April 7-9, 2011

As living standards rise in the world's most populous countries and lead to skyrocketing demand for more energy, environmental concerns urge cutbacks in fossil-fuel usage. Proposals to limit energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions have been controversial, and have met with resistance from developing countries like China and India and from the United States, the world’s greatest consumer of energy. The scientific community agrees that climate change, caused by greenhouse gas emissions, is a dire problem requiring immediate action; however, the plan of action and the means of making it politically feasible remain in dispute. Meanwhile, an increasing number of scientists draw attention to the urgency of the problem, and the narrowing potential for reversibility of the long-term environmental effects. The catastrophic results of the Deepwater Horizon’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted the environmental costs of fossil fuel extraction, while political instability in oil-rich regions of the Middle East and Africa has helped keep fuel prices high. The finite limits of non-renewable energy sources have become increasingly apparent, and it seems likely that continued reliance on fossil fuels will result in heavy competition for remaining resources. In the coming decades, the competition over energy sources will grow, and questions of who will have access to energy and where it is going to come from, will be even more pressing.

The technology to enlist renewable sources such as wind power and solar energy exists, but has yet to be enlisted in the broad, sweeping manner required to substantially supplant fossil fuels. What new technologies are being developed, and what pursuits will be the most productive in the long run? What is required to implement a broad shift to renewable energy sources, and how can governments encourage energy conservation? How great an effect would current proposals, such as those found in the Kyoto Protocol or the carbon-trade systems suggested in the American political sphere have on the current problems, and what additional initiatives are required?

How does an understanding of previous energy crises and technological revolutions provide context to understanding contemporary and future problems? This seminar will consider the material aspects of the energy problem alongside ethical questions and historical overviews. What will new energy sources look like and how will they be allocated? What by-products and long-term environmental consequences will result from these new technologies? As materials grow scarce, should some people or purposes be considered more worthy of resources than others? How does one prioritize energy usage across borders? We will consider the economic and political stakes of energy policy, and consider how an issue that affects the whole earth can or should be managed by national governments and international corporations.

This seminar will include talks by Heidi Levin (University of Chicago Energy Initiative) with Robert Rosner (Astronomy and Astrophysics), Travis Bradford (Business Management), David Archer (Geophysical Sciences) and Elizabeth Moyer (Geophysical Sciences).

Pre-Readings

  • Ray Pierrehumbert - Losing Time, Not Buying Time [Link]
  • James Annan - Betting on Climate Change [Link]
  • Dipesh Chakrabarty and David Archer - Between Globalization and Global Warming [Link]
  • Edmund Burke - The Big Story [Download]
  • Jean-François Mouhot - We are All Slave Owners now [Download]
  • Paul Krugman - Building a Green Economy [Link]
  • Justin Borevitz, et al - Increased Food and Ecosystem Security via Perennial Grains [Link]
  • Dominic Woolf, et al - Sustainable Biochar to to Mitigate Global Climate Change [Link]
  • Myles R. Allen, et. al. - Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne [Download]
  • Martin I. Hoffert, et. al. - Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability [Download]
  • Martin I. Hoffert, et. al. - Energy implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content [Download]
  • S. Pacala and R. Socolow - Stabilization Wedges [Download]