SOLUTIONS 2/26: Professor Stephen Pacala: What we need to do


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By Huck Fairman

Our latest winter snow and storms notwithstanding, our planet’s climates are warming. Scientists worldwide are pretty much in agreement that climate change will bring widely varying, even extreme, weather conditions. Facing heat, droughts, wildfires, floods, and freezes, it is clear to science, and a majority of citizens, that we need to move away from fossil fuels and turn to green energy: solar, wind, and water. But doing so will require planning, adjustments, investments, and social preparation enabling all communities to benefit.

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Princeton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Stephen Pacala has been, for some time, a leading researcher who has also reached out and consulted at all levels on what needs to be done and how these wide-ranging changes can be adopted over the next 30 years. He is one of the researchers and contributors to The Net-Zero America Project that is finding pathways, analysis and support, for policy makers nationwide to plan, provide infrastructure, and anticipate impacts on industry and communities. Princeton University, and the town of Princeton are also working toward net zero emissions to be achieved over the next decades.

Among the aspects of this change that need to be prepared for is a technical blueprint for what technologies will be needed, what the costs will be, and how will they be paid for.
Additionally, the financial capabilities of communities and industries need to be evaluated, and assistance, where needed, provided.

One factor that initially seemed to be daunting was the cost of this national, and global, transformation. But now with the substantial drop in costs of solar and wind power, that is no longer a real impediment. In addition to lower green energy costs, expected lower health costs, from reduced emissions, have and will benefit the nation. And research has found that paying for these new, green energy systems is not significantly different than the fossil fuel industry’s investments over the last 30 years.

But changing to green energy will require planning, as The Net-Zero America Project is doing. Not only will new hardware be needed, but social impacts will have to be addressed. As their jobs disappear, what will coal miners and fossil fuel employees do for their livelihoods? As neither the old technology locations nor the new technology industries are located everywhere, plans for accessibility and employment will be needed.

One local example of this challenge can be seen when comparing Princeton and Trenton. Because the former is an affluent community, its residents can largely afford solar panel installations, home and business insulation upgrades, and electric cars. That is less so in Trenton, and for both financial and health reasons that discrepancy needs to be addressed in order to avoid unjust imbalances. A policy manual, developed by the Net-Zero America Project, can be the necessary early step for both planning and comprehensive inclusion.

Pacala noted that what is also essential is a national commission to evaluate who is at risk, financially and health wise, and how beneficial change can be introduced to those who need start-up assistance. The discrepancies existing in communities with regard to these capabilities need to be mapped out in order to understand the scope of the problems. But then a system of block grants for those in need must also be established. The mechanism for this is a green bank for loans to communities, businesses, and individuals – something that President Joe Biden has a plan for, and which needs to enlist support.

Thus, Professor Pacala and others have charted necessary roads ahead. As with the national response to the coronavirus, which responses will be supported, and to what extent, remains to be seen.

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