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Home arrow Blog arrow 1/21/07 UC BERKELEY Nobel laureates say sustainability needs more than science

1/21/07 UC BERKELEY Nobel laureates say sustainability needs more than science PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erin Allday, Chronicle Staff Writer   
Sunday, 21 January 2007
The United States has the technology -- or at least the brains to build it -- to make significant progress in the fight against global warming. However, without widespread public and government support of energy conservation, technology can only go so far, say some of the brightest minds in Berkeley.

Half a dozen Nobel laureates -- five UC Berkeley professors plus the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory -- met before a vibrant crowd of 600 at the East Bay campus Saturday afternoon to exchange suggestions for battling global warming, from expanding the country's nuclear power program to designing nanotechnology that would mimic the way insects dispose of energy waste.

"Science is not the problem," said Donald Glaser, a UC Berkeley physics professor who won the Nobel Prize in 1960. "We can certainly build fuel-efficient cars. (But) year after year, Congress has refused to improve the mileage requirements for automobiles. We have to get together as a democracy and get our government to make changes."

Saturday's presentation was billed as a discussion on working toward energy self-sufficiency and ending the country's dependence on foreign oil and environmentally destructive sources of energy.

But UC Berkeley economics Professor Daniel McFadden, who won his Nobel in 2000, kicked off his presentation with a slightly pessimistic look in a lecture he called "The Dismal Science of Energy Self-Sustainability."

Human beings, he said, will probably never be as energy-self-sufficient as such species as "crocodiles and cockroaches." But on a more optimistic note, he said that while the world's energy consumption clearly is increasing, per capita consumption actually has been mostly stable in relation to overall increases in income. Meaning, we aren't necessarily wasting more energy as we get richer.

California has long been ahead of the game in energy conservation, said Charles Townes, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics who won the Nobel Prize in 1964. The state was the first to set regulations for energy-efficient appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners, and its housing standards are among the most rigorous.

Like Glaser, McFadden noted that the immediate strategy in fighting energy addiction is personal conservation. "The best answer is to just say no to energy," he said.

"Adoption of currently feasible energy-efficiency standards would go two-thirds of the way to energy independence," McFadden said. "It should be feasible for us to achieve energy sustainability by 2050 using primarily existing standards. Then we support research into new technologies, which we will need in the last half of the century."

Still, as tempting as it might be to focus on existing conservation techniques, it's going to take technological advances and, perhaps more important and more difficult, public support to accomplish any significant changes in energy consumption.

"There is widespread agreement that conservation is something we can do now. But that's the lowest-hanging fruit," said Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a 1997 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics.

On top of that, Chu said, no one really wants to pay $6 or $7 a gallon for gas -- even if such prices would have a huge impact on reducing how much oil the country uses. New technology has to play an important role, because humans aren't going to let go of their energy addictions, he said.

"There are some opportunities in new science that can really change the landscape," Chu said. "There's not one solution. But it's not going to be a scientific solution or an economic solution. In the end, the public has to buy into this."

And even with widespread conservation efforts, eventually the country and the world are going to need cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy, the scientists said. But there is no clear agreement on where that energy should come from.

George Smoot, a UC Berkeley professor of physics who won his Nobel Prize last year, pitched nuclear power as one of the fields with the most potential for clean, sustainable energy. But convincing the public is going to be tough, he admitted.

Meanwhile, the country is starting to lose ground in research on nuclear energy, as both the research and the scientists age and lose government support.

"Our investment in nuclear power and our loss of investment money is on the scale of the Vietnam War and Iraq," Smoot said. "The only thing we can produce on the scale we need is nuclear technology. We have to choose to make this a national priority. But public reaction has really impacted our capabilities for the future."

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