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Dan Vermeer

Dan Vermeer on the Business Role in Addressing Climate Change

January 14, 2016

Discussion Video

Dan VermeerDan Vermeer
Executive Director, Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment and Associate Professor of the Practice

In our February 2016 Fuqua Faculty Conversation, Dan Vermeer will present:

PowerShift: The Business Role in Addressing Climate Change

In this video, Dan covers:

  • Why business leaders need to be active partners with government and civil society in addressing climate change
  • How that a strategic approach can yield significant benefits to businesses by reducing their risks and capturing new opportunities for innovation
  • What role universities like Duke can play in facilitating a transition toward an economy that supports a stable climate

Do you agree? Disagree? Have ideas and practices to share with fellow alumni from your own experience? Join the conversation in the comments section below and in the Fuqua alumni LinkedIn group!


  1. Jim – thanks for your extensive commentary on the post. There is too many points to argue in this format – I think you raise good points, though I would say that some of your references are not widely respected sources. My basic point is that greenhouse gas emissions (mostly from fossil fuels) are destabilizing our climate in ways that are mostly negative, and eventually catastrophic – while our models can’t predict exact outcomes, we know that we need dramatic reductions in emissions fast. I agree that wind and solar alone don’t get us there, but are technically and financially viable now and can play a critical role in a low/no carbon portfollo. I also agree that nuclear must play a role, and hope we develop new ways of harnessing nuclear power that are safer, cheaper, and more flexible than current alternatives. And finally, we will need revolutionary shifts in land use/agriculture, carbon capture (from power plants and the atmosphere), transportation, and lifestyles.

    I don’t agree that we need 80% assurance to act decisively now (not sure what this means…) – I think that reinventing our energy (and food and water and transport and…) systems is an enormous challenge AND economic opportunity, and the only way to bring the developing world along is to invent a viable, affordable, and sustainable system that can be globally deployed in the next 2-3 decades. I think developed countries have contributed the vast majority of emissions to the atmosphere, and should take the lead in rapidly iterating toward a better approach.

    I don’t think we can see the full picture of the future from where we are now – we have a pretty clear diagnosis that the climate system is rapidly and radically changing, and the window for effective action is narrow. We owe it to our kids and future generations to find a better way. I would like to see business do what it does best to contribute to finding a solution.

    • 80% is the level of assurance of actual success I would personally like before subjecting my children and grand children to very expensive policies that will impact their opportunities and prosperity. And I think climate scientists have a 100% obligation to provide some better models that actually track the empirical temperature record of the past 20 years. The entire issue has become so politicized that I am sure you aware that “respect” of a source is a political not an academic concept. The question is, “Have you read people like Drs. Dysom, Curry, Michaels and Crichton, considered the evidence they present and reached your own conclusion. These are not “deniers”. I have read both sides and would be very interested in a true academic critique of their work. Perhaps your source for “not respected” has actually done the work and you can direct me to it, please.

  2. And then there is this: Perhaps Providence, karma, blind luck- but the sun is now at its lowest activity in 200 years, known as a Maunder Minimum and scientists are now predicting much colder temps and by 2030 a possible a mini- ice age as experienced in the late 1700s and early 1800s. (Astronomy Now, http://astronomynow.com/2015/07/17/diminishing-solar-activity-may-bring-new-ice-age-by-2030/ , see also article in Science Times and at Solar Physics on NASA web site.) Models correlating sun activity to atmospheric temperature have a very high coefficient of correlation and they “work in reverse”. Current climate models in reverse do not predict the mini ice age nor the 200 years of very warm temps in the Middle Ages.

  3. My personal forecast is that CO2 levels will continue to rise relatively unabated though some suppression will result from renewables in developed countries. Population growth just went negative in Japan and all of Europe will soon follow. The US is held up by immigration but will level. China peaks in 2030. Declining population will eventually reduce production of carbon. Big hopes- much more nuclear- new designs are far safer. And biology. Fast growing pines and plants in tropical climates grow fast and trap huge amounts of carbon. This is why Basil’s refusal to stop deforestation of the Amazon basin is hugely problematic. But maybe with some genetic engineering and husbandry, we can green ourselves into trapping CO2

  4. Any good CEO will consider multiple view points and analyses before deciding. I have yet to find any scientist or scholar who does not agree that, all things being equal, the higher the CO2 level the higher the atmospheric temperature. While thousands of scientists conclude that global warming will be catastrophic, there are hundreds of reputable scientists who question the timing, the severity and the solvability of the problem and the models and studies. It is well worth at least listening to the likes of : 1) eminent Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiKfWdXXfIs ) 2) Dr. Judith Curry, chair of climate department at Georgia Tech (https://judithcurry.com/ ), 3) former Virginia state climatologist Dr. Patrick Michaels (UVA, VA Tech) author of Meltdown, footnoted to IPCC and other government data and 4) Dr. Michael Crichton (Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) his novel State of Fear is an easy read and the only novel you will ever read where every statement of asserted environment fact is foot noted to IPCC and other scientific sources.

