Looking to the Oceans for Solutions on Climate

Audio Description

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, scientists are researching ways to slow climate change. Woods Hole’s President, Peter de Menocal, explains how investment in nascent technologies can make a difference.


00:08 - 01:08

Hello and welcome to On Purpose, I'm your host, Travis Allen, Senior Investment Strategist and National Director of purpose driven strategies at Bernstein. Today, we're going to share some clips from a live interview I conducted with Peter de Menocal, the president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod. Peter and I sat down in front of a live audience on a sustainable farm on Cape Cod earlier this summer to discuss the innovative research that's being done at Woods Hole and its implications on abating climate change, especially as it relates to our warming oceans. And it was an especially relevant time to be having that conversation because as we've all experienced, our hurricane seasons are not only getting longer but more intense, partially due to the warming of our oceans. After I introduced Peter, I set the stage for our conversation by asking him for an update on the current state of our oceans.

01:08 - 01:38

One of the nice things that I was able to do in preparation for this is, you know, read up on what's going on at Woods Hole, and they really focus on helping us all better understand our oceans so that we can use that knowledge for the greater good. I think that's a fantastic thing to have as part of your mission. And so I wanted to start off by just asking Peter, given that the focus is on understanding what's happening in the ocean, what are our oceans telling us today?

01:38 - 02:13

Great. Hi, everyone. I'm Peter de Menocal and, Travis, thanks for the warm welcome. You know, I just feel it's so important to share what we know as scientists about the oceans, not just because they're cool and they're great to visit, but they're essential for life on the planet. And I'm sure you've all heard this a thousand times, but to really understand it, think for a moment, every other breath of oxygen you breathe, so every other breath you take comes from the ocean, so the oceans impact everything that you care about. Our access to food, water, shelter, energy, national security.

02:13 - 02:49

The oceans have sometimes been thought of as the flywheel of the climate system, and the atmosphere where we live is capricious. That is, the winds change, the weather's changing. We've got a heat wave. We got a cold wave. You get storms, hurricanes. So it's a little bit like a mouse in a forest. It can dart around and can jump really quickly. And that's what we experience as weather. The oceans are more like a big, ponderous elephant in the woods. You know, it's takes an awful lot for it to want to change its direction or to move. But when it does, it clears the forest. Think that's what the ocean's role is in the climate system today.

02:49 - 03:47

So the ways in which the oceans are changing and this is some of the work that we do at the Woods Hole Oceanographic. The main way that the ocean is changing is that when you think of the whole process of global warming, that the planet itself is heating up, the energy imbalance that's driving that from the build-up of carbon dioxide, 93 percent of that energy is going into the oceans. So although land surface is heating up more, the oceans are heating up three quarters of the planet. And that's where all the energy is going. So just think for a moment just how much that is. Another way to think about is that if the oceans weren't warming, if we didn't have oceans, the temperature change from the carbon dioxide rise would be 93 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it is today. Yeah, so the ocean does us a big solid by absorbing all this heat. It also absorbs about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide from our emissions. To drive home the urgency of the work they're doing

03:47 - 03:58

at Woods Hole, Peter focused next on the 10 year deadline we face for making concrete, substantial changes that will slow or reverse the warming of the planet.

03:59 - 04:23

So the oceans were once thought to be too big to fail. And they're not failing, but they're in trouble. Despite how ponderous this elephant is, there's a lot that we can do to actually use the ocean nature-based solutions to tackle the climate problem today right now. And I can weave in why there's we have a decade of action and frankly, why I'm talking to all of you.

04:23 - 05:06

There's something called the carbon budget, which is, there's a certain amount of carbon that you can release to the atmosphere and the warms up the planet by X amount. It’s a physical law, it’s related to the vibrational frequency of the CO2 molecule. It's pretty basic physics, but it's a scaler. We have blown through 90 percent of that budget in the course of the industrial revolution. And because emissions are going faster and faster and faster and we only have 10 years left of that budget. So think of it as a teenager with a credit card, right? They've only got a certain amount and they're on their spending binge. It's the same sort of thing that we're doing with the planet. So we've only got 10 years to basically choose a path. And one is that either we own a world that's much warmer than today or we control one that has much less warming.

