2023 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: The Future of Energy
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Thank you. I’m Neil deGrasse Tyson, your personal astrophysicist. I’m the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium, and welcome to the universe. Welcome to the LeFrak Auditorium of the American Museum of Natural History.
The Isaac Asimov Memorial panel debate began 23 years ago as a way to remember the life of Isaac Asimov. Isaac Asimov was a New Yorker, much of the research that went into his 600 books was conducted here in this institution in our research library, in the astrophysics library at the time co-located with the planetarium. And so he’s kind of a native son of this institution.
And rather than create a memorial or an exhibit, we wanted to create something that was alive. And so why not create a series that explored science topics that he would have explored and he would have been enchanted by as the moving frontier of science continues. So this is officially titled the Isaac Asimov Memorial panel debate. The word debate is in that title but it’s not — don’t think of it as a normal debate, point, counterpoint, vote at the end.
No, it’s a conversation on the frontier of a subject about which there’s only moderate agreement, which is the same thing as saying about which there is a lot of disagreement. But it’s not — so we will — so every year we gather people on a topic that needs some airing. And the way we run it is we have a conversation on stage, and you’re eavesdropping on it. That’s how this works. We’re not presenting, there’s no slides, no one is going to be showcasing. It’s just we’re having a conversation, and you’re going to watch.
And lastly, I’d like to warmly thank the estate and the family of Isaac Asimov. Some members of that family are represented here this evening. I just want to publicly thank them just for agreeing that this would be the appropriate way to remember the man, and that it’s something that deserves our continued support as we go forward, so thank you.
Tonight’s topic, the future of energy. Oh my gosh, could anything be more relevant scientifically, culturally, politically than that right now? I don’t think so. We have five panelists that have very specific expertise in this arena. I guess I can call it an arena, can’t I? Because we’re going to have a vibrant conversation about it.
So let me bring in first — I need my glasses for this. Old people glasses, it happens. Here we go. Let me first bring out David Wallace-Wells. David, come on out here. David. David’s a writer for the New York Times opinion column, and he’s a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, and author of the International bestseller, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.
Next, Olivia Lazard. Olivia, come on out. A fellow at Carnegie Europe. A fellow at Carnegie Europe focused on the geopolitics of climate change and ecological transitions. And her research focuses on identifying, managing, and reconciling tensions between decarbonization and regeneration. This is something hardly anybody talks about. So thank you, Olivia, for coming from Europe for this event. Thank you for squeezing that into your calendar.
OLIVIA LAZARD: Thank you.
TYSON: Yes. Next up, oh my gosh, the deputy assistant secretary for energy transformation at the US Department of State, Anna Shpitsberg. Anna, come on out. She’s responsible for supporting a shift to a decarbonized economy that enables resilient energy systems. The fact that America has a department that’s thinking about this just warms my heart. This is — oh my gosh. For a while there I didn’t think this was real.
All right, we’ve got earth science professor at Columbia University, Peter Keleman. Peter, come on out. Peter has expertise in something, who would have thought you would need it ever. He works to design and engineer methods that emulate spontaneous natural processes to achieve CO2 removal from the air, permanently storing it back in the earth. Oh my gosh. Okay, we’re going to get into that some more. Peter Keleman. And finally, we have, oh my gosh — we’ve got a plasma physicist from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Tammy Ma. Tammy, come on out.
TAMMY MA: Thank you.
TYSON: She’s member of the team that achieved fusion ignition at the National Ignition Facility this past December. Give it up for Tammy. Man. Let’s do this. So Tammy, what were you guys doing in December? It was headline news. You — we know we’ve been trying to harness fusion energy like forever. Up pops a headline at the Ignition Facility. I didn’t know there was a whole separate place beyond just the labs, where you’re focusing on just that. So could you tell us what actually happened? Remind us, please.
MA: Sure. So last December, for the first time we demonstrated in the lab more energy out of a fusion reaction than was put in. This is the holy grail of fusion, what we call energy gain. And we did this using the National Ignition Facility. It is the world’s largest, most energetic laser, 192 of them that shine on a fuel pallet of deuterium and tritium, they are isotopes of hydrogen.
If you get them to high enough density, hot enough, held together for a long enough time, you get those fusion reactions going. And in this case, this research has been going on for over 60 years, and for the first time we were able to get more energy out than we put in with the lasers, essentially generating a miniature star in the laboratory.
TYSON: We had one of your coworkers on my podcast, and he told us what temperature you reached. What temperature did you reach in there?
MA: A hundred million degrees celsius.
TYSON: Okay, just to make it clear, the center of the sun is only like 10 million degrees. So you were more bad ass than the sun.
MA: We were the hottest place in the solar system.
TYSON: All right, we’re coming back to you for sure. Peter, lately you’ve been trying to sequester CO2, that’s a good, admirable thing. But as a geologist, most of you — I don’t think the public knows that many of you were sustained on payroll by the US government to look for mineral resources that the government could exploit economically.
PETER KELEMAN: Well, I don’t know that the US government has ever paid me, but I did that for — as a consultant for a dozen years, yeah.
TYSON: And so you have an acute awareness of the distribution of minerals around the world.
KELEMAN: Yeah, I mean, I teach a class on earth resources, and students take it because they’re very concerned about shortages and things like that.
TYSON: And so presumably that list of, call them resources, minerals, the ones we care about most can change from one decade to the next depending on the needs of our culture, or especially our technology.
KELEMAN: Yeah, very much so. And I think probably a lot of people here have read the New York Times over the past year or so, and seen a real focus on the sorts of things that are needed for the clean energy transition where that would be the ingredients that go into lithium ion batteries and —
TYSON: I guess lithium is one of those ingredients.
KELEMAN: Well, lithium is, but I actually — I am ashamed to tell you I never stopped to think what else is in there. We could talk a little bit about that, but — and also rare earth elements. But let’s talk about the battery ingredients. The things that are prized in the automotive industry in the wealthy world are nickel and cobalt. And so the New York Times has had a lot of really good coverage of cobalt resources coming from the Congo.
TYSON: I know we can make nickel and cobalt in supernova explosions. And in the universe there really is no shortage of nickel. So what’s your problem? Where are you looking for the nickel?
KELEMAN: Well, I’m actually not sure there’s going to be a shortage of nickel, but cobalt is a little bit in short supply. But something that isn’t really widely covered is that in less wealthy markets people make batteries for cars using other metals. Manganese and phosphorous instead of nickel and cobalt. And so that’s interesting, right?
So in the US, people want to drive a long way between charges, and they want to have a small, light car, and that’s what the nickel and cobalt ingredients are good for. But in other markets, people are more concerned about the cost of the car, and you can make it cheaper with these more abundant ingredients.
TYSON: So there’s a decision matrix that shifts depending on where you live in the world.
KELEMAN: Yeah, and ultimately it will depend on these various shortages that people are quite concerned about. But I think it’s important for people to know that there are alternatives. We’re not going to suddenly come to a screeching halt if cobalt runs short.
TYSON: And tell me also about removing carbon briefly. What is carbon sequestration? What is that?
KELEMAN: Well, so carbon sequestration covers a lot of things. So you can either capture CO2 from point sources like power plants, but also cement and steel factories. And then put that in the ground. Or —
TYSON: Where it originally came from as fossil fuels.
KELEMAN: Yes, although keep in mind that when we burn fossil fuels, we pretty much — we add oxygen, that’s what burning is. And we pretty much increase the mass and volume by a factor of almost four. And so there’s less space has been vacated by removal of fossil fuels than we need to put it back in the ground.
TYSON: So you need a really big hole.
KELEMAN: You can use big holes, or we can try and — as you alluded to when you introduced me, you can try and make solid carbon bearing minerals which are denser than CO2 fluid.
TYSON: Okay, because you can’t just replace volume for volume, that’s your point.
KELEMAN: Correct. Although yeah, there’s —
TYSON: You could build a mountain. What’s wrong with that?
KELEMAN: Well yeah, so if we wanted to use mine tailings to carbonate — to make carbon minerals on the surface, you’d make a pile 30 to 300 meters thick in the area of Washington, D.C. for every billion tons of CO2 removed from air.
TYSON: Okay, but to put it in a skiing place and then we’ll go skiing.
KELEMAN: Yeah, I have a slide I use though where, you know —
TYSON: If you take out enough CO2 it’ll be global cooling, and then —
KELEMAN: A hundred meter pile of —
TYSON: And the mountains will have ski slopes on them.
