Photographer: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg

The Scientist Who Cracked Iran Has a Plan for Climate Change

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz provides an inside look at the role science played in two big Obama victories.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz was looking up at a five-feet-tall glass cylinder filled with a turbulent milky white concoction. It was suspended several feet off the ground by a scaffold wound through with tubes and wires. Surrounding him were scientists at the Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York in Manhattan, where they’d gathered with a commercial development engineer as part of a long-term plan to turn pollution into profits.

Ernest Moniz, U.S. secretary of energy, speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 23, 2015.

Ernest Moniz

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The cylinder contained water and bubbles—oxygen bubbles. The scientists were testing just how tiny they can make them, and how uniformly they could be distributed. The goal: Building chemical reactors that swallow industrial waste gases, feed them to naturally occurring or genetically engineered microbes, and produce fuels or useful chemicals. LanzaTech, a company based in Skokie, Ill., hopes to mass-produce fuels and industrial chemicals from waste gases, including methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. The technology could be one tool to help people manage dangerous compounds that humanity pumps into the atmosphere.

The research is funded in part by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the arm of a cabinet department that’s seen its share of headlines over the past eight years. Nobel Physics laureate Steven Chu preceded Moniz, 71, at Energy and became a news fixture when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 gave Americans a daily lesson in applied subaquatic petrogeology. Moniz joined the Obama administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology three years later, and led the agency’s contributions to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and Paris climate accord reached in December. 

In New York last week, Moniz emphasized the need to pursue long-term solutions to climate change that will stretch over many years and administrations—and the expense that will be involved. “We need to keep working on the cost,” he said. “But we also need some of these big, additional breakthroughs that are going to take a long time to scale up. That’s why we’re doing it now.”

Moniz sat down with Bloomberg News to talk about the influential role science plays in diplomacy, as well as the critical role it plays in arresting global warming.

Q: Where does the Iran story begin for you?
A: The Department of Energy, the labs, and I were involved in supporting the negotiations before I became part of them.

Q: What does that mean?
A: The traditional role of scientists in these international negotiations, like arms control and other things, is to provide analytical support for the negotiators, the diplomats, the Department of State. The center of nuclear expertise in the country are the DOE laboratories. So we had a group of seven national laboratories, plus two of our other nuclear sites, as a support team for the negotiators, analyzing alternative designs for the Arak reactor, looking at centrifuge issues, all kinds of questions. The Secretary of Energy is part of the, if you like, the national security sub-cabinet, so I was certainly involved in the sit-room discussions.

In early February 2015, the negotiations weren’t progressing as rapidly as one wanted. It was going to be very difficult to achieve a dramatic scale-back of Iran’s nuclear activities if the [scientific] principal on the Iranian side and the principal on the American side weren’t fundamentally at the negotiating table.

Q: You knew ahead of time that you were contemporaries with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, while at MIT?
A: His PhD. adviser, it turns out, is a very dear friend. So we had something to talk about. And that was a tremendous benefit—to develop a sense of personal trust as the negotiations went on. That’s to be distinguished from the fact that the deal is not based on trust: The deal is based on verification. But we had a trusting relationship. We were both trying to get to a place where we could solve the problem, recognizing that it was going to be tough. 

Q: And that helped you realize that, despite the differences, there wasn’t a fundamental conflict between the two nations’ positions?
A: When we were put into the negotiations, with our technical backgrounds, we came rapidly to that conclusion. We reached the framework agreement in Lausanne in early April. That was only two months. And then the final agreement was July 14, which was just over an additional three months. Now those were very intense, very tough. John Kerry and I were literally 19 days straight in Vienna for the last negotiating session, along with Salehi and [Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif. It’s pretty unusual that you see even one minister in one place for 19 days, let alone four from two different countries. We always kept an eye on what were the essentials and pragmatically, I would say, a physicist-slash-engineer’s approach: OK, you got a problem. You solve it.

Q: How do you turn technical expertise and an institutional connection into a diplomatic success?
A: I’ll give you an example. When we went into the negotiations, on the American side, we expected that a requirement would be that the Fordow facility, Iran’s underground facility, would have to be completely emptied and abandoned.

We talked and I came to the realization that, as long as we knew it was not going to be used for purposes we didn’t approve of—any enrichment of uranium—that would satisfy our needs. I came to understand and believe what he was saying: For him, having activities going on there was absolutely critical. So, as part of the deal, Iran and Russia are collaborating on some medical isotope production. The rest of the facility is going to be dedicated to science. It’ll be under IAEA supervision. That gave Iran something they insisted on, and it did not impinge on our central issues. 

Q: How have events changed the working relationship with Russia?
A: They just announced they’re eliminating most of our cooperative programs. Since the Ukraine incursion, obviously, our cooperation went down substantially. We still insisted that when there were joint national security benefits—non-proliferation, control of nuclear materials—that we would still work together. And we have, including very recently the elimination of high-enriched uranium from Poland.

There’s no question that our degree of collaboration has dramatically decreased. 

Q: Let’s talk about the Paris climate negotiations: What for you was the most iconic moment?
A: The iconic moment was on the first day. That was when President Obama and 19 other senior leaders, and with Bill Gates also there, announced something called Mission Innovation—that’s with a capital “M” and a capital “I.” It’s a commitment to double clean-energy research and development over a five-year period. For DOE, that’s going from nearly $5 billion to nearly $10 billion. We still have to work with Congress—the department’s innovation thrust has received very good bipartisan support.

Q: What are the questions that people come to you with about climate change?
A: The public is largely to the place where they acknowledge the climate is changing. But the public is not nearly as far along in acknowledging the human role in global warming. The general scale, like doubling atmospheric CO2 and the several degrees centigrade rise in global temperature, has been known since the 19th century. What’s missing, I think, is connecting the amount of carbon dioxide we emit to the increase in its concentration, to the pace at which we double it. That’s not been clearly articulated. It’s just a question of the public getting it. 

Q: It’s the first day of the Trump administration. What happens to all your work? 
A: I don’t discuss any political dimension. We will have an aggressive transition program, of course, with whoever is the next administration. 

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