Turning the corner on global warming

In his keynote speech this May to the Global Roundtable on Climate Change, held in Iceland and hosted by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson—the president of Iceland—challenged government and business leaders to take measurable steps now to build a prosperous and sustainable future through smart science and public policy. Grimsson’s call was echoed by others, providing evidence that rising energy prices and awareness of the world’s hydrocarbon dependence are finally aligning informed energy investment with reality.

Roundtable participants included national ministries from China, India, and Denmark, big power producers from around the world, and such global influencers as Societe Generale de Surveillance, Toyota, the United Nations, Wal-Mart Stores, and the World Wildlife Fund. Conference presenters noted that recent scientific and technological advances provide increasingly visible and troubling proof that ever-increasing worldwide energy consumption is taking a heavy toll on Earth’s climate system. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to build consensus on both the magnitude of the threat of human-induced climate change and what can be done to deal with it.

"Our generation has the scientific and technological wherewithal not only to understand what underlies extreme poverty and environmental distress, but also to find practical solutions," said Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. "We must use the abundant knowledge and resources at our disposal to create a safer, more prosperous, and sustainable life for all the world’s citizens."

Using core disciplines to define complex problems, the Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world’s leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth and its environs. The Earth Institute has been successful in mobilizing science and technology to advance sustainable development through research, training, and global partnerships.

Both approaches needed

One way to begin solving a problem as serious as planetary climate change is through individual action. Each constructive individual action helps trigger resulting actions that create a groundswell of change in communities across the world. Even something as simple as switching to a more-efficient kind of light bulb can make a difference—if enough people follow suit.

U.S. Geothermal—a global participant in renewable, clean energy production—represents another approach to the problem: large-scale action. The company and its peers are showing the world the power of what’s under the Earth’s rug: cauldrons of water kept hot by huge, underground geological forces. Like solar or wind or hydro power, electricity produced from geothermal sources produces very little pollutant emissions. Geothermal energy potential exists on every continent except Antarctica, and more than 24 countries now generate some electricity using the technology.

For companies like U.S. Geothermal—as well as for investors and governments—the mission is urgent:

  • There is political instability in the Middle East.
  • There are shrinking petroleum-based energy supplies.
  • Powerful demand for energy supplies is being asserted in developed economies.
  • In Asia, an economic surge led by India and China could double global emissions from coal plants in the next several decades.

Consensus is building

U.S. Geothermal is not alone in its hope that the corner has been turned in beginning to address climate change. This June, Alan Greenspan—in his first congressional testimony since retiring as chairman of the Federal Reserve—told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "I think the markets are working in the direction of a solution" to energy security with alternative energy sources. He encouraged urgent action in the U.S. The Economist, a leading global business magazine, reported in its June 10 issue why a growing number of companies are taking climate change seriously. Among the corporate change agents profiled were Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., General Electric, and Goldman Sachs.

Many of the corporations that have reversed their opposition to mandatory caps on carbon emissions—a key source of climate change—have done so because they realize that being "green" is now good for business. Public awareness of global warming and its potential consequences has never been greater. Indeed, all signs point to the continuing environmental education of a global society. Among recent realizations are the following:

  • It is possible for energy supplies to be sustainable, affordable, and adequate to meet demand.
  • Emerging economic powers such as India and China hold the key to solving global warming. Their embrace of clean energy production technology systems such as geothermal—either as users or assemblers—could help mitigate the negative impact of their rapid economic growth and the energy intensity it requires.

We all could learn a lot from President Grimsson’s Iceland, the "land of fire and ice." It’s no accident that Iceland’s wealth of natural resources has helped make it the world’s fourth-richest country, on a per-capita income basis. It is equally possible to combine smart science and public policy elsewhere. Doing so will ultimately lead us to solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our time—global warming.

—Daniel Kunz is president and chief executive officer of U.S. Geothermal Inc. (www.usgeothermal.com), a renewable energy development company that is developing a geothermal power project at Raft River, Idaho. He can be reached at 208-424-1027.