05:06 - 05:25

You brought up something I want to follow up on, which is you mentioned that the oceans are in trouble. So what are some of the signs that the oceans are in trouble? And, you know, then maybe you can weave in what Woods Hole Oceanographic is doing to try to help us understand those troubles better and perhaps come up with solutions for them?

05:26 - 06:19

Right. So the main way that the oceans are in trouble right now is that the ocean's warming, and so they're the temperatures where corals can live is 28.5 degrees centigrade and above that they bleach, and that those bleaching events were very rare in our early lives and then, our parents’ lives. But they're becoming increasingly common and now are every year, and they're… as they have sequential bleaches, the corals are threatened. And so one of the things that we're doing is actually using our robots as a way to identify which of the coral heads are thriving in heat because not all of them die. Some of you probably have gone diving and seen coral reefs that are bleached even. You'll notice that not all of them are dead. Some of them are very happy, and we want to know more about those ones that are happy because we can actually take those and transplant them, regrow them and start to link them to other islands.

06:20 - 06:58

So we have one program that's called super reefs. And the idea of super reefs  is that these are super reefs, they are really strong. And we're helping them multiply so we can create a conservation chain. We're working with the Nature Conservancy and Stanford University to build this chain that goes across all of the Pacific islands so they can communicate so that the ecosystems that they represent, these are the diversity engines for the planet. So they're not just beautiful. These are where, this is where the diversity of life originated, is in the tropical oceans. And so it's vital that they're maintained because that's what sustains the rest of the planet. So that's just one snapshot of some of the work that we're doing.

06:59 - 07:21

Peter, you and I talked about the fact that you took on this leadership position, 90-year-old institution during the midst of a pandemic. So first, what drew you to Woods Hole Oceanographic and what's it been like to try to hit the ground running while also having most people not on campus, right?

07:21 - 07:42

I had been at Columbia for thirty-three years. I came up from the mailroom. I was a graduate student there and got my PhD in ‘92. And it went from a graduate student to my last post, which was dean of science. And while I was there, I started a center called the Center for Climate and Life, which is exactly to look at some of these things that we've been talking about today.

07:42 - 08:19

The big question we were posing was how could you get the smartest people in the room on a scientific problem like engineers and scientists? How can you redirect their energies to work on problems that can really make a difference in the world? Because my career as a scientist, I'm a geological oceanographer, a geochemist by profession. And, you know, no one ever told me what I did had to matter. So I was very happy at Columbia. I was named tenured professor at an Ivy League institution and the best department in the nation for what we did, and it was a real decision to leave. And so, you know, Travis really touched on something that touches my heart.

08:19 - 08:53

The answer is, the reason why I left and came here was that the Woods Hole Oceanographic is agile. The Woods Hole Oceanographic is a thousand people, so it's four times as large as where I came from in terms of the number of scientists. The Woods Hole Oceanographic has, roughly half of our one thousand staff are engineers. And then the Woods Hole Oceanographic also has two global class Oceanographic research vessels that are purpose built for scientific research and hundreds of drones and other kinds of autonomous vehicles that we use to do the research for us.

08:53 - 09:13

So what I saw in the Woods Hole Oceanographic was a chance to make my personal journey come true, which was to make a difference in my life by directing this kind of science that's going to make a difference. Because we can talk about this problem as long as we want, but to really make a difference, we have to change the way that we do science and we'll have maybe the chance to talk about that.

09:14 - 09:26

So maybe for a context, for people who aren't as familiar with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, maybe tell us a little bit about the work that has been done there historically.

09:26 - 09:48

So Travis, I got to see a sneak peek, actually one of the first views of a National Geographic special that's being done on Dr. Bob Ballard. Some of you do know he discovered the Titanic, and so the Woods Hole Oceanographic is perhaps most famously known for Bob Ballard and our institution having found the Titanic ,having dived on it with the first manned submersible.

09:49 - 10:27

Some of you may remember that footage of this vessel coming into view three miles down at the bottom of the ocean. And in this National Geographic piece, he talks about the history of the Oceanographic and the things that have taken place on the very dock actually where Secretary Kerry was, and I were this morning. So this is the nation's single point of access to all scientific research for the East Coast so far, of the scale of the kind of work where we can deploy submersibles like Alvin and these large vessels. It was here where we discovered that there's life at the bottom of the sea.

