The previous articles (Goal and Strategy) intended to shed some light on the climate change challenge and guidelines for directing mitigation efforts. This article lands on the personal level - how can one individual contribute to solutions of such a global problem in a meaningful way? It depends on individual expertise and character as well as the opportunities available. As a result, everyone may reach different conclusions. Instead of trying to answer what could be the best role for somebody else, I would simply like to share how I see myself contributing to mitigation of climate risks based on my abilities, limitations, and beliefs.
Wide vs. Deep
There are a number of disciplines, at least the technical ones, that seem to require more and more specialisation. That is my experience having studied and worked in several of them. I did my Bachelor’s in physics, an internship in a chemical company, and then worked as a software developer. Now I am doing a Master’s in energy engineering and spent the last summer doing another internship in energy system analysis. In the world of engineering/developing, there are simply too many details to do a good job without having a specialisation. In scientific research this is even more true - specialisation is almost a necessity.
However, I am not really good at any technical-scientific specialisations. I can do a pretty good job, but for that I need to spend considerably more time than most people around me. Since I have a focus on solutions I find it much more interesting to get a “panoramic” overview of the real-world problem and study the holistic solution rather than only study a single aspect in depth. If I had to choose a focus, at the very least I would like to know that the technology to which I am going to dedicate a significant part of my life has a high potential and a high likelihood of making an important impact. In this sense, I prefer to have a broad understanding of many related disciplines, as opposed to a deep knowledge and expertise in only one discipline.
Main Paths of Contribution
I believe that interdisciplinary and holistic problem-solving skills could contribute to the mitigation of climate change risks. My ambition is to work on identifying the optimal pathways for the transition to a sustainable energy future on the national level, identifying and addressing critical bottlenecks for these pathways. As of right know I see myself moving in one of these three paths:
Energy system modelling
Large energy infrastructure projects like power plants can cost billions of euros and be in operation for 50 years or more. Policies can have an even larger impact. Though the future cannot be predicted, valuable insights can be obtained using energy system models. These models take into account environmental, technical, economic, social, political and other aspects of the energy sector on the national and international level.
From what I know so far, such work is mostly performed in scientific-governmental institutions and large corporations. However, private businesses keep these models and their results for themselves as corporate secrets. Also, the private sector is likely to be more interested in focusing on its bottom line than in addressing social and environmental externalities. Therefore, the most interesting places for me to work would be in scientific-governmental institutions like Joint Research Center (The European Commission's science and knowledge service) and International Institute for Applied System Analysis in Europe and New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) in Japan. Another interesting place would be the non-governmental organisation Energy Innovation in the United States.
Use of these models, however, has its limitations. As I’ve experienced doing my summer internship in the division of Energy System Analysis at KTH university, developing and then analysing such models is a long process. This makes it not very suitable for smaller enterprises or individuals. My gut feeling is that simpler models could be used for such cases, but I am simply not aware of such a use.
Spread of knowledge
There is a lot of information out there about climate change, energy and other issues. However, a lot of it tends to be either scientific or oversimplified. I believe that by making the full picture of important questions easier to understand, it would improve discussion, influence behaviour, build support for needed policy changes and attract more bright people to careers which allow the contribution towards sustainability. I believe that even now, in a post-fact world*, people listen for a reason.
Personally, I like watching lectures, seminars, documentaries and other informative videos. Though I do not have an exact number I think I have watched over 700 lectures on energy and climate issues alone. I have entertained the thought for some time now to make informatively dense and easy-to-understand mini documentaries myself. This path would give a lot of freedom to explore questions, which I find important and interesting.
Working on bottleneck technologies
Even though my background is varied, it revolves around technical-scientific fields. This is an obvious path to continue. Working on technology and/or products, if successful, would have a direct impact, while insights obtained from models and information in documentaries are going to be used to make decisions by others. This path also appears to offer more possibilities to work in the private sector, where visible results can be achieved much faster.
Probably the strongest argument for the role of technology advancement in addressing climate change appears to be in the article The Moon and the Ghetto. It analyses the question of why medicine and engineering sciences advanced so much in the last two centuries while education practices are almost unchanged. The author proposes that different fields of knowledge due to their inherent characteristics (presence of strong scientific core, ability to test in controlled environment, reproduce results, have widely agreed characteristics of desired performance, etc.) develop at very different rates. On the climate issue, the article states that: “Without major breakthroughs in the technologies employed to produce and use energy, the costs of dealing effectively with the global-warming problem likely will prove to be so high that there will be a political stalemate”.
In any case, for me to fully dedicate my focus on a particular technology I have to know that it has a potential to remove important bottlenecks in the transition to a sustainable energy future.
Overthinking Simple Choices?
You may have other simpler reasons for working on climate change mitigation efforts apart from the desire to solve this important problem. You may be motivated by money that can be made during the energy transition. You may enjoy working with great people in this field. You may also think that working in the lab is a good way to avoid awkward and stressful social interactions. At the end of the day the reason why you do it does not matter; what matters is what you do.
Having said that, I do believe in the value of knowing what is important, since it helps:
- to find direction when you are lost;
- to find the strength when the going gets tough;
- to ease the pain when you fail;
- to get help among people around you;
- to achieve the goals you set for yourself.
It seems just wise to use all the help you can get - a lot of people depend on you.
In Collaboration with The CommUnity Post