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    Kerry Emanuel: A climate scientist and meteorologist in the eye of the storm

    Kerry Emanuel once joked that whenever he retired, he would start a “hurricane safari” so other people could experience what it’s like to fly into the eye of a hurricane.

    “All of a sudden, the turbulence stops, the sun comes out, bright sunshine, and it’s amazingly calm. And you’re in this grand stadium [of clouds miles high],” he says. “It’s quite an experience.”

    While the hurricane safari is unlikely to come to fruition — “You can’t just conjure up a hurricane,” he explains — Emanuel, a world-leading expert on links between hurricanes and climate change, is retiring from teaching in the Department of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT after a more than 40-year career.

    Best known for his foundational contributions to the science of tropical cyclones, climate, and links between them, Emanuel has also been a prominent voice in public debates on climate change, and what we should do about it.

    “Kerry has had an enormous effect on the world through the students and junior scientists he has trained,” says William Boos PhD ’08, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. “He’s a brilliant enough scientist and theoretician that he didn’t need any of us to accomplish what he has, but he genuinely cares about educating new generations of scientists and helping to launch their careers.”

    In recognition of Emanuel’s teaching career and contributions to science, a symposium was held in his honor at MIT on June 21 and 22, organized by several of his former students and collaborators, including Boos. Research presented at the symposium focused on the many fields influenced by Emanuel’s more than 200 published research papers — on everything from forecasting the risks posed by tropical cyclones to understanding how rainfall is produced by continent-sized patterns of atmospheric circulation.

    Emanuel’s career observing perturbations of Earth’s atmosphere started earlier than he can remember. “According to my older brother, from the age of 2, I would crawl to the window whenever there was a thunderstorm,” he says. At first, those were the rolling thunderheads of the Midwest where he grew up, then it was the edges of hurricanes during a few teenage years in Florida. Eventually, he would find himself watching from the very eye of the storm, both physically and mathematically.

    Emanuel attended MIT both as an undergraduate studying Earth and planetary sciences, and for his PhD in meteorology, writing a dissertation on thunderstorms that form ahead of cold fronts. Within the department, he worked with some of the central figures of modern meteorology such as Jule Charney, Fred Sanders, and Edward Lorenz — the founder of chaos theory.

    After receiving his PhD in 1978, Emanuel joined the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles. During this period, he also took a semester sabbatical to film the wind speeds of tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma. After three years, he returned to MIT and joined the Department of Meteorology in 1981. Two years later, the department merged with Earth and Planetary Sciences to form EAPS as it is known today, and where Emanuel has remained ever since.

    At MIT, he shifted scales. The thunderstorms and tornadoes that had been the focus of Emanuel’s research up to then were local atmospheric phenomena, or “mesoscale” in the language of meteorologists. The larger “synoptic scale” storms that are hurricanes blew into Emanuel’s research when as a young faculty member he was asked to teach a class in tropical meteorology; in prepping for the class, Emanuel found his notes on hurricanes from graduate school no longer made sense.

    “I realized I didn’t understand them because they couldn’t have been correct,” he says. “And so I set out to try to find a much better theoretical formulation for hurricanes.”

    He soon made two important contributions. In 1986, his paper “An Air-Sea Interaction Theory for Tropical Cyclones. Part 1: Steady-State Maintenance” developed a new theory for upper limits of hurricane intensity given atmospheric conditions. This work in turn led to even larger-scale questions to address. “That upper bound had to be dependent on climate, and it was likely to go up if we were to warm the climate,” Emanuel says — a phenomenon he explored in another paper, “The Dependence of Hurricane Intensity on Climate,” which showed how warming sea surface temperatures and changing atmospheric conditions from a warming climate would make hurricanes more destructive.

    “In my view, this is among the most remarkable achievements in theoretical geophysics,” says Adam Sobel PhD ’98, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University who got to know Emanuel after he graduated and became interested in tropical meteorology. “From first principles, using only pencil-and-paper analysis and physical reasoning, he derives a quantitative bound on hurricane intensity that has held up well over decades of comparison to observations” and underpins current methods of predicting hurricane intensity and how it changes with climate.

    This and diverse subsequent work led to numerous honors, including membership to the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

    Emanuel’s research was never confined to academic circles, however; when politicians and industry leaders voiced loud opposition to the idea that human-caused climate change posed a threat, he spoke up.

    “I felt kind of a duty to try to counter that,” says Emanuel. “I thought it was an interesting challenge to see if you could go out and convince what some people call climate deniers, skeptics, that this was a serious risk and we had to treat it as such.”

    In addition to many public lectures and media appearances discussing climate change, Emanuel penned a book for general audiences titled “What We Know About Climate Change,” in addition to a widely-read primer on climate change and risk assessment designed to influence business leaders.

    “Kerry has an unmatched physical understanding of tropical climate phenomena,” says Emanuel’s colleague, Susan Solomon, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at EAPS. “But he’s also a great communicator and has generously given his time to public outreach. His book ‘What We Know About Climate Change’ is a beautiful piece of work that is readily understandable and has captivated many a non-expert reader.”

    Along with a number of other prominent climate scientists, Emanuel also began advocating for expanding nuclear power as the most rapid path to decarbonizing the world’s energy systems.

    “I think the impediment to nuclear is largely irrational in the United States,” he says. “So, I’ve been trying to fight that just like I’ve been trying to fight climate denial.”

    One lesson Emanuel has taken from his public work on climate change is that skeptical audiences often respond better to issues framed in positive terms than to doom and gloom; he’s found emphasizing the potential benefits rather than the sacrifices involved in the energy transition can engage otherwise wary audiences.

    “It’s really not opposition to science, per se,” he says. “It’s fear of the societal changes they think are required to do something about it.”

    He has also worked to raise awareness about how insurance companies significantly underestimate climate risks in their policies, in particular by basing hurricane risk on unreliable historical data. One recent practical result has been a project by the First Street Foundation to assess the true flood risk of every property in the United States using hurricane models Emanuel developed.

    “I think it’s transformative,” Emanuel says of the project with First Street. “That may prove to be the most substantive research I’ve done.”

    Though Emanuel is retiring from teaching, he has no plans to stop working. “When I say ‘retire’ it’s in quotes,” he says. In 2011, Emanuel and Professor of Geophysics Daniel Rothman founded the Lorenz Center, a climate research center at MIT in honor of Emanuel’s mentor and friend Edward Lorenz. Emanuel will continue to participate in work at the center, which aims to counter what Emanuel describes as a trend away from “curiosity-driven” work in climate science.

