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As Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, George Shultz helped negotiate the most successful global environmental treaty to date: the Montreal Protocol, which phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-depleting chemicals. Those chemicals also act as potent greenhouse gases, so the agreement also makes him the negotiator of one of the most effective global climate treaties ever, despite being part of an administration that famously removed solar technology from the White House roof.
Few modern Republican politicians favor such environmental effort, or even believe climate change is happening or that humanity could be primarily responsible for it. In addition, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is currently suggesting that the federal budget almost eliminate support for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy and other clean energy efforts from the Department of Energy. Still, Shultz continues to work for what he sees as improvements to U.S. national, economic and environmental security by addressing the growing threat of global warming through his role as chair of the energy policy task force of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Scientific American sat down with the 92-year-old Schulz to discuss what can be done to combat climate change in the present political environment. The interview was held at his home in the hills above Stanford, which boast solar panels and his electric vehicle—a Nissan LEAF—in the garage.
Editor's Note: David Biello is the host of a forthcoming series on PBS stations, a sequel to the award-winning Beyond the Light Switch. The series, produced by Detroit Public Television, will continue to explore how transformation is coming to how we use and produce electricity, impacting the economy, the environment and national security.
[An edited transcript follows.]
Your long career in government was often focused on protecting the U.S. How will climate change affect national security?
I think in the energy area, we have to be constantly aware of three big objectives. Number one: we have to think of energy as a strategic commodity that is very important to our national security. Number two: we have to recognize that energy is the engine of the economy, so we want inexpensive, reliable, consistent energy. And number three: we have to recognize that energy produces pollutants as it burns, so it affects our environment. It affects the air we breathe; it affects the climate we create. So we have these three issues to keep in mind all the time, and you can't just do one or the other, but you've got to work on them all at the same time.
How is the military addressing the energy and climate challenge?
We see supply trucks blown up as they're going into Afghanistan, and, of course, that means first of all that people are losing their lives. Second of all, the net costs by the time you get the fuel there are astronomical. So you want to create more fuel where it isn't, so you don't have that transportation problem. The answer is to figure out how to create more energy where you use it.