Ten Billion

Sep 15, 2013

Stephen Emmott's short, bold manifesto asks the world to wake up and recognize that not only are the problems we face increasingly interconnected--including energy, climate, food, and water--but that the connection is us.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and I want to welcome you to the opening of our new season. I hope you all had a good summer and are ready for the exciting year we have planned ahead.

This morning's discussion not only marks the beginning of the 2013–2014 Public Affairs lecture series, but it is also the start of our Centennial celebration. Throughout the year, many of our discussions will focus on six themes which we have chosen to examine how ethical values are being tested by the challenges of globalization. These include corruption and trust, environment and growth, citizenship and differences, war and reconciliation, technology and risk, and democracy and its challenges.

For example, today's program focuses on the environment and growth—or, stated another way, the unprecedented pressure population puts on the planet and how we can adapt and preserve what we have for future generations. Later this month, we will examine the ethical demands of peace-building and reconciliation in societies that have been divided by war. Another issue we will cover in September is citizenship and the unfolding story of the difficult ethical challenges faced by populations that come from every corner of the globe and the host countries receiving them. As we continue, you'll hear more about these themes, which we believe will enrich your understanding of why ethics matter, especially in a connected world.

For some time now, we have been hearing that our world is in trouble. While many have been fixated on global economic problems, environmental conditions have been worsening. Over the years, powerful voices have warned that population growth and human activity would overwhelm the earth's resources. Today we will be hearing from one more.

Our speaker, Stephen Emmott, is challenging us to think about the environment, the use and misuse of the earth's resources, and the consequences of our behavior. Among his many affiliations, Professor Emmott is head of computational science at Microsoft Research, which is located in Cambridge, England. This lab is recognized as a pioneer in finding new approaches to tackling fundamental problems in thinking and advancing science in such areas as molecular biology, immunology and neuroscience, to plant biology, climatology research, and terrestrial and marine ecology.

As a result, Professor Emmott is well-positioned to see the interlocking issues that result from population growth, resource demands, and global warming. He understands only too well that science is fundamental to our ability to address this century's most pressing challenges. But is this enough?

Accordingly, in Ten Billion he tells us that as the world's population continues to grow, which is estimated to reach 10 billion by the end of this century, our needs for food, for water, more land, and energy will also have grown in unimaginable ways—all which will affect the health of our plant.

Professor Emmott makes a strong case in suggesting that time is running out. What is confronting us, he argues, is the ultimate crisis, and it is one that will determine our long-term survival.

The ethical question is simple: What kind of world do you want to live in; and, most importantly, what are you willing to do about it?

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today. Stephen Emmott, thank you so much for joining us.


STEPHEN EMMOTT: Thank you, everyone, for taking the time to come along to this this morning, and thank you to Joanne for inviting me, and to the other members of the Carnegie Council.

I'm not sure I need to say much more, after Joanne's introduction, but I'll try expand on some of the points. And do feel free to disagree with as many of them as you want to.

I should point out a few things to set expectations properly. I have not given this talk before. The book gets launched today, so this is the first talk about the launch of the book. So whilst this is the first [fall] session for 2013 of Public Affairs, it's the first session for me as well.

Which makes matters worse, I don't have any notes, so this could go horribly wrong for my publishers. But I will attempt to keep it on track.

What I'm going to do is talk about what the book is about, very briefly, why I wrote it, and how it came about. I don't know whether these are the sorts of questions you're interested in, but they seem to be the obvious things that one would talk about if you'd just written a book.

What is the book about? Well, it depends upon what level one wants to think about the message in the book.

On one level, it's a book about everything—certainly everything that I think will increasingly matter for this century, so the looming and emerging problems of energy, of climate, of food, of water, and the economy. And it's about how all of these emerging problems are connected, and it's about how the one thing that connects them all is us. So in some sense the book is also about us.

And it's about the fact that as we continue to grow, every one of these problems, these challenges, is set to continue to grow as well. And it's about the lamentable fact that, despite many treaties and conventions, we are, on a worldwide level, failing to do anything about them.

On another level, it's in some sense—and this reflects the way in which the book is written, which I'll come on to a little bit later—it's a manifesto against complacency and inaction. Manifestos and tracts were very popular in the 17th and 18th century, with, for example, John Milton, the well-known poet. I think we've forgotten how to read manifestos and tracts and treatises. But this is probably a very impoverished attempt to do a 21st-century type of tract or manifesto. Only time will tell whether I have been in any way successful.

