Vivienne Cox on energy challenges and climate change

Vivienne Cox, former executive vice president of BP Alternative Energy who recently retired from BP after 28 years, gave a lunchtime presentation here at MIT earlier this week. Her subject? The challenges of providing energy to today’s world — and the threat of climate change.

Interestingly, Cox came not only to speak but also to listen. She spent a portion of the one-hour presentation encouraging the audience who had come to hear her to talk in small groups among themselves, sharing their views about how serious the world’s energy and environmental challenges are — or whether they can be addressed through technological advances.

Cox herself didn’t sound very sanguine — except about the supply of fossil fuels in the coming years. (“It’s my view that there’s plenty of fossil fuels around,” she said.) But on environmental issues — from climate change to fish populations — her tone was more somber.  ”We just cannot sustain the resource-intensity of the last 20 years,” Cox said at one point.  

While she observed that there is a growing consensus around the science about climate change, Cox admitted that she worries that our “system is stuck” on a path that will not allow the  problem of climate change to be addressed until it’s too late. “I have to say I am not optimistic,” she said. However, she added, “I do not believe that that is in any sense an excuse for inaction.”

Here’s a paraphrase of a discussion-starting question Cox posed to the attendees at her presentation. On a scale of  -10 to +10 — where +10 means we are fundamentally mismanaging the resources of the planet in a way that’s unsustainable and -10 means that technology will solve the problems – where do you each stand? What’s your personal perception about how serious the earth’s environmental and climate change problems are?

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