Princeton experts focus energy on sustainable human future

Oct. 15, 2007 11:23 a.m.

From the Oct. 15, 2007, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Humanity can't go on like this.

Earth's climate is shifting, and it is all but certainly civilization's fault for burning fossil fuels and spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. To avert the economic and environmental crisis that unchecked global warming is predicted to bring, humanity needs a sustainable way of living that threatens neither society nor the planet — and hundreds of Princeton researchers are banding together to find one.

Theirs is not an easy task, largely because the idea of sustainability encapsulates such a wide range of concerns. Climate change may be on everyone's lips these days, but a sustainable human future also requires everything from protecting the Earth's biological diversity to providing clean water for the developing world. Because of the sheer breadth of challenges that must be overcome, many campus experts are focusing on the one issue that touches nearly all the others: energy.

"Sustainability is a word that usually bundles together a lot of societal and environmental problems," said Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "But when you look at them as a group, many of them are in some way related to what I call the energy problem. That's where the issues of air pollution, greenhouse warming and energy security intersect."

Pacala has one of the broadest perspectives on campus sustainability work. As director of the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) and co-director with Robert Socolow of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI), Pacala oversees research efforts aimed at both protecting the natural world and reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into it.

Widely respected for his work on climate stabilization strategies with Socolow, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Pacala said that Princeton is an ideal place to collaborate on energy issues because of the University's historical strength in addressing them.

"On the energy problem, Princeton has the strongest program in the world in my opinion," he said. "We have the longest track record and the most invested as an institution in it."

Strength in history, strength in numbers

World-renowned mathematical biologist Robert May said that Princeton's commitment to sustainability work stretches back decades to a time before such issues were of wide concern to society.

"Long before people realized the unsustainability of the human footprint on the planet, Princeton had the major elements of an ideal grouping of researchers," said May, a professor of zoology at Oxford University who is a past president of the Royal Society and a former chief scientific adviser to the British government. "Rob Socolow, for example, was among the first to ask questions about how we could live with modern amenities while consuming less than half of the energy that we use now. Princeton's commitment to asking this sort of theoretical question has helped science move from describing problems to pursuing their solutions."

The majority of the approximately 115 researchers affiliated with PEI and CMI are engaged in some aspect of the energy problem. Some, like chemistry professor Charles Dismukes, are searching for renewable "green" fuel sources like clean-burning hydrogen generated by bacteria; others, like Tom Kreutz (.pdf), senior technical staff member at PEI, work on converting coal directly to electricity without greenhouse gas emissions.

"Princeton also has hydrologists like Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe, who is helping people understand how to move water from place to place, and conservation biologists like Daniel Rubenstein, who is clarifying how animals respond to human land use," Pacala said. "It's a critical mass of faculty that covers all the facets of sustainability."

Historically, Princeton's attractiveness to sustainability experts has been enhanced by its proximity to two federal laboratories dedicated to energy and environmental research: the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL).

"GFDL is one of the few labs in the world dedicated to creating predictive models of the Earth's climate, and is the only one collocated with a great university," he said. "Now we have lots of faculty working on climate models, and we have developed this tremendous expertise about climate and climate change. There are literally hundreds of people on campus working on these issues now."

One of these is Jorge Sarmiento, who has collaborated with the lab for three decades to study how the ocean absorbs the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel burning and deforestation. A professor of geosciences who did his postdoctoral work at GFDL, Sarmiento said the lab was a major factor in his decision to come to Princeton.

"My entire research career since coming to Princeton has been focused around the facilities and colleagues the lab has provided," said Sarmiento, who is director of the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. "And the University has had the vision to leverage the lab's presence to put together a world-class group of earth scientists. In my field, we have been able to attract researchers who study the oceans' fundamental biogeochemical cycles, which we must understand if we are ever to sustain the ocean environment."

While humanity needs to maintain its ecosystem, it also needs to pursue alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels. At least 27 University faculty members from seven departments are working on projects related to plasma science and technology, contributing to the Plasma Physics Laboratory's mission of developing fusion as an inexhaustible long-term energy option.

"Though a practical reactor is many years away, fusion is a magic bullet that could solve the planet's energy problems," Pacala said. "We simply must continue working on it. In the meantime, University experts are also confronting the many other issues that fall under the banner of sustainability."

