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Arun Majumdar Stresses Change to Address 21st Century Climate Challenges

Dean’s Seminar Series lecture focused on energy, climate, and sustainability

Arun Majumdar wishes he was currently an undergraduate student. If he were, he would have many decades to tackle some of Earth’s biggest challenges.

During the Dean’s Seminar Series lecture “Energy, Climate, and Sustainability: The Defining Issue of the 21st Century,” Majumdar, the Jay Precourt Provostial Chair Professor at Stanford University, discussed how the 20th century brought great leaps in quality of life and technology. However, that economic growth was driven largely by the use of fossil fuels and left us with greenhouse gas emissions and a planet that’s dangerously warming up. 

“This is the state of affairs today. That’s what we have inherited,” said Majumdar, who has served as the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Acting Under Secretary of Energy, and vice president for energy at Google. “We have to somehow turn this around.”

Current students, he said, have the chance to address climate change and find sustainable methods to power a globe that will be home to 11 billion people by 2100. 

The global economy is slowly changing to a greener one, with many of the world’s top companies pledging to be carbon neutral. Tesla has a higher market cap than that of General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles combined, signifying that the automobile market is moving away from gasoline-powered engines. Plant-based meat is also promising and could cut down on carbon emissions if it reaches large scale.

Yet there are challenges: Green power must be affordable and accessible for all to truly have the needed impact. And, everyone will need to make some adjustments in lifestyle.

“If we have to turn the ship and reduce emissions, it will basically affect almost every aspect of our economy,” Majumdar said. “That is the shift that is necessary in the 21st century. The next decade or two decades are probably the most important ones.”

But will the changes be quick and universal enough to make a difference? The world, Majumdar said, is at an inflection point.

“The question is: can we change?” Majumdar said. “Because if we don’t, the consequences of climate-induced extreme weather events are dire.”

New ideas are crucial. The methods that boosted the 20th century won’t work in the 21st. Methods from other fields can be leveraged for energy and climate and sustainability, and the need for talent is so great that anybody who wants to can help find solutions.

This is the time, Majumdar said, to take calculated risks. It’s OK to fail quickly if lessons are learned and applied to future projects. Long-term vision is important because the work needed will take time and isn’t easy. Talent, education, and investment are also crucial.

Innovation is key, and Majumdar was optimistic the challenge will be met.

The seminar was co-sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), and the Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience (CESR).

The event also included a panel discussion with Jennifer Dunn, director of research, Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering (NAISE), co-director of CESR, research associate professor, chemical and biological engineering;  William Miller, professor of chemical and biological engineering, co-director of CESR; and Michael R. Wasielewski, Clare Hamilton Hall Professor of Chemistry at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, executive director of ISEN.