CSU researchers think it’s time for a government agency to focus solely on climate research and innovation

Few will deny that climate change is the crisis of our time and demands radical solutions. A group of professors from Colorado State University have quite a radical idea on how to fund and deploy such solutions.

Their idea — a new federal agency focused on climate issues — is reflected in President Joe Biden’s budget proposal to Congress.

The faculty group, a CSU Energy Institute governing body of multiple colleges and departments, dubs their proposed new agency “ARPA-C,” or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate. Working on a similar model first implemented by the US Department of Defense and later by the US Department of Energy, they envision a climate agency as a catalyst for addressing climate-related issues. But above all, the mission of such an agency would place issues of culture and equity at the forefront alongside new science and technology.

The researchers describe their vision of ARPA-C in a commentary article published by the American Geophysical Union journal The future of Earth. The authors are Lynn Badia, assistant professor in the Department of English; Josie Plaut, associate director of the CSU Institute for the Built Environment; Joseph von Fischer, professor in the Department of Biology; John Volckens, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the School of Biomedical Engineering; and Jeff Muhs, associate director of programs and initiatives at CSU Energy Institute.

“The technologies that humans have innovated are deeply tied to culture,” von Fischer said. “If we try to solve climate change with a new widget, we ignore all the features of climate change that are not strictly about technology, but really about human behavior, culture, economy and society.”

Cultural change

In early 2019, the group began meeting informally and the idea of ​​ARPA-C began to crystallize. They drew on the experience of Muhs, who, as a legislative member of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander earlier in his career, had helped codify a set of recommendations to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and medicine that led to the creation of ARPA-E in 2009.

“Given Jeff’s insights from his ARPA-E experiment, we looked at how the ARPA model needed to evolve to more holistically consider what is causing climate change, as well as how to develop effective mitigation strategies. and adaptation,” Badia said. She referred to legislative proposals such as the Climate equity and THRIVE Acts, which developed from an insight into the intertwined social and ecological aspects of climate change. “We argued that the government’s large-scale R&D process must also transform given this information,” Badia continued. “Namely, we proposed that climate research emphasize culture and equity and adopt a new transdisciplinary structure.”

The so-called DARPA and ARPA cultures, Muhs said, are well known for their high-risk, high-reward approaches to research and innovation. “There’s a philosophy created when you have time-limited outside experts who run a program for a short period of time, have pretty intense metrics of success, and then they leave,” said Muhs, who as an engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, previously led large-scale R&D projects for the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and Department of Transportation. “They’re more nimble and don’t get bogged down in the government quagmire as much as other agencies.”

To address the climate crisis and avoid this quagmire, a semi-governmental, semi-autonomous agency would do the trick, Muhs said. It would accept money from both the public and private sectors, with the aim of protecting the agency’s work from the changing tides of election cycles or the fickle nature of private philanthropy alone.

Muhs added that his 2019 participation in an undergraduate-focused program Study Abroad Program “Energy Transitions” was eye-opening and made him realize how technology alone is not enough to solve climate change. Led by Badia, the program selected undergraduate students to travel to other countries and learn how the transition to renewable energy is intertwined with culture.

Take the idea forward

In the spring of 2020, the faculty group went to Bill Ritter, former governor of Colorado and director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at CSU. He agreed to help them push the idea to Biden’s campaign team.

“I knew people from the Biden campaign who worked on energy and environmental issues,” said Ritter, the Democratic governor of Colorado from 2007 to 2011. “I was able to give the Biden campaign the idea of ​​ARPA- C, which at the time had been written in a few pages by our CSU professors. A month later, when the Biden team released their campaign platform, they included ARPA-C as something they thought would be helpful in addressing the climate crisis.

Fast forward to early 2021 with Biden in the White House. Members of the office of White House Climate Director Gina McCarthy requested the CSU team’s then pre-released document on ARPA-C. Shortly after, McCarthy announced ARPA-C as part of Biden’s budget proposal that was delivered to Congress.

It remains to be seen whether the agency as proposed will be funded in the final Congressional budget. Either way, the group works to develop effective transdisciplinary strategies for research and education at CSU.

“Transdisciplinary approaches are key to intervening in environmental issues, which are inherently social and political,” von Fischer said. “We believe that if students were better exposed to transdisciplinary approaches, they could become even more effective in their future professional roles.”