So that's really just setting out what the book is about. I'll expand on all of those points.

Why did I write it? There are three answers to that.

One is because I think we really need to start thinking about the problems that we are going to face in ways that we are currently not thinking of them. And by "we" I don't just mean Americans and Europeans; I mean all of us, although I doubt the book will reach all of us.

I also wrote it because I could. As Joanne mentioned, I am in quite an unusual position, in the work that we do in my lab, to do research across a very broad range of areas, from biochemistry to the biosphere.

I did write it because I also think, as I mentioned earlier, there is a real urgent need for a kind of a manifesto about the problems that I think we face, and the evidence is increasingly clear.

In terms of getting us to think about the problems that we face in ways that we are currently not thinking about them and how all of these things are increasingly interconnected and are connected by us, rather than go through all of the issues in the book about energy, economics, climate, food, land use, water, I'll just take two, in the interest of time, but I think they're quite important ones. And again, when it comes to questions, please feel free to challenge me on them and disagree if you wish.

The first is food. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is a fairly conservative organization, predicts that food demand is set to rise by 70 percent by 2050. David Tilman, a well-known scientist in Minnesota, has done an excellent study recently showing that food demand is almost certainly set to double by 2050.

That's interesting, because agriculture and agricultural production currently uses about 70–80 percent of all available fresh water on earth. If we are to double agriculture, one wonders how we're going to do that without doubling our use of water for irrigation, and especially the use of groundwater. Now, that isn't particularly a big problem yet in the United States, although it's increasingly a problem in the high plains, but it is a dreadful problem in China, northern India, Pakistan already, and will be in parts of sub-Saharan Africa during this century.

The other problem about doubling agriculture is that agricultural production accounts for, depending upon your country, somewhere between 8 and about 60 percent of all human-produced greenhouse gases, predominantly methane and carbon dioxide. In the United States it's probably less than 8 percent. In other parts of the world it's over 60 percent. But globally, given that CO2 and methane don't stay in one place, agriculture accounts for about—it might be a bit less—30 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

If we were to double agriculture production, it's not yet clear whether we could do so without doubling greenhouse gases. In fact, there is currently no way of being able to avoid that, and doubling greenhouse gases produced by agriculture would be absolutely calamitous for us.

Interestingly, if we were to do that, it would inevitably lead to accelerating climate change. Although climate change doesn't seem to have occurred for many people—although you ought to try visiting the Arctic—we cannot escape the basic facts of physics that if you increase CO2 in the atmosphere it will at some point increase temperature, a fact that John Tyndall established in the 1850s. But there seem to be many people, particularly in this country, who want to deny that basic fact of science.

Interestingly, this is going to result in some positive feedback, because if doubling agriculture increases greenhouse gas emissions, that is going to increase climate change. That is going to increase further stress on water and also have a deleterious impact at some point in this century, even in the United States, on agricultural productivity.

We all know that there has been this green revolution since the 1950s, perhaps the 1960s, which continues to this day. That's one thing between us and starvation. There is a case to be made about more efficient use of agricultural land. In some parts of the world, that's still a possibility. But predominantly it has been made possible by the so-called "green revolution."

It does look likely that doubling agriculture, and therefore increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore increasing climate change, is one of the things that is going to lead to these kinds of positive feedbacks, to a potentially severe—I'm talking about globally, but the United States might also be a victim of it—reduction in agricultural productivity, not least because climate change itself is also going to be accompanied with increasingly extreme weather events, both droughts and floods and heat waves, in many parts of the world, including this one, as you have seen in recent years. That increasing climate change will also increase water stress, including both surface water and groundwater depletion, which is increasingly a problem—not particularly in this country at the moment, but that could change quite dramatically. These kinds of positive feedbacks could have a serious impact on global agriculture.

There has been something like a 700 percent increase in use of fertilizers and pesticides since the start of the green revolution. But the problem with that, and the problem with breeding these kinds of monocultures of crop types, plant types, of wheat and maize and soya, is that it's very difficult to actually avoid increasing resistance of pathogens to pesticides at some point. That is starting to happen.

