My professional career is as an atmospheric scientist, a field I entered as a means to apply a degree in physics to an area with more immediate societal relevance than chasing down the latest sub-atomic particle.  I have been a professor at the University of Utah since 2002. Most of my research has been focused on the complex interplay between aerosols, clouds, precipitation, radiation and climate, key ingredients in the of understanding climate change. 

The pages on economics, energy, and climate described here grew from a fairly ordinary inquiry into what possible solutions might exist for what appeared to be the most pressing issues of the time, resource depletion and climate change. From a totally naive beginning, I also started to wonder about the origins of money and wealth. The two questions seemed linked since it was clear that the economy was the root cause of rising CO2 concentrations.

It seemed that all human activities had to be governed by the same fundamental thermodynamic laws as the climate system. In summer, 2006, there was a small “aha” moment for how economic currency and energy might be fundamentally linked.  Following some rather exciting moments putting the pieces together, eventually a little model was formed for global economic growth and carbon emissions. In February, 2007, the model was tested using real world data. These tests supported a hypothesis that global rates of energy consumption are tied through a constant value to the accumulation throughout history of a very general representation of global wealth: putting numbers to it, 7.1 Watts of primary energy consumption is required to support every one thousand year 2005 dollars of a historical accumulation of global civilization wealth, independent of the year considered.

I fully expected that this must be a well-known result in economics and that the model development was only for my own amusement and understanding. But surprisingly it seemed to be original. Plenty had compared to energy consumption to GDP but none surprisingly to the time integral of GDP. My later work applied the principles of non-equilibrium thermodynamics to economic forecasting, the relationship to environmental change, and possible negative impacts on future economic growth that might arise from current economic growth.

The work has often been criticized as naive or wrong, disrespectful to the economic tradition, and even nihilistic (I’m actually fairly cheerful), largely missing that the approach is intentionally far more holistic and general than normally considered in traditional economics. The primary goal of the work has been to obtain a deeper understanding of the coupled human-climate system acknowledging that human systems must be physical systems. We like any other complex system, exist and grow through a net convergence of material flows powered by a dissipation of potential energy. This necessarily makes the equations for economic growth rather different than what economists typically consider. Of course, if traditional economists prefer models that are divorced from these rules, I can perhaps see why: we are all a bit trapped by our training, including myself. But I think that if we are ever going to find solutions to the pressing global problems of the coming century, it is not going to be by pretending we can beat the laws of thermodynamics.