KELEMAN: There you go.
TYSON: You’re missing out on an opportunity there, I’m telling you.
KELEMAN: Thanks, yeah.
TYSON: Anna Shpitsberg. Thank you for coming up from Washington, D.C.
ANNA SHPITSBERG: Thank you for having me.
TYSON: Thank you. I’m just — I’m so charmed and warmed and even tickled that your office exists at all. Just tell us what are the goals of your office at the Department of State.
SHPITSBERG: Sure. So the mandate of our office is to design and implement international energy policy, and our goal is threefold —
TYSON: International. Oh, of course it’s the State Department.
SHPITSBERG: International energy policy.
TYSON: Oh, of course. The State Department.
SHPITSBERG: For the benefit of the American people and our partners and allies. But we have three goals. It’s energy security, it’s energy access, and it’s building a clean energy economy. So we use all of our partnerships with countries, diplomatically and multilaterally, to align in policy, and to push innovation, and to push stabilization of markets, and to support each other technically and regulatorily to achieve our goals.
TYSON: That’s a lot going on there.
SHPITSBERG: That’s a lot going on.
TYSON: Right, the geopolitics mixed in with the economics mixed in with the technology.
SHPITSBERG: That’s right, that’s right.
TYSON: Now you mentioned very casually the United States and our allies, but it seems to me the energy future is going to require the whole Earth, not just USA and our allies.
TYSON: So what are you doing about that? How about the people who are not our allies? What do we — it requires a global solution, doesn’t it?
SHPITSBERG: It requires a global solution, and that’s why we do work multilaterally, and we do reach out to everyone. Because the reality is if you look — well, we only contribute — we contribute 10% to emissions, so there’s no way we —
TYSON: The world’s emissions.
SHPITSBERG: The world’s emissions.
TYSON: Of CO2, I presume you mean.
SHPITSBERG: Of CO2. China is about 27%, the next after us was India.
TYSON: Just to be clear, the population of China is at least three times that of the United States.
SHPITSBERG: That is correct.
TYSON: So to say, oh, they’ve got nearly 30%, and we have only 10%, that just tracks with population even.
SHPITSBERG: Yes, very much so. We need to work together, and there are avenues where we have said, whether it’s health or climate, it is not just about working with our allies, we need to work with everyone. So we do reach out to all our partners to try and push that.
TYSON: So you’ve got to make nice with people as the State Department should be doing at all times.
TYSON: Yes, okay. I’m reminded of a quote from Abraham Lincoln, which is, do we not conquer our enemies by making them our friends? Abraham Lincoln.
KELEMAN: Arguably, we tried that.
TYSON: Okay, again, thanks for making this trip. I can come over here.
SHPITSBERG: Yes, thank you.
TYSON: So you study things that people might overlook in their zeal and enthusiasm when they decarbonize. So from what you’ve just heard, or from what you otherwise know, yeah, we all want an electric car and drive 300 miles, yeah. But presumably, to manufacture the car itself had a carbon footprint. And there’s a carbon footprint practically everywhere. So do we have blindspots right now? Are we delusional as we march forward, thinking we’re doing the right thing and maybe not?
LAZARD: We do, and we have many. Too many to list on this stage, but I’ll try to be as quick as possible. But before I do, I’ll say this as a disclaimer. Decarbonization needs to happen. We only need to look at, you know, the synthesis report of the IPCC yesterday.
TYSON: Yesterday? Oh wow, I missed that.
LAZARD: Yeah —
TYSON: Okay, so what happened? What did it say? Is it just bad? Don’t tell us.
LAZARD: It is fairly bad. It’s bad. It’s still hanging on to a thread of hope.
TYSON: You read this on the airplane coming from Europe?
LAZARD: Yes, I did.
TYSON: Okay, thank you. Thank you for staying on top of it for this. I missed it. Go on, yeah.
LAZARD: But there is essentially a number of different things that we need to take care of in our efforts to decarbonize, and we follow a very linear type of thinking trying to say, well, CO2 is a problem, so we need to solve the CO2 problem so we —
TYSON: When you say we, you mean society as very linear thinkers.
LAZARD: Exactly. And we won’t get into the history of that, but it’s, you know, what we need to do. But the thing is that in order to do this, clearly we need to shift from a fossil economy to a mineral economy. And Anna, you were just mentioning that, Peter as well. And in order to produce the same amount, the same concentration of power that can come from fossils, we need a lot of different minerals. And in order to decarbonize a lot of really energy intensive economies, we need a lot of different minerals that are not — well, that are scattered all around the planet.
TYSON: When you say concentration of power, so in the world of physics we would call that energy density. That’s the same thing?
LAZARD: Exactly, yeah.
TYSON: So how much energy fits in a pint of liquid, and if — sorry, a half liter of liquid.
LAZARD: Talk European for me, please.
TYSON: The French invented the metric system, so out of respect, and she’s from France. France. So energy density, so it’s very hard to compete with, you know, the amount of energy in gasoline that you can dig out here and bring over there and use it there.
TYSON: So that’s part of this challenge, I presume.
LAZARD: Exactly. And so where you’re going to mine the minerals in order to assemble all of the clean techs that we need to generate the energy that supports, well, the US economy, for example, or European economies. Outside of China, outside of the US, outside of Australia, you need to look at places that are very ecologically sensitive. So we’re looking at, you know, sort of mineral belts in the Amazon Basin, and the Congo Basin, and the wet forests of Asia, and the Arctic, and the deep seas.
Essentially all places that we haven’t conquered yet, and that are very important to regulate and stabilize the global climate regime. If we touch them, we weaken ecological interdependencies, and we weaken ecological integrity. Not only that, a lot of the places where we find the —
TYSON: You’re bumming me out, I just want to let you know.
LAZARD: Well, we’ll get to the good part afterwards.
TYSON: Oh, there’s good. Okay, thank you for telling me that.
LAZARD: Like we’re working on it, right?
TYSON: Something to look forward to tonight.
LAZARD: But there is a stacking up of different risks. Another one is that the places where we find essentially those different minerals are very climate vulnerable, and mining is very resource intensive and has an impact on water, and has an impact on soil, which are really —
TYSON: The groundwater below, the aquifer sort of thing.
LAZARD: Exactly, absolutely. But also in the hydrological cycle. The transformation of, you know, water from liquid to gas and back into liquid, which helps to regulate some of the, you know, local temperatures and local ecosystems. So if we touch those ecosystems and if we don’t gear innovation towards how to regulate material use and material consumption, then we’re essentially maintaining business as usual, economies that will plunder the planet on our way to saving the climate.
And that will have very large effects also in terms of systems reveries at geopolitical levels, but also, and this is one of the last things that — I mean, there are many more, but another risk to take into account is that a lot of places where we go and mine tend to rate fairly high scores on fragility and corruption issues. Two different aspects that are very co-optable.
TYSON: A high score on a corruption scale is a bad thing.
LAZARD: Yes. It’s not going to be very good.
TYSON: High score in corruption, okay. Just trying to make sure.
LAZARD: But again, it may also depend on the geopolitical effort. But the thing is that within a systems reverie sort of constellation, corruption can be co-optable. And that will have very severe impacts on environmental safeguards, on governance, on social safeguards that need to be really controlled and sort of strengthened in order to transition not just fast but smart as well. And for the global good.
TYSON: Okay, promise you have something good to say later. Promise?
TYSON: Okay, thank you. David, as the only journalist among us, in fact, the very first journalist we’ve ever had in this panel, just to put a little pressure on you, we brought you on because you’ve written about all of this. And so you have a broad view, as any good journalist should, to be able to sort of stitch together places where people can think, where they might not have thought it natural to think that way. So I just want to congratulate you on the success of that book, which as I understand was based on a highly controversial, widely distributed article you wrote for New York Magazine, was that right?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yep.
TYSON: Yeah, so what are your reflections on this when you look at the balance of what it is people want to do? We want to go to solar, right? But not everybody has sunlight. And not — and the sun isn’t up 24 hours. And so that has some drawbacks. And everything seems to have a drawback. Have you been able to reconcile all of that into some coherent narrative?
WALLACE-WELLS: There are challenges. I mean, the transition is going to be difficult. It will impose some costs on ecological wellbeing, there’ll probably be some social and political costs along the way too. But when I look at the big picture, I just see the logic is very, very clear that the system we are living with now, and which we’ve been living with in the US for, you know, depending on how you want to count, a century or two, in other parts of the world for less time, is doing much, much more damage.
