"Energy, the Environment, and Our Future": Meet the Professor

Interview with Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and Member of the IPCC, Co-Recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize

“Imagine a cross between Woody Allen and Carl Sagan and you come somewhat close to capturing the style of Richard Alley”, writes Andrew Revkin in the New York Times.


Richard Alley


Dr. Richard Alley is a Penn State professor, PBS host, book author, and one of the few people in the world who can imitate Johnny Cash to describe the planet’s cycles or dance to explain ice ages and global warming. But the list is far from ending here: he is also a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and a leading climate researcher, always pushing into new territory to explain why climate change matters. He served as one of the lead authors for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose members shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former US Vice President Al Gore in 2007.

We're excited to have the opportunity to ask him more about the MOOC (massive open online course) he currently teaches on Energy, the Environment, and Our Future via Coursera.

Can you tell us more about your course?

I had the remarkable good fortune, after writing a book on this topic, to make three hours of PBS TV with Geoff Haines-Stiles and Erna Akuginow (credits include Cosmos with Carl Sagan!), called Earth: The Operators’ Manual. In the course, we link extensively to clips of the TV shows, from China and Brazil to bungy-jumping in New Zealand. We also have additional filming done with my wife, Cindy, for this class, on-location at historical and national-park sites, and more. We work through the remarkable value of energy use to us, the history of energy use (including fascinating stories such as peak whale oil), where we get our energy now, and why the current system is unsustainable. Then, engaging energy engineer Seth Blumsack covers options for a sustainable energy system, before I come back to look at what such a system might cost (economics), how we could get there (policies), and what it means for the Golden Rule (ethics), using discussions such as Libertarians for Government Intervention, and Environmentalists for Economic Development. 

What brought you to the field of climate change?

I started with a fascination for geology, got a summer job for a glaciologist at Ohio State, worked on how snow turns to ice on the polar ice sheets where it is too cold for melting, and that led to analyzing ice cores to learn about the history of Earth’s climate. We found evidence of huge, rapid changes in the past, and set out to understand them. I was hooked.

What would be the scientific finding or future projection that you believe should be the most important to motivate students to take your course?

In the US, we use 100 times more energy outside of us than we generate inside from food, gaining wonderful advantages; but, 85% of that outside energy comes from fossil fuels that we are burning about a million times faster than nature saved them for us, so they will “run out” while they greatly change the climate in ways that are very costly.

What is the one thing that you hope students will take away from your course?

If we use the solid scholarship of energy and the environment, we can build a sustainable energy system with a bigger economy, more jobs, greater national security and a cleaner environment more consistent with the Golden Rule. (Or, if we ignore the solid scholarship of energy and environment, we will end up poorer in a less-secure, dirtier world in which we hurt other people.) 

For people interested in learning more about energy and environmental matters after your course, do you have any advice or additional resources to recommend?

A cell phone is just a handful of sand, a little oil, and some of the right red and blue rocks, plus a lot of science and engineering, design and marketing, and it really works. Science does not tell us what to do, but it does tell us what we can do, and using that knowledge really can help us. For those seriously interested in more information, the publications on this topic by the US National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the National Renewable Energy Lab are interesting.