    “Even if there were no such thing as global warming, [climate science] would still be a really, really exciting field,” says Emanuel. “There’s so much to understand about climate, about the climates of the past, about the climates of other planets.”

    In addition to work with the Lorenz Center, he’s become interested once again in tornadoes and severe local storms, and understanding whether climate also controls such local phenomena. He’s also involved in two of MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges projects focused on translating climate hazards to explicit financial and health risks — what will bring the dangers of climate change home to people, he says, is for the public to understand more concrete risks, like agricultural failure, water shortages, electricity shortages, and severe weather events. Capturing that will drive the next few years of his work.

    “I’m going to be stepping up research in some respects,” he says, now living full-time at his home in Maine.

    Of course, “retiring” does mean a bit more free time for new pursuits, like learning a language or an instrument, and “rediscovering the art of sailing,” says Emanuel. He’s looking forward to those days on the water, whatever storms are to come. More

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    Cracking the case of Arctic sea ice breakup

    Despite its below-freezing temperatures, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. As Arctic sea ice melts, fewer bright surfaces are available to reflect sunlight back into space. When fractures open in the ice cover, the water underneath gets exposed. Dark, ice-free water absorbs the sun’s energy, heating the ocean and driving further melting — a vicious cycle. This warming in turn melts glacial ice, contributing to rising sea levels.

    Warming climate and rising sea levels endanger the nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population living in coastal areas, the billions of people who depend on the ocean for food and their livelihoods, and species such as polar bears and Artic foxes. Reduced ice coverage is also making the once-impassable region more accessible, opening up new shipping lanes and ports. Interest in using these emerging trans-Arctic routes for product transit, extraction of natural resources (e.g., oil and gas), and military activity is turning an area traditionally marked by low tension and cooperation into one of global geopolitical competition.

    As the Arctic opens up, predicting when and where the sea ice will fracture becomes increasingly important in strategic decision-making. However, huge gaps exist in our understanding of the physical processes contributing to ice breakup. Researchers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory seek to help close these gaps by turning a data-sparse environment into a data-rich one. They envision deploying a distributed set of unattended sensors across the Arctic that will persistently detect and geolocate ice fracturing events. Concurrently, the network will measure various environmental conditions, including water temperature and salinity, wind speed and direction, and ocean currents at different depths. By correlating these fracturing events and environmental conditions, they hope to discover meaningful insights about what is causing the sea ice to break up. Such insights could help predict the future state of Arctic sea ice to inform climate modeling, climate change planning, and policy decision-making at the highest levels.

    “We’re trying to study the relationship between ice cracking, climate change, and heat flow in the ocean,” says Andrew March, an assistant leader of Lincoln Laboratory’s Advanced Undersea Systems and Technology Group. “Do cracks in the ice cause warm water to rise and more ice to melt? Do undersea currents and waves cause cracking? Does cracking cause undersea waves? These are the types of questions we aim to investigate.”

    Arctic access

    In March 2022, Ben Evans and Dave Whelihan, both researchers in March’s group, traveled for 16 hours across three flights to Prudhoe Bay, located on the North Slope of Alaska. From there, they boarded a small specialized aircraft and flew another 90 minutes to a three-and-a-half-mile-long sheet of ice floating 160 nautical miles offshore in the Arctic Ocean. In the weeks before their arrival, the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory had transformed this inhospitable ice floe into a temporary operating base called Ice Camp Queenfish, named after the first Sturgeon-class submarine to operate under the ice and the fourth to reach the North Pole. The ice camp featured a 2,500-foot-long runway, a command center, sleeping quarters to accommodate up to 60 personnel, a dining tent, and an extremely limited internet connection.

    At Queenfish, for the next four days, Evans and Whelihan joined U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard members, and members of the Royal Canadian Air Force and Navy and United Kingdom Royal Navy, who were participating in Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2022. Over the course of about three weeks, more than 200 personnel stationed at Queenfish, Prudhoe Bay, and aboard two U.S. Navy submarines participated in this biennial exercise. The goals of ICEX 2022 were to assess U.S. operational readiness in the Arctic; increase our country’s experience in the region; advance our understanding of the Arctic environment; and continue building relationships with other services, allies, and partner organizations to ensure a free and peaceful Arctic. The infrastructure provided for ICEX concurrently enables scientists to conduct research in an environment — either in person or by sending their research equipment for exercise organizers to deploy on their behalf — that would be otherwise extremely difficult and expensive to access.

    In the Arctic, windchill temperatures can plummet to as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, cold enough to freeze exposed skin within minutes. Winds and ocean currents can drift the entire camp beyond the reach of nearby emergency rescue aircraft, and the ice can crack at any moment. To ensure the safety of participants, a team of Navy meteorological specialists continually monitors the ever-changing conditions. The original camp location for ICEX 2022 had to be evacuated and relocated after a massive crack formed in the ice, delaying Evans’ and Whelihan’s trip. Even the newly selected site had a large crack form behind the camp and another crack that necessitated moving a number of tents.

    “Such cracking events are only going to increase as the climate warms, so it’s more critical now than ever to understand the physical processes behind them,” Whelihan says. “Such an understanding will require building technology that can persist in the environment despite these incredibly harsh conditions. So, it’s a challenge not only from a scientific perspective but also an engineering one.”

    “The weather always gets a vote, dictating what you’re able to do out here,” adds Evans. “The Arctic Submarine Laboratory does a lot of work to construct the camp and make it a safe environment where researchers like us can come to do good science. ICEX is really the only opportunity we have to go onto the sea ice in a place this remote to collect data.”

    A legacy of sea ice experiments

    Though this trip was Whelihan’s and Evans’ first to the Arctic region, staff from the laboratory’s Advanced Undersea Systems and Technology Group have been conducting experiments at ICEX since 2018. However, because of the Arctic’s remote location and extreme conditions, data collection has rarely been continuous over long periods of time or widespread across large areas. The team now hopes to change that by building low-cost, expendable sensing platforms consisting of co-located devices that can be left unattended for automated, persistent, near-real-time monitoring. 

    “The laboratory’s extensive expertise in rapid prototyping, seismo-acoustic signal processing, remote sensing, and oceanography make us a natural fit to build this sensor network,” says Evans.

