What's This?
x

Experts from emerging and developing countries debate crucial, timely topics related to nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. Each author contributes an essay per round, for a total of nine essays for the entire Roundtable. This feature was made possible by a three-year grant from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Technology's role in a climate solution

If the world is to avoid "severe, widespread, and irreversible [climate] impacts," carbon emissions must decrease quickly—and achieving such cuts, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, depends in part on the availability of "key technologies." But arguments abound against faith in technological solutions to the climate problem. Electricity grids may be ill equipped to accommodate renewable energy produced on a massive scale. Many technological innovations touted in the past have failed to achieve practical success. Even successful technologies will do little good if they mature too late to help avert climate disaster. Below, experts from India, the United States, and Bangladesh address the following questions: To what extent can the world depend on technological innovation to address climate change? And what promising technologies—in generating, storing, and saving energy, and in storing greenhouse gases or removing them from the atmosphere—show most potential to help the world come to terms with global warming?

Round 1

20 October 2015

The challenge is deeper than technology

Sagar Dhara
21 October 2015

Climate change, renewable energy, and letting conventional wisdom go

Jennie C. StephensElizabeth J. Wilson
22 October 2015

Not a burden but an opportunity

Saleemul Huq

Round 2

2 November 2015

Clear path, indecisive travelers

Sagar Dhara
5 November 2015

Bright spots, big potential

Jennie C. StephensElizabeth J. Wilson

Round 3

7 December 2015

Toward sustainable, equitable societies

Sagar Dhara
9 December 2015

The paradox of Paris

Jennie C. StephensElizabeth J. Wilson

Round 1

20 October 2015

The challenge is deeper than technology

Humans have a unique ability to develop technology that results in conversion of energy. When hunter-gatherers adopted agriculture, they gradually increased their energy use 1,000-fold through technology developments such as domesticating draft animals and using fire to clear land, make bricks, and smelt metals. The emergence of industrial societies entailed another 50-fold increase.

Human beings habitually prioritize their own right to nature over other species' rights to it; energy growth has depended on this habit.  It has also depended on private ownership of nature, which allows an investor—individual, enterprise, state—to make small energy investments that deliver large amounts of surplus energy. Surplus energy spurs human development and lifestyle changes, and the desire for development drives further energy growth.

Fossil fuels, with their high energy density, have played a major role in the human growth story. In 2012, the most recent year for which International Energy Agency figures are available, fossil fuels provided 82 percent of the world's primary energy—and they are responsible, along with land use changes, for annual emissions of about 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Half of those emissions are not sequestered back to the Earth. This is the main cause of global warming.

What's the solution? It comes in two parts—one technological and the other political and philosophical. Both halves of the solution must be implemented if the more serious ravages of global warming are to be avoided.

Problems everywhere. First, the technological side. Human beings must quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But will any of the major technological approaches to reducing emissions actually work?

One candidate solution is to derive energy from biomass, which already provides 10 percent of the energy people use. Biomass is a widespread resource and can easily be converted to provide energy services. Unfortunately, biomass is already over-harvested—people use 16 percent of the energy that plants produce each year. Further harvesting will only exacerbate the ugly environmental gashes on the planet that biomass extraction, through deforestation and other land use changes, has already caused.

Hydropower provides 2.4 percent of the world's primary energy, but 40 percent of hydropower's deployable potential has been tapped. Resistance to dams has increased because dams destroy upstream forests and agricultural land; downstream areas can flood when excess water is released from reservoirs. Hydropower is unlikely to be expanded much except in some hilly regions.

Nuclear energy, meanwhile, provides about 5 percent of human beings' energy requirements. But the world is moving away from thermal nuclear energy. It is dirty—uranium mining carries serious health consequences, and about 300,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent fuel are stored at reactor sites around the world. It is unsafe—already there have been three major accidents at power reactors. It is open to misuse—enriched uranium can be diverted to make bombs. And it is expensive—much costlier than fossil fuels.

