An old adage says there are two sides to every story; yesterday evening, a public forum on United States energy policy proved a caveat to that truth. Four expert panelists representing climate science, legislative policy, economics and industry spoke about the priorities they believe will best serve the next president.
Given the proximity to what many consider a critical election, the forum provided important background information and answers to the UW community and the general public.
Tom Zimmerman, an employee of Schlumberger, the world's largest oil field services corporation, spoke about the future of global oil and natural gas supply. While alternative energy sources are critical to a balanced energy strategy, Zimmerman said coal, oil and natural gas will remain indispensable through the year 2030.
"It's a scale issue," Zimmerman said. "If you throw everything you have at all those alternatives, you make a dent in the total distribution of energy sources."
Thomas Ackerman, director of the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO), gave a scientific basis for energy policy grounded in his expertise in climate science.
"Climate change is happening," Ackerman said. "It is due in large part to greenhouse gas emissions associated with human activities."
Ackerman said avoidance of dangerous climate shifts will call for big changes.
"If you want to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2, you have to reduce emissions to zero," Ackerman said. "We're not talking about simple, small changes. We're talking about a collection of visionary policies with long-term trajectories."
Just as various technological options are available to policymakers, Joshua Linn, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said various economic strategies are available for reducing emissions. He noted that an ideal policy would proceed in a manner that keeps costs low.
"We'd like to minimize total future costs," Linn said. "A very innocent proposal is going with the low-cost opportunities first."
Linn said the most popular proposed legislation in Washington, D.C. calls for substantial decreases in emissions, generally between 60 and 80 percent. He said transportation and electricity each account for one-third of total CO2 emissions and are prime candidates for reduction.
"We want to take advantage of all the low-cost abatement prospects out there," Linn said. "It's cheaper to regulate electrical power, but that doesn't mean we should only regulate electrical power. There could be minor adjustments made to automobiles to increase gas mileage, for example. We shouldn't ignore other sectors."
David Goldston rounded out the panel, speaking from a public policy perspective. Goldston was chief of staff of the U.S. House Committee on Science from 2001 to 2006.
His remarks began with a summary of the challenges facing new climate change policy.
"It's hard because of individual Americans," Goldston said. "You have to raise energy prices, and no one wants to hear that. If you look at what people do versus what they say, we still have a ways to go."
In support of this idea, he presented the example of citizens who drive around with bumper stickers that say "Stop Climate Change."
He said significant progress is hard when the presidential campaigns have not been preparing the public for the kinds of changes that are needed.
After acknowledging the difficulties associated with implementing sound energy policy, Goldston suggested, almost optimistically, that the recent economic crisis has warmed the public to government regulation.
"It gets rid of a big political hurdle, but it tells people they're not paying enough when their pockets are being stretched," he said. "There still is a smaller hurdle that gets put up in its place."
In closing, Goldston remarked on what he considers the biggest factor in determining the outcome of new policy: "Is the public willing to tolerate these changes?"
After presenting ideas based on their own backgrounds, the panelists sat down for a Q-and-A session moderated by Steve Scher, radio host of KUOW's weekday show.
The audience, peppered with undergraduates, grad students and the public at large, focused its responses mostly on a single thread: specific technologies. One question regarded the developments in solar power.
"As far as solar goes, this is very incremental," Linn said. "These are going to be the first large-scale stations in the U.S."
Last night's forum was presented by the student group Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP) and sponsored by the graduate school.
Reach reporter Brian Smoliak at firstname.lastname@example.org.