Essentially, really the only class of pesticides or fungicides that is still effective is a class called triazoles. The EU has just banned them, by the way, which is probably unfortunate, but there's probably only a decade between them being banned and being ineffective in any case. But it is increasingly recognized that there is a major problem looming in terms of resistance to pesticides/herbicides from a range of pathogens. This could have also a highly deleterious impact on agriculture. Wheat might be actually quite resistant, but rice, soy, and maize are not.

Just talking about climate change itself, as I mentioned earlier, we are continuing to increase atmospheric CO2. None of us can escape that fact. In May this year, atmospheric CO2 surpassed 400 parts per million. We are well on our way, in a "business as usual" scenario, to 800 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere by the end of this century. Eight hundred parts per million CO2 would be absolutely calamitous for the planet.

Most in the science community all accept that we have missed the target for restricting climate change, global average temperature change, to two degrees, and we are well on our way to a four-degree rise in global average temperature.

This notion of global average temperature, by the way, is a bit of a misnomer, because there is no real such thing as global average temperature. It just means that in higher latitudes it could be nine, in places nearer the tropics it could be three or two, but that would still be bad. But 800 parts per million on a "business as usual" scenario, which would be carrying on obviously as we are. The Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP), which basically has driven the Intergovernmental Panel on Climat Change's (IPCC) AR5 Report, shows that we could be in for at least a six-degree rise in global average temperature on the way that we're going.

To make matters worse—again, this is another sort of positive feedback—what has basically driven climate change so far, which is CO2, is now beginning to cause the melting of the Arctic sea ice. And, particularly in the east Arctic ice shelf, we are now starting to see release of significant quantities of methane. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. It is estimated that there are some 50 gigatons, 50 billion tons, of methane stored just off the east Arctic ice shelf alone.

Last year, for the first time, scientists witnessed these enormous plumes of methane—well, they witnessed two, but in a fairly short area, two plumes more than a kilometer across—and they estimated that, given where this methane is stored, there would probably be hundreds of plumes of methane a kilometer or more rising from the east Arctic ice shelf. That has since been corroborated.

If 50 gigatons of methane were released from the east Arctic ice shelf—it could either be released over 50 years or it could be released very suddenly over a decade—both of those would be a big problem for us, especially if it were the latter, over a decade. We simply don't know. What we do know is that it is starting to be released as a result of the thawing out of permafrost, because this methane has been previously stored in hydrates, the basic frozen stores, and we are unable to stop it. We are absolutely unable to stop it, and it is going to cause a massive problem for us.

So I think we are increasingly going to face enormous problems for our climate as a consequence of both of those things.

And then, interestingly, one of the main things that governs our climate is something called the global carbon cycle. Overall, we produce about 6-to-8 gigatons, billion tons, of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels every year. But this thing called the global carbon cycle cycles something like 200 gigatons, 200 billion tons, every year through the planet, principally through the planet's plants and forests. So right now, for example, every leaf on every tree on earth is experiencing a level of carbon dioxide that has not been witnessed on the planet for something like 5 million years, and we simply have no idea how the planet's plants are going to respond to that.

A number of labs, mine included, are increasingly starting to work on this, because it's certainly one of the big unknowns in what the future of the climate is going to be. But it's an important problem, because the global carbon cycle currently does us an amazing favor in absorbing about 50 percent of all carbon dioxide that we produce, and it's the reason why the climate isn't much different already than it is. If that favor comes to an end, which it could do, that would accelerate climate change even more rapidly.

So today, I mention just two of these problems. In the book I talk about many of the others and how they are all interconnected in terms of energy, land use, water, and of course us. I want to give you a flavor of what I've tried to do, which is to show in a way that I think has been difficult—it's typically difficult in a book—to show how all of these things are connected, and in a way that's accessible.

This comes to the other reason why I wrote the book. I think that there aren't many books that do try to connect all of these things in a way that is accessible to non-scientists, to people who probably wouldn't even normally read books, because I think it is important to try and write a book that does try and make a difference and does try to get us to think about the things that we face in ways that we're not currently thinking about them. And again, whether I've been successful about that in this book remains to be seen. I think that basically explains why I wrote it.

The third thing, which I'll just mention briefly, is I find myself in a quite unusual situation and position in being able to write such a book in terms of the nature of the work of my lab and the broad range of research that we do. That's sort of a bit of a segue into how the book came about.