  5. But the bigger impediment is developing nations. China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and others plan to build dozens of coal fired plants and the International Energy Agency forecasts growing coal usage for decades. China SAYS it will cap carbon at 2030 levels (ironically when its population will peak!) but has not AGREED to do so. With billions of poor in the world yearning for electricity to run a well pump, sewing machine, power tools, clinic equipment and light to do chores and homework at night, it is unreasonable to expect them to forego the only cheap and abundant energy available –carbon based. And as a matter of social justice, it is probably not fair for nations that built the CO2 level to ask it. There is crude talk of giving them money, from the developed world where every significant country’s government is currently highly leveraged and running significant deficits. Really? Many economists- those cost/benefit junkies – have concluded resources devoted to fighting global warming would be far better spent, particularly for the undeveloped world, on other projects. The case is well made in The Skeptical Environmentalist by Dr. Bjorn Lomborg. Regulations (now stayed by federal courts) issued by the EPA have practically destroyed the coal industry and the lives of 200,000+ families dependant on it, even though the EPA itself estimates that the regs will reduce rising temps by only.018 degrees. This is not rational behavior.

  6. As a CEO of companies with very limited resources, I had to be highly confident results were achievable before committing. Several years ago, Google devoted substantial resources to a program called RE<C- renewable energy less than coal. Being Google they crunched numbers and crunched numbers and concluded it was impossible to substantially displace carbon based energy with solar and wind and painfully explained that in a memo announcing the end of RE<C. (http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/what-it-would-really-take-to-reverse-climate-change) It turns out, nuclear power has a much better case. The following article shows that and explains the enormous and impossible amount of land and resources needed for wind and solar to be effective. (http://reason.com/archives/2016/01/11/saving-the-planet-requires-nuclear-power ) . BUT, there is no political will to meaningfully pursue nuclear and Germany is again building coal fired plants after hysterically shutting down all nuclear after Fukishima.

  7. We seem to be losing clarity not gaining it. In Dec. Dr. Peter Wood wrote on behalf of the National Association of Scholars (a rather liberal org.) to the National Academy of Scientists objecting to the nomination of Dr. Marcia McNutter as president because of her habitual politicizing of numerous science issues as Editor of Science magazine. (https://www.nas.org/articles/nas_letter) . In Dr. Wood’s words “….but at some point the scientific community will have to reckon with the dramatic discrepancies between current climate models and substantial parts of the empirical record.” The last report of the UN International Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) says of those models “they cannot be evaluated”. And they cannot because they forecast temperature rise of “Y” based on additional CO2 of “X” over the last 20 years. X turned out to be a lot higher but Y remained constant. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin.(NOAA) rushed out data debunking the flat line just before Paris, but a few days ago very reputable scientists debunked the debunking , incredibly including Dr. Michael Mann of the “temperature hockey stick” fame. (Nature magazine Feb. 24). The last IPCC report also reduced its assessment of the likelihood of severe weather occurrences in the future, presumably because hurricane activity is at record lows and NOAA data show no increase in the frequency or severity of tornados (we just have a lot more people and stuff in the way and 24/7 news coverage). Don’t CEOs need solid models and data to make decisions? Would a Duke MBA get a passing grade with a failed model.

  8. There is not much we can do now about the reduced prosperity that awaits our children and grandchildren as they confront $19 trillion in national debt and deficits the Congressional Budget Office forecasts to soon rise to $1 trillion/year as retirees on soc. sec. and Medicare rise from 47 to 75 million. But before we add the additional burden of an environmental policy that will cost trillions and reduce growth (just when it is desperately needed to absorb the debt),and before any CEO commits resources, a few serious questions need answered. Perhaps Prof. Vermeer can direct me to the answers. First, how much less temperature rise can be expected with at least 80% certainty from the global warming policy. Can scientists assure us with at least 80% certainty that that reduction will in fact deliver us from the consequences of global warming. Can scientists assure us that success does not require the participation of developing counties in any meaningful way. I would like to add more to “the conversation” and will do it in bites, read what if any of it interests you.

  9. Dan, I totally agree with your view. Businesses, and CEOs in particular, need to summon the necessary leadership skills and financial arguments to lead their companies, industries, and communities toward a more sustainable future. This is not about business as usual but business under a new 21st century paradigm. The opportunity is strategic for not only them, but our country and the world. If anyone is interested in reading more, please see my new book CEO Power & Light on Amazon. Thanks, Steve

    • Thanks for your comment, Steve – you are absolutely right that these issues require real leadership. It’s great to see our alums playing important roles in shifting the conversation.

  10. Dan:
    If sustainability is linked to lowered carbon emissions from fossil fuels, why do we encourage paper recycling?
    Currently, America recycles about 60% of paper manufactured. However, in the collection and transportation of this recycled paper, considerable fossil fuel emissions take place. In addition, it is possible to run a virgin primary paper mill (a paper mill that takes in trees, pulps them, and makes paper) nearly exclusively from the biomass brought to the mill. However, to make enough steam to run a recycle mill, it is necessary to burn fossil fuels to produce the steam needed to manufacture the paper.

    America today has more forest cover than 100 years ago, despite its population more than tripling (figures from the USDA). Therefore, paper recycling doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. However, I bet that every single classroom and hallway at Fuqua has a paper recycling receptacle. How does this square with your concept of sustainability?

    Bill C.

    • Bill – thanks for your comment. You are right to ask for data to evaluate whether recycling is worth the effort. In the case of metals, it is almost always a benefit to recycle the material than to use virgin sources – for example, recycling aluminum uses about 5% of the energy that it takes to refine bauxite ore into new aluminum.

      For paper, the case is not as strong – it requires comparing the total lifecycle impacts of the materials and processes for both recycled and virgin paper. Most analyses I’ve seen suggest that recycled paper has somewhat less carbon emissions, less chemical waste (for de-inking or bleaching), and keeps paper out of the landfills (which are filling up in many parts of the world). So yes, paper recycling is worth it, but it should be analyzed empirically, not stated as an inherent good.

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