10:27 - 11:00

So if you go to the four miles down deep in the ocean, there are these tube worm gardens. These are six foot long, these velvety, long encased sort of tubular worms that have an entire lifecycle that doesn't need photosynthesis. It eats the metals that come out of the ocean out of these metallic plumes that come out of the mid-ocean ridges. And you may know that the bottom of the oceans are lined with these ridges, which are all these gardens of the sub sea life that couldn't care less about photosynthesis or the sun.

11:01 - 11:37

So when you think about the origins of life on another planet, one of the first places we're going to look is that these mid-ocean ridges that are on these other planets, you know, this kind of narrative of how we discovered how the ocean functions and all of those stories have Woods Hole at the center of it. Yes, we share this discovery with Scripps Institution, but really, there's a handful of institutions in the world that couple this scientific and engineering and access to the sea connection, you know, so when I accepted this position in October and in our Zoom world, one of the first things I did, actually the very first thing I did, was to meet people.

11:37 - 12:11

And so we spent the first six months developing what is now been called Vision 2030. It coincides with the centennial of this historic oceanographic institution. It also coincides with something called the United Nations Decade for the Oceans. So a decade for ocean science and sustainable development. And basically the invitation from the UN is how can we work together as individual institutions and across nations to really lead the knowledge creation we need to help future generations deal with this changing planet?

12:11 - 12:35

And so we spent some time as a community discussing what that looks like. The net result is an invitation for us to take more risk to tolerate failure to approach really hard problems as a team, to invest in people in a different way through philanthropy. Because all of our scientists, I should have said this in the beginning, all of our scientists are grant supported, meaning they write grants. They're funded on grants 12 months a year, 24/7.

12:35 - 12:50

So I have to ask since you've mentioned Secretary Kerry a couple of times and I did as well, what was he doing on campus today? Because when we were preparing for this, I don't think that was something that was planned in advance.

12:50 - 13:44

So what was going on on campus today? So he has a house in the vineyard, as many of you know, and his daughter, Alex, is making a film on climate. And they didn't have anything on the oceans and maybe like you, they were, you know, saying, Well, what do the oceans have to do with climate change? And the answer, if you ask us, is, everything. In fact, the whole climate change story is all about the oceans, and the atmosphere is just going along for the ride. So we invited them to come over and he brought his family and an entourage of his supporters. And then we had some people on our side. And it turned into this group of about 20 people. You know, his reason for coming to us was not only to help put this film together, but to ask, you know, because he's the climate czar on this. And so he was saying, you know, how can we help you do your work better so we can make a difference on the climate challenge. And for a long time,

13:44 - 14:27

you know, I haven't been able to speak out loud about climate and what's really happening. I mean, you have to talk with a mixed voice to reach different audiences and to hear this completely unfiltered call for urgency, really, call to arms on climate, from the top person in the government was moving. And so, you know, I think a takeaway for, you know, if you remember nothing more today, you know, I'd say that, you know, as you're looking at places where your investment decisions moving forward or sectors that may be changing, my view is that climate is going to run through every single decision.

14:28 - 14:54

So speaking of what we can do, one of the things that, you know, you were nice enough to send me a lot of things so I can learn more about Woods Hole Oceanographic. But one of the things that really struck me was this concept of ocean shots, right? And I think you talked a little bit about this, right, people taking risk and coming up with bold solutions. And I was wondering if you could share a couple of those ocean shots that you're most excited about.

14:55 - 15:26

Great. So moonshots, ocean shots, it took me a while to get that too. I was like, really, it's not the best marketing, but it was…This is a challenge set up by the United Nations, saying, there are a lot of smart people out in the world. What are the big ideas that are out there? What are the ocean shot ideas? If you could invest new money in something that's really going to make a difference, what is that thing? And so it was a challenge to the US community through this ocean shots initiative.