    In the months leading up to the Arctic trip, the team collected seismometer data at Firepond, part of the laboratory’s Haystack Observatory site in Westford, Massachusetts. Through this local data collection, they aimed to gain a sense of what anthropogenic (human-induced) noise would look like so they could begin to anticipate the kinds of signatures they might see in the Arctic. They also collected ice melting/fracturing data during a thaw cycle and correlated these data with the weather conditions (air temperature, humidity, and pressure). Through this analysis, they detected an increase in seismic signals as the temperature rose above 32 F — an indication that air temperature and ice cracking may be related.

    A sensing network

    At ICEX, the team deployed various commercial off-the-shelf sensors and new sensors developed by the laboratory and University of New Hampshire (UNH) to assess their resiliency in the frigid environment and to collect an initial dataset.

    “One aspect that differentiates these experiments from those of the past is that we concurrently collected seismo-acoustic data and environmental parameters,” says Evans.

    The commercial technologies were seismometers to detect the vibrational energy released when sea ice fractures or collides with other ice floes; a hydrophone (underwater microphone) array to record the acoustic energy created by ice-fracturing events; a sound speed profiler to measure the speed of sound through the water column; and a conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) profiler to measure the salinity (related to conductivity), temperature, and pressure (related to depth) throughout the water column. The speed of sound in the ocean primarily depends on these three quantities. 

    To precisely measure the temperature across the entire water column at one location, they deployed an array of transistor-based temperature sensors developed by the laboratory’s Advanced Materials and Microsystems Group in collaboration with the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The small temperature sensors run along the length of a thread-like polymer fiber embedded with multiple conductors. This fiber platform, which can support a broad range of sensors, can be unspooled hundreds of feet below the water’s surface to concurrently measure temperature or other water properties — the fiber deployed in the Arctic also contained accelerometers to measure depth — at many points in the water column. Traditionally, temperature profiling has required moving a device up and down through the water column.

    The team also deployed a high-frequency echosounder supplied by Anthony Lyons and Larry Mayer, collaborators at UNH’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. This active sonar uses acoustic energy to detect internal waves, or waves occurring beneath the ocean’s surface.

    “You may think of the ocean as a homogenous body of water, but it’s not,” Evans explains. “Different currents can exist as you go down in depth, much like how you can get different winds when you go up in altitude. The UNH echosounder allows us to see the different currents in the water column, as well as ice roughness when we turn the sensor to look upward.”

    “The reason we care about currents is that we believe they will tell us something about how warmer water from the Atlantic Ocean is coming into contact with sea ice,” adds Whelihan. “Not only is that water melting ice but it also has lower salt content, resulting in oceanic layers and affecting how long ice lasts and where it lasts.”

    Back home, the team has begun analyzing their data. For the seismic data, this analysis involves distinguishing any ice events from various sources of anthropogenic noise, including generators, snowmobiles, footsteps, and aircraft. Similarly, the researchers know their hydrophone array acoustic data are contaminated by energy from a sound source that another research team participating in ICEX placed in the water. Based on their physics, icequakes — the seismic events that occur when ice cracks — have characteristic signatures that can be used to identify them. One approach is to manually find an icequake and use that signature as a guide for finding other icequakes in the dataset.

    From their water column profiling sensors, they identified an interesting evolution in the sound speed profile 30 to 40 meters below the ocean surface, related to a mass of colder water moving in later in the day. The group’s physical oceanographer believes this change in the profile is due to water coming up from the Bering Sea, water that initially comes from the Atlantic Ocean. The UNH-supplied echosounder also generated an interesting signal at a similar depth.

    “Our supposition is that this result has something to do with the large sound speed variation we detected, either directly because of reflections off that layer or because of plankton, which tend to rise on top of that layer,” explains Evans.  

    A future predictive capability

    Going forward, the team will continue mining their collected data and use these data to begin building algorithms capable of automatically detecting and localizing — and ultimately predicting — ice events correlated with changes in environmental conditions. To complement their experimental data, they have initiated conversations with organizations that model the physical behavior of sea ice, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Ice Center. Merging the laboratory’s expertise in sensor design and signal processing with their expertise in ice physics would provide a more complete understanding of how the Arctic is changing.

    The laboratory team will also start exploring cost-effective engineering approaches for integrating the sensors into packages hardened for deployment in the harsh environment of the Arctic.

    “Until these sensors are truly unattended, the human factor of usability is front and center,” says Whelihan. “Because it’s so cold, equipment can break accidentally. For example, at ICEX 2022, our waterproof enclosure for the seismometers survived, but the enclosure for its power supply, which was made out of a cheaper plastic, shattered in my hand when I went to pick it up.”

    The sensor packages will not only need to withstand the frigid environment but also be able to “phone home” over some sort of satellite data link and sustain their power. The team plans to investigate whether waste heat from processing can keep the instruments warm and how energy could be harvested from the Arctic environment.

    Before the next ICEX scheduled for 2024, they hope to perform preliminary testing of their sensor packages and concepts in Arctic-like environments. While attending ICEX 2022, they engaged with several other attendees — including the U.S. Navy, Arctic Submarine Laboratory, National Ice Center, and University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) — and identified cold room experimentation as one area of potential collaboration. Testing can also be performed at outdoor locations a bit closer to home and more easily accessible, such as the Great Lakes in Michigan and a UAF-maintained site in Barrow, Alaska. In the future, the laboratory team may have an opportunity to accompany U.S. Coast Guard personnel on ice-breaking vessels traveling from Alaska to Greenland. The team is also thinking about possible venues for collecting data far removed from human noise sources.

    “Since I’ve told colleagues, friends, and family I was going to the Arctic, I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations about climate change and what we’re doing there and why we’re doing it,” Whelihan says. “People don’t have an intrinsic, automatic understanding of this environment and its impact because it’s so far removed from us. But the Arctic plays a crucial role in helping to keep the global climate in balance, so it’s imperative we understand the processes leading to sea ice fractures.”

    This work is funded through Lincoln Laboratory’s internally administered R&D portfolio on climate. More

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    Lama Willa Baker challenges MIT audience to look beyond technology to solve the climate crises

    Buddhist teacher Willa Blythe Baker called for an “embodied revolution,” in speaking to an MIT audience on May 5, to create a world in which we realize we are connected and interdependent with each other and with our natural environment. She envisioned a world in which we always ask of every question: “How will this affect our bodies, trees, plants, mosses, water, air around us?”

