July 15, 2015

By Mark Shwartz

For W.E. Moerner, winning the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been a life-changing experience. Moerner, the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, won the prestigious award on Oct. 8, 2014.

Since then, he has accepted numerous invitations to participate at conferences around the world. In December, he flew to Stockholm to formally receive the Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden.

Of all the events and meetings Moerner has attended since October, few have had as much impact on him as the Nobel Laureates’ Symposium on Global Sustainability held last April in Hong Kong. Moerner was one of seven Nobel laureates invited to participate in the three-day symposium sponsored by the Potsdam Institutefor Climate Impact Research in Germany and the Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

The symposium focused on how big cities, particularly the booming metropolises of Asia, can address the problem of global climate change. Urban areas account for about half of the world’s population and about 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to symposium organizers.

“In the next 30 years, another one billion people will become urbanized, and Asia will be home to 21 of the predicted 37 global megacities,” they wrote. “Each of China’s megacities will have population sizes equivalent to some countries – for example, Greater Beijing’s population will equal that of Australia.”

W.E. Moerner receives the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in Stockholm on Dec. 10, 2014. (Photo: Alexander Mahmoud/Copyright © Nobel Media AB)

At the symposium, experts on climate, urbanization and economics discussed how to transform these sprawling urban areas into sustainable, manageable cities. On the final day of the meeting, Moerner and his fellow Nobel laureates signed a memorandum urging megacities in China and elsewhere to take a leadership role to combat global climate change.  

The laureates, in turn, pledged their full support “to build a legacy that will be felt for centuries: The legacy of instituting healthy relationships with the natural systems that support us all, to create a world that is more sustainable, more prosperous and more humane.”

Since the April meeting, four more laureates have signed the Hong Kong memorandum, which is now being circulated to international stakeholders involved in climate change issues. On July 3, Moerner, Stanford physicist Steven Chu and other Nobel laureates signed a separate declaration on global warming. Both documents urged support for an upcoming United Nations conference on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. In the following interview, Moerner discusses how these efforts could influence delegates at that crucial U.N. conference.  

The memorandum you signed in Hong Kong calls on megacities to take the lead in curbing global climate change. That’s an intriguing approach to a problem that affects the whole planet.

A: Megacities can deal with problems like climate change faster than large nation-states can, in part because it’s a local problem they know they have to address. There are a lot of megacities in the world today and more are expected in the future.

Five Nobel laureates sign the April 25 Hong Kong memorandum on climate change. Standing, from left: George Smoot, Peter Doherty, W.E. Moerner, Brian Schmidt. Sitting: James Mirrlees and memorandum-team lead Penny Sackett. (Photo: PIK/Asia Society) 

Why was the symposium held in Hong Kong?

A:  Part of the reason is that Hong Kong is one of those megacities with an amazingly dense population that depends on remote sources of water and power.  One of their biggest problems is air conditioning.  Imagine millions of single air conditioners in millions of apartments.  A central air-conditioning system would certainly be more efficient. A new section of Hong Kong has been designed with that in mind.

Another big challenge comes from shipping. Hong Kong is such a huge port that shipping has become a major contributor of airborne particulates.  The government recently decided to require that incoming ships and boats switch to more efficient green fuels that reduce pollution. That’s already required in California.

Cities have been major contributors to human-induced climate change. As hubs of innovation, they can take the lead in its solution.2015 Hong Kong memorandum on global sustainability

All seven Nobel laureates who attended the meeting signed the memorandum. How did you reach a consensus?

A: It was a fascinating meeting. I went in order to lend my voice and support for the memorandum that was produced.

On the first two days we heard excellent presentations on climate science and urbanization. At the end of each day, we met with the writing team in a closed-door session to discuss the points that we wanted to emphasize. The first draft of the memorandum was essentially thrown out. Then we started over and worked to achieve a consensus.

The memorandum pays particular attention to places like refugee camps and informal settlements that are becoming large, unsustainable cities.

A: That’s exactly right. The cities of tomorrow are forming right now. These informal settlements obviously have needs for basic services – power, water, sanitation. But little thought is given to global sustainability in terms of how power is used, how heat is generated, how sanitation is provided or how food is cooked. We are simply urging people to recognize this problem and support the sustainable development of these settlements as they grow.

Hong Kong has adopted new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships. (Photo: Mark Shwartz, Precourt Institute for Energy)

The cities of tomorrow are forming today. Whether regenerating from old, historical sites, rising up as planned new cities, or assembling into informal settlements precipitated by economic and political failures, these urban areas will be home to another 1-2 billion people by 2050. – Hong Kong memorandum on global sustainability

You also urge support for the United Nations-led effort to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

A: Our memorandum will be presented to key stakeholders at the 2015 U.N. Conference of the Parties, COP 21, the group that’s meeting in Paris in December to try once again to see if an international agreement can be reached to limit the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.  The conference is called “COP 21” because it’s been 21 years since they began trying to get an agreement. At the Nobel laureates meeting, we were shown images of how higher temperatures could cause sea-level rise and flood a large area around Hong Kong, including portions of the megacities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

The memorandum says, “For our part, we will use our passion and skills to support efforts to limit and manage climate change.” What does that mean for you?

A: First, it means trying to make people aware of the memorandum. I’ve been invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I also give a lot of lectures. This is an important issue that I would like to address in whatever way is appropriate. 

Are you teaching right now?

A: It’s not possible with this much traveling. I’m on the road five times a month for the next 12 months, so I’m on sabbatical this year.

It’s one of those amazing things about the Nobel Prize: People listen to you more, so there is an opportunity to have more impact.  It’s an important responsibility. – W.E. Moerner

Does your own research involve energy or climate change?

A: Our lab has received funding from the Department of Energy to study important proteins and enzymes involved in energy storage, conversion and capture. For example, we’re looking at the behavior of photosynthetic antenna proteins in microorganisms and plants.  These proteins absorb sunlight and then transfer that energy to the reaction center where photosynthesis occurs. Knowing how the proteins work at the single-molecular level could be useful information for designing artificial photosynthetic systems.

You clearly have a passion for sustainable energy, from your basic research to the global scale.

A: That’s one of the nice aspects about the symposium on sustainability. It allowed me to learn more about the bigger picture, how these things connect together on a much larger scale. It’s complementary to the laboratory work we do that’s very fundamental. 

Does it seem like people are more willing to listen to you now that you’re a Nobel laureate?

A: In fact that is true, whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad. It’s one of those amazing things about the Nobel Prize: People listen to you more, so there is an opportunity to have more impact.  It’s an important responsibility.

W.E. Morener and Princess Christina of Sweden at the Nobel banquet table of honor in Stockholm on Dec. 10, 2014. (Photo: Helena Paulin-Strömberg/Copyright © Nobel Media AB)   

Are you optimistic that the problem of climate change can be solved?

A: There is so much intellectual creativity being directed toward this problem now – inventing new ways of making batteries, collecting energy and so forth.  

But it’s important that people not deny the science. I don’t appreciate those who take a cafeteria-style approach to science: I’ll take a few things but I won’t take others, because I don’t like those results. About 97 percent of scientists believe that human-caused climate change is real. There are 3 percent who don’t, and some people focus on the 3 percent. 

Predictions about climate change are based on probabilities. Rather than attacking this approach as a lack of knowledge, it should be understood that we’re simply trying to be careful about what we know.

We’ve already changed the world in one way by causing CO2 to increase a lot. We can change it in another way by reducing the rate of growth of CO2. I’m hoping that this will be realized in enough time for us to make significant changes and limit the effects of climate change. We prefer to be optimistic whenever possible.