DoE Honcho Visits UCSB, Shares on Sustainability

By Jenna Ryan in the Daily Nexus, January 15 2010

Steven Koonin, undersecretary of science for the U.S. Department of Energy, offered an insider’s take on the United States’ recent progress towards a more globally-sustainable future at a lecture that filled UCSB’s Campbell Hall yesterday.

Koonin, who was confirmed as undersecretary for science by the Senate in May 2009, used his appearance to explain the extreme demands that global development and population growth are placing on the world’s resources, both locally and globally. Unfortunately, Koonin said, details pertaining to these issues are difficult to predict because of their complicated and intertwined roots in science, politics and economics. Despite the uncertainty of forecasting in his field, Koonin said, the issue of overpopulation and diminishing resources are ones of unparalleled importance.

“Global development and population growth will place unprecedented stresses on resources,” Koonin said. “These same factors will have a profound influence on U.S. domestic and global circumstances. Navigating these changes will be a major task of the next decades.”

Koonin took his office last year as only the second person to hold the recently created position, following a 29-year stint as a university professor and administrator for the California Institute of Technology and a five-year position as chief scientist at BP, plc, a London-based biosciences energy research firm.

According to Koonin, the United States consumes 20 percent of the world’s resources, despite constituting only 4 percent of the world’s population. This inequality is a dilemma that must be addressed immediately, he said.

“Some possible resolutions are decoupling development and consumption to find new or substitute resources or to reset expectations and restrain development,” Koonin said. “Slower but smarter development with greater wisdom in infrastructure [is the solution].”

One audience member confronted Koonin’s seemingly “nonchalant” attitude toward the depletion of the Earth’s resources, claiming that he puts the planet’s interests on the backburner. In response, Koonin said he tries to depict the situation in a realistic light.

Moreover, Koonin stressed a necessity to develop more sustainable energy mediums. He said 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, a proportion that he finds unlikely to change by 2030.

Aside from the fact that global resources are depleting at a rapid rate, Koonin said, fossil fuel supplies are still ample.

“Is the world going to run out [of fossil fuels]?” Koonin asked. “The answer is no, we have ample oil reserves in the ground. There is some discussion of oil running out, but in fact I think that is mis-terminology. I think if the world was running out and desperately needed oil, there are less conventional reserves that could serve that way.”

Moreover, while India and China are building nuclear power plants at a rate of two per year, Koonin said the United States continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels and has not built any new plants in the last 30 years.

He concluded with a prediction that a large portion of the solution to catastrophic climate change lies in altering the way food and water are consumed. No shortage of water and fossil fuels exists on this planet, Koonin said, but unequal distribution and superfluous usage could soon lead to that unfavorable likelihood.

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