All of the things in the book are basically underpinned by much of the work that my lab does. As was mentioned in the introduction, we do work ranging from molecular biology and stem cell biology and immunology all the way up to modeling global carbon cycle, climate modeling, modeling global ecosystems.

It's interesting, because when I first started the lab about 10 years ago, I put together a sort of roadmap of what we were planning on doing. This was before I even hired anybody. One of the things that I had said was that we were going to build a new kind of way of doing predictive modeling of complex systems based upon mechanistic modeling, based upon biological processes, rather than purely statistical modeling. Sorry if that's a bit boring and technical; it is quite an important distinction to the way most models are built at the moment.

One of the things that we were going to do is try and model the future of all life on earth. Even all my colleagues in the scientific community laughed at that. But, earlier this year, we had a paper published in one of the world's leading scientific journals, Nature, outlining the fact that we had just built this model and announced it. And they published a paper with an editorial that said "time to model the future of all life on earth." So in 10 years we had gone from people laughing at the ambition of doing this kind of science to Nature. Although it's one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, it's very conservative. So we've had some success there.

And we also do agricultural modeling, all the things I've talked about, about modeling the future of agricultural productivity, given a range of climate scenarios, population scenarios, and water-stress scenarios, and land use in terms of land degradation, and things like that.

Anyway, the main thing that enabled me to write the book and how the book came about was with all the science that's done in my lab. I should mention that, although the lab is in Microsoft, it is not full of computer scientists just writing software. It's full of plant biologists, immunologists, developmental biologists, biogeochemists, oceanographers, as well as neuroscientists like myself. This different approach to actually challenging pervading views in science and challenging prevailing thinking, and given the fact that the lab focuses predominately on modeling, building a new generation of predictive mechanistic process-based models, rather than purely statistical models, which is the way most climate models and ecosystem models have been built in the past—this marks a real difference in the way science is done in these areas. I should say the same about immunology and stem-cell biology, but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

So that forms the foundation for the ideas and the issues that the book tackles.

I then ended up meeting someone who runs the National Theatre at a party in London, and we got talking. I said I was a scientist. He said, "We're interested in artists and scientists working together to see what each field and discipline can learn from each other."

So I ended up meeting with one of the National Theatre's theater directors, a woman called Katie Mitchell, who is an amazing and brilliant theater director. She was interested in how artists and scientists could work together. When we got chatting about the work of my lab, she said, "What we really need to do is do something together about the work of your lab and the issues that you've outlined"—and it was basically the book, Ten Billion.

Eventually, there was a show—I'm hesitant to call it a show because I'm incapable of entertaining anybody, as you've already discovered [Laughter]—but eventually, the result was a "show" at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in which I basically gave the talk of the book, which, to my utter surprise, turned out to be received quite well by both the people who went to see it and also the UK's arts critics. This just shows that they know nothing about science.

Then, on the back of that, a remarkable chap, to whom I owe a lot—although maybe I should blame him—named David Godwin, who is a literary agent, said, "Oh, you really must write a book about all of these issues. It's really important." It turns out this chap, David Godwin, is a quite famous literary agent. I didn't know that. I didn't even know what a literary agent was.

So we visited a few publishers, including Penguin and Random House Vintage, who has published it in the United States. That's how the book was made, really.

I'll just say the main role of the book is to try and get people thinking differently about the problems that we face, or at least have a debate about whether you think even these problems exist. I do think it's a book that may only be read by people who are already converted, which would be a shame really. But I've done my best to write a book that at least tries to set out some of the problems that we will face and how all of these problems are set to grow as we continue to grow, and how that might pan out.

Thank you very much for listening.


JOANNE MYERS: We'd like to thank you for that performance. All the world is a stage, so no matter where you perform, it was really interesting to have you raise the issues.

I just would like to ask you: With all this research you have done, have you found any way to further stop the process of global warming, or is there any way we can shorten the time period in which this will have an effect?

STEPHEN EMMOTT: Interestingly, we do do some work on—I won't say stopping global warming. But, as scientists, I think we have the responsibility to actually understand the problem better—that's what science is about, understanding—but also a responsibility to at least try and think of ways to do something.