And that the logic is really, really clear that we need to move from that system to a new system. We need to design the new one in a healthy way. But when we’re talking about fossil fuel, pollution killing millions of people every year, killing hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, you know, that’s a catastrophic, immediate cost that we’re paying right now for the privilege of living with a status quo which we also know is heating the planet beyond the envelope of temperatures that have enclosed all of human history. We are already warmer than the planet has ever been whenever humans were around to walk on it, which means that everything we have ever known as civilization is the results of climate conditions we have already left behind.
TYSON: So we’re in the middle of an experiment right now.
WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, and we kind of have to get it right.
TYSON: Now you talk about systems, and there’s a lot in that word. You’re talking about the endemic structure of what we today call civilization needs a major shift. That you can’t just piecemeal, throw in this solution and that and that, and expect that to take us where we need to go.
WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, we’ve been talking a little bit so far about cars and a little bit about solar, and those are really important. They’re the sort of lowest hanging fruit. And they’re the things that we know how to do right now. But actually there are even bigger challenges in heavy industry, we don’t have really good solutions for how to replace that power. We don’t really know how to do agriculture in a more climate friendly way.
Infrastructure is also a challenge. So even the things that are like the easy parts of the solution are really quite hard and challenging. It really is a systemic, whole civilization scale infrastructure rebuild that we need to do in order to make sure that we’re not producing so much additional carbon that the planet’s heating accelerates really quite dramatically and makes all the expectations that we’ve carried into the present about the way the future will be — we need to protect those expectations as opposed to discard them on the way to a much harsher future.
TYSON: You’re bumming me out more than Olivia did. Tammy, if your fusion works, we solve all the problems. Is there any — the people who fear nuclear energy, because that’s one of the two N-words you’re not supposed to use in polite company, if you — I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “No nukes,” and the O in the no was the sun. And I thought, do they know how the sun makes energy? Can we like complete that story here? But if what you do works, it’s unlimited — so is there any like radioactive backlash on this? What is the — is there a danger that people fear for what you’re doing?
MA: Yeah, so fusion is clean, right? In the process of fusing deuterium tritium, which are hydrogen, you generate helium and energy, neutrons. And so we know helium’s safe, right? You can suck a helium balloon and have a little fun, and no damage.
TYSON: Unless that’s all you breathe, and then you die. Yeah, okay.
MA: Yes, in limited amounts.
TYSON: So the helium is not what would have killed you, it’s the absence of oxygen that would have killed you. Okay, helium is a byproduct. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade will love you for that, yes.
MA: Exactly, yeah. And so we say it’s clean, right? There’s no carbon anywhere in the reaction. We say it is nearly limitless, because deuterium is naturally occurring in seawater, and tritium we know how to breed. It couldn’t help meet base load power. We envision fusion power plants to be able to replace gigawatt scale coal power plants.
And there’s no high level nuclear waste, which is what you’re referring to, Neil. We do generate energetic particles, and small amounts of low level radiation, but it’s different from fission, which is the other nuclear, the bad nuclear. But it’s actually not bad, but we’ll get back into that later.
TYSON: So you just make — you generate good radiation.
MA: We generate radiation that decays quickly. And so there’s no long lived waste that you have to bury and wait thousands of years for it to decay.
WALLACE-WELLS: Just to jump in about the bad nuclear for a second. More people die every day from the air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels than have ever died in all of the accidents from all of the nuclear power ever produced in history.
TYSON: David, that tally is not commonly thought about. It seems to me if it were, we’d be taking faster action sooner. So what you — I think what you’ve done there is you look at the air quality, especially where you have power plants and things, and now we’re not just talking about CO2, we’re talking about regular old fashioned pollution that we all grew up with here in New York with smokestacks and that sort of thing.
I’m old enough, because I’m an old fart here, that coming home from school, I had to brush ash off my shoulder that settled from smokestacks from apartment buildings burning their trash. Okay, so now — I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Are you saying that you could — there’s a way to calculate the effect of this poor air quality on people’s health, and look at how many people have died because of it? Because whenever they die, they don’t say, “Oh, the fossil fuels killed me.” They just said, “Oh, I had asthma, and it was a bad breathing attack.” So I think there’s not truth in advertising here.
WALLACE-WELLS: I mean, it’s — there are scientific computational disputes about exactly how large the numbers are, but there is no dispute that that effect is real. And the range of estimates is globally, even the low estimates are in the millions of lives every year lost, globally according to a big project at the University of Chicago that manages — monitors this stuff. Globally, life expectancy is cut by two years by air pollution from production of fossil fuels. In India, and parts of India, it’s as much as a decade. So the average Indian in the Indo-Gangetic Belt is living nine years less than they would without pollution.
TYSON: And that has nothing to do with CO2, that’s just like regular old pollution.
WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, it’s called PM 2.5, or particulate matter pollution.
TYSON: What about people who die mining coal? That’s a whole other calculation, right? This guy here, they mine coal.
KELEMAN: Yeah, I will say that deaths due to coal mining, which were in the thousands per year in China have come down a lot. And in the United States it’s down into the single digits. So it was — fatality in coal mining was a tremendously big problem, and it’s still a problem, and we should all think about that when we turn on the lights, but —
TYSON: So are they wearing masks now? Why does it drop from thousands to single digits?
KELEMAN: Because in the early days people didn’t worry too much about mine gas. They didn’t worry too much about ventilation, they didn’t worry too much about —
TYSON: That’s what the canaries are for.
KELEMAN: And keep in mind that we’re not too far away from having robotic mining. But I’m not advocating coal, okay? I just —
TYSON: That’s all right, we’re among friends here. We can say what you want. By the way, I remembered, because I was — I had enough geek in me as a kid. In the Random House Dictionary unabridged, which I think was the largest sort of American language dictionary, the longest word in that dictionary was pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.
KELEMAN: I think it was supercalifragilistic —
TYSON: No, not supercalifragilistic — that’s a different dictionary you’re looking at there. And I said, what the hell is this? Pneumonoultra — you can break it apart. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. It’s black lung disease. That’s the long word for black lung. So that — I knew that word before I even knew what it meant, and then I found out what it is. I said, people are dying from this? Like what’s up with that?
Let me get back to Tammy here. So Tammy, you just said that you use the most powerful lasers in the world, and from what I read, each one of those 192 lasers is itself the most powerful laser in the world other than the other 191 lasers. Is that correct?
MA: That is correct.
TYSON: Okay, so —
MA: Almost. Energetic.
TYSON: Energetic. So how could you possibly say, oh, one day everybody will have this? Only you have that. How — that is not going to be like Mr. Fusion in — what’s the movie? Back the Future, where he comes from the future and he has a fusion device in his car powering his car. That does not sound like it’s going to happen any time soon. And David, how much of this is vaporware that we hear about?
WALLACE-WELLS: Do you want to answer first?
MA: I’ll go first, and let David —
TYSON: Okay, you go first, but I want David to sort of look at the broad spectrum of them, yes.
MA: So yeah, there’s still a lot of work to do.
TYSON: You think? Yeah, okay.
MA: Yeah. Like I said, we’ve achieved a gain of 1.5 so far. So we put two units of laser energy in. Two mega joules, got three mega joules out. So a gain of 1.5, three over two. For a fusion power plant, it is envisioned we’d have to get gains of 50 to 100. So there’s a couple of orders of magnitude we have to improve our reactions as. And furthermore, right now we are a scientific facility. So we’ve done it once.
We do an experiment about once every four to eight hours or so. It’s set by the cooling time of the lasers. That’s about as fast as we can go. We would need to repeat this reaction about 10 times a second. So still a lot of science —
TYSON: Okay, you come back in 100 years when you’ve got something there. Yeah, what’s up, Peter?
KELEMAN: So what’s the minimum size you would envision for a fusion power plant in gigawatts?
MA: About four to five hundred megawatts. So half a gigawatt. Kind of on par with today’s coal burning plants. To be economical. But that is one of the big challenges. Not only do we have to make it work, it has to be economical to compete with these other sources of energy as well.
KELEMAN: Right, okay. But I’m surprised — so I had heard they have to be really huge, and then that poses a strategic risk in the same way that if you’re desalinating water to serve a million people, and someone blows up your de-sal plant, now what? So I had heard that fusion suffered from that same kind of centralization problem, but maybe not.
