Foreign Policy magazine invited me as a panel speaker for their Transformational Trends Forum 2015 and Global Thinkers Celebration on 1st December 2015 to the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, Washington D.C.
My fellow panelists were Dr. Benjamin Barber (Author of “If Mayors ruled the World“), AZ Governor Bruce Babbitt (Secretary of Interior in Clinton administration), Gulalai Ismail (aware girls), Johanna Schwartz (Documentary Film Maker), and Boyan Slat (Environment Entrepreneur).
What you read below is what I had prepared in writing the day before the Forum. What I actually said is transcripted in Youtube.
Human activity, particularly in the industrialized nations, is causing increased emission of carbon dioxide. A large portion of carbon dioxide comes from fossil fuel burning. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and supposedly forces global warming and climate change. That’s the theory. This global warming theory has become a hot topic.
And because our energy consumption is involved, it is a highly political topic. Frequently a polemic fight is going on whether global warming is a justified claim with a true scientific case, or whether global warming, even if it’s true, would do damage to the world. Some people are even religious about their particular views.
“Global warming” is a mine field which some nations want to avoid. Many countries have made commitments and curbed down their CO2 emission goals. Some countries don’t show up at all, some countries walk away when it’s about the safety of their own economy.
But I am looking at this from a different angle. Climate change, or not. We drive our energy consumption at large from fossil fuels. We are living in the 21st Century, actually in the 3rd Millennium. And still are we digging in the ground for coal. We are drilling holes for petroleum and gas. Does this look archaic to you? To me it does.
Burning fossil fuels is like living on your parents’ heritage. It’s not sustainable. But there is one sustainable energy source, and this is our sun. A giant nuclear reactor, 100 million miles away from us in safe distance, has provided the earth since 4 billion years with energy. And the sun will provide us with energy for the next 4 billion years to come.
This is a strong statement with serious implications, because solar energy, and its derivatives like wind and water energy, are challenging the global fossil fuel business model. It is actually challenging an even larger business complex, which has a domestic political, foreign policy, diplomatic, geostrategic and even military dimension. At times it is a vicious cycle. With it come huge hidden costs for you which you do not see when you fill your car at the gas station, even when one gallon is cheap.
I have lived in Kentucky for a couple of years and I know Kentucky is one of the coal states in this country. I grew up in Germany which has most of its energy coming from coal. And they want to sell their coal and make a profit from it. But you have seen technologies coming and going, and industries coming and going. Definitely burning coal and petroleum will come to an end very soon. Holding on to a tradition is not always a good choice. When time for change has come, you better do the change, get out of your comfort zone and rejuvenate yourself.
There is only one real constant in life, and this is the permanent change. Therefore, climate change, if it’s coming, is nothing new, in my opinion. It will be a pity if it’s a manmade climate change and if it has huge negative consequences. Because the worst harm is the harm which you do to yourself. And maybe we are indeed doing such harm to us now by sticking to an overcome energy technology, energy economy which is based on fossil fuels, which Thomas Friedman considers a curse in one of his books. The climate change scientists are selling fear.
Many of my colleagues work on alternative and renewable energy technologies. Some people put too much the focus on “efficiency”, while they ignore sustainability. Anyway, we give our best as scientists, engineers and technologists to make this world a better world. We are selling hope. But it is not we, who make the ultimate impact. Very much politics is involved, as I said already. And it is even not the politicians who make the impact. It is the regular people out there who cast their vote by making their day-by-day choices.
If you support politicians who support a policy for solar energy, somebody will start a business and make a profit out of it. This has been shown since the 1970s and it is now working worldwide. The solar cells become better and cheaper and stirred a turmoil in the conventional electricity market. When the electric grid says “we can’t handle it”, then this is a fantastic success for solar photovoltaics, and a failure for the grid. See the change.
But only less than 20% of global energy consumption is in electricity. The other +80% are in all sorts of fuels. The fossil fuels, the nuclear fuels, the biomass. Do you think these can be made in future with solar energy? Like solar fuels? As a scientist I have no doubt. Right now Toyota is delivering their new Mirai hydrogen fuel cell cars. Hyundai is following. Do I see in the West the dawn of the fossil fuel economy (I don’t mean California!), and in the East the rise of the hydrogen economy? See the change.
Therefore, I am not selling fear. I do not know whether there is reason for fear. But there is good reason for hope.