Now, there are lots of—well, not lots, but there are a number of companies and laboratories looking at ways to mitigate the problems, or at least just mitigate against the release of carbon dioxide, so either carbon capture and storage, or a number of geo-engineering ideas. We don't work on those, for two reasons. One is other labs are working on them, and I could see little point in doing so when others are; and secondly, I don't think that they are likely to work. Indeed, the world's largest carbon capture and storage pilot project, which was in the UK, was canceled recently because they could not make it either technically or economically viable.

The two areas that we do work on—agriculture and energy—we have a project ongoing, at quite a nascent stage, on artificial photosynthesis. We could potentially solve the water problem through more efficient use of water—although I doubt it—but predominately through desalination, and that has its own problems.

We could potentially solve the energy problem. But I think that probably the most obvious one would be harnessing the existing energy that comes from the sun, and the next-generation silicon photovoltaics are unlikely to do that for a variety of reasons. But plants have figured out how to do it through photosynthesis. If we could figure out how to do artificial photosynthesis, it might—just might—be part of a potential energy solution. Of course, nuclear would be an energy solution, but people don't like it.

And then the other project is on programming plants. We do some work on what's called DNA strand displacement. It's actually being able to program DNA with novel biological function. If you look at the green revolution, we have basically bred out plants' natural resistance to pests, we've made plants more profligate, made plants ultimately long-term. Although the green revolution has been an immense short-term success, it has probably made plants ultimately more susceptible to diseases. And we've certainly produced a monoculture of plants whose photosynthetic machinery doesn't work at the kinds of temperatures or extreme weather events that we are likely to increasingly encounter.

So we are looking at how to use this technique that we've developed, called DNA strand displacement, to be able to program novel biologically functioning plants. We're nowhere near that today, but it's a way to try and think about this.

QUESTION: David Musher.

Are there different plants that fix carbon dioxide in more efficient ways? Should we know about them? For example, I assume there must be a difference between deciduous trees and coniferous trees as far as carbon dioxide fixations. Which ones should we be looking at?

STEPHEN EMMOTT: That's a good question.

Yes, different trees do fix carbon in different ways. But it's not really substantially different. Plants are fairly efficient at fixing carbon. But, of course, when they die, they release it again.

There is an interesting phenomenon occurring at the moment, which is there is some quite good evidence that plants, particularly trees, but plants in general—let's focus on trees, because they're the biggest fixers of carbon—are actually sequestrating more carbon and growing more quickly as a consequence.

Now, what we don't know at the moment, because we've only got—depending on which kind of data one is interested in—between about five and fifteen years' of data to support that. But what we don't know, of course, is whether as a consequence of that—it's a bit like increasing a plant's metabolism—is whether they will grow more quickly and then die sooner. That remains to be seen.

There is some good physiological evidence, based upon how plants fix carbon—photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation—that could happen. We don't know whether it will happen. But that is basically shifting the problem rather than solving the problem.

And then, the other problem that we have with carbon fixation is that there is a big unknown, which is not plants, but which is soil. The amount of carbon stored in soil completely outweighs the amount of carbon that in the long term is stored in trees. With increasing climate change, we do not know whether that carbon will be released much more quickly than it currently is. That would outweigh any of the advantages of thinking about different plant types potentially.

Some of the models from my lab, which are based upon biological processes rather than purely statistical modeling, particularly around the global carbon cycle, do show that we could be heading for a quite major problem in terms of soil carbon release.

QUESTION: John Simmons.

Throughout my lifetime, and notably during the 1970s, there have been may predictions about the exhaustion of resources: the quite famous population crisis, peak oil production, western U.S. running out of water, the famous bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich, which Ehrlich lost. Do you think all those projections 40 and 50 years ago were wrong, or do you think they were right but are taking much longer than expected to prove to be true?

And then, a second question: what were the errors or what factors were missed in those earlier predictions that you are not missing?

STEPHEN EMMOTT: Again a very good question.

I think Paul Ehrlich might have made a mistake in actually putting dates on some of these things, because we are talking about highly complex systems, including the human system, and in particular semi-human systems, so agriculture. They are so complex. The models that existed in the 1960s and 1970s really weren't the kinds of models that one should or could have placed much precision on in terms of times.

Was Paul Ehrlich wrong in the general direction of things? No. A lot of the things he said about the UK and Europe by the turn of the century, by the year 2000, were obviously plainly wrong. But I think it would be really a mistake to dismiss past predictions of doom, saying, that the simple extrapolations, past predictions of doom, would be wrong, so therefore future predictions of future doom are also wrong.