MA: Well —
TYSON: That’s why we have Anna here, so that no one does bad things in the world, okay? She oversees that sector. So Anna, geopolitically, how —
WALLACE-WELLS: Can I answer — sorry to jump in, but like about —
TYSON: In this panel, never be sorry for jumping in. Go.
WALLACE-WELLS: So the question — obviously this is not vaporware. Obviously this is working, but it is working in a laboratory, one laboratory, and we’re talking about replacing the world’s energy systems, which is a global infrastructure supporting the daily lives of eight billion people. And when we talk about the climate crisis, and talk about the challenges, we fall into this trap so often where we think there’s a magical technology right around the corner if we just solve this or just solve that.
We have the tools we need to do most of the work right now, we’re just not putting them into — you know, we’re not building them out nearly at the pace that we need to, and we can’t simply substitute future tech that may be coming or may be developing, may be scalable, for the stuff that we know we need to do now. The challenge for me —
TYSON: She said she’d come back in 100 years. She said that.
WALLACE-WELLS: I’m excited about the future — you know, the future of nuclear power, but we can’t wait for that to happen, and there is like a long lag that is like — we’re not talking about this being ready at commercial scale in two years and three years. And, you know, to try to avoid 1.5 degrees of warming, which the IPCC says is what we should be aiming for, we’re probably going to run out of that carbon budget in less than two years.
TYSON: Anna, globally, do you have to — I assume the answer is yes, but I want to hear it from you, that globally not everyone has the same solution to these same problems. And so there are regional ways people can meet their energy budget. So are you here to foster what can be local solutions, or might you have a bigger solution that you can share with them or possibly even help them afford? When I say you, I’m talking about the American people, because you are the Department of State.
SHPITSBERG: Yeah, this is a really big geopolitical sensitivity, because the reality is because of supply, because of cost, you can have entire governments overthrown. Energy is key to stability. And the reality is that 70% of emissions come from energy. So we pay the cost. And the United States, for example, we pay over $100 billion to recover from natural disasters. It is a cost. But we don’t see it in our energy bill. Same everywhere else around the world.
TYSON: Oh, interesting.
SHPITSBERG: So the problem for —
TYSON: So the accounting is a little deceptive.
SHPITSBERG: It’s an externality. And so it’s the putting of resources to solve this issue, to save costs somewhere else, is not apparent in any economy. We have to make it apparent. And in terms of technology and there being one solution, every single place is different. But to David’s point, we need a slew of technologies. We need a bucket. And it’s going to be a different bucket everywhere, but commercial technologies will get us part of the way, the technologies we’re working on right now will — we’re going to need past 2030, or there’s no way we’re going to actually get to it.
TYSON: Olivia, do you see — I mean, do you agree that there’s not one silver bullet waiting to be introduced here?
LAZARD: Is there ever?
TYSON: Okay. Thank you for that.
LAZARD: So I’ve got a question for —
TYSON: If you succeed with your carbon sequestration, you know, that means the oil companies will just keep making oil.
KELEMAN: This is known as the moral hazard.
TYSON: The moral hazard.
KELEMAN: Yes. So is taking CO2 out of the air just facilitating the bad guys to keep on doing bad stuff.
TYSON: But then they’re not bad anymore because they’re not destroying the world.
KELEMAN: Good point. But frankly, let’s talk about — so right now the IPCC and other people say that by 2050 we have to be removing 10 billion tons of CO2 from air every year. That’s —
TYSON: Could you put that in context for — ?
KELEMAN: Yes, that’s two and a half times the mass of oil and gas that the industry moves around every year. So we’re imagining, just to do what the IPCC wants, we’re imagining an infrastructure, an industry that’s two and a half times bigger than the oil and gas transportation industry. Now you want to make it bigger? That’s really asking a lot. I think, again, let’s go back to David’s point, we should be doing lots of things in parallel. Taking CO2 out of the air, people have concluded is necessary, is actually necessary to achieve net zero.
TYSON: And you would do that at the points of emission, so at the power plants ideally?
KELEMAN: No, both. No.
TYSON: You just have some out floating in the air?
KELEMAN: Well, it’s not floating, it’s on the ground, but it is —
TYSON: Okay, so on the ground and —
KELEMAN: All climate models agree that we have to be doing — by 2050 we have to be taking about 10 billion tons out of the air, in addition to the point sources.
WALLACE-WELLS: And the reason they come to that number is because that’s the number of carbon we don’t know yet how to decarbonize. So that’s not the number that like, oh, it’s going to allow us to drive our gas cars. It’s the heavy industry we don’t have a solution for.
KELEMAN: Right, that’s after you’ve done all the steel factories and all the cement factories and all the carbon capture at the smokestacks and the coal fired power plants that people are still building.
TYSON: Okay, so that would neutralize the future damage they would do. Now you have to correct for the damage that’s already been done.
KELEMAN: Correct, that’s right. There’s a legacy, yes.
WALLACE-WELLS: And talk about the scale of that for a second. There’s more carbon in the atmosphere by weight than the mass of everything that humans have ever built on Earth. So when we’re talking about undoing the damage of the Industrial Revolution, we’re really talking about taking quite a lot of stuff out of the sky and burying it back on Earth.
KELEMAN: So we’re doing our best, but don’t expect us to do this for — you know, and now we can just go on with our party.
LAZARD: Invent the silver bullet.
TYSON: But it kind of sounds like that’s what you’re saying.
MA: We think it’s a part of the solution. It’s a part of the solution.
TYSON: A part of the solution, I got it. I got it.
LAZARD: I do have a question though about that. From what I understood, one of the carbon capture systems that’s been working so far is Clean Works in Iceland. But it runs on geothermal energy. If we want to do carbon capture systems in other parts of the world that may not have clean energy already, then we actually produce carbon in order to store it?
KELEMAN: Right, right. So there’s a couple of different ways to address that. One would be — and what most of the people I talk with say, oh, we’ll be using solar then. Okay, so the energy will come —
TYSON: Again, there’s the future, oh, that’ll save us, right?
KELEMAN: Well no, that’s a known technology. That’s — that just means we’re going to expand solar electricity generation very quickly. The other way around that, which is a little technical, but if you remove oxygen from air at the front end, and you burn methane, the thing that goes up the smokestack is nothing but water and CO2, and it’s very easy to separate those two gases. And so you could — now, most of the people that I consult for won’t do this because their investors don’t want anything to do with fossil fuel, cradle to grave. But you can — oxi-fired methane is very easy to capture the CO2.
TYSON: All right, okay. So you’re part of the solution here.
KELEMAN: Oh, I certainly hope so.
TYSON: Okay, so —
KELEMAN: But not the whole solution. I just want to say, don’t count on us.
TYSON: So I love me some Iceland. We filmed some episodes of Cosmos in Iceland, because it’s one stop shopping. There’s like smoke coming out of the ground, there’s like primordial earth. You’ve got mountains, you’ve got valleys. It’s like you can cover billions of years of Earth history just snapshotting Iceland. But I learned that they were once almost entirely on fossil fuels, and then they realized we’re — they’re basically sitting on a volcano, and the volcano’s like five inches below the ground.
And so they converted, on purpose, to geothermal energy on a level where they now warm the streets so that — just take it to 34 degrees, whatever. Then the snow never sticks, nobody has to shovel, nobody has — there’s no car accidents. It could be bad weather and everybody’s driving on dry roads. So first, is — how real is geothermal energy going forward?
KELEMAN: So Iceland — and the biggest geothermal power plant in the world actually is in California. They’re mining fossil steam. So there’s steam in the ground, and they’re just producing it and running a turbine. They do recharge a little bit [UNINTEL]. But anyway, it’s natural steam. When we talk about building this all over the world, we’re talking about so called hot dry rock, where there’s not steam, so we’re going to circulate water down, heat it up, and then bring it back.
TYSON: How far down do you have to go?
KELEMAN: Well, a lot of people might say five miles in a typical place.
TYSON: So every home would have a five mile hole underneath?
KELEMAN: No, no, no, these are — no, no.
TYSON: Dude, what are you saying here?
KELEMAN: I’m saying that we’re building, you know — well, so —
TYSON: Oh, the power plant would have the five mile hole?
KELEMAN: The geysers in California used to produce two gigawatts and it’s down to one. Their steam pressure is dropping. But it’s big.
