In the first half of this CleanTech Talk interview, Michael Barnard sits down with Paul Werbos, Ph.D. Co-Director of the Center for Intelligent Optimization and Networks, to talk about all things climate change. You can listen to the conversation in the embedded player below. Below that embedded SoundCloud player is a brief summary of the topics covered, but tune into the podcast to follow the full discussion.
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Paul has worn a number of impressive professional hats. As Co-Director of the Center for Intelligent Optimization and Networks, he was credited with the original development of black propagation and adaptive dynamic programming in the 1960s and 1970s. As a Brookings Fellow in the office of Senator Specter, he was responsible for climate, energy, and space policy. And, finally, he was formerly Program Director at the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Paul also wrote the foreward for Michael Barnard’s new machine learning report published by CleanTechnica.
Mike and Paul launched the podcast with a discussion on Paul’s journey to working on climate change. He explained that he learned the hard way that the planet is in trouble and that the “usual mechanisms” used to solve the challenges climate change poses are not working as well as he had hoped. In the year he worked for Senator Specter, he explored the intricacies of the political system and climate legislation. Even though by the end of the year he did not understand all of the challenges the planet faces in terms of climate change, he came to the realization that the future was at stake unless more creative mitigation and adaptation measures were put in place.
What interests Paul the most is the concept of “maximizing the probability we survive at minimum cost.” Both Mike and Paul explored this problem of optimization and how new technologies might play a part in the solution. Paul hopes to see more of a focus moving forward on low-cost solutions in particular.
Mike brought up the challenges of ocean acidification, which Paul focused on during his time at the NSF. Paul explained that humans have added fertilizer into the ocean from things like agricultural runoff and, if oxygen levels of the ocean lower (a phenomenon called a stratified ocean), then there would be a significant threat of mass extinction.
To layer on relevant political news, Mike brings up the Democratic National Convention and he and Paul dig into Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ climate action plans. Paul warns that they might depend on the same people involved historically in international climate agreements, which he believes to be a mistake. Instead, Paul proposes they listen to people who know more about how to deploy effective technology and new research as cost-effective solutions.
Since the two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions are electricity and transportation, Paul believes that new technology and less regulatory barriers to that technology could make significant progress in fighting climate change. Mike and Paul talked more about Biden’s climate plan and their hopes to see better targets and line-item costing. Mike believes Harris may be able to bring strong insight to the table regarding where to spend money and how much.
The two spent time addressing nuclear power and small-modular reactors. They agreed that this power source poses a significant threat to national security, citing Paul’s research on nuclear proliferation and terrorism. They also explored the case study of South Korea and their transition away from nuclear power.
Mike and Paul then decided to transition into a more detailed discussion about transportation. In 2009, Paul thought national security was the biggest threat the world faced until he was exposed to research on the immediacy of climate change. When he realized all the data pointed to a huge global challenge, he began exploring the technology that could help the world mitigate the problem and adapt. Paul expressed his desire to see more incentivization within markets so that people can have a choice between fuel-flexible hybrid vehicles and electric cars. While Mike and Paul argued about global supply chains and manufacturing solutions, they took a productive deep dive into climate change solutions through technology transformation. Mike’s biggest concern is the rhetorical use of research and development to delay effective action.
To wrap up the first half of this podcast, Mike and Paul talked more about the influence and responsibility of politicians and politics. To hear more on these topics, listen to the show!