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MIT Technology Review

Answering the climate call

With the impacts of climate change increasingly hard to ignore, public pressure to address it is mounting. Three MIT graduates are among those helping to shape the debate on how best to go about it.

December 27, 2019
Conceptural illustrationConceptural illustration
Conceptural illustrationSimon Landrein

On September 3, a day before CNN’s climate town hall with Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey released his climate plan. Within hours, Leah Stokes, SM ’15, PhD ’15, had taken to Twitter to analyze its key elements. The next day, she live-tweeted the seven-hour town hall for her 16,500 followers—and earned a shout-out from MSNBC host Chris Hayes to his 2 million Twitter followers. 

When she’s not posting her detailed, widely shared threads on the feasibility of candidates’ climate plans—or, say, excoriating Ohio lawmakers for stifling renewable energy development in an op-ed in the Guardian, or giving a speech on the viability of the Green New Deal at the University of Pennsylvania—Stokes is busy researching the power dynamics and public attitudes shaping the energy debate as an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“I feel a lot of responsibility to meet the moment,” she says. “There was a call sounded last fall,” she adds, referring to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report outlining how 1.5 °C of warming would affect the planet and the push for a Green New Deal by new members of Congress. “A few of us heard the call and showed up to do the work.”

Stokes immersed herself in climate and energy science at MIT while earning a master’s in political science and a PhD in public policy. Hanging around with atmospheric chemists and earth scientists at MIT helped her see energy issues in ways other policy people don’t, she says. When she analyzes climate policy, she focuses on the intersection of what’s politically possible, what’s scientifically necessary, and what’s technically feasible.

Stokes has distilled her close study of the politics of climate action into some practical advice on designing a Green New Deal—but is frank about the sheer scale of the challenge. “I really support the GND vision, but I find the time line of full electrification of transport and 100% clean electricity by 2030 really quite unrealistic,” she says.

For instance, her research shows that any ambitious climate policy must directly address local opposition to building wind farms and high-voltage transmission lines.

Yet she has also coauthored a study showing that support for clean energy and limits on carbon emissions is much broader than the congressional staffers crafting legislation assume. The extent of this perception gap correlates closely, she found, with the amount of time those aides spend meeting with representatives of the fossil-fuel industry. And her latest work finds that linking climate-change mitigation to economic and social policies that fight inequality actually increases support for the Green New Deal.

Her forthcoming book, Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy Laws and Climate Policy in the American States, analyzes tactics industry forces use to delay the adoption of clean energy. When entrenched interests such as big utilities and fossil-fuel companies can’t lobby their way to their desired outcome, “they expand the scope of conflict, and draw in other actors to influence the legislatures and regulators,” she says. “The three levers they use are the public, courts, and political parties.” She argues that clean-energy advocates should fight back by doing the same thing.

“We need structural institutional change,” Stokes says. “These companies have delayed climate action for decades. They have funded climate denial, and kept their polluting assets open way longer than they need to be. And they build new polluting plants to this day.”

Headshots of Leah Stokes, Jesse Jenkins, and Kate Ricke
From top: Leah Stokes, SM ’15, PhD ’15; Jesse Jenkins, SM ’14, PhD ’18; and Kate Ricke ’04
Courtesy photos

Stokes’s views are driven entirely by where the evidence has led her—a devotion to data that extends to her meditation practice. “I just had a 50-day streak,” she says. “I track everything.”

Decarbonizing the grid

On September 20, Jesse Jenkins, SM ’14, PhD ’18, testified in front of the US House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Climate Crisis on the role of nuclear technology in eliminating carbon emissions from the nation’s power supply. Afterward, he joined the throngs outside the Capitol in the climate strike that brought 4 million young people into city streets around the world, and tapped out an exhortation to his 24,000 Twitter followers: “Grab the biggest lever you can find and get to work bending the arc of history.”

Jenkins himself has long been working on one of the biggest levers around: the electric grid. Transforming the way we operate it, he argues, is the key to cutting climate-warming emissions across the wider economy. So he uses quantitative models to identify ideas for rapidly, efficiently, and affordably transitioning to a low-carbon electricity system.