WALLACE-WELLS: But you know, this I think calls to mind one of the things that we’ve been talking about, which is that this seems like — that seems like a crazy solution. Like a hole in the ground five miles deep. But we’re like — we have holes all over the Earth to pull out oil, we have mines that are really deep and environmentally destructive to pull out coal. We’re doing huge amounts of damage right now, and we have this psychological bias where we think of the status quo as a costless system, and future, assuming we’re going to have to bear that cost. The system is going to be difficult and complicated that we’re going to build, but we have one that’s really messy right now.
TYSON: Yeah, I’ve never been in a cold mine. They’re always hotter than at the —
KELEMAN: That would be geothermal.
TYSON: Yeah, the center of the Earth is hot I’m pretty sure, last I checked. You had a quick comment on what David said?
KELEMAN: Yeah, let’s interject a little note of optimism here. So —
TYSON: Let’s see how he does on this, okay.
KELEMAN: 95% of all of the oil that’s ever been burned was burned in my lifetime. And so — right? So that’s incredibly fast technological buildout.
TYSON: Unless you’re just really old, okay.
KELEMAN: No, I’m pretty old. But the population of the Earth has almost tripled in my life. But okay, so we did that. So are our children going to be able to say 95% of the energy we’re using came from solar and wind and nukes? Why not? We did it already, right? We replaced the entire energy system in a time that’s so short, that 95% of that energy was used in my lifetime. So we can do that.
TYSON: So I’m actually a fan of fast moving change as well. Olivia, do you study societies and how they react to changes in technology? I say this because I’m reminded of a photo, it’s a file photo of Fifth Avenue here in New York City, of course, on Easter Sunday in the year 1900. And there’s all these horse-drawn carriages up the road, and there’s one automobile in the picture. It’s probably a Ford Model T perhaps, I don’t know when they came out. But it was an automobile.
1913, the same picture going up Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday, nothing but cars. Early automobiles. And there’s one horse drawn carriage. We built civilization on the literal and figurative back of horses for thousands of years, and within one 13 span you couldn’t give away a horse. And so that gives me confidence that if you have enough of an incentive, be it economic or utility incentive, that change can happen like that. Do you study the pace of change in your work?
LAZARD: Partly, but I’m more about the consequences and the impacts, and sort of — particularly at the moment we’ve learned how to read the world essentially between economies that have developed, and therefore, perform economically, and in terms of technological innovation, and those that don’t. And technically there is a direct relationship between the two in terms of material extraction and use.
We’re repeating that, and we’re repeating that with a business model that sustains energy intensive economies. Again, the ones that — I mean, here in the US and Europe and Japan. And we’re essentially looking at how to sustain the same level of pace, the same level of technological innovation on the basis of energy density and power concentration, which is a bit less potent compared to fossils.
But there’s still indeed a lot of different, you know, technological breakthroughs of the kind that Tammy is working on that will probably sort of push progress in that direction. But we need to find the right balance essentially between what, David, you’ve been saying, and what Tammy, you’re working on, which is essentially, well, we have a time problem here. It’s not just a problem of technological change, and breakthroughs. It’s actually how do we potentially slow down, how do we then sort of re-adapt economies on the basis of working with different power densities.
TYSON: I see. So because right now we’re so one dimensional in how we obtain and use our energy. Everything knows how to use it that one way. And so we need some kind of — is flexibility the right word? Or some kind of —
LAZARD: Yes, and that will reflect upon the type of different solutions in terms of energy generation from a local perspective. The one thing, however, that we’re facing, and it’s a fairly big hurdle, is the geo-economic, geo-strategic, geopolitical anxiety. Because at the moment, we have really —like geopolitical heavyweights that are competing with each other in terms of how will power relations be reorganized after — well, throughout essentially the way in which the energy transition plays out.
And this is driving essentially expansion, and growth, and technological innovation at a moment where essentially we need to rethink the way in which economies need to be organized within planetary boundaries. So we have two opposite directions playing on new levels of insecurity essentially.
TYSON: So Anna, just a point here. Anna, there’s — in terms of insecurity, if everyone uses the same kind of energy source, and not every place has equal access to it, it seems to me that can be highly destabilizing depending on who your friends are and who your adversaries are. However, if energy is in 25 different forms, isn’t that a stabilizing force around the world geopolitically?
SHPITSBERG: Yes, it’s a stabilizing force, but we can never just look at the energy technology. When we talk about critical minerals, raw inputs, what it takes to make that energy and how resilient it is, and how concentrated it is contributes to that energy security. I also just wanted to comment on the pace of change.
TYSON: The pace of change, yeah.
SHPITSBERG: Because I’ll say we have the ability to move fast. We are nowhere near moving as fast as we need to be. We need unprecedented change. So if we look at — we used biomass for a long time in the mid-18th century. Coal came — started to actually come up. First oil well was drilled in 1859, it didn’t make headway until — oil didn’t at least become the primary energy source for another 100 years. And still, coal is the primary —
TYSON: It’s starting in Peter’s lifetime. In 1890, right, that’s when we’ve used 95%.
KELEMAN: I’m 150.
SHPITSBERG: Well, from the 100 years from 1859. So — but coal is still the primary electricity source, and 80% of our primary energy use comes from fossil fuels today. That’s despite all of the advancements that we’ve made. Why? Because most of the advancements we’ve made are in the electricity sector, which accounts for less than a third of our energy use. If we don’t tackle those hard to abate sectors, and we push money and innovation in a way we’ve never done before, we’re in trouble.
And I’ll point back to the eight billion people number. We added a billion people in the last 12 years. We added twelve and a half percent of the population in the last 12 years. So we need to completely change our entire energy system for today that is also vastly growing in demand.
TYSON: Essentially 14%, because it’s a billion on seven billion.
SHPITSBERG: You’re right, you’re right.
TYSON: Yeah, that’s cool..
WALLACE-WELLS: Also to think about the energy — so you said 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels still, and that’s been pretty steady because what we’ve done basically to this point, all of the energy revolution, all the energy we’ve put behind the energy revolution over the last generation or two, and even the incredibly rapid decline in the price of renewables, which is astonishing, and the incredible rollout that we’re engaging in right now.
All that we’ve really done has just been to supplement the system that we had before. We haven’t yet gotten to a point where it’s comfortable or manageable to retire the use of fossil fuels, we’re just adding the new stuff on top. And if we’re hoping to ever, ever stabilize the planet’s temperature at any level we actually need to stop burning all of that fossil fuel.
TYSON: Anna’s going to fix that. She told us that. So Anna, do you have sight lines to entrepreneurs, to people who might do something in their garage that — I mean, is that still possible? Or do we need a bajillion watt laser to make the energy? I just made up that number, that’s not a real number, bajillion, but yeah.
SHPITSBERG: There’s innovation across the board. It’s the reason our Department of Energy, our long programs office, they partner with small businesses. The State Department does a significant amount of commercial advocacy. It is because innovation is happening everywhere, and we need to promote it. We need to also be realistic about what it is, and it can’t just be a random project somewhere, but —
TYSON: But it might be.
SHPITSBERG: It might be. But that’s the thing, it might be.
TYSON: We’ve got eight billion brains going right now.
SHPITSBERG: Eight billion brains.
TYSON: That’s more brains that can solve problems. You’re complaining, like there’s an extra billion.
WALLACE-WELLS: I wasn’t complaining.
TYSON: I’m liking the extra brain power. I’ve just been notified, we have a special call in video guest. Can we open the curtains and bring our video guest forward? Ahh! He’s somewhere in space. Our video guest this evening, if we can get the signal to work — are we good here? Let’s try it. There he goes!
Jamie Hyneman of the Ghostbusters — Ghostbusters. Mythbusters. Jamie, welcome to the Asimov debate. We’ve been talking about the future of energy, and innovation, that innovation might play. Is it big corporations, is it someone in their garage. And you popped me an email a few weeks ago saying, “Hey Neil, I’m working on this thing, what can you tell me — bah bah bah.” And I said, “I’m putting you in the Asimov debate.” Tell us what you’ve been cooking up in your spare time now that you are no longer making Mythbusters.
JAMIE HYNEMAN: I’ll be happy to. And just a forewarning, we’re in the middle of a storm here, and so the lights may — you may even be able to see them flickering in the thing. But my internet is out, and so I’m doing this Zoom across my phone that I tethered it to. But anyway, I and my associates have designed a geothermal energy system that will potentially be able to provide half the world’s electrical power needs within a few decades if we get the support we need.