Next, concentrated solar power and photovoltaics, along with wind, provide about 1 percent of global energy. These sources are growing at 15 to 40 percent a year, but have several drawbacks. They suffer from intermittence. They can only be sited at favorable locations. They cannot be used directly for locomotion. They have environmental impacts that aren't often discussed. Wind facilities and photovoltaic plants require significantly more land than do fossil fuel plants. Realistic estimates suggest that deployable wind energy can satisfy only 5 percent of today’s global energy demand, and significant amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted in the manufacture of both wind and solar equipment. And these energy sources are still more expensive than fossil fuels.

What about capturing and storing carbon dioxide so it's never released into the atmosphere? For several reasons, enthusiasm for carbon capture and storage (CCS) has waned. To begin with, only 14 CCS projects are operational, with eight more under construction. Together, their capacity represents only one-tenth of 1 percent of current carbon dioxide emissions. And many of these projects are combined with enhanced oil recovery projects—which neutralize the reductions in emissions achieved by capture and storage.

Energy efficiency, meanwhile, is sometimes seen as an easy route to decreasing emissions. But there is a limit to how much can be achieved through efficiency. Moreover, the Jevons paradox comes into play—if energy availability increases due to greater efficiency, energy will become cheaper and consumption will rise.

A different approach. So far, the countries that have experienced the most success in moving away from fossil fuels are Germany and Cuba. Germany guarantees fixed tariffs to producers of renewable energy. Cuba has focused on efficiency and also organic farming, which conserves energy through its lower water requirements, reduced use of farm equipment, and rejection of fertilizers and pesticides. The German model might be replicated in developed countries, but not in developing ones. A large percentage of Germany's renewable-generator owners are individuals, cooperatives, or communities, and such entities in developing nations lack the capital to invest in renewable energy. The Cuban experience is even more difficult to replicate, as organic farming is not as remunerative as commercial cropping.

For civilization to continue sustainably, human beings must shift from fossil fuels to solar energy—despite the technical problems. And investments are needed in biotic and other low-energy innovations. But in the end, global energy consumption must be reduced by something on the order of 60 percent. This will require a number of profound non-technological changes. Energy equity must be established among the world's nations—people in wealthy countries should not, as they do today, use hundreds of times as much energy as people in the poorest countries. Ownership rights over nature must be discarded in favor of the right to use nature without destroying it. The global economy must prioritize "risk minimization for all" over "gain maximization for a few." A steady-state economy—a sustainable economy that maintains nature’s balance—must be established.

The implications of these changes are radical. The United States and Canada must reduce their energy consumption by about 90 percent; Europe, Australasia, and Japan must do so by about 75 percent. Cities must shrink drastically and energy differentials between urban and rural areas must disappear. Localism must be prioritized and governance decentralized. Uniform risk and emissions standards must be implemented for everyone.

Technological solutions to climate change will be difficult to implement, but these political and philosophical challenges will be even tougher. They can be overcome, however, if people themselves fight for the demands that many made at last year's climate marches: "Keep the climate, change the economy!"

If such demands result in quick and concrete change, hope remains that human beings can form sustainable, equitable, and peaceful societies. Otherwise, global warming will enforce its own set of extremely painful changes.

 

21 October 2015

Climate change, renewable energy, and letting conventional wisdom go

To address climate change, the world needs to shift away from fossil fuels and move toward predominantly low-carbon, renewable-based energy systems. Clearly, this requires technological innovation—but technological change is not the hardest part. The necessary technologies already exist. They are improving rapidly as they are deployed at scale.

The difficult parts of the renewable energy transition are shifting away from the existing infrastructure for fossil fuel–based energy systems and overcoming political, institutional, and cultural resistance to change. Such resistance is quite strong—because fossil fuels are deeply embedded not only in the technology of energy systems but also in financial systems, geopolitics, institutions, and culture. Responding to climate change, therefore, requires not just investments in technological innovation but also a commitment to changing institutions, economic systems, and social systems—and a commitment as well to parallel political change. These changes can in turn decrease reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels and enable renewable technologies to flourish.