    Authorized as a dharma teacher and lineage holder (lama) in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, Baker holds a PhD in religion form Harvard University and is founder and spiritual co-director of the Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston. As experts warn of warming oceans, rising sea levels, turbulent weather, mass extinctions, droughts, hunger, and global pandemics, she said, “Much is made of what we must do, but little is made of how we must live and who we must become”

    The climate crisis has been “framed as a set of problems that need to be solved through intellectual ingenuity, engineering, and technology. These solutions are critical, but they do not require grappling with the underlying issue … They do not look beyond doing, to being.’“

    Part of the problem, Baker pointed out, is that in discussing climate change, we frequently approach it in terms of what we must give up to live more sustainably — but not in terms of what we gain by living simply and mindfully.

    Disembodiment

    Baker outlined her view that “disembodiment” is a key underlying cause of the global environmental crisis. This disembodied state causes us to feel separate from our ecosystem, and from one another, and from our own bodies, leading to a state of constant worry about the past or the future, and to a constant desire or ambition for more. Disembodiment  is the state of being “up in the head” and out of touch with the body, and being disconnected from the here and now.

    The climate crisis, Baker put forward, is in part a result of society’s long journey away from the embodied ways of being in earlier agrarian societies in which there was a more intimate relationship between humans and their natural world.

    The contemplative tradition

    Baker said the contemplative perspective, and the practices of meditation and mindfulness, have much to offer climate activists. Rather than viewing meditation, prayer, or contemplation as passive acts, these practices are active pursuits, according to Baker, as “engagements of attention and embodiment that steward novel ways of knowing and being.”

    She explained further how an “embodied contemplative perspective” re-frames the climate crisis. Instead of viewing the crisis as external, the climate crisis calls for us to look inward to our motivations and values. “It is asking us to inquire into who and what we are, not just what we do.” Rather than seeing ourselves as “stewards” of the planet, we should see ourselves as part of the planet.

    “The idea of embodiment gets us to explore who we are in the deepest sense … Embodiment is a journey from our isolated sense of separateness, our sense of limited cognitive identity, back to the body and senses, back to our animal wisdom, back to the earthly organic identity of being bound by gravity.”

    Baker pointed to the central Buddhist tenet that we live with the illusion of separateness, and, she said, “the task of this human life is to see beyond the veil of that illusion.”

    Embodiment will bring us “back to the body and senses; back to our animal wisdom; back to the earthly organic identity of being bound by gravity. These wisdoms remind us of who we are — that we are of the Earth.”

    How much is enough?

    A lively discussion was held following the presentation. One audience member asked how to reconcile the idea of looking to the body for wisdom, when some of the climate crisis is fueled by our need for bodily comfort. Baker replied, “We have started to associate comfort with plenty … That’s a point of reflection. How much is enough?” She said that part of the Buddhist path is the cultivation of knowing that whatever you have is enough.

    One MIT student studying mechanical engineering asked how to reconcile these ideas with a capitalistic society. He pointed out that “a lot of industry is driven by the need to accumulate more capital … Every year, you want to increase your balance sheet … How do you tell companies that what you have is enough?”

    Baker agreed that that our current economic system constantly encourages us to want “more.” “Human happiness is at stake, in addition to our planet’s survival. If we’re told that the ‘next thing’ will make us happy, we will be seeking happiness externally. I think the system will change eventually. I don’t think we have any choice. The planet cannot sustain a world where we’re producing and producing more and more stuff for us to need and want.”

    One audience member asked how to meet the challenge of being embodied in our busy world. Baker said that “embodiment and disembodiment is a continuum. Sometimes we have to be in our head. We’re taking a test, or writing a paper. But we can get ‘up there’ so much that we forget we have a body.” She called for ‘bringing your attention down. Pausing and bring attention all the way down, and feeling the Earth below your feet … There’s a calming and centering that comes with coming down and connecting with the Earth below. Being present and grounded and in tune.”

    Baker said the body can show us, “Just here. Just now. Just this.”

    The speaker was introduced by Professor Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at MIT. This spring, Teng introduced a new class 21G.015 (Introduction to Buddhism, Mindfulness, and Meditation), a half-term subject that met with the class PE.0534 (Fitness and Meditation), taught by Sarah Johnson, so that students learned basic ideas of Buddhism and its history while having a chance to learn and practice mindfulness and meditation techniques.

    This event was the latest in the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series. This series engages the rich history of Buddhist thought and ethical action to advance critical dialogues on ethics, humanity, and MIT’s mission “to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.”

    Baker’s books include “Essence of Ambrosia” (2005), “Everyday Dharma”(2009), “The Arts of Contemplative Care” (2012) and “The Wakeful Body” (2021). Her guided meditations can be found here. More

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    Living Climate Futures initiative showcases holistic approach to the climate crisis

    The sun shone bright and warm on the Dertouzos Amphitheater at the Stata Center this past Earth Day as a panel of Indigenous leaders from across the country talked about their experiences with climate activism and shared their natural world philosophies — a worldview that sees humanity as one with the rest of the Earth.

    “I was taught the natural world philosophies by those raised by precolonial individuals,” said Jay Julius W’tot Lhem of the Lummi tribe of the Pacific Northwest and founder and president of Se’Si’Le, an organization dedicated to reintroducing Indigenous spiritual law into the mainstream conversation about climate. Since his great-grandmother was born in 1888, he grew up “one hug away from pre-contact,” as he put it.

    Natural world philosophiesNatural world philosophies sit at the center of the Indigenous activism taking place all over the country, and they were a highlight of the Indigenous Earth Day panel — one part of a two-day symposium called Living Climate Futures. The events were hosted by the Anthropology and History sections and the Program on Science, Technology, and Society in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), in collaboration with the MIT Office of Sustainability and Project Indigenous MIT.

    “The Living Climate Futures initiative began from the recognition that the people who are living most closely with climate and environmental struggles and injustices are especially equipped to lead the way toward other ways of living in the world,” says Briana Meier, ACLS Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and an organizer of the event. “While much climate action is based in technology-driven policy, we recognize that solutions to climate change are often embedded within and produced in response to existing social systems of injustice and inequity.”

    On-the-ground experts from around the country spoke in a series of panels and discussions over the two days, sharing their stories and inspiring attendees to think differently about how to address the environmental crisis.