This is possible largely because of a couple of new technologies that only became available in the last few years. The first is a non-contact type of drilling that uses heat to saw and flake off rock, hard rock, and it can get down to the five, ten kilometer zone where temperature’s about 300 C. Now, a bore hole like that into the hard rock that’s down there is exponentially more expensive if you use normal rotary drilling.
But drilling down there with non-contact drills is linear as far as the cost. And it can be done in a small fraction of the time and cost. So you know, we know that this actually works, and it’s just a matter of bringing it to the point where it’s routine and reliable. At 300 C, you can, in theory, generate enough power to run a turbine driven generator that would compete with a coal powered plant but with no fuel or emissions.
The problem is that rock doesn’t conduct heat quickly enough for that. And that brings me to the second innovation that we’re dealing with here, which is that we’ve designed a closed loop heat exchange process to deal with the fact that rock doesn’t conduct heat as well as we need. And the fact that this is a closed loop heat exchange is different than a lot of the attempts that have been done before to pump water down there.
We don’t use water, it’s a closed system. And there’s no toxic chemicals or anything like that. So the previous attempts, you know, they use a lot of water and have been proven not to be reliable. Now, we’ve done the math and simulations, and are in the process of setting up the empirical tests of the approach. It’s being done in Europe right now. And what this means though in the larger picture is that we’ll be able to put these power plants just about anywhere in the world.
I mean, some areas that — in fact, there are a lot of areas that have thicker rock that we would have to go past the 10 kilometer zone to get at, but there are plenty of areas that have five to ten kilometer zones that have that kind of heat. And we’ll be able to generate power 24/7 wherever it’s needed basically. Cities, server farms, steel plants, everything like that.
And what follows from that is going to be like a line of dominos. You know, it will democratize power instead of leaving it in the hands of countries that control fossil fuel resources. And where unlimited clean electrical energy takes this is right to unlimited clean hydrogen generation, which could lead us right to almost all forms of transportation being driven by clean hydrogen. We’ll have unlimited desalination and so on. Concrete production, which is a huge carbon emitter would be produced by using hydrogen.
So basically we could be looking at cutting the world’s carbon emissions in half or more if we do this. It’s going to take time and a lot of work. A lot of money to make it happen. But it’s in my opinion currently our best shot at turning things around.
TYSON: So Jamie, thank you for that. I hadn’t considered when you first described this to me that of course you can’t dig a 10 kilometer hole everywhere. You would first start with energy intensive industries. So if I build a factory, I’d have my own 10 kilometer bore hole, and I would be a self-contained unit by doing so. So that’s how you would roll this out if it could work, correct?
JAMIE: Exactly. And we’ve got plans for doing things like taking over either defunct or existing coal fired plants, because they’ve already got the grid right there, and they’ve already got the turbine and the generator. So we just get rid of the coal and furnace and pump in all of this heat that we’re pulling from the ground.
TYSON: Jamie, I’ve got one last question. You just kind of wafted by the statement, it’s contactless drilling and the rock just chips away. This sounds like magic. So what is your drill?
JAMIE: Well, there are currently at least two processes that generate this heat. The one that I’m the most familiar with is plasma drilling. And you know, plasma generates like 25,000 degree temperatures, something like that. It’s like as hot as the sun. And it — you normally use plasma cutters for cutting steel and you ground the steel, and you have a torch. This has the ground in the head, and it generates massive amounts of heat, and you know, as you know, hard rock or — well, pretty much anything that you heat swells. Hard rock is brittle, it swells, and it falls off. We blow it out, or pump it out, and we’re good to go.
TYSON: Oh, so you break the rock just — the rock breaks under its own temperature change basically?
JAMIE: Exactly. [UNINTEL] and — yeah, it falls.
TYSON: So Jamie, good luck with this. We’re delighted to hear that there’s life after Mythbusters. And maybe we’re glad Mythbusters ended so you could put your brain to solve the world’s problems. But thank you for giving your time to us here. We’re going to take what you said and chew on it, because we’ve got a geologist right here who’s itching his pants listening to you. So I guess — no? Okay. So Jamie, thank you. Thank you for this time. Jamie. Jamie Hyneman everyone.
JAMIE: Thank you for having me.
TYSON: So Tammy, you’re doing the wrong thing with your plasma apparently.
MA: Apparently, yeah.
TYSON: So have you seen plasma — by the way, just so we’re clear, when he said 25,000 degrees, the temperature of the sun, that’s the temperature of the sun’s surface, okay? So that’s what he was referring to. Earlier we were talking about the core of the sun. So you — does that feel like something that could work?
KELEMAN: There are a number of companies that are trying to — and sometimes successfully using kind of thermal shock to break rocks at depth.
TYSON: Thermal shock, that’s a good term.
KELEMAN: Yeah, but what I didn’t totally understand then is how we get the cuttings out. So actually I was hoping he would say it was so hot it turned the rock into gas, because then I could —
TYSON: When I first heard it, I thought he vaporized the rock and it just blows out.
KELEMAN: But if not, then you’ve got all these rock fragments, and one of the big challenges in any deep drilling project is getting those fragments out of the hole. But that’s — you know, I — let’s give them enough money to drill a two kilometer hole and see what happens. But the — for sure, right? But the other thing that I really didn’t understand that’s been the Achilles heel of hot dry rock is that they typically — they frack — sorry, bad word. So you drill a hole and —
TYSON: Frack is fracking?
KELEMAN: Yeah, right.
TYSON: That’s the word that he just apologized for using.
KELEMAN: Yeah, one of those words. But anyway, typically they drill a hole, they create a fractured network, and then they drill another hole and they circulate water through that system. The problem has been that there’s almost always one crack that’s bigger than the others, and it gets all the flow. It’s like a short circuit. And you mine all the heat out of the rock around that crack, and then 10 years before you thought you were going to be done, then it stops. Because you can’t access the rest of the rock volume. So when — I’m sorry, he’s a celebrity but I forgot his name. Jamie.
TYSON: Jamie Hyneman, yeah.
KELEMAN: When Jamie says they’re going to have a closed loop, I’m like, how are they going to move that around? How am I going to get to all of the different parts of that hot rock volume?
TYSON: Okay, that sounds like an engineering problem to be solved by an engineer and possibly not by you.
KELEMAN: Very likely not by me.
TYSON: Okay, I’m just saying. I mean, any engineer delights in solving a problem that has limits placed upon it. But the last thing you could do is have an engineer solve this, there are no limits. They won’t know what to do. Say you can’t spend this much, you’ve got to do it with this in this mask in that temperature and they go to work, and out comes the ingenuity, and that’s the foundation of civilization as we know it.
KELEMAN: Yes, sir. Do you have some money? I’d like to sell you some real estate.
TYSON: We’re going to bring this to a close in just a moment before we go to you for questions. I just want to — we discussed a lot here from a lot of different angles. Can we find out — let me start with — Tammy, we began with you. Can you see 30 years ahead? Not 100. I was joking earlier, 100 is too much. Look back 100 years, what people were saying about the future, everything they got wrong, okay? And they often get 30 years wrong. So let’s go on record so that we can be embarrassed in the year 2050 about what we predict. Is your fusion going to be available to us by 2050? If not, according to David, it’s too late — it’s too little, too late.
WALLACE-WELLS: That’s not what —
TYSON: Okay, just —
MA: So yeah, it will still take time. It’s very much dependent on investment, and will, and how much we’re willing to put behind it. We can accelerate if there’s more support from the government, from private industry. But yeah, I think—
TYSON: But at that point it leaves your sphere and goes into the hands of engineers, right? It’s not up to you to figure out —
MA: It’ll leave my hands much earlier than 2050 I hope, yeah. Yeah, so you know, we — by that time we should have at least some demo fusion power plants on the grid as part of the portfolio of different energy sources. And it will never be the only energy source. Because we need diversity. But if fusion is made viable, because it’s so abundant, because it can be located anywhere, in 2050 I hope we’re starting to put them all around the world.
And with that, it helps with energy security, energy sovereignty, the standard of living of countries is directly related to the sources of energy and how much we can provide. And so we hope that that’s what we use fusion for, to actually raise the standard of living of people worldwide. And make that available. And pretty much all of our wars in human history were fought over energy.
TYSON: Or God, yeah.