“The grid spans the continent and millions of people and thousands of different generators,” he says. “It’s the most complex machine humans have ever built. But it’s also a social system governed by policy and regulation, which involves the individual decisions of countless actors.”

After several years as a renewable-energy policy analyst, Jenkins came to MIT to study energy systems and wound up zeroing in on the grid. He earned a master’s in technology and policy, and then got his PhD in engineering systems. That meant diving into economic theory, regulatory design, thermodynamics, and electrical engineering, all while staying abreast of the latest developments in climate science and policy.

What’s best for wringing carbon emissions out of that system is far from obvious. A recent study Jenkins coauthored suggests that aiming for 100% renewable energy may not be the optimal path.

Jenkins’s models showed that pairing variable renewables like solar and wind with a mix of nuclear power, geothermal, natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration technology, and biogas leads to much lower overall costs than relying exclusively on wind, solar, and battery storage. And building a lower-cost electricity system is essential, because it could help heavy-polluting sectors like transportation and industry cut their carbon emissions more quickly.

In September, Jenkins became an assistant professor at Princeton, with a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment. After years studying nuclear power and battery storage, he’s now scrutinizing natural gas with carbon capture and enhanced geothermal systems. “We really need one or more of these to work out, so I’m working to evaluate those options in more detail,” he says. One project involves developing a thermodynamic model to study how a new kind of natural-gas plant, which emits carbon dioxide in a way that’s much easier to capture for sequestration underground, might integrate with the wider grid.

“If I know it’s decision-relevant, and hopefully will help improve decision-making in the real world—that is what motivates my work,” Jenkins says. “That’s how I pick my problems.”

Climate change at the local level

Projecting how climate change will unfold in particular parts of the planet is an exercise in uncertainty. But predicting how people will respond is even trickier.

“The uncertainties get so much bigger as you move from the physical to the social side,” says Kate Ricke ’04, a climate scientist at the University of California, San Diego. The same is true when you go from global phenomena to local outcomes. “How everything sorts itself out at the sub-global level gets really dicey,” she says. “The uncertainty of how climate will affect me in my day-to-day life is a lot bigger.”

Ricke uses the tools of climate science and social science to study climate change through a regional lens. She looks not only at how our actions destabilize the climate, but at how the changing climate is transforming life in different parts of the world.

At MIT, where she majored in Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences with a minor in public policy, she did paleoclimate research in an organic geochemistry lab. After a stint as an environmental consultant, she got her PhD in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon so she could do both policy-relevant work and innovative scientific research. Today, Ricke holds a rare joint appointment as a professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and its Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and works closely with economists, political scientists, and physical scientists.

Most climate policy analysis relies on integrated assessment models, which plug the results of fairly simplified climate models into sophisticated economic models. Ricke complements that work by pairing sophisticated, state-of-the-art Earth system models with relatively simple economic models to study how institutions, governments, and international coalitions respond to climate change. “I’m interested in uncertainty from the regional effects of climate change—of things happening at the country level, that more granular level—because that’s what drives strategic behavior, and that’s important in international policy-making,” she says.

Her PhD research focused on solar geoengineering, which entails sending light-reflecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere to offset warming. She was one of the first to study in depth both the fundamental physics and the international politics involved in this controversial topic. How the global thermostat gets set, she discovered, matters when you’re trying to predict how different actors might deploy this risk-laden technology or form coalitions to constrain its use. But she says geoengineering merits more scrutiny as a climate adaptation tool.

These days, she’s also looking at how climate impacts such as water scarcity and sea-level rise will influence rates and patterns of international migration. “I took this topic on because it was so hard and there is so much interest in it—and there is such a dearth of good information,” she says.

She’ll have to analyze in unprecedented detail how different effects of climate change might spur migration, taking into account how these pressures could interact and how the response from governments and local institutions might affect where people migrate to and from. In other words, Ricke must draw on her deep expertise in both the intricate physics of climatic disturbance and the interlocking gears of international governance.

“There are some questions of climate science where the details of both physics and social science matter,” she says. “Unless you’re paying attention to both, you might miss something important.”