    Gathering experts

    The hope, according to faculty organizers, was that an event centered on such voices could create connections among activists and open the eyes of many to the human element of climate solutions.

    Over the years, many such solutions have overlooked the needs of the communities they are designed to help. Streams in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have been dammed to generate hydroelectric power — promoted as a green alternative to fossil fuel. But these same locations have long been sacred spots for Indigenous swimming rituals, said Ryan Emanuel (Lumbee), associate professor of hydrology at Duke University and a panelist in the Indigenous Earth Day event. Mitigating the environmental damage does not make up for the loss of sacred connection, he emphasized.

    To dig into such nuances, the organizers invited an intergenerational group of panelists to share successes with attendees.

    Transforming urban spaces

    In one panel, for example, urban farmers from Mansfield, Ohio, and Chelsea, Massachusetts, discussed the benefits of growing vegetables in cities.

    “Transforming urban spaces into farms provides not just healthy food, but a visible symbol of hope, a way for people to connect and grow food that reflects their cultures and homes, an economic development opportunity, and even a safe space for teens to hang out,” said Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability and an event organizer. “We also heard about the challenges — like the cost of real estate in Massachusetts.”

    Another panel highlighted the determined efforts of a group of students from George Washington High School in Southeast Chicago to derail a project to build a scrap metal recycling plant across the street from their school. “We’re at school eight hours a day,” said Gregory Miller, a junior at the school. “We refuse to live next door to a metals scrapyard.”

    The proposed plant was intended to replace something similar that had been shut down in a predominantly white neighborhood due to its many environmental violations. Southeast Chicago is more culturally diverse and has long suffered from industrial pollution and economic hardship, but the students fought the effort to further pollute their home — and won.

    “It was hard, the campaign,” said Destiny Vasquez. “But it was beautiful because the community came together. There is unity in our struggle.”

    Recovering a common heritage 

    Unity was also at the forefront of the discussion for the Indigenous Earth Day panel in the Stata Amphitheater. This portion of the Living Climate Futures event began with a greeting in the Navajo language from Alvin Harvey, PhD candidate in aeronautics and astronautics (Aero/Astro) and representative of the MIT American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the MIT Native American Student Association. The greeting identified all who came to the event as relatives.

    “Look at the relatives next to you, especially those trees,” he said, gesturing to the budding branches around the amphitheater. “They give you shelter, love … few other beings are willing to do that.”

    According to Julius, such reverence for nature is part of the Indigenous way of life, common across tribal backgrounds — and something all of humanity once had in common. “Somewhere along the line we all had Indigenous philosophies,” he said. “We all need an invitation back to that to understand we’re all part of the whole.”

    Understanding the oneness of all living things on earth helps people of Indigenous nations feel the distress of the earth when it is under attack, speakers said. Donna Chavis, senior climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth and an elder of the Lumbee tribe, discussed the trauma of having forests near her home in the southeastern United States clear-cut to provide wood chips to Europe.

    “They are devastating the lungs of the earth in North Carolina at a rate faster than in the Amazon,” she said. “You can almost hear the pain of the forest.”

    Small pictures of everyday life

    “People are experiencing a climate crisis that is global in really different ways in different places,” says Heather Paxson, head of MIT Anthropology and an event organizer. “What came out of these two days is a real, palpable sense of the power of listening to individual experience. Not because it gives us the big picture, but because it gives us the small picture.”

    Trinity Colón, one of the leaders of the group from George Washington High School, impressed on attendees that environmental justice is much more than an academic pursuit. “We’re not talking about climate change in the sense of statistics, infographics,” she said. “For us this is everyday life … [Future engineers and others training at MIT] should definitely take that into perspective, that these are real people really being affected by these injustices.”

    That call to action has already been felt by many at MIT.

    “I’ve been hearing from grad students lately, in engineering, saying, ‘I like thinking about these problems, but I don’t like where I’m being directed to use my intellectual capital, toward building more corporate wealth,’” said Kate Brown, professor of STS and an event organizer. “As an institution, we could move toward working not for, not to correct, but working with communities.”

    The world is what we’ve gotMIT senior Abdulazeez Mohammed Salim, an Aero/Astro major, says he was inspired by these conversations to get involved in urban farming initiatives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he plans to move after graduation.

    “We have a responsibility as part of the world around us, not as external observers, not as people removed and displaced from the world. And the world is not an experiment or a lab,” he says. “It’s what we’ve got. It’s who we are. It’s all that we’ve been and all we will be. That stuck with me; it resonated very deeply.”

    Salim also appreciated the reality check given by Bianca Bowman from GreenRoots Chelsea, who pointed out that success will not come quickly, and that sustained advocacy is critical.

    “Real, valuable change will not happen overnight, will not happen by just getting together a critical mass of people who are upset and concerned,” he said. “Because what we’re dealing with are large, interconnected, messy systems that will try to fight back and survive regardless of how we force them to adapt. And so, long term is really the only way forward. That’s the way we need to think of these struggles.” More

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    MIT J-WAFS announces 2022 seed grant recipients

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has awarded eight MIT principal investigators with 2022 J-WAFS seed grants. The grants support innovative MIT research that has the potential to have significant impact on water- and food-related challenges.

    The only program at MIT that is dedicated to water- and food-related research, J-WAFS has offered seed grant funding to MIT principal investigators and their teams for the past eight years. The grants provide up to $75,000 per year, overhead-free, for two years to support new, early-stage research in areas such as water and food security, safety, supply, and sustainability. Past projects have spanned many diverse disciplines, including engineering, science, technology, and business innovation, as well as social science and economics, architecture, and urban planning. 

    Seven new projects led by eight researchers will be supported this year. With funding going to four different MIT departments, the projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop drought monitoring systems for farmers, improve management of the shellfish industry, optimize water purification materials, and more.

    “Climate change, the pandemic, and most recently the war in Ukraine have exacerbated and put a spotlight on the serious challenges facing global water and food systems,” says J-WAFS director John H. Lienhard. He adds, “The proposals chosen this year have the potential to create measurable, real-world impacts in both the water and food sectors.”  

    The 2022 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:

    Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is using sunlight to desalinate water. The use of solar energy for desalination is not a new idea, particularly solar thermal evaporation methods. However, the solar thermal evaporation process has an overall low efficiency because it relies on breaking hydrogen bonds among individual water molecules, which is very energy-intensive. Chen and his lab recently discovered a photomolecular effect that dramatically lowers the energy required for desalination. 

