Energy and Climate

From the Foundation's 1996 Annual Report

Fossil fuel-based energy consumption and global warming are inextricably linked. The mainstream scientific view—as expressed by 2,500 of the world’s preeminent scientists from 120 nations who participated in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—is that human activity is altering the world’s climate. The essential, as yet unanswered questions are where, when and by how much.

IPCC scientists have already documented a one-half to one-degree centigrade rise in the Earth’s surface temperature, a retreat by the world’s glaciers and a rise in global sea level by four to ten inches. They predict that mean temperature may rise an additional two to six degrees centigrade over the next century. A temperature rise of this magnitude would have devastating effects on human health, the environment and the world’s economy. A six degree centigrade increase in temperature would be comparable to the warming that ended the last Ice Age. Sea level could rise over three feet, inundating many coastal communities and requiring billions of dollars to rebuild dikes and sea walls and restore beaches. Tropical diseases such as yellow fever, dengue fever and malaria would spread northward, increasing the number of people exposed to these potentially deadly diseases. Communities throughout the world may be subject to weather extremes such as more frequent and severe droughts, floods and hurricanes.

Avoiding the worst impacts of human-induced global warming will require a worldwide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The foundation has supported work on this issue for over a decade. Support in 1996 concentrated in two areas: encouraging the transition to a hydrogen-based energy economy, and advancing international and domestic understanding of the need for climate protection, particularly greenhouse gas controls.

Fuel cells: As recently as five years ago, hydrogen fuel cells were widely regarded as a distant part of technology’s future, whose ultimate promise of delivering much cleaner power would only be realized after overcoming significant financial and technical obstacles. This situation has changed dramatically. The first full-size fuel cell-powered buses are now in use and small-scale stationary fuel cells are commercially available. Several automobile companies have large investments in fuel cell research and development, and a few are now demonstrating prototypes on the road. Hydrogen fuel cells are poised to become the technology of choice to address the problems of pollution, global warming, and energy dependence inherent in our current reliance on fossil fuels. Foundation grantees are engaged in a range of efforts to advance technical and policy understanding of fuel cell applications, increase public awareness of the benefits of fuel cells, and remove market barriers created by government policies and subsidies. For example, Princeton energy experts are exploring pathways by which even China’s large coal reserves might contribute to a new environmentally friendly energy economy, using energy from coal to extract hydrogen from water, and injecting remaining carbon underground (to avoid adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere). This hydrogen can then be combined with hydrogen from other sources, including renewable, to provide hydrogen for fuel cells. Domestically, the foundation supported a coalition of organizations worked in California and in the Northeast to maintain public support for zero-emission vehicles and to encourage the use of fuel cells in public transit.

Climate protection: The United States and over one hundred nations are holding regular meetings under the auspices of the United Nations to decide whether and when to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The next meeting convenes in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, to craft an international protocol addressing the issue. U.S. leadership is essential but may weaken without understanding at home that dealing effectively with climate change is in our national, environmental and economic interest. Grantmaking emphasizes policy analysis to lay the groundwork for progress at the Kyoto meetings and public education to ensure that American leadership remains strong. Support is also provided to engage scientists in public discussions.
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