“Climate change is not an environmental problem. It’s an everything problem, and it requires a solution across all disciplines,” said Costa Samaras, Ph.D., principal assistant director for energy and chief adviser for energy policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“And the important thing to understand about climate change is every ton matters. Every tenth of a degree matters. Every year matters. And that we’re not going to approach 1.5- or 2-degree thresholds and declare victory or declare failure,” Samaras said. “Every bit of success that we have now improves the lives of everybody we know now and everybody in the future.”
During his Thursday address, “Launching a Transformative Decade of Climate Action,” Samaras outlined how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act make investments to advance America’s clean energy and climate goals, including a goal under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% by the end of the decade and to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
“This is an agenda that is designed to grow a clean energy economy for everyone,” he said.
Samaras was the keynote speaker at the two-day symposium organized by the Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment, an interdisciplinary collaboration of VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, the College of Engineering and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The symposium is part of One VCU: Research Weeks 2023, which celebrates VCU’s impact and builds upon its culture of collaborative, transdisciplinary research.
The institute was established in 2022 to address the existential threat of climate change by creating sustainable energy systems and ecologies, while educating students and working with community partners to meet these challenges.
Puru Jena, Ph.D., director of the institute and distinguished professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said the need to address climate change and transition to clean energy is urgent.
“Just look around,” he said. “Melting ice in the Arctic. Rising ocean temperature and the effects it has on marine life. The devastating floods in Pakistan that killed thousands of people. Droughts from California to Africa. Wildfires on our country’s West Coast [and] Australia. And a record number of tornadoes in the USA In the month of January. We have already passed the number of the tornadoes that we [normally] have in a year by now. All are signatures of a changing climate.”
Climate change, Jena added, is “the result of global warming caused by fossil fuels that undoubtedly changed our lives and our economy — but it came at a cost.”
The U.S. must transition to a clean energy economy while maintaining its way of life, he said. Until that happens, the U.S. must find ways to capture, convert and sequester greenhouse gases; find cost-effective and innovative ways to increase the use of renewable energy; secure the energy grid and increase energy efficiency; and develop policies driven by science and not politics.
Importantly, Jena added: “We need our scientists to develop fundamental understanding of material properties that will lead to the design and synthesis of novel materials, made of earth-abundant materials and capable of meeting the requirements of the next generation of devices.”
Stanley Whittingham, Ph.D., who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019 and who has been called the founding father of the lithium-ion battery, addressed the symposium by Zoom. He said the U.S. has to adapt to climate change.
“We can control it. I’m not sure we can roll it back. But to do that, sustainable materials and processes are key,” Whittingham said. “We need to get rid of all fossil fuels and use clean, lower-cost, renewable electrical energy. Solar, wind plus hydro are going to dominate in this renewable area, but they are intermittent, at least the solar and wind. So we have to store energy, and lithium batteries are the key way of doing that.”
At the opening of the two-day symposium, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., noted how National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan, Ph.D., recently visited VCU and said the university is “one of those institutions that really matters” because it has a great opportunity to help address the “missing millions” of people who have the potential to contribute to science, creativity and understanding but who have been underrepresented historically.
“Science cannot just be for a select few. We are in deep, deep trouble if that’s the case. And that’s not the case in the goals of this undertaking,” Rao said. “And so we’ve got to have more innovation. We’ve got to have more different ways of thinking critically about how all of this works. And we’ve got to have more disciplines involved in thinking through how we deal with the realities of how we live as human beings, the needs that we have for energy, and how to sustain an environment.”
Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., interim dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said the VCU institute’s symposium is the first, and not likely the last, to bring people together to discuss pressing issues in meaningful ways.
Samaras praised VCU’s creation of the institute and its inaugural symposium.
“I’m thrilled that this center intersects between engineering, humanities, social science [and] business,” he said, “because that’s how we’re going to get this transition done.”
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