    The bonds among water molecules inside a water cluster in liquid water are mostly hydrogen bonds. Chen discovered that a photon with energy larger than the bonding energy between the water cluster and the remaining water liquids can cleave off the water cluster at the water-air interface, colliding with air molecules and disintegrating into 60 or even more individual water molecules. This effect has the potential to significantly boost clean water production via new desalination technology that produces a photomolecular evaporation rate that exceeds pure solar thermal evaporation by at least ten-fold. 

    John E. Fernández is the director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Architecture, and also affiliated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Fernández is working with Scott D. Odell, a postdoc in the ESI, to better understand the impacts of mining and climate change in water-stressed regions of Chile.

    The country of Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of both agricultural and mineral products; however, little research has been done on climate change effects at the intersection of these two sectors. Fernández and Odell will explore how desalination is being deployed by the mining industry to relieve pressure on continental water supplies in Chile, and with what effect. They will also research how climate change and mining intersect to affect Andean glaciers and agricultural communities dependent upon them. The researchers intend for this work to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms from mining, desalination, and climate change.

    Ariel L. Furst is the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. Her 2022 J-WAFS seed grant project seeks to effectively remove dangerous and long-lasting chemicals from water supplies and other environmental areas. 

    Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a component of Teflon, is a member of a group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These human-made chemicals have been extensively used in consumer products like nonstick cooking pans. Exceptionally high levels of PFOA have been measured in water sources near manufacturing sites, which is problematic as these chemicals do not readily degrade in our bodies or the environment. The majority of humans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, which can lead to significant health issues including cancer, liver damage, and thyroid effects, as well as developmental effects in infants. Current remediation methods are limited to inefficient capture and are mostly confined to laboratory settings. Furst’s proposed method utilizes low-energy, scaffolded enzyme materials to move beyond simple capture to degrade these hazardous pollutants.

    Heather J. Kulik is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT who is developing novel computational strategies to identify optimal materials for purifying water. Water treatment requires purification by selectively separating small ions from water. However, human-made, scalable materials for water purification and desalination are often not stable in typical operating conditions and lack precision pores for good separation. 

    Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are promising materials for water purification because their pores can be tailored to have precise shapes and chemical makeup for selective ion affinity. Yet few MOFs have been assessed for their properties relevant to water purification. Kulik plans to use virtual high-throughput screening accelerated by machine learning models and molecular simulation to accelerate discovery of MOFs. Specifically, Kulik will be looking for MOFs with ultra-stable structures in water that do not break down at certain temperatures. 

    Gregory C. Rutledge is the Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. He is leading a project that will explore how to better separate oils from water. This is an important problem to solve given that industry-generated oil-contaminated water is a major source of pollution to the environment.

    Emulsified oils are particularly challenging to remove from water due to their small droplet sizes and long settling times. Microfiltration is an attractive technology for the removal of emulsified oils, but its major drawback is fouling, or the accumulation of unwanted material on solid surfaces. Rutledge will examine the mechanism of separation behind liquid-infused membranes (LIMs) in which an infused liquid coats the surface and pores of the membrane, preventing fouling. Robustness of the LIM technology for removal of different types of emulsified oils and oil mixtures will be evaluated. César Terrer is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering whose J-WAFS project seeks to answer the question: How can satellite images be used to provide a high-resolution drought monitoring system for farmers? 

    Drought is recognized as one of the world’s most pressing issues, with direct impacts on vegetation that threaten water resources and food production globally. However, assessing and monitoring the impact of droughts on vegetation is extremely challenging as plants’ sensitivity to lack of water varies across species and ecosystems. Terrer will leverage a new generation of remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution assessments of plant water stress at regional to global scales. The aim is to provide a plant drought monitoring product with farmland-specific services for water and socioeconomic management.

    Michael Triantafyllou is the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is developing a web-based system for natural resources management that will deploy geospatial analysis, visualization, and reporting to better manage and facilitate aquaculture data.  By providing value to commercial fisheries’ permit holders who employ significant numbers of people and also to recreational shellfish permit holders who contribute to local economies, the project has attracted support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries as well as a number of local resource management departments.

    Massachusetts shell fisheries generated roughly $339 million in 2020, accounting for 17 percent of U.S. East Coast production. Managing such a large industry is a time-consuming process, given there are thousands of acres of coastal areas grouped within over 800 classified shellfish growing areas. Extreme climate events present additional challenges. Triantafyllou’s research will help efforts to enforce environmental regulations, support habitat restoration efforts, and prevent shellfish-related food safety issues. More

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    Absent legislative victory, the president can still meet US climate goals

    The most recent United Nations climate change report indicates that without significant action to mitigate global warming, the extent and magnitude of climate impacts — from floods to droughts to the spread of disease — could outpace the world’s ability to adapt to them. The latest effort to introduce meaningful climate legislation in the United States Congress, the Build Back Better bill, has stalled. The climate package in that bill — $555 billion in funding for climate resilience and clean energy — aims to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the nation’s current Paris Agreement pledge. With prospects of passing a standalone climate package in the Senate far from assured, is there another pathway to fulfilling that pledge?

    Recent detailed legal analysis shows that there is at least one viable option for the United States to achieve the 2030 target without legislative action. Under Section 115 on International Air Pollution of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could assign emissions targets to the states that collectively meet the national goal. The president could simply issue an executive order to empower the EPA to do just that. But would that be prudent?

    A new study led by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change explores how, under a federally coordinated carbon dioxide emissions cap-and-trade program aligned with the U.S. Paris Agreement pledge and implemented through Section 115 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA might allocate emissions cuts among states. Recognizing that the Biden or any future administration considering this strategy would need to carefully weigh its benefits against its potential political risks, the study highlights the policy’s net economic benefits to the nation.

    The researchers calculate those net benefits by combining the estimated total cost of carbon dioxide emissions reduction under the policy with the corresponding estimated expenditures that would be avoided as a result of the policy’s implementation — expenditures on health care due to particulate air pollution, and on society at large due to climate impacts.