It's interesting that climate scientists often get accused of making simplified extrapolations. But the mother of all simplified extrapolations is that past predictions of doom are wrong, so therefore future predictions have got to be wrong.

It's also true that were one to ask Ehrlich now, he would say, "Well, actually, I was talking in more general terms about the global problem." The simple fact of the matter is, although you and I live in very wealthy countries, very well-provisioned for, there are well over a billion people who live in conditions of extreme water shortage and malnutrition. We collectively make a decision that we care about those people or we don't, because their plight is going to get much worse.

The United States may well miss the worst of this. It remains to be seen, to be honest.

But if you look at both the climate models that we build and most of the models that come out of, for example, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at Berkeley, Potsdam, all of the models that really contribute to the IPCC—and IPCC, I can criticize it for the next two hours if you wish, but nonetheless it does have some decent models, and particularly the CMIP thing that I mentioned—all of them show that under a business-as-usual scenario—and we are talking about business as usual, not doing anything about the carbon problem really at a worldwide level—is that the U.S. breadbasket could be in real trouble in ability to produce crops as a consequence of extreme weather events by 2050, 2060, 2070. So the United States might not be exempt from this.

Could all of this be wrong? Yes. Do I think it's likely to be wrong? Oh no, I think it's highly likely to be the case that this century will be a century where the planet could look very different by the end of it, and the way in which we have to live. And again, I don't mean rich Americans, rich Europeans, but we humans on earth, and that does include the 7-to-8 billion of us that will have not enough energy and not enough food and not enough water in other parts of the world.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Among your many titles is professor of intelligent systems. You're already on policy commissions for the UK and even Finland. You keep talking about "we." Would you please explore further the policy implications for we? That is, do you foresee foolish people fighting more over water or land or whatever? Do you foresee some international bodies trying to bring more sense, and climate change, and so forth? What can we do to improve the situation?

STEPHEN EMMOTT: Again a very good question.

I think that there is actually much that we—we being politicians, voters—could do. As individuals, I am less convinced, unless you mean as individual voters.

We can't escape the fact that we are not doing those things. You know, for 30 years the UN has recognized this problem, and all it has been is words and inaction, and all I see for the next 30 years is words and inaction.

Indeed, you look at the most recent UN convention and statements and meetings and G20 and you name it whether it's at Doha—you know, all the recent ones—and the theoretic that comes out of them is just getting weaker and weaker, rather than stronger and stronger. We are simply failing to grasp the nature of the problem, I think.

It's quite remarkable how in public circles—and by that I mean the policymaking bodies and governments—are failing to actually join up all of these things and recognize that they are joined up by us. You get lots of words about curbing population and women's rights, access to education and contraception. But the fact of the matter is that in many countries where population is growing the most, neither of those things are happening.

It is worth pointing out, although even I don't see this happening that the current fertility rate globally—I don't mean the U.S. or Europe—were that to continue, the population at the end of this century would not be 10 billion, it would be 28 billion. I don't see that happening.

Again, the skeptics, the deniers, and critics of all of this stuff are saying, "Well, actually that's ridiculous, because birth rates and fertility rates have been falling since the 1960s." Well, of course I know that.

But we do not know—the falling fertility rate is really beginning to level out. It's not continuing in some sort of statistical extrapolation, as some seem to think it is. And we don't know whether it might actually start to increase a little bit in Europe. In 2012, the UK population grew its fastest in something like 40 years. That's actually once you've taken out net migration, so that was just birth rate. The UK is often cited as one where the trouble is there aren't enough people, and whilst it's true that some other European countries are declining—not all. The U.S., according to the UN, is predicted to grow by something like 53 percent between now and the end of the century. It could be more. It could be less.

But to answer your question, politicians are not doing anything about this globally, other than just words and inaction. I don't see it changing, to be honest. I hope I'm wrong.

QUESTION: My name is Peter Burgess. I'm a Cambridge engineer turned accountant.

The word that got my attention right at the beginning was you talking about positive feedback. There is obviously a clear need to get some behavioral change around ordinary people. You just mentioned the way in which the UN and the top policymakers basically have become talk shops. Somehow, we've got to get organizations like yours to produce metrics that will enable behavior change at the individual level.

There is a piece of statistics, I believe, which suggests that 40 percent of the food we produce today is actually wasted. So how does everybody in this room change their behavior so that we can help just a little bit and then get 7.3 billion people to change their behavior?

STEPHEN EMMOTT: It's interesting. There was, I think, an FAO study saying that something like 40 percent of food is wasted [Editors note: The report says one-third of all food is wasted]. And of course, in developing countries it's at the production end. In developed countries it's at the consumption end, with some transport stuff in between both ways.

Without question, some of that problem could be fixed—possibly not all of it. Whether that's an individual—of course, people could just eat less as well, rather than just waste food. But there are billions of people who need to eat more, so we need to take that into account.

One interesting question is if we could even fix that problem, and it's not clear how much we could fix it—we certainly could fix some of it, this 40 percent waste—to what extent that is a consequence of individual behavior change in developed countries. Some of that could be in developing countries. It would require a dramatic change in agricultural practices. That may or may not happen, but we don't know.

By the way, in terms of this, just one thing I wanted to say. In terms of this issue of meeting a doubling of food demand by 2050, there isn't a double amount of land to use, although you might wish to disagree with that. Of course, the people who say the green revolution is going to go on forever will say, "We don't need to double the land; we probably just need 12 percent, because we've doubled productivity with 12 percent more land." The problem is that that's been a short-term spectacular resolution with potentially long-term devastating consequences in terms of land degradation, depletion of groundwater.

If the developing counties don't radically change agricultural practices to increase yield—and there's no question about it, increases in yield in the developing countries is possible—we would need an area of land the size of the United States to actually grow how much food we need, and even then that might be a 50-year short-term success, or 60-year, or even 80-year, before that land starts to suffer the same problems. I think the land we have used for agriculture in those countries where the green revolution has been a spectacular success, at some point in this century is going to start to have problems.

Getting back to your core question about whether individual behavior change can sort out this—I think you mean just an example, but sort out, for example, this 40 percent food waste—it could sort of some of it at this end, in the consumption end, not buying as much that then goes in the bin.

I am struck all the time, whenever I come to the United States—not here, of course—that there's usually some massive spread on at lunch and dinners. You're thinking no one is going to eat anywhere near this amount of food. You are thinking the amount of food that must get thrown away the end of these sorts of conferences and whatnot is incredible. Yes, we could change that.

Is that going to be enough? I really doubt it. I think that individuals can only make small changes at an individual level. The problem is with small changes that you just end up with small gains.

What is missing, I think, and it's really strange, is that there is no sense of collective agency. I think that could have a dramatic difference in terms of starting to solve this problem, because it is a problem that is potentially—and I think only potentially—solvable. But we will need to do something really radical globally now, and that's just not happening.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

Listening to you, I want to follow up on Susan Gitelson's question, which is that really—and I was at the meeting in Brazil, the G20 meeting, which was not terribly productive along those lines with respect to climate change. But what really gets people's attention is the impact of all of this. I mean, Jim Wolfensohn has said we really are going to have wars over water in the next century—that's pretty clear. You have massive population influxes into the big cities, and I think that's a major explanation for the cause of the Arab Spring. So this is something that should get the attention of people interested in governance, which is the level at which this problem needs to be addressed and solved. That's what I've found missing in this conversation so far.

Yes, governance has failed—we know that. How can we make it succeed?

STEPHEN EMMOTT: Well, I think politicians will only really take governance seriously when voters take governance seriously. I just don't see that happening.

In particular, the forces of the "free-market economy" are really against anything to do with governance, regulation—you name it—on the scale that's needed. And I think governments increasingly just don't want to upset the so-called free-market economy.

It's interesting, because Martin Wolf, a quite well-respected economist, wrote in the FT a few articles about this sort of thing back in May or June. He was basically saying that the whole issue of governance is a major one, but we just don't see anything happening, as a consequence of no one wanting to recognize or take action against it because the problems are so immense.

Again, I hope I'm wrong.

QUESTIONER: Climate change is a pretty abstract thing. You know, it's not going to be solved by one person selling their car. But wars are not abstract things.

STEPHEN EMMOTT: I disagree that climate change—

QUESTIONER: Regime changes are not abstract things. These are the things that get governments' attention and citizens' attention.

QUESTION: Jerry Hultin. For the last eight years I was the president of Polytechnic Institute, which is the engineering school that's part of NYU. If you heard my graduation speech in May, I said the same things that you did to my students, which is there's a great challenge out in front of you, and I said it's job security for you because they are going to need engineers to make this better.

