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September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

Technological and Social Challenges

Robin Dillon-Merrill

Important decisions usually have conflicting objectives as explained succinctly in the classic proverb “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Decisions involve trade-offs where you need to give up something on one objective to achieve more in terms of another. As countries have increased their economic development with increased energy, most did so by choosing cheap energy sources (e.g., coal, oil) at the expense of increased greenhouse gases. That unfortunate trade-off has led us to the current situation we are facing with global climate change.

While there is still plenty of debate on how to estimate the costs associated with different energy production technologies, by most standards, renewable energy sources (solar in particular) are still far more expensive than fossil fuels. Additionally, the reliability of the supply of renewable energy sources continues to be a challenge (e.g., wind turbines need wind to turn the blades, and solar collectors need clear skies and sunshine to collect heat and make electricity).

Therefore, I feel the two most critical challenges are technological and social. Technologically, the cost of solar panels for residential use has fallen dramatically. Some estimates suggest the cost is now 100 times lower than in the 1970s, but it is still significant relative to fossil fuels. Additionally, battery technology needs to continue to improve to mitigate the reliability challenge of renewable energy sources. 

Continuing to improve the technology associated with renewable fuels will help solve the second challenge, the social dimension. In my own research at Georgetown University with Marketing Professor Kurt Carlson, we look at people’s willingness to take actions to mitigate climate change. We find that awareness of climate change has increased, but in addition to a belief that climate change is bad, individuals’ belief that there are actions they can personally take to stop climate change and their belief that now is the right time to act are two important precursors to their intentions. Better technologies will provide more solutions that are both better and cheaper for people to adopt. If people feel that there are beneficial actions that they can take, and they have the resources to do it now because it is affordable, this will increase the willingness to adopt mitigation measures.

Robin L. Dillon-Merrill is a professor in the McDonough School of Business, area coordinator for the Operations and Information Management group, and co-chair of the Georgetown Environment Initiative. In her research, she seeks to understand and explain how and why people make the decisions that they do under conditions of uncertainty and risk.

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