    Assessing three carbon dioxide emissions allocation strategies (each with legal precedent) for implementing Section 115 to return cap-and-trade program revenue to the states and distribute it to state residents on an equal per-capita basis, the study finds that at the national level, the economic net benefits are substantial, ranging from $70 to $150 billion in 2030. The results appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

    “Our findings not only show significant net gains to the U.S. economy under a national emissions policy implemented through the Clean Air Act’s Section 115,” says Mei Yuan, a research scientist at the MIT Joint Program and lead author of the study. “They also show the policy impact on consumer costs may differ across states depending on the choice of allocation strategy.”

    The national price on carbon needed to achieve the policy’s emissions target, as well as the policy’s ultimate cost to consumers, are substantially lower than those found in studies a decade earlier, although in line with other recent studies. The researchers speculate that this is largely due to ongoing expansion of ambitious state policies in the electricity sector and declining renewable energy costs. The policy is also progressive, consistent with earlier studies, in that equal lump-sum distribution of allowance revenue to state residents generally leads to net benefits to lower-income households. Regional disparities in consumer costs can be moderated by the allocation of allowances among states.

    State-by-state emissions estimates for the study are derived from MIT’s U.S. Regional Energy Policy model, with electricity sector detail of the Renewable Energy Development System model developed by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory; air quality benefits are estimated using U.S. EPA and other models; and the climate benefits estimate is based on the social cost of carbon, the U.S. federal government’s assessment of the economic damages that would result from emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (currently $51/ton, adjusted for inflation). 

    “In addition to illustrating the economic, health, and climate benefits of a Section 115 implementation, our study underscores the advantages of a policy that imposes a uniform carbon price across all economic sectors,” says John Reilly, former co-director of the MIT Joint Program and a study co-author. “A national carbon price would serve as a major incentive for all sectors to decarbonize.” More

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    How can we reduce the carbon footprint of global computing?

    The voracious appetite for energy from the world’s computers and communications technology presents a clear threat for the globe’s warming climate. That was the blunt assessment from presenters in the intensive two-day Climate Implications of Computing and Communications workshop held on March 3 and 4, hosted by MIT’s Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, and the Schwarzman College of Computing.

    The virtual event featured rich discussions and highlighted opportunities for collaboration among an interdisciplinary group of MIT faculty and researchers and industry leaders across multiple sectors — underscoring the power of academia and industry coming together.

    “If we continue with the existing trajectory of compute energy, by 2040, we are supposed to hit the world’s energy production capacity. The increase in compute energy and demand has been increasing at a much faster rate than the world energy production capacity increase,” said Bilge Yildiz, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the MIT departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, one of the workshop’s 18 presenters. This computing energy projection draws from the Semiconductor Research Corporations’s decadal report.To cite just one example: Information and communications technology already account for more than 2 percent of global energy demand, which is on a par with the aviation industries emissions from fuel.“We are the very beginning of this data-driven world. We really need to start thinking about this and act now,” said presenter Evgeni Gousev, senior director at Qualcomm.  Innovative energy-efficiency optionsTo that end, the workshop presentations explored a host of energy-efficiency options, including specialized chip design, data center architecture, better algorithms, hardware modifications, and changes in consumer behavior. Industry leaders from AMD, Ericsson, Google, IBM, iRobot, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Tertill, Texas Instruments, and Verizon outlined their companies’ energy-saving programs, while experts from across MIT provided insight into current research that could yield more efficient computing.Panel topics ranged from “Custom hardware for efficient computing” to “Hardware for new architectures” to “Algorithms for efficient computing,” among others.

    Visual representation of the conversation during the workshop session entitled “Energy Efficient Systems.”

    Image: Haley McDevitt

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    The goal, said Yildiz, is to improve energy efficiency associated with computing by more than a million-fold.“I think part of the answer of how we make computing much more sustainable has to do with specialized architectures that have very high level of utilization,” said Darío Gil, IBM senior vice president and director of research, who stressed that solutions should be as “elegant” as possible.  For example, Gil illustrated an innovative chip design that uses vertical stacking to reduce the distance data has to travel, and thus reduces energy consumption. Surprisingly, more effective use of tape — a traditional medium for primary data storage — combined with specialized hard drives (HDD), can yield a dramatic savings in carbon dioxide emissions.Gil and presenters Bill Dally, chief scientist and senior vice president of research of NVIDIA; Ahmad Bahai, CTO of Texas Instruments; and others zeroed in on storage. Gil compared data to a floating iceberg in which we can have fast access to the “hot data” of the smaller visible part while the “cold data,” the large underwater mass, represents data that tolerates higher latency. Think about digital photo storage, Gil said. “Honestly, are you really retrieving all of those photographs on a continuous basis?” Storage systems should provide an optimized mix of of HDD for hot data and tape for cold data based on data access patterns.Bahai stressed the significant energy saving gained from segmenting standby and full processing. “We need to learn how to do nothing better,” he said. Dally spoke of mimicking the way our brain wakes up from a deep sleep, “We can wake [computers] up much faster, so we don’t need to keep them running in full speed.”Several workshop presenters spoke of a focus on “sparsity,” a matrix in which most of the elements are zero, as a way to improve efficiency in neural networks. Or as Dally said, “Never put off till tomorrow, where you could put off forever,” explaining efficiency is not “getting the most information with the fewest bits. It’s doing the most with the least energy.”Holistic and multidisciplinary approaches“We need both efficient algorithms and efficient hardware, and sometimes we need to co-design both the algorithm and the hardware for efficient computing,” said Song Han, a panel moderator and assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT.Some presenters were optimistic about innovations already underway. According to Ericsson’s research, as much as 15 percent of the carbon emissions globally can be reduced through the use of existing solutions, noted Mats Pellbäck Scharp, head of sustainability at Ericsson. For example, GPUs are more efficient than CPUs for AI, and the progression from 3G to 5G networks boosts energy savings.“5G is the most energy efficient standard ever,” said Scharp. “We can build 5G without increasing energy consumption.”Companies such as Google are optimizing energy use at their data centers through improved design, technology, and renewable energy. “Five of our data centers around the globe are operating near or above 90 percent carbon-free energy,” said Jeff Dean, Google’s senior fellow and senior vice president of Google Research.Yet, pointing to the possible slowdown in the doubling of transistors in an integrated circuit — or Moore’s Law — “We need new approaches to meet this compute demand,” said Sam Naffziger, AMD senior vice president, corporate fellow, and product technology architect. Naffziger spoke of addressing performance “overkill.” For example, “we’re finding in the gaming and machine learning space we can make use of lower-precision math to deliver an image that looks just as good with 16-bit computations as with 32-bit computations, and instead of legacy 32b math to train AI networks, we can use lower-energy 8b or 16b computations.”