15:26 - 16:01

So these are concept proposals that represent entire ways of changing the way we look at specific problems. So one, for example, that I'm happy to talk about with you individually is on the carbon problem, this carbon budget problem. So every year we don't act means it's 10 minus that number of years of inaction. It doesn't mean you still got another 10 years to kind of do something. It means that you come up on a hard stop, whatever 10 minus 10 is and we're 10 minus two at the moment. So one way to buy time is to come up with ways to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

16:02 - 16:18

I want to highlight the next part of the discussion because Peter made the case that investing in an idea like carbon capture or carbon sequestration could potentially create a market worth trillions and explained the science behind the concept.

16:18 - 16:56

So the oceans are an enormous reservoir for carbon. There’s 40 times more carbon in the ocean than there is in the atmosphere. So you could take all of human emissions. So since the industrial revolution of every country, it's a trillion tons of carbon dioxide. You can put all of that carbon into the deep ocean or into the ocean, period, and it only increases that amount of carbon in the ocean by one percent. It's this huge reservoir that can be filled with carbon, and it doesn't make the entire ocean, you know, vinegar, it changes PH about a tenth of a unit. So it's not a large change.

16:56 - 17:31

We're developing ways to scale these technologies basically to capture carbon from the surface of the ocean and thereby from the atmosphere, and then hide it in the deep sea, where it can reside for hundreds to thousands of years. Because the water at the bottom of the ocean is very cold and it takes a long time for it to communicate with the atmosphere. And plus, it's really cold down there. And so, you know, if you have a piece of meat, you stick it in the freezer and you do that because it slows down the rate of microbial degradation. So you can use those really, you know, nature based solutions to pull carbon dioxide at scale.

17:31 - 18:06

So let me just get us all on track for what at scale means. So society emits thirty six gigatons of carbon per year into the atmosphere, and that's a ridiculous number. What does that mean? So one gigaton is ten thousand fully loaded aircraft carriers. And we do as a world, we do thirty-six of those units. Thirty-six billion tons of CO2 that goes in the atmosphere. So the scale of the problem has to be measured in units of 10 thousands of aircraft carriers of sequestration.

18:06 - 18:43

So it's not just a matter of breaking up some seaweed or sprinkling some magic fertilizer on the ocean. These are big scale things, but the ocean does this for us all the time. Remember, the ocean takes up 30 percent for us, you know, without us intervening at all. So the solutions that we're looking at, one of the ocean shots is to do this at scale. And just to give you an idea of, you know, the dollars behind us. If you could come up with a way to sequester one ton of carbon reliably over and over again for $100 a tonne, you would have a line out the door of people begging for you to take their money. And to give you an idea of the scope,

18:44 - 19:10

remember, we have to sequester gigatons of carbon. A gigaton is a billion tons, so it's a nice round number. So a hundred billion tons is one gigaton. We emit thirty-six of those units. So these are trillions of dollars annually that, you know, in this market. So anyone who figures this out is going to be a very wealthy person and it's going to be rooted in the best science and it's going to happen whether I do it or somebody else.

19:11 - 19:23

We had some questions from the audience during the event, including one related to 2020 and the decrease we saw in carbon emissions across the planet during COVID lockdowns. Peter picks it up here.

19:24 - 20:08

So the question was, as we look at the year that just passed, our pandemic year, we had about 10 percent or nine percent lower carbon emissions as a result of us all being locked in and doing Zoom with each other. And, you know, think about that hardship that was that was a really tough time. It was tough for emotional reasons. It was tough for health reasons, but it was also a disruption in the way we live our lives. And just to put it at scale, we need COVID style year over year reductions in emissions to accomplish the carbon emissions that will keep us on track with this what's called a one and a half to two-degree world. We do not want a world that's warmer than two degrees centigrade. I can get into why that is and why we know that, but that's an outcome we want to avoid.

20:08 - 20:48

And so, you know, one of the takeaways from the COVID experience that actually… Do any of you know the Templeton Foundation? The Templeton Foundation is this really interesting British foundation that studies the Venn diagram of sort of the human spiritual space and then scientific space. And you know, it's a very unusual foundation. But they founded this or they had it. We had a seminar during COVID time on this very question, comparing COVID responses to the pandemic and what we need to do for the climate. So there were some real learning takeaways, and it was absolutely fascinating, and boiled down to five areas of commonality.