Unanticipated shifts. Deploying renewable energy at scale means fundamentally changing the ways in which energy is produced, used, and distributed. It means re-evaluating and reframing long-held cultural and institutional assumptions about energy planning. It also requires learning-by-doing as utilities, regulators, renewable energy developers, communities, and customers gain experience in implementing renewable energy systems. With this practical experience, individuals and organizations can let go of some of the conventional wisdom surrounding the energy sector.

The good news is that conventional wisdom is already being challenged. Assumptions are already changing. Social learning is already happening. And all this is occurring as renewable energy expands at a rate faster than anticipated under almost all projections.

Indeed, a striking demonstration of the need to change assumptions and let go of conventional wisdom can be seen in many of the forecasts regarding renewable energy growth that were ventured over the last 15 years or so. Well-informed energy organizations including the International Energy Agency, the US Energy Information Administration, and the Global Energy Assessment Scenario Database grossly underestimated how quickly renewable capacity would grow. The 1999 US Annual Energy Outlook, for example, projected that only 800 megawatts of wind power would be added in the United States between 2000 and 2020 because wind was too expensive compared to other resources. But in fact, due to an interlinked set of policy incentives, technology advancements, decreases in cost, social acceptance, and market shifts, almost 70 gigawatts of wind power have already been added in the United States—nearly two orders of magnitude more than projected, and more than five years quicker. (Surprisingly, the projections that have most closely matched renewable energy's actual growth rate have come from the environmental advocacy organization Greenpeace.)

A real-life example of social learning and changed assumptions comes from the Upper Midwest of the United States, where massive deployments of large-scale wind power have changed how electricity markets operate. Major shifts in energy market rules and in methods for controlling wind turbines—unanticipated 10 years ago—now allow wind power generators to place bids in day-ahead electricity markets, just as would happen with electricity produced through any other technology. Wind power generators can then "true up" their bids 10 minutes before dispatch, allowing for accurate bids despite the variability of wind resources.

Rooftop solar photovoltaic energy provides another example. Rooftop solar, by allowing people to generate their own electricity, has provided individuals, households, and communities with a fundamentally new mechanism for engaging with energy systems. This amounts to a cultural shift in energy production. New notions of the "prosumer"—an individual who produces his or her own electricity—have changed the roles of (and empowered) individual citizens in energy systems.

In Austin, Texas, rapid development of solar photovoltaic energy has challenged and ultimately altered assumptions, for instance about the optimal orientation of solar panels. It's true that, over the course of a year, south-oriented solar panels produce the most electricity. But during hours of peak demand, when electricity production is particularly valuable to electric utilities, west-facing panels produce more. This realization has created an alignment between utilities' incentives and the expansion of rooftop solar.

But though some utilities accept and even embrace distributed generation sources such as photovoltaic energy, others are less accommodating. In fact, political mobilization against solar energy is growing rapidly. Unfortunately, due to renewable energy's association with the "controversial" subject of climate change and its potential to destabilize fossil fuel dependencies, renewables in general have become divisive and partisan in the United States.

Nonetheless, due to the interplay between technological innovation and political, institutional, and cultural change, the frontiers of the possible are shifting. And while no one can predict exactly how energy systems will evolve as the world attempts to respond to climate change, this much is clear: Scaling up renewable energy will continue to challenge conventional wisdom, will upset long-held assumptions about the energy sector, and will require ongoing social learning.

 

22 October 2015

Not a burden but an opportunity

Human-induced climate change is a reality—already happening. If emissions of greenhouse gases are not reduced drastically in the next couple of decades, the situation will get significantly worse by century's end. What's needed is a set of changes in the global energy economy so that it is based on non-polluting resources instead of, primarily, on fossil fuels. As with most things, though, the devil is in the details.

The details are quite complicated where climate change is concerned. Each country must devise an energy-transition strategy that is both appropriate to its national circumstances and consistent with global emissions goals.

After years of disappointing climate commitments from nations around the world, lately some positive momentum has been evident. Ahead of the major international climate conference scheduled to begin in Paris in November, about three-quarters of the world's nations have submitted plans—known as intended nationally determined contributions—describing how they will, over time, manage a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. But so far these plans, taken together, would only reduce the trajectory of global temperature increase to about 3 degrees Celsius above pre–Industrial Revolution temperatures—well above the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees. In Paris, it's hoped that nations will commit to reductions greater than they've already promised. But if the conference fails to deliver aggregate reductions that would limit warming to 2 degrees, the idea is that national targets would be "ratcheted up" in the future at five-year intervals.

Low emissions as a co-benefit. If the world is to achieve a successful clean-energy transition, nations must significantly alter their outlooks toward technological approaches to climate change. Technological options for a clean-energy future mustn't be seen as burdens or costs—rather, they are opportunities for nations to deliver a better, cleaner, and more efficient future to their citizens.

My own country, Bangladesh, is highly vulnerable to climate change. With its flat topography, propensity to flooding, and dependence on the annual monsoon, Bangladesh has much to fear from stronger cyclones, increased drought, encroaching salinity, and the like. Complicating matters is that Bangladesh's 170 million people, more than 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, inhabit a country of about 130,000 square kilometers, giving Bangladesh one of the world's highest population densities.

But though Bangladesh is a poor country—and is responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—it is making major strides in providing solar energy to its people. Well in excess of 3 million solar home systems have already been installed, and an additional 70,000 are coming on line each month. This makes Bangladesh's program for solar home systems the fastest-growing in the world.

Solar power isn't expanding in Bangladesh primarily for mitigation purposes—though that is a welcome co-benefit. Rather, Bangladesh is investing intensively in solar home systems in order to satisfy demand for household electricity, even for the poorest households. Thus the most popular systems are relatively small—sufficient to power some light bulbs, a radio, and a television. For customers, the main attractions are enabling children to do homework after dark and dispensing with dirty kerosene lamps. In fact, customers often purchase solar home systems using loans that are cheaper to repay than kerosene is to buy.

This is possible in part because of a public-private partnership. A company called Infrastructure Development Company Limited provides low-cost loans to private franchisees around the country, who then provide customers with solar home systems (usually bought on credit) and service after the sale. The government and the private sector are now exploring ways to provide larger photovoltaic systems that could provide energy for pumping irrigation water and for other commercial and industrial uses. The bottom line is that solar energy has become a major part of the energy mix in Bangladesh, and though fossil-fuel power generation is still required, dependence on fossil fuels will diminish over time.

Such transitions from fossil fuels to clean-energy technologies must become the norm in every country—rich and poor alike—if climate change is to be tackled successfully. Circumstances will differ from nation to nation, as will the technologies that countries choose to invest in. But the most successful countries will be those that make the quickest transition to the post–fossil fuel era.

 

Round 2

2 November 2015

Clear path, indecisive travelers

Humans have often convinced themselves that technology will save them from disaster. They've indulged in the cornucopian myth of an Earth whose resources are limitless. Some societies—the Mayans, for example—have suffered outright collapses when their technologies failed, or when energy or other material resources ran scarce. Human beings will face a similar predicament in the not-so-distant future if they place too much faith in technological approaches to climate change and not enough emphasis on necessary political and philosophical shifts. But excessive faith in technology is what my roundtable colleagues Jennie Stephens, Elizabeth Wilson, and Saleemul Huq displayed In Round One regarding wind power and rooftop photovoltaic technology.

In my first essay, I discussed several factors that constrain photovoltaic and wind technologies—their intermittency, their land requirements, and so forth. I lacked space to mention a few additional constraints. Both solar and wind energy depend on rare earth elements that will likely become scarce in 20 years or so. As recently as five years ago, China accounted for 95 percent of the world's rare-earth production, raising fears that it might exert monopolistic control. China's share of production has since dropped, but China still has the world's largest reserves of rare earths by far, and worries about monopolistic behavior persist. Meanwhile, renewable energy technologies that could function without rare earths, particularly photovoltaic technologies, are not close to commercial deployment.

And as I mentioned only in passing in Round One, the manufacture of photovoltaic panels entails carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, analyses of the life cycle of photovoltaics indicate that if manufacturing grows at an annual rate exceeding the inverse of the panels' carbon dioxide "payback" time, photovoltaics will account for more emissions in their manufacture than will be saved through their use. To illustrate, the average carbon dioxide "payback" period for photovoltaics is now about eight years—meaning that photovoltaics must grow no faster than about 12 percent annually in order to qualify as a net carbon dioxide mitigator. But in fact, photovoltaics grew at annual rate of 40 percent from 1998 to 2008, and at 59 percent between 2008 and 2014. Thus photovoltaics have been a net emitter for years. For photovoltaics to replace fossil fuels in electricity generation alone (never mind in transportation or other areas)—while growing no faster than carbon "payback" permits—perhaps 50 years will be required. Fifty years is simply too long to wait for fossil fuel replacement.

Wind power has an altogether different problem, as shown by recent research on wind farms in Kansas. This research indicates that turbines on large wind farms, as they remove kinetic energy from atmospheric flow, reduce wind speeds and thus limit generation rates. This is one reason that deployable wind energy represents a miniscule resource when measured against current energy demand. Wind energy simply cannot replace fossil fuels (even as it introduces environmental problems such as bird mortality).

Though I disagree with the technological optimism expressed by Huq, Stephens, and Wilson—optimism grounded in micro-experiences rather than a global picture of energy demand, barriers to deploying renewable energy, and the like—I agree with them on certain points. I agree with Huq, despite the problems associated with renewable energy, that "transitions from fossil fuels to clean-energy technologies must become the norm in every country—rich and poor alike." I agree with Stephens and Wilson that overcoming political, institutional, and cultural resistance to change is a key part of energy transitions (which, to me, include establishing global energy equity and reducing energy consumption).

Indeed, if solutions to non-technical problems can be implemented, emissions can be reduced quickly and significantly—buying time for improved solar technologies to mature and be deployed. But the solutions I have in mind likely differ from those that my colleagues envision. For example, I envision the world softening and ultimately eradicating national borders. This might immediately eliminate about 10 percent of global emissions because standing armies, with their massive emissions, would be reduced to a minimum. And people would, as they did for millennia before fossil fuels emerged, go where the energy is rather than the other way around, reducing both emissions and energy transport costs. Banning fossil fuel–based air and private surface transport might eliminate another 10 percentof emissions. Shrinking cities and re-ruralizing the world could save an additional 10 percent. Such changes, if made, would start the world on a path toward sustainability, peace, and equality.

The way forward is clear. But the world's willingness to embark on it is very much in doubt.

 

5 November 2015

Bright spots, big potential

So far in this roundtable, Saleemul Huq and especially Sagar Dhara have portrayed the world's transition away from fossil fuels as both critically important and extremely daunting. We, the authors, agree—but we also see grounds for hope. This hope does not rest on technology alone. Rather, it flows from the social, cultural, and political changes that are occurring in the world's "bright spots—places where efforts to replace fossil fuels with renewable-based energy systems are already advancing rapidly. In such places, massive investments have been made in renewable technologies. The investments have been accompanied and supported by parallel changes in politics and public policy; in the planning and operation of energy systems; and in the ways organizations think about and ultimately use energy. In these bright spots, individuals, households, businesses, and communities are coming to understand the potential of renewable-based energy systems—and are shifting away from fossil-fuel regimes and existing political, cultural, and institutional norms.

In much of the world, to be sure, the legacy incentives and infrastructure that surround fossil fuels remain very much intact. And transitions toward more sustainable energy systems are proceeding at varying speeds in different places. Energy systems even in neighboring countries such Venezuela and Brazil, or Germany and Poland—or in adjacent US states such as Minnesota and North Dakota or Canadian provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta—are changing in dramatically different ways. But what accounts for the differences? They result not only from variations in natural resources and technologies but also from critical differences in politics, institutions, and social and cultural norms.

Dhara has made important points about challenges facing solar and wind power—their technological feasibility and their environmental impacts. But those challenges, though serious, will not prevent energy transitions. Rather, they highlight the importance of dynamic interplay between the evolution of technological systems and the evolution of social ones. In fact, the greatest challenge to energy transitions concerns whether political, institutional, and cultural changes can occur fast enough to support technological changes.

Dhara also argues that, to advance the goal of global carbon equity, the United States and Canada should reduce their energy consumption by 90 percent—and that other industrialized regions should reduce their consumption drastically too. There is a laudable idea behind Dhara’s proposal. But it's hard to identify a mechanism for facilitating energy-system changes on such a scale. In fact, a proposal such as Dhara's may even be counterproductive—when the scale of a challenge appears too daunting, people's tendency is simply to shut down. As the saying goes, the perfect must not become the enemy of the good. What's needed is to recognize and embrace the complexities of social change and support the multiple processes through which societies learn to change.

No one knows exactly how future energy systems will change and develop. Indeed, transitions away from fossil fuels are driven by a host of factors that go beyond climate change—the co-benefits of renewable-based energy systems include reduced air pollution, increased reliability for local energy supplies, and greater cost stability. In different places, these co-benefits are driving change in different ways. But as people and places navigate a multiplicity of energy pathways, it's important to acknowledge the instances in which learning and change are already happening. Thus optimism about energy transformations is justified—an optimism grounded not only in technology but also in the socio-technical changes that are accompanying renewable energy transitions. The linkages between social changes and technological changes furnish reason for hope. These bright spots highlight a broad potential for successful energy transitions and more sustainable energy systems.

 

Round 3

7 December 2015

Toward sustainable, equitable societies

Several times over the past decade I have visited the Maldives, a nation of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean, to help the Ministry of Environment and Energy monitor air pollution. But Maldivians, I have found, are less interested in discussing air pollution than in discussing their fate after the sea swallows their beautiful islands and makes roughly 400,000 people into permanent climate exiles. In 2009, to highlight the climate threats that the Maldives face, the country's president held a seafloor cabinet meeting. But few, it seems, are really paying attention to the nation's challenges.

Poor people from developing countries, who have done little to cause global warming, will constitute a majority of global climate refugees. Their average per capita historical emissions are only one-eighth as high as those of people in developed countries. Yet people such as these, with their low levels of development and often unfavorable geographical locations, will be most exposed to the harshest impacts of global warming—sea level rise, drought, extreme weather events, and rainfall variation.

Developed countries, meanwhile, have benefitted from 200 years of using energy-dense fossil fuels. The newly rich in less developed countries have begun to benefit too in recent years as their energy consumption has increased. So the historical emissions of developed countries are high (as noted, eight times as high on a per capita basis)—and the current emissions of the world's wealthy, regardless of nation, are likewise high.

To be sure, the emissions gap between developed and developing countries has narrowed. The developed world's average per capita emissions are now a little more than twice the corresponding level in developing countries. But the emissions gap between rich and poor individuals, regardless of nation, has increased. And rich countries and individuals can rely on their wealth to protect them from many effects of global warming.

As so often before in history, the rich are seeking to retain their privileges. Indeed, it is difficult to think of instances in history when the rich have relinquished privilege in order to help the poor. To the contrary, history provides numerous examples of the rich fighting hard to retain their privileges—for example, when the big cotton planters of the American South led secession efforts in order to preserve slavery.

Developed and developing countries are meeting now in Paris, staking claims to the carbon dioxide that the world can still emit without allowing average global temperature to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times—a level that scientists consider a red line. Developed countries, wishing to maintain their high per capita emissions, are claiming squatters’ rights over the remaining carbon budget.

In Round One, I proposed that the United States and Canada reduce their energy consumption by 90 percent—to save the Earth, and to save nations such as the Maldives from drowning. My roundtable colleagues Jennie C. Stephens and Elizabeth J. Wilson have characterized this proposal as laudable but unworkable. To Americans, the Maldives are a distant and unknown land, but that doesn't explain my colleagues' attitude. Rich Indians, who live next door to the Maldives, think similarly. The real explanation is that the rich are unwilling to forego their privileges.

My colleagues have correctly pointed out that the world must shift to renewable energy sources. And they have applauded a set of accompanying social, cultural, and political changes (though they have yet to explain precisely what these changes entail). But though renewables may retard global warming a bit, technology alone cannot adequately address climate change. Nor can renewable technologies make societies sustainable and equitable—not as long as the global economy is predicated on growth and on inequitable consumption of natural resources.

How much energy and how many natural resources can human beings draw from nature without destroying it? How can these resources be distributed equitably among all people? Facing these questions realistically might help human beings understand that they are a part of nature, not a thing apart from it—and might even help humanity achieve true sustainability and equity.

 

9 December 2015

The paradox of Paris

At the climate talks in France, the goal is a global consensus agreement. But everyone meeting there—the thousands of negotiators, politicians, environmentalists, civil society participants, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations and the private sector—is aware that the conference's outcome will be disappointing and blatantly inadequate. For some, any agreement will seem downright futile. An agreement, virtually no matter how ambitious and aggressive it is, will not prevent sea level rise from threatening island states such as the Maldives (the climate-threatened nation that our roundtable colleague Sagar Dhara discussed earlier in Round Three). No agreement arising from the conference will adequately protect the millions of people around the globe who face climate disruptions ranging from flooding to increased drought to more powerful storms.

Not very far from the conference site in Le Bourget lies the historic Panthéon, a monumental building in central Paris. Outside the building, an artwork called Ice Watch was installed on December 3—and is set to melt away as the conference approaches its conclusion on December 11. The artwork consists of 12 huge blocks of ice, harvested from among icebergs floating in a Greenland fjord. The blocks are arranged in a circle, like a clock face, and represent the limited time that remains for effective climate action. Ice Watch, by visual artist Olafur Eliasson (in collaboration with geologist Minik Rosing), demonstrates in a simple, tangible way the precarious situation that the world faces.

Ice Watch also calls to mind a set of seemingly irreconcilable truths about climate change and humanity's response to it. Attitudes toward climate today present a paradox. On one hand is a sense of futility, a deep despair about climate change itself and the world's inadequate efforts to address it. On the other hand—and offsetting the futility at least a bit—is an optimism born of necessity. This optimism springs from humanity's powerful will to survive, and from the ingenuity, creativity, and hope that accompany the instinct for survival. To be sure, it's hard to change human systems—incumbent energy systems, for example. And when humans are faced with difficult problems, their "solutions" are always incomplete. But it's also true that when change occurs, it often does so in unexpected and nonlinear ways.

This roundtable has investigated whether humanity is capable of developing and deploying technologies adequate to address the climate problem. But the ultimate question is something else. Can human beings rapidly reorganize, reorient, and redistribute resources—and can they transform their institutions and societies so that Earth’s climate is stabilized and future suffering and disruption are minimized? This question is bigger than the narrow technological question, and harder to address. It's also a question very much worth embracing.