    Visual representation of the conversation during the workshop session entitled “Wireless, networked, and distributed systems.”

    Image: Haley McDevitt

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    Other presenters singled out compute at the edge as a prime energy hog.“We also have to change the devices that are put in our customers’ hands,” said Heidi Hemmer, senior vice president of engineering at Verizon. As we think about how we use energy, it is common to jump to data centers — but it really starts at the device itself, and the energy that the devices use. Then, we can think about home web routers, distributed networks, the data centers, and the hubs. “The devices are actually the least energy-efficient out of that,” concluded Hemmer.Some presenters had different perspectives. Several called for developing dedicated silicon chipsets for efficiency. However, panel moderator Muriel Medard, the Cecil H. Green Professor in EECS, described research at MIT, Boston University, and Maynooth University on the GRAND (Guessing Random Additive Noise Decoding) chip, saying, “rather than having obsolescence of chips as the new codes come in and in different standards, you can use one chip for all codes.”Whatever the chip or new algorithm, Helen Greiner, CEO of Tertill (a weeding robot) and co-founder of iRobot, emphasized that to get products to market, “We have to learn to go away from wanting to get the absolute latest and greatest, the most advanced processor that usually is more expensive.” She added, “I like to say robot demos are a dime a dozen, but robot products are very infrequent.”Greiner emphasized consumers can play a role in pushing for more energy-efficient products — just as drivers began to demand electric cars.Dean also sees an environmental role for the end user.“We have enabled our cloud customers to select which cloud region they want to run their computation in, and they can decide how important it is that they have a low carbon footprint,” he said, also citing other interfaces that might allow consumers to decide which air flights are more efficient or what impact installing a solar panel on their home would have.However, Scharp said, “Prolonging the life of your smartphone or tablet is really the best climate action you can do if you want to reduce your digital carbon footprint.”Facing increasing demandsDespite their optimism, the presenters acknowledged the world faces increasing compute demand from machine learning, AI, gaming, and especially, blockchain. Panel moderator Vivienne Sze, associate professor in EECS, noted the conundrum.“We can do a great job in making computing and communication really efficient. But there is this tendency that once things are very efficient, people use more of it, and this might result in an overall increase in the usage of these technologies, which will then increase our overall carbon footprint,” Sze said.Presenters saw great potential in academic/industry partnerships, particularly from research efforts on the academic side. “By combining these two forces together, you can really amplify the impact,” concluded Gousev.Presenters at the Climate Implications of Computing and Communications workshop also included: Joel Emer, professor of the practice in EECS at MIT; David Perreault, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of EECS at MIT; Jesús del Alamo, MIT Donner Professor and professor of electrical engineering in EECS at MIT; Heike Riel, IBM Fellow and head science and technology at IBM; and Takashi Ando, principal research staff member at IBM Research. The recorded workshop sessions are available on YouTube. More

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    What choices does the world need to make to keep global warming below 2 C?

    When the 2015 Paris Agreement set a long-term goal of keeping global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels” to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, it did not specify how its nearly 200 signatory nations could collectively achieve that goal. Each nation was left to its own devices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in alignment with the 2 C target. Now a new modeling strategy developed at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change that explores hundreds of potential future development pathways provides new insights on the energy and technology choices needed for the world to meet that target.

    Described in a study appearing in the journal Earth’s Future, the new strategy combines two well-known computer modeling techniques to scope out the energy and technology choices needed over the coming decades to reduce emissions sufficiently to achieve the Paris goal.

    The first technique, Monte Carlo analysis, quantifies uncertainty levels for dozens of energy and economic indicators including fossil fuel availability, advanced energy technology costs, and population and economic growth; feeds that information into a multi-region, multi-economic-sector model of the world economy that captures the cross-sectoral impacts of energy transitions; and runs that model hundreds of times to estimate the likelihood of different outcomes. The MIT study focuses on projections through the year 2100 of economic growth and emissions for different sectors of the global economy, as well as energy and technology use.

    The second technique, scenario discovery, uses machine learning tools to screen databases of model simulations in order to identify outcomes of interest and their conditions for occurring. The MIT study applies these tools in a unique way by combining them with the Monte Carlo analysis to explore how different outcomes are related to one another (e.g., do low-emission outcomes necessarily involve large shares of renewable electricity?). This approach can also identify individual scenarios, out of the hundreds explored, that result in specific combinations of outcomes of interest (e.g., scenarios with low emissions, high GDP growth, and limited impact on electricity prices), and also provide insight into the conditions needed for that combination of outcomes.

    Using this unique approach, the MIT Joint Program researchers find several possible patterns of energy and technology development under a specified long-term climate target or economic outcome.

    “This approach shows that there are many pathways to a successful energy transition that can be a win-win for the environment and economy,” says Jennifer Morris, an MIT Joint Program research scientist and the study’s lead author. “Toward that end, it can be used to guide decision-makers in government and industry to make sound energy and technology choices and avoid biases in perceptions of what ’needs’ to happen to achieve certain outcomes.”

    For example, while achieving the 2 C goal, the global level of combined wind and solar electricity generation by 2050 could be less than three times or more than 12 times the current level (which is just over 2,000 terawatt hours). These are very different energy pathways, but both can be consistent with the 2 C goal. Similarly, there are many different energy mixes that can be consistent with maintaining high GDP growth in the United States while also achieving the 2 C goal, with different possible roles for renewables, natural gas, carbon capture and storage, and bioenergy. The study finds renewables to be the most robust electricity investment option, with sizable growth projected under each of the long-term temperature targets explored.

    The researchers also find that long-term climate targets have little impact on economic output for most economic sectors through 2050, but do require each sector to significantly accelerate reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions intensity (emissions per unit of economic output) so as to reach near-zero levels by midcentury.

    “Given the range of development pathways that can be consistent with meeting a 2 degrees C goal, policies that target only specific sectors or technologies can unnecessarily narrow the solution space, leading to higher costs,” says former MIT Joint Program Co-Director John Reilly, a co-author of the study. “Our findings suggest that policies designed to encourage a portfolio of technologies and sectoral actions can be a wise strategy that hedges against risks.”

    The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. More