MA: Yeah, or God. But you know, if we can make energy abundant enough, that will be the holy grail for humans so that —
TYSON: What that tells me is that, like right now energy consumption is demonized. And it, in principle, needn’t be if we have abundant sources of energy. Who cares if you leave your lights on if there’s an unlimited amount of it that costs you nothing and has no impact on the environment. So you think this will start happening by 2050?
MA: Yep, I do.
TYSON: Okay, good. Peter, how about you?
KELEMAN: Well, let’s underline start happening. And I just want to make the point that energy consumption may be demonized in some groups, but the average energy consumption per capita in the world, 2,500 watts per person, is the same level that was used in the United States in 1776. So no one who is above that level wants to go back there, and no one who is —
TYSON: Wait, hold on. You’re saying in 1776, we had the same per capita energy consumption?
WALLACE-WELLS: As the whole world does now.
KELEMAN: So no one —
TYSON: No, wait, wait —
KELEMAN: — who is below that level —
TYSON: Hey, stop, stop. Okay, so Ben Franklin, other than his kite experiments, was consuming 2,500 —
TYSON: Watts of power in a day.
KELEMAN: Watts. Joules per second, sorry.
TYSON: That’s power.
KELEMAN: Yeah, it is, but not in a day. Just joules per second.
TYSON: Oh, just rate, thank you. Okay, so that’s the rate at which he’s consuming power in all of his day’s activities, and we’re at the same level even though we drive cars?
KELEMAN: The average person —
WALLACE-WELLS: Globally versus Americans.
KELEMAN: Not we. Not you and me. We —
WALLACE-WELLS: The average person on the planet is using as much energy as Ben Franklin did in 1776. Americans are way above that.
KELEMAN: Like four or five times more.
WALLACE-WELLS: The average American refrigerator produces as much carbon as the average resident in Nigeria.
KELEMAN: So let me finish.
TYSON: Okay, finish. Maybe I’ll understand when you’re finished. Go.
KELEMAN: So nobody who is above that level wants to go down to it. No one who is below that level, and that’s more than half the people in the world, wants to go — wants to stop when they get there, okay? So we can talk all we want to in this room, and we have the luxury to do so, about reducing growth and even reducing energy consumption per capita. But that is not the situation that is faced by the majority of people in the world.
So 30 years from now, if all goes well, we will be using more than double the amount of energy we’re using today. And in order to accomplish that, and I often tell Columbia students, you know, we can sit around in some room in New York and talk until we’re blue in the face about what should happen, but I’ll tell you something, people in India and China, they don’t really care that much what Columbia students think. So they’re going to do what they’re going to do.
And okay, but let’s have a positive view of 30 years from now. A positive view is renewable energy is distributed all over the place. It certainly reduces a lot of dependence on individual suppliers. We are also going to need to remove CO2 from smokestacks and from the air, and that’s going to be a huge industry that somebody has to pay for. I was talking to somebody at the reception, it’ll cost a few percent of GDP globally, which seems like a lot, but that’s how much we pay to take out the trash. That’s basically what municipal waste management costs. So as soon as people think that putting greenhouse gases in the air is like throwing poop in the street, we’ve got you covered.
TYSON: Did you say throwing poop in the street? Is that what you said?
KELEMAN: Poop in the street. And until people think that, then we’re going to have an awful hard time paying for it. So we can generate these technologies but the political will has to be there. And then finally there’s going to be huge cities — I mean, I don’t — this is the happy story, okay? But I don’t particularly like it, but I’m just saying we’ve got eight billion people, we’re going to have nine billion people. No one wants to see billions of people die in a short time. So we’re kind of — this is where we are, and it’s going to be kind of a science fiction planet in 2050 if we do everything we need to do.
TYSON: I like the point you made that you can’t expect the whole world to say, let’s just live on less energy, that’s better for — no one’s going to want to do that. You need a way that they can have more energy and then be motivated to do whatever it takes to attain that.
KELEMAN: There’s a billion people on the planet who still don’t have access to electricity. They can’t refrigerate, they don’t have electric lights. Maybe it’s 800 million.
LAZARD: But I think — I mean, I —
TYSON: Well, it’s not your turn yet.
LAZARD: Okay, fine, fine. But I’m still going to push back on that one.
TYSON: Anna — you push back. Anna, in 30 years, is kumbaya, peace on the planet?
SHPITSBERG: No, but the reality is — I’m a big fan of the quote all models are wrong but some are useful, but almost all models show that we’re going to use at least two and a half times more energy by 2050. I think we’re going to be significantly more electrified. I think we’re going to be using renewables at a greater scale. They’re already the largest source of new additions. I think we’re going to be using hydrogen at — to an industry. I think we’re going to be using CCUS. Nuclear is going to be used significantly more. I do think —
TYSON: You’d be using hydrogen differently from how Tammy is.
TYSON: You’re talking about you break the oxygen molecule — the water molecule apart.
SHPITSBERG: That’s right, exactly.
TYSON: And then when it comes back together it releases energy.
TYSON: But that took energy to break it apart.
SHPITSBERG: That’s right.
TYSON: So maybe you get the sun to do that.
TYSON: And then you transport the hydrogen, and then you’ve got a portable fuel source.
SHPITSBERG: You can, right. You can do hydrogen — you can make hydrogen from anything including nuclear, we call it pink hydrogen, green hydrogen. So I think hydrogen is going to be a part of the story. Fossil fuels probably will be a well, just at very low capacity utilization, and hopefully abated. I think also we’re going to be in a society that probably is more of a pro-sumer society. I think we’re going to have a virtual power plant world.
We already see virtual power plants. So we’re not going to expect solar to be able to solve all of our problems. We’re going to be able to match grid connected power plants with distributed power plants with demand response from consumers, and they’re going to be more active participants.
TYSON: That’s a whole new infrastructure you’re talking about here. Yeah, okay. So that’s hopeful, a hopeful future for 2050.
SHPITSBERG: Yes, I hope so.
TYSON: Okay. Olivia, say what you say about Peter, and then go on about your bad self.
LAZARD: If everybody in the world were to behave like an average American, we would consume about five planets.
TYSON: Worth of energy.
LAZARD: Of material consumption, which is driven — the more you consume energy, the more you’re going to consume materials. And the more materials you consume, the less — the more you produce gas, it’s either — more you’re going to have produce technological innovations in order to get out of your dilemma. So we’re facing essentially a future, and I think it’s very well represented on stage to a certain extent, which is, well, we have a business as usual logic.
But we can’t quite go about it forever, continuing and reproducing the same logic. And so I think that we have to be very — I mean, I’ll say this. You know, Peter, you were saying once we reach a certain level of energy use, you know, we don’t want to come back down. In Europe, like we, the average European consumes about, you know, two planets worth of material consumption, right? Europeans don’t want to move in the direction that Americans are at the moment. So there are already some differences. What —
TYSON: We like consuming planets. This is America.
OLVIA: It’s an economy that’s been built essentially on great expenses and on the back of the fossil energy system, right? And on energy intensivity. And what we’re doing at the moment is asking the planet to support energy intensive systems even though technically it’s a lot more complicated than just the CO2 problem. The CO2 problem emanates from material consumption and natural resource consumptions, and ecological interdependencies that are being depleted.
So we need to see essentially the problem as a whole rather than trying to sort of answer a problem that will create more problems over time. And let’s push through or push the dial on that logic. If we keep on, you know, stacking up on energy sources as you were saying, David, in order to sustain more technological innovation, the next step is essentially going to be geological — geo-engineering, with the type of solutions that we’re talking about today such as solar radiation management. Managing the planet. Managing the way in which the sun heats the planet. This is going to —
TYSON: I’m a big fan of geo-engineering. Just putting it out there. Just saying.
LAZARD: And there are different forms of it, and there’s a lot of research. As far as I know, the consensus at the moment is essentially — amongst, you know, scientists, is that it’s going to be bad, we just don’t know how bad. Because we don’t control all the various factors that will go into that.
TYSON: Peter, you know what I want to do? I want to go up to the side of a volcano and tap it. We can tap kegs. Let’s tap a volcano, take that energy out, drive the city to power the city that would otherwise be leveled by the lava that would come out of the volcano. That’s geo-engineering.
LAZARD: That’s brilliant.
KELEMAN: You want me to say something? So sure, I mean, that’s geothermal power.
TYSON: I interrupted you. Please continue.
