CSU researchers think it’s time for a government agency focused solely on climate research, innovation

earth enveloped in green leaves

Few will deny that climate change is the crisis of our time and demands radical solutions. A group of Colorado State University faculty has a fittingly radical idea for how to fund and deploy such solutions.

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

The faculty group, a CSU Energy Institute leadership corps from multiple colleges and departments, dub their proposed new agency “ARPA-C,” or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate. Working off a similar model first implemented by the U.S. Department of Defense and later the U.S. Department of Energy, they envision a climate agency as a catalyst for solving climate-related problems. But critically, the mission of such an agency would place issues of culture and equity front and center alongside new science and technologies.

The researchers describe their vision for ARPA-C in a commentary piece published by the American Geophysical Union journal Earth’s Future. The authors are Lynn Badia, assistant professor in the Department of English; Josie Plaut, associate director of CSU’s 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 for programs and initiatives at the CSU Energy Institute.

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

Culture change

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

“Given Jeff’s insights from his ARPA-E experience, we considered how the ARPA model needed to evolve in order to more holistically consider what is causing climate change, as well as how to develop effective strategies for mitigation and adaptation,” Badia said. She pointed to legislative proposals like the Climate Equity and THRIVE Acts, which grew from insights into the interwoven social and ecological aspects of climate change. “We have argued that the government’s large-scale R&D process also needs to transform given these insights,” Badia continued. “Namely, we have proposed that climate research include a central focus on 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 is an ethos created when you have term-limited outside experts who run a program for a short 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 are more nimble and don’t get as bogged down in government quagmire as other agencies.”

To tackle the climate crisis and avoid that quagmire, a semi-governmental, semi-autonomous agency would fit the bill, Muhs said. It would accept money from both public and private sectors, with the intention of shielding 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 “Energy Transitions” study abroad program was eye-opening and made him appreciate how technology alone is not nearly 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.

Bringing 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 get the idea in front of the then-Biden campaign team.

“I knew some people in the Biden campaign who work on energy and environment issues,” said Ritter, the Democratic governor of Colorado from 2007-11. “I was able to give the Biden campaign the idea for ARPA-C, which at the time had been written out in just a few pages by our CSU professors. A month later, when the Biden team published their campaign platform, they included ARPA-C as something they believed would be helpful in addressing the climate crisis.”

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

Whether the agency as proposed will be funded in the final Congressional budget is yet to be seen. Regardless, the group is working to develop effective transdisciplinarity strategies for research and education at CSU.

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