In retrospect, it's clear that the scientists who were worried were right, and the Montreal Protocol came on in the nick of time. So, on a lot of these issues, time is not on your side because [environmental problems] can get, if not beyond repair, increasingly hard to repair.
I also worry about discontinuities.
You can point to a number of things that might produce a discontinuity, where, in other words, suddenly things get much warmer quickly, and you scramble around to do something. We know that carbon stays in the atmosphere. It doesn't disappear. You know, a new ocean is being created for the first time since the Ice Age [in the Arctic with the meltdown of sea ice]. How could that happen? It's getting warmer.
Is electrification of cars and other kinds of transportation the answer for taking the carbon dioxide out of that side of our economy?
I don't know that it's the answer, but it is one of the answers. You have to ask: How are you producing the electricity? So if you've got big coal plants producing electricity, you're not getting anywhere. If they're natural gas, you're much better off, but if it's solar electricity, you're even better off.
We've had these renewable energy efforts in the past, like after the first oil crisis in the 1970s, but they weren't sustained. Are things different now?
Solar panels right now are almost competitive with the grid, and if you talk to the scientists working on them they are full of ideas for what they call improving efficiency. Getting more power out of a given sunbeam. But half the costs are installation costs, pick-and-shovel work. So I said to them: Why don't you start thinking about how you build something that's easier to install? If we could build something that's half the cost of installation, bang—the costs are way down.
I think it's essential in this country, and I encourage it around the world, to maintain the funding for the [research and development] effort that's going on right now. There's a greater mass of it than ever before. The amount of money from the federal government is nothing compared with the total budget, and as I've seen here at Stanford, the federal commitment and the federal money is more than matched by private money.
You've got solar panels on your home. Why did you do that?
I figure I've got to walk the talk. They've been on [the roof] for about six years. I have a little chart that has my electricity bill before and after, and if I take the amount of money I've now saved, I've paid for the panels plus the opportunity cost of that money. I also have an electric car. I drive it around campus and around town. I don't have any range anxiety.
You have no range anxiety whatsoever with your electric car?
Well, I don't take it for long distances. Most of the driving everybody does is around where they live. And I have a charging device in my garage so I figure I'm driving on sunshine, and it's free. It doesn't cost me anything, so I kind of like it.
What drives you to keep working on these problems?
I'm in my 90s and I live here on the Stanford University campus. It's dreamy. It's so nice. However, I have four great-grandchildren.
It's fun to have little babies around again, but you look at these little kids and they're so full of vitality and curiosity and so much fun in them. You can't help but ask yourself: What kind of a world are they going to inherit, and what can I dredge out of my experience that might be put into place to help make it a little better?