Weighing the Probability of Climate Change

We may not know how bad global warming will get, but the possible outcomes are so dire that we need to take mitigating steps.
  • Transcript


Question: What are the chances that climate change is not as bad as we think it is?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  Well, you know I was a regulator in the nuclear arena and, you know, nuclear science and technology, nuclear energy is an area that people tend to feel as strongly about as some social issues.  So much so that maybe it is one. 

When you’re in that arena and you know it is an important technology, and it has a role in this energy future we’re talking about, but it is a very sensitive technology that has to be handled well in design, in construction and especially in operation and it has a very sophisticated regulatory infrastructure that it really needs to accompany it.  But the real message is: when you’re thinking about the use of nuclear power, then risk has two components.  It’s probability of something untoward happening and its consequence. And there are certain arenas where the consequences is so high, that even if one things the probability is small, then one has to take mitigating steps.  And so that’s what I would say in answer to your question about climate change because whether we think the probability is a high that it is already upon us or will be within a short time, when we think consequence, then it says that maybe we mitigate.  And whether we think that climate changes are due to some fundamental long periodicity, natural evolution that depends on other things, if there is any exacerbating affect that we have on top of that and we think we can lessen that exacerbating affect, or if you think we really drive what we see; in either of those cases, because of consequence, we should do something about it. 

But even if we don’t believe it at all, just as you mentioned, the question of two billion people that really don’t even have access to real energy, where people are still living in poverty—and everybody wants to rise and developing countries wish to rise—then just the global competition for what, in the end, is always a limited resource says we ought to be smarter about how we use it... you know, what effect it has.  And so that’s what always links these two things; energy security and climate change.  And so what you really do in the one impacts, and can impact in a positive way, what happens in the other.  So if you believe in climate change and therefore, we should go to alternative renewable energy sources, or you believe in energy "independence," and I never talk about that, I always say "energy security," then maybe you go to renewables as well.  And so that‘s where I think we all need to try to come together a little bit more.

How effective do you think sequestration and carbon capture can be?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  I do think they can be effective.  It is not easy, but there are known compounds that can capture CO2 from flue gas and there are techniques for pumping CO2 into, you know, storage reservoirs.  But there still are studies that need to be done and understood in terms of how much of an engineered reservoir do we need?—  that is what is the role of engineered systems as opposed to natural reservoirs. And if we think we want to use natural reservoirs, then we have to understand things like porosity, escape paths, how long can the carbon or the CO2 be sequestered and are there other things that we can use that involve natural vegetation or things that bio mimic natural vegetation that can actually bind the CO2, or even turn it into more elemental forms of carbon?

So the answer is yes.  I think it is a solvable problem.  Is it a challenge?  Absolutely.  But, you know, the Department of Energy already is starting to do a number of projects and demonstration projects and interestingly enough, a number of energy companies as well are starting to look at these things and to begin to do things to sequester carbon.  And the irony is the kind of infrastructure that we use to extract gas and to get oil is the same infrastructure that we could use to sequester carbon dioxide.

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman