December 3, 2008

Alumnus Makes His Case For A Focus on Global Warming

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It is hard to spend any time at Cornell without hearing about the various sustainability efforts around campus. Dan Miller ’78, a Cornell engineering alumnus, gave a presentation in Phillips Hall yesterday, “A Really Inconvenient Truth” to highlight the reasons why focusing on global climate change deserves to be a top priority at Cornell.
Miller is co-founder and managing director of a venture capital group called The Roda Group. He is also the former president of Ask Jeeves and a member of Al Gore’s Climate Project.
“He is a tremendous leader in creating new technologies and businesses and has a tremendous vision about where the field of energy is going and what the challenges are,” said Prof. Cliff Pollock, electrical and computer engineering. “I wanted faculty and students to talk to him and hear what he sees as problems, I think he’s going to be a real resource for the community.”
Miller’s talk was attended by a wide variety of people from the community, from students to professors to members of other organizations. Trisha Smrecak, global change and evolution project manager for the Museum of the Earth, said that she came because Miller’s talk was very pertinent to her work.
Miller opened his talk by saying, “I’m going to tell you what I think is really happening. I would not give this talk to children.”
The talk focused on how the reports released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are actually best case scenarios.
“I’m here to tell you today that the IPCC is wrong,” said Miller. “They use linear models because scientists can agree on them because they’re simplified, but the world is actually very discontinuous.”[img_assist|nid=33979|title=Sustainable me? Sustainable you!|desc=Dan Miller ’78 presents his lecture on global warming yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
According to Miller, the actual carbon dioxide emissions so far have been worse than the worst-case scenario projected by the IPCC because China and India have developed much more rapidly than they had predicted. If we manage to stop carbon emissions right now, the climate is still going to be a degree and a half warmer by 2100 than it is today. One degree of change is very bad, we are currently at 0.8 degrees and ice is melting, there are more hurricanes and droughts, and the sea level is rising. IPCC projected a sea level rise of two feet by 2100, but they did not factor in icebergs on the sides of glaciers breaking off and falling into the water, which Miller claims is the biggest contributor to sea level rise.
Miller also discussed other negative outcomes of climate change, such as the permafrost melting and releasing the carbon dioxide and methane trapped inside. “If you ask me what the scariest thing is, it’s this one that’s happening right now. Once the permafrost starts giving off more gases every year faster than we can decrease our emissions, the game is over, that means there is no way we can decrease carbon dioxide in time,” he said.
Along with the dire predictions, Miller offered some suggestions as to what Cornell could do to help. He said that Cornell is positioned to be the leader in climate change research because of all of the schools and departments can work together to form a cohesive picture.
“Cornell is doing a lot, it’s very exciting what’s going on here but it’s not nearly enough. UC Berkeley has about a billion and a half dollars in climate-oriented research going on, and Cornell is losing out on it,” Miller said. “I think Cornell should be focusing on a billion dollar minimum research planning budget from climate change research. That’s what I’m here today trying to stir up a little bit. It’s a very dire situation but at the same time there’s never been more of an opportunity to have an impact, make money and help the world.”
Students had a variety of different reactions to the presentation. Some, like Jaydev Mahadevan ’09 were not fazed by it.
“It was really informative but I found it a little bit alarming, I think overly so. There’s still a question to whether we’re causing climate change or not. Nonetheless, I think the research that they’re doing into renewable energy and alternative technologies is still useful,” said Mahadevan.
Other students were more impacted. Thomas Murray ’10 said, “I thought it was really interesting — a lot of times you look at something from one perspective but do not consider how it will affect everything else, which he did well.”
According to Miller, there is no bigger economic opportunity in history than what we are facing now in terms of climate change research, because we are about to change the energy infrastructure of the entire world.