There are two themes I want to just raise briefly. One is that sometimes I look at this world, and I say "Malthus predicts and then agricultural revolution comes along and he was right but ultimately wrong."

Then you have "Club of Rome predicts," as you say, and then we have the technological revolution of the last 50 years and we've survived. So some of me says, "We'll solve this. We're a complex, inventive system." Your laboratory is a great example of that. So it will work out. How it works out we don't know.

Then you get into issues of timing—can we do it fast enough? I'm sure you think about that.

So maybe the question in all of this is: in terms of results and impact versus cost or opportunity, that sort of quadrant where you can get a lot done for a relatively small amount of money and you know you're going to have impact, do you have something in that quadrant, or two or three things in that quadrant, you really believe we should focus on as the high-return opportunities?

STEPHEN EMMOTT: I would probably want to make a counter-argument that I don't think that quadrant exists. I think we fail to recognize that we have technologized our way into these problems and we have the notion that we can somehow therefore technologize our way out of them.

Even I would say that I think it's an incredibly appealing idea. But I think it's a staggering leap into fantasy.

I do not believe that we are going to be able to technologize our way out of all of the problems that we face. To do so, even to make any attempt to do so, we would need to be embarking on enormous programs of "green" energy or nuclear power or desalination or undoing—or maybe say doing properly—the problems that the green revolution is about, I think.

I'm not sure how we would technologize our way out of a land degradation problem. You could say we could technologize our way out of a population problem by the simple technology of contraception. But we are not doing anything about these things. So it's not clear to me that that quadrant exists.

Now, do I think that there are some technologies that we should at least try because they could have a big impact? So, for example—and it's a long shot; the chance of it working out is low but the impact would be high—are things like artificial photosynthesis, because I think it does have the potential to be quite an important technology, but solving only one of those problems.

All of the decades along the way where you're doing that research, and doing the proof of concept, and doing the implementation, and doing the engineering, we're increasingly using fossil fuels for most of our energy—the United States has in some sense done quite a good job of clean technology both in wind power and solar power, but how scalable that is to solve the carbon problem is interesting, especially when you've got countries like China that build lots of coal-fired power stations, and there are coal-fired power stations planned for this country—coal imports went up 31 percent, actually 38 percent, but 31 percent for energy generation—and in the UK, despite the UK apparent commitment to leading the world in tackling this problem.

So I'm really not sure how we can do that. Again, I would like to be wrong.

QUESTION: Obviously, the scientific community or academic community at large has been doing part of its job in the past 10 years, raising awareness, analyzing the problems, making projections, forecasts, et cetera. On the other hand, you seem to be telling us it's the politicians that are not doing their job or have not been doing enough what they should have been doing.

But to bridge this gap, do you think that the academic community again at large, or the scientific community, should be doing more policy, not only analyzing the problem but putting real options before the public opinion to mobilize them again around ideas how to fix the problems, and also to pressure or lobby the big or international decision-makers?

STEPHEN EMMOTT: Thanks. That's a very good question. I think it extends beyond just the academic community, but the research and the science community generally, whether it's in Google or Microsoft or whether it's in Princeton or Cambridge.

What's interesting is there are enormous numbers of clever people, both scientists and economists, who are working on things that I consider to be things that really don't matter in the scheme of things, whereas if all of these really clever minds were applied to better figuring out how to understand the problems better, develop alternative economic systems which aren't so highly damaging, we might be in a different place. But it's quite remarkable that they're not. And there are very clever people working at hedge funds, making hundreds of millions of dollars when they should be putting their minds to helping solve some of these problems.

The academic community has not got—again, it comes down to this notion of collective agency. Individual scientists doing individual work is great, it's all useful, and communities of those scientists do come together, whether it's the climatologists, which is the physicists' grip on the climate-modeling world is starting to be loosened, and at least the biologists are coming in so how the planet's biology helps regulate the planet is at least getting a bit more of a share of late, but better late than never.

The overall academic, science, economics, science policy community are not as organized as they could be, I think, to actually try and help the politicians, on the one hand, and understand the problem better on the other hand.

JOANNE MEYERS: Thank you very much for raising all these issues and bringing them to our attention. They are very serious and we should think about them. So thank you for being with us.

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