Addressing these other issues requires a deeper look into the nature of why civilization's progress has caused the planet so much trouble, and Princeton faculty members are bringing the perspectives of many disciplines to the effort. In addition to the engineers and scientists who are involved, Stan Allen, dean of the School of Architecture, incorporates ecological principles into his own urban design practice. Also, Bernard Haykel and other historians in the Program in Near Eastern Studies explore potential solutions to the challenges of energy production in the Middle East. (Some of the breadth of Princeton's expertise in sustainability is represented in the related illustration above right.)

The future's challenges

Sustainability problems cannot be solved overnight, and Princeton has made new commitments to ensuring that this generation of experts — as well as the next — will have the chance to continue the work under way.

It is this support for education, May said, that elevates Princeton to pre-eminence among the world's centers for sustainability work.

"The Plasma Physics Lab and GFDL, along with the environmental studies group, certainly make Prince-ton one of the half-dozen best places in the world for this sort of research," said May, who was a professor of zoology and biology at Princeton from 1973 until 1988. "But all these components come together in a place that does not separate research from undergraduate education. That's really special — it's a place that does research like a university, but teaches like a college."

This year, PEI, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science have initiated a teaching and research program focused on important issues that share dominant environmental, political, social and engineering dimensions. The Grand Challenges Program is designed to promote student involvement and faculty research on three themes: energy with the related issues of climate change, air pollution and energy security; poverty, land use, water and biodiversity in Africa; and global health.

"The problems that confront society are often the ones that prove the most intractable, that take the most time and effort to solve," Pacala said. "The Grand Challenges initiative aims to take on some of the thorniest problems, and they all concern sustainability."

Grand Challenges will be organized around three research cooperatives, each of which will take responsibility for creating interdisciplinary programs of research and teaching that engage faculty, postdoctoral and graduate fellows, and undergraduates from across the University. The cooperatives are expected to grow over time as new research projects are initiated and new faculty and students begin focusing on the Grand Challenges topics.

Beginning this year, the program is offering one to three seed grants of up to $100,000 each to faculty members who are starting new research projects that fall under the Grand Challenges topics. If a study bears fruit within a year or two, Pacala said, it may evolve into a longer-running project of the sort that CMI has supported in a similar fashion.

"An example is the work that George Scherer is doing," Pacala said. One possible place to store smokestack carbon is underground, in the oil fields from which it came, and Scherer, the William Knapp '47 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is trying to figure out the best ways of keeping it there once it has been sequestered.

"Scherer is a ceramics expert who saw something that needed to be done, and he got a starter grant of this sort from CMI," Pacala said. "He has become one of the world's experts on sealing oil fields so carbon cannot escape. Now he's training lots of students in how we might sequester carbon. That's one example of how to train another generation to solve the important problems, and we hope the Grand Challenges Program will bring more."

The Grand Challenges Program involves all facets of Princeton's mission, seeking to serve the needs of both the nation and the world. Pacala said that a critical part of a sustainable human future is bequeathing solutions to the young people who will inherit the planet.

"We have all these problems," he said, "but we also have a responsibility to train the next generation to deal with them."

In the meantime, Princeton's expertise in this area continues to help shape the global dialogue. In 2004, Pacala and Socolow published a landmark paper in the journal Science outlining what could be done using current technologies to hold global carbon emissions steady for the next 50 years. Their paper, which divides possible solutions into easy-to-understand "wedges," quickly became a standard way of describing the problem and is referenced at practically all climate conferences.

"The wedges concept has become the iPod of climate policy," David Hawkins, director of the Climate Center at the National Resources Defense Council, told Princeton's EQuad News earlier this year.

"By designing an attractive and recognizable package, Pacala and Socolow have provided the climate community with a versatile and accessible tool that helps clarify the murky subject of reducing greenhouse gas pollution. Like the iPod, the wedges image is a versatile container that different users can fill with their favorite ideas on how to fight global warming."

Former Vice President Al Gore featured the wedges concept in "An Inconvenient Truth," his 2006 film about climate change.

Given the progress that is already being made at Princeton toward creating a sustainable future, Pacala said he is optimistic. "What's encouraging is the inventiveness of the human spirit and how many alternatives there already are and how many they're developing," he said. "A bunch of these problems have come together in a way they needn't have, and they point the way to a single solution — focusing on energy — to knock them all out at once."