Jake Belcher

Sustainable Energy

Curbing emissions isn’t enough—we need emergency solutions for climate change

Top energy scientist Daniel Schrag says we have to adapt and innovate, because we’re already signed up for centuries of higher global temperatures.

It would be great if we could overhaul the energy system quickly and prevent further environmental devastation. But Daniel Schrag, the director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, says the more practical approach is to prepare for life in a world that is warmer, wetter, and more vulnerable to natural disaster.

During a presentation today at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference, Schrag emphasized the difficulty of transforming the global energy supply in time to halt environmental disaster. “This may be the hardest problem we’ve ever tackled in the world,” he said.

The challenge stems, in part, from the carbon cycle’s extremely long time scale. More than half of the carbon dioxide emissions currently in the atmosphere will still be there 1,000 years from now—and roughly one-third will still be there in 20,000 years.

Shifting energy infrastructure is also extremely complex and expensive. It took more than 150 years for coal to replace wood as the dominant source of energy, said Schrag. And climate change is a truly global problem. “As long as some countries continue to use fossil fuels and give off emissions, the [climate change] problem will continue to get worse,” he said.

Technology will help, said Schrag, who helped set up Harvard's effort to  investigate solar geoengineering as a way to artificially counteract global warming. The basic idea involves releasing sunlight-reflecting particles into the atmosphere to cool the planet.

Geoengineering is still in its infancy, but Schrag believes research should take place before we get desperate enough to use the technology. “If we don’t do research now, it’s likely that people will do it the wrong way,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll have one to two decades [before we need to deploy it] to figure out all the ways it could go wrong.”

Even as we move toward curbing emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change, though, we are also going to have to adapt. Schrag believes that means new developments in architecture, agriculture, and transportation will be important. “I think we will change the ways people build homes and how we live in and organize cities and suburbs … and [create] new, more resilient transportation systems,” he said. “The seeds are there for an incredibly innovative, exciting [next] century, though there also may be quite a bit of suffering.”