Two months into 2020 and Earth’s climate is off to a turbulent start. This is now our new normal.
College students today are surveying a very different world from the one their parents inherited: Ocean heat blooms, Australian bushfires, and a flurry of corporate announcements on getting to net-zero global heating emissions, from JetBlue to Microsoft to Larry Fink’s sustainability letter to Blackrock clients. At the World Economic Forum last month, the push for a net-zero economy assumed center stage. The discussion was marked by a new seriousness and even a little humility. But for every banker who warned of the risks of being caught on the backside of the shift to an economy with net-zero emissions before mid-century, there were probably a dozen more who felt that this didn’t factor into their short-term thinking and that it wasn’t their problem anyway.
CEOs testified that the pressure on them is growing. It comes from their families’ children asking what they are doing about climate change. Investors’ questions are becoming more insistent, and the talent pool is drying up for companies that cannot explain how they will lead the transition to a decarbonized economy. However, while many CEOs are uncomfortable with their new-found notoriety, not everyone is part of the conversation. For example, 85 percent of the world’s fossil fuel production comes not from listed oil and gas companies in the West, but from national oil companies in emerging markets, and the pressures on them are different.
Their pressures are to secure prosperity for young, urbanizing college graduates and their contemporaries, who are ambitious for better standards of living and opportunities.
The starting point for climate action has been to wean the world off coal-fired power plants — the most dangerous form of power for the planet and human health. But rather than focusing on choking off the supply of dangerous coal, the focus has to be on helping countries build the infrastructure for the clean and green economy. If coal-dependent countries in Asia are to move to cleaner energy mixes that can fuel their industries, urbanization, and transport needs and provide jobs and livelihoods, they will need support to do this quickly. The same is true here at home, where our energy infrastructure needs have gone largely untended in recent decades and now we need to leap ahead to install the clean economy infrastructure we need.
If green hydrogen (made from renewable energy such as wind and solar power) can fuel ships, trains, trucks, manufacturing plants, refineries, and more, then we need investment in electrolyzers (which split water into hydrogen and oxygen) and filling stations at scale now. If our planes are to fly on a full blend of biofuel, we need to secure that supply. If our grids are to supply renewable energy, we need to install more wind and solar storage (hydro and batteries), and we must upgrade the transmission systems. Resilience can be provided by mini-grids installed in communities everywhere. Politicians’ half-hearted support for infrastructure investment will have to be overcome. The technology already exists, what’s lacking is the will to deploy it at scale.
President Trump’s message in Davos was that the future is bright, and that he has the ordinary man’s back while the climate elite fear a dystopian future. Using solutions to climate change as a wedge between people will hurt everyone. Good local jobs will come from the transformation of our energy infrastructure. Bills will come down if we exploit the renewable energy sources at hand and invest heavily in efficiency driving down costs. Health care bills will go down as we clean the air in cities and towns. And if we protect the environment, it will return the favor.
The academic world has an important role to play in supporting that transformation. Climate change is not a question just for chemists. It is a threat intensifier across all aspect of our lives and therefore belongs in the classrooms of political scientists and military planners, divinity scholars and ethicists, food scientists and biologists, urban planners and financiers. To date, too many university systems are playing catch-up. Students complain that our curriculums and syllabuses represent a rearview mirror on climate risk and opportunity. They protest their endowments’ exposure to the fossil fuel economy and they strike on Fridays. They’re right. They need to be readied for the world that they will lead, a world of work shaped by digitalization but also decarbonization and one where the velocity of change is unprecedented.
They will have to better manage the transformation than previous generations and build more sustainable systems that work for everyone. We must train them for certainty but prepare them for uncertainty, no matter their discipline.
Climate change places a new lens on every field of study, requiring this and the next generation to ask: What did you do when you knew?
Rachel Kyte is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.