Nobelprize.org spoke to Physics Laureate Brian Schmidt who will be taking part in the 2021 Nobel Prize Summit. Schmidt was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the accelerating expansion of the universe after observing distant supernovae.
When did your interest in global sustainability issues start?
Brian Schmidt: It comes from my earliest time. We have a picture in the family of when I was two, my father studied biology and ecology. And this was at a litter pickup back in 1969 where the whole family was out, picking up litter as part of an event. I don’t remember it that well but I remember the picture. I grew up in the mountains of Montana in the United States and Alaska, having a father who worked in ecology and sustainability effectively of a local ecosystems. It’s always just been part of my upbringing. He [my father] essentially did the research on how you make fisheries sustainable up in Alaska, so he opened and closed fisheries and understood the biology of how you make those decisions. It’s part of my life and when you live in these places, I guess you see the whole system you’re immersed in it. You’re immersed in it and you sort of see how it works. It’s been amplified because growing up in Alaska. No one in Alaska is saying climate change isn’t happening because they can see glaciers. They can see everything. It’s all changed in the last 30 years.
The theme of the summit is ‘Our Planet, Our Future’. From your perspective, what are the biggest threats and challenges that we have for the future of our planet?
The threat is not working as a global community on human impact. I guess the thing that I see the threat is we just don’t act on it as a global community. We go through and say, “Not my problem. Someone else can deal with it,” or “That’s a future generation’s problem.” The threat is multifaceted, but I think eminently solvable, but you do need to work as a global collective for the global level and humans have not been good at doing that.
Do you think that collaborating Nobel Prize laureates can make a difference?
Nobel Prize laureates are given incredible stature by our communities. From that to my mind comes a responsibility. Here in Australia, myself, Peter Doherty, Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, we’re the four laureates of Australia. I think our job is to represent, as best we can, the scientific consensus. I do think being able to represent and give voice to science and the scientific consensus is important. And this consensus is very strong. It’s not like it’s hard to figure out what the consensus is, but to give voice because we are allowed that voice, I think is important. From us doing it here in Australia and my colleagues in Japan, Europe, the US and Mexico, we then end up cutting across a large fraction of the globe, especially the fraction of the globe that is creating the problems largely at this point and have the means of the solutions, the developed world. We also can be a voice for the developing world that doesn’t have that many Nobel Prize laureates.
What kind of collaborations do you think will be needed to tackle the challenges that we’re facing?
There’re some global challenges, so what are the things we need to do? Let’s start with electricity or energy. We need to be able to create effectively 100% renewable energy. How are we going to do that? We need to harvest the sun, wind, geothermal, whatever it takes. Now, I think the sun and the wind turnout, we can probably create power that is ultimately cheaper than what we have now. So a global grand challenge focused on driving the price of energy to zero, I think is really important. It’s not going to be zero, but it will be low in the process. It’s clear we need storage. How are we going to store it? In the end, we need some sort of storage mechanisms that is scalable up to terawatt hours. That’s a lot and that’s another global challenge. So how are we going to do that? Well, we need to be able to pay for it. That’s why it’s important to have the likes of the economist and the systems of how humans work together, incentivise things are important.
We need to have these global technical challenges, but we need industry. It’s not just science, it’s actually driving industry to do these things at scale. So that means having the global policies together so that we have, for example, a way to reward people who do the relatively hard green steel right now or all the other things where energy is input into it and make sure that they’re rewarded and not punished by people who say, “Oh, well, we’re just going to do it the old fashioned way, because it’s cheaper.”
So it’s a real mix of having the technical exchange between nations, making sure that’s open and as free as possible mixed in with the economic means of rewarding, those who really deliver, but doing it. So it is delivered at scale for the world.
We have to make sure that the global geopolitical tensions don’t get in the way because we’re so worried about country X doing something and we all suffer and die because of it downstream. No one wins on that one either. It really does cut across the technology and science, but the geopolitical systems as well.
Why do you think it’s important that we have the summit?
We’re running out of time on climate change very clearly, and it’s going to be everything. It’s going to be the oceans. It’s going to be fresh water. It’s going to be all sorts of things. We’re running out of time where the debt we’ve accrued of not addressing this problem earlier on is really so hard to make up by technology that we’re liable to have a war, some horrible economic shock and set humanity back.
I guess I just don’t want to have on my watch us fix the problem with global sustainability, by having 95% of the human race disappear in a global set of uncontrolled wars and pandemics and mass migrations and things, because that’s how it will solve it.
Humans can manage this, but we have to start doing it. This is a summit for the world. It’s us saying, we must do this. I’m hoping it will translate into the political summit that’s happening just before us into real tangible action. It has to be, people have to quit worrying about the politics of the short term this year, next year, they got to think about the end of their lives. I will be 84, 30 years from now. I’m intending to have a good life when I’m 84. I don’t want it to be in misery.
It’s affecting us as people right now. I think we have to stand up and do everything we can. We have been given these voices through the Nobel Prizes and we have to use them for the good of humanity.
Register now for the Nobel Prize Summit, taking place on 26-28 April 2021.