Complex Systems 250 - Energy and Climate Change

This class covered the nature of the global energy market and its role in contributing to the climate crisis. It also served a survey of possible actions that could help mitigate or resolve the crisis, as well as the costs of each.

Production of Energy

This class focused largely on the history and current trends of the energy market. From a historical but now declining reliance on coal to the mainstreaming of natural gas, we learned the factors that influence how our energy markets behave. We also learned about economic factors that regulate the markets, like OPEC's control over oil's spare capacity.

Public Policy Myths

We additionally spent a substantial amount of time debunking public policy myths. Some were transparently fake, like the "clean coal" arguments that are occasionally surface. Others, though, were more difficult to notice. We learned, for instance, how rooftop solar often causes more harm than good because of the design of our grid, and is one of the least efficient and sustainable energy alternatives in existence. Allowing rooftop solar owners to sell energy back to the grid winds up being a regressive policy that hurts more than it helps.

An especially important myth is the fabled goal of "energy independence", prompted by the 1973 oil crisis. While this idea is persuasive, it has no basis in reality. The oil that's drilled in America is not necessarily the same oil consumed here, because oil is exchanged in a global market. That means oil prices are closely correlated around the world, and regardless of how much oil the US produces, our costs are still just as subject to the whims of other oil producing countries. The only way to change that would be to restrict the export of oil, which is hardly feasible.

Public Policy Solutions

We considered, too, what could actually be done. Policies like a carbon tax or carbon credit could help to put a price on emissions, and a combination of the two could be valuable in that it would set a regulatory floor with a market-based ceiling. We discussed past actions, like the formation of the Paris Climate Accords and the US' later withdrawal under Trump. Other initiatives, like the Green New Deal, were discussed as well; we evaluated what economic conditions would be favorable to an aggressive policy like that, and what the likely effects would be of its adoption.

Finally, we investigated future technologies which might make progress more feasible. High capacity energy storage, cost-effective nuclear fusion, and efficient carbon capture technologies formed the basis of our considerations. While these technologies may be years or decades away, their progress is filled with promise, and the success of any one of them would revolutionize the energy market for the better.