20:48 - 21:29

First was that trusted science rules. That is, you have to have a foundation of trusted science to do anything. Check, you know, I think we've got that. The next is that you have to invest in innovation when you get back to this Vision 2030. That's the central word in that document is investing in new ideas. You have to take risks and find ways to do this. You also have to monitor and observe what's happening. To see what changes are. You need to invest at scale. Again, this is one of the reasons why I came here that we can invest at scale, we can not only go, we have the staff, and it's really, it's not about the Oceanographic, it's about the larger effort, but investing at scale.

21:30 - 22:01

So one final question before we wrap up. I know that you've done a lot of leadership at Columbia and looking at Woods Hole Oceanographic. You're also focused on diversity, equity and inclusion and the next generation of scientists. So maybe you can just talk a little bit about why that's so important, because I know at Columbia, you actually led some efforts to try to address the disparities that exist in terms of access to education and so on. So maybe just talk a little bit about why that's important.

22:01 - 22:29

Thank you, Travis. So social justice is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the largest casualties of climate change. It's the largest exacerbater of social and economic divisions in this country and in the world. And so that's sort of at the very large macro level. And then when we zoom in to my particular discipline in ocean science, we are the least diverse of the entire physical sciences.

22:30 - 23:04

We have so much work to do and the work is manifold, but it begins with training and attracting people of color and in many cases, women actually, into engineering, into these disciplines and doing so in a way that's really authentic, that leads to systemic change. And that leads to the kind of change that allows our scientific staff to be a mirror on society because we're not a mirror on society now. It's a bunch of White males predominantly leading in this.

23:05 - 23:49

And so when I took this job at WHOI, I took a really public stance on this because first of all, when I was dean of science, we led a diversity initiative within the sciences because we had the same problem, unsurprisingly across the sciences, but also in my other role as a scientist, we had actually tried a very deliberate investing early in my career. There were there was not a single woman on my faculty, so I was 30 faculty members in my department and there was not a single woman. And so I wrote a gender equity plan. And I'm happy to say that by the time I left Columbia, we had reached, I think, 42 percent women on the staff. And so this really emboldened me. You know that if you mean it, you can make a difference.

23:49 - 24:39

And so coming to the Oceanographic, I took a pretty hard stance on it and said, this is going to be a priority. And actually, just last week, I had a call with the president of Morehouse College, which is the largest historically Black college that graduates young men in STEM. And we were setting up an exchange program whereby their faculty, the ones who most closely aligned to the kinds of work that we do, with the engineering and the ocean science of biological science that we do, we will pay for them to come to the Oceanographic and work with us for a semester or summer or whenever it is. But then they also bring a cohort of students because the one thing that I learned and probably those who have worked in the space know as well, is that building a cohort is essential to making lasting change and then making your campus welcoming is a fundamental thing.

24:40 - 24:53

Another audience member asked the question, which is one that I think many of us grapple with on a daily basis, which is what can we do as individuals? Which steps can we take to help solve the climate problem?

24:54 - 25:27

One of the worst things I could do in answering that question is to tell you what to do, as in tell you how to live your life. What I can say and I'll speak for myself, is that I'm using my own life as a way to lead the change that I know I need to see. And as each of you has your own ways of influencing the world around you, you can look at ways in which you can use your wealth. You can use your influence. You can use your friendships. You can use things that you care about to direct that change.

25:28 - 25:59

And so, you know, much of my work is no longer about changing hearts and minds. It's about action. And for a long time, for decades, it was trying to get people to kind of understand the climate change is a real thing and, you know, and we were wasting a lot of cycles on that. And you know, my advice to those of you who are, you know, for whom this is interesting, I would say, you know, what are the ways in which your actions can help shape the world that you want? For yourselves and for your kids, because the status quo is running out of gas.

26:00 - 26:21

And so envision that world. As Peter made clear in this conversation, the oceans have a major role to play in solving the challenges presented by climate change, as does innovation and investment. Thank you for joining us again, and remember, we all have values we hold dear.

26:21 - 26:36

Now you can ensure your investments reflect them. You can reach me on LinkedIn. If you enjoyed the podcast, please rate us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your podcast service of choice. And be sure to subscribe. Thank you again!

Travis Allen
Managing Director

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