LAZARD: I think it’s just like there are many different solutions in the mix. They’re not just technology and energy oriented. We need to not just think about energy substitution, we need to think about transformation of energy use. And at that point, this is where we see essentially all these different local solutions that come into diversification of energy sources, but also different type of development pathways, including in some cases understanding how to rein back certain massive economies within planetary boundaries. And there is a lot of research that needs to go into that, which is a lot less tapped into, because we put a lot of emphasis on technological solutions —
TYSON: Will this happen by 2050?
LAZARD: It’s already happening. I mean, just to — you know, anecdotally, in May the European Parliament is calling a massive conference on this notion of what does economic growth look like within planetary boundaries. These conversations may not be happening here, but they are happening in other parts of the world. And technically, some economies that we tend to look at as being fairly underdeveloped or undeveloped as a whole have different models around how to move, how to develop, how to, you know, produce, and things like this. And again, part of the problem is essentially this geopolitical and sort of systems driver issue that we need to get into, and that we need to sort of get through in order to stop a competition which brings us to energy expansion and economic expansion at the expense essentially of planetary health.
TYSON: I’m delighted to hear that Europe is out in front on this. I’m reminded of a quote from Winston Churchill about Americans. He said you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing eventually.
KELEMAN: Also, just I can assure you that people are talking about this in those same classrooms at Columbia University that I already alluded to.
TYSON: Yeah, good.
LAZARD: I’m really glad to hear it.
KELEMAN: Well, they’re not —
TYSON: David, take us out. Tie a bow on this.
WALLACE-WELLS: Well, you know, I would just pull back —
TYSON: And your book was very apocalyptic, so I want you to tie a nice bow on this, okay?
WALLACE-WELLS: I was going to start with my book. I wrote my book — I finished the manuscript in the fall of 2018. I had never heard of Greta Thunberg then. No one in the world had. She was a lonely, friendless, 15-year-old sitting outside of the Swedish Parliament by herself. We had not heard —
TYSON: You’re talking about Greta. Greta Thunberg.
WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. We had not heard of the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had not been elected to Congress. Europe was not talking about the Green Deal. No leader anywhere in the world was talking about zeroing out carbon emissions, only cutting them. We were not talking about decarbonizing any of our economies within our own lifetimes. Now, 90% of the world’s GDP is covered by net zero pledges, which have many holes in them and there are many problems, but as a marker of how far we have moved rhetorically —
TYSON: In five years.
WALLACE-WELLS: Socially — in less than five years. It is astonishing. And my book was looking at warming levels two degrees Celsius to four degrees, four or five degrees Celsius, thinking that we were probably going to end up on the north end of that. That’s what I thought. That’s what really all scientists thought. That’s what most energy modelers thought just a few years ago. Now the consensus is we’re going to be on the low end of that.
That’s still well above the threshold that we’ve been told by scientists is too high. But we’re talking about having cut in half our expectations for warming in just five years. And that is because we are finally talking seriously, making serious investments, and actually rolling out the replacement technology that we need. We’re not doing it at the pace we need, but we’re finally actually doing it.
But that’s not to say it’s going to be a happy story in 2050. If we’re ending up warming of two or two and a half degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, just from the burning of fossil fuels to get there, I’m talking about 150 million additional people dying of air pollution. We’re talking about places that used to have flooding events that hit once a century, they’re now going to be dealing with them every year, in some cases more than once a year. Once a century events of the kinds of things we used to mythologize and talk about for decades and generations are going to be happening every single year. Crop yields are going to go down —
TYSON: You’re supposed to say something nice about 2050.
WALLACE-WELLS: I’ll get there.
WALLACE-WELLS: We are an adaptable, resilient species. We are showing that now in how quickly we are finally waking up to this challenge. And I don’t want to suggest that the climate transformations that are already in store are beyond our capacity to adapt. They are not. We can live in that future world. And in fact, I think probably most Americans and Europeans are going to be living relatively comfortable in that world of two degrees.
But that’s not eight billion of us. That’s under a billion. When we talk about the climate damages that are going to be visited on people in developing worlds today who are today — Mali, the average person produces the same carbon emissions as a single British teapot does every year. These are not countries that are well prepared to —
TYSON: I always knew the Britains drink too much tea. I always knew.
WALLACE-WELLS: These are not countries that are well prepared today to deal with the challenges that they are going to face, and we're not doing nearly enough to help them in their transition. The challenge, especially across Sub-Saharan Africa, but really all across the global south, is not that they can’t build solar, they can’t afford — you know, it’s solar power is more abundant in the global south than it is in the global north, and it’s cheaper, it produces cheaper energy now in more than 90% of — where 90% of the world lives.
So 90% of the world’s population today lives in places where renewable energy would be cheaper than dirty energy. The problem is that it’s expensive to develop it and build it out, and those political institutions, they are not nearly as strong as they are elsewhere in the world. And the global north is not doing nearly enough to help those people both build out a more stable energy system for themselves, or to protect them against the ravages of warming that we know are going to come.
TYSON: That’s why we have Anna here. She’s going to solve this with this — and the State Department.
SHPITSBERG: And we do work with countries on this. We do work with countries on this.
WALLACE-WELLS: So my truly optimistic hope is that the threat of climate change calls us into some sense of a common humanity and obligation to one another, so that in places like the US we don’t just say, oh, in China they’re doing more — they’re burning more carbon, or in places like Bangladesh they don’t save — but you guys did it first, now we get to do it.
But we all understand the responsibility that we have towards one another, not just in this generative but going forward, and I’m starting — personally, I do start to see that awakening now when I look at the global climate movement and the way that it’s sort of circulated out through our broader body politic. We’re not nearly there yet, but I think there is a kind of phase shift going on in which we understand how much we owe each other and how much we need to do to protect ourselves and future generations all around the world.
TYSON: That’s beautiful. Beautiful. Thank you for that. I’d like to end, with just some reflections of my own, if I may, with the panel’s permission. So I like what I’ve heard tonight. There’s more there than I had previously imagined, so thank you for bringing that expertise to this stage. When I look at cars that can only drive on gasoline, that’s an interesting fact to me, because if you instead have an electric car, and we said earlier that, what, 80% of electricity is still produced by coal, so what are you — what good is that?
And then you realize, of course, you don’t care what the source of energy is in your wall plug as long as energy comes out of your wall plug. So the power plant can dig the 10 kilometer hole, they can have solar panels, they could have hydroelectric, they can produce nukes — they can produce electricity any way the marketplace allows, and you still just get to plug your car into the wall. You don’t have to change the engine of your car because the fuel changed.
So the value of an electric economy to me seems manifestly obvious and necessary to allow the future that we’re talking about. So there’s that fact. But second, I foresee, here’s my 2030 — 2050 prediction. Is that the sources of energy will be, yes, democratized, they’ll be spread out, and all of these sources of energy will now be competing with each other. Meanwhile, Tammy’s working behind the scenes, and she pops out with nuclear fusion, and all of a sudden we’re set up to have that be our energy source, and it wins.
And it wins. So what I — in other words, we should be set up for any one of those different ways we’re making energy to rise up above all the others, and possibly be the primary energy source of the world going forward into the future. But we need an infrastructure that is neutral to the choice of what energy is feeding us. That way it can all compete, it can move with the economy, up or down, in or out, and I think one of those will rise up, at most two.
And I like the hole digging, that’s good. I like the nukes, that’s good. Solar panels, where you have sunlight, go for it. After that, I don’t — I’m not a fan. Why do you all look at me like that? That’s scary.
KELEMAN: We’re wondering why you didn’t mention wind.
TYSON: Mention what?
TYSON: Oh, wind. Okay. Wind. Put that in there too. But if I have nukes right there? Okay, I don’t have to —
MA: We really prefer to just call it fusion energy.
TYSON: Fusion energy. The energy of the stars. Which brings us back full circle. This is an event we put on sponsored by the Hayden Planetarium here at the Museum of Natural History. And it’s our effort to always get us all to keep looking up. Thank you all for coming tonight. Thank the panel. Oh my gosh. Tammy, Peter, Anna, Olivia, David.
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Major advances in energy production, and the urgency of the climate change crisis, are re-shaping the conversation about what we use to power our world: fossil fuels, wind turbines, hydroelectric, solar panels, nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. With the recent breakthrough at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) National Ignition Facility, nuclear fusion has emerged as a leading candidate. Many see the ability to harness nuclear energy as a clear positive for reducing our impact on global climate, while some are skeptical of its practicality and safety for everyday use. How will science, engineering, and geopolitics shape how the future of energy unfolds?