Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at Carnegie Institution for Science

Innovation to Power the Nation (and the World): Reinventing our Climate Future

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Michelle K. Lee

June 29, 2016

1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Carnegie Institution for Science

1530 P St. NW

Washington, DC 

Thank you, Dr. Scott, for that generous introduction and for hosting us today. And to everyone gathered here, good afternoon. It’s an honor to be here at the Carnegie Institution for Science, which has such a distinguished history of promoting new areas of scientific discovery. I cannot imagine a more appropriate place for us to discuss the role of innovation in addressing the threat posed by climate change, thus making a healthier planet for us, our children, and our children’s children. 

On more than one occasion, innovation has shaped the arc of history. From cures for disease to advances in engineering to scientific discovery time and again creative thinkers have taken new ideas, and transformed them into actions that have transformed the future. In fact, history has shown us there are few challenges that innovative minds cannot overcome. The challenge we’re discussing this afternoon − man-made climate-change − also poses a potentially fatal threat to each and every one of us. And just as our country demonstrated in finding a cure for polio, or putting a man on the moon, or the administration’s recently-announced Moonshot to Cure Cancer—for which the USPTO is also involved—we need the same focus when addressing climate change.

On that note, I stand before you today not only as the Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and a member of the Obama administration, but as the mother of a six-year old daughter.

In short, I am a resident of this planet who is deeply concerned about our climate crisis and what it means for our collective future. I’m also here as a computer scientist and engineer who applies data to my decision making. There is some powerful data being compiled by reputable scientists in academia and at agencies such as NASA and NOAA. Let’s look at some of that data: 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have now occurred since 2001, with last year officially the warmest year ever recorded.  It is only June, and both NASA and NOAA forecast a 99% chance that this year will pass 2015 as the hottest year ever recorded. Over the course of the 20th Century, global sea levels rose about 6.7 inches, but during the last decade, this rate of increase has nearly doubled.   More than a million species face potential extinction as a result of disappearing habitats, changing ecosystems, and acidifying oceans.  And, according to NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, May 2016 was the hottest May on record, going back 136 years.  

Every week scientists identify new and undeniable climate events presenting unequivocal evidence that climate change is not a distant problem. We see the impact in the form of unpredictable extreme weather events. Indeed, we now face more frequent heat waves, more intense droughts, and more heavy downpours. Our polar ice caps are melting at unprecedented rates, raising global sea levels. Glaciers around the world are receding, from the Alps to the Andes, from the Himalayas to the Rockies. We are also, in fact, seeing glacier retreat in America’s Glacier National Park, which may not have any glaciers twenty years from now. We may have to rename it “The National Park Formerly Known as Glacier.”

These threats don’t just impact individual regions; they are global. We face massive global threats to agricultural production, impacting the ability of farmers to grow the food we rely on for daily sustenance. We face massive global threats to the biodiversity that sustains life on this planet, from the fish that we eat to the bees that pollinate our plants. We face massive global threats from the spread of infectious disease, when Zika-carrying mosquitos can breed as easily in Chicago as they can in Cuba.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You are entitled to your opinions, but not your own facts.” These are facts. And these facts are being recognized by an increasing number of people and organizations. Business leaders recognize climate change as a threat to facilities and operations, water and power sources, and supply and distribution chains. In fact, the vast majority of our largest companies – over 90 percent of the companies in the Standard and Poor’s Global 100 Index – publicly identify climate change among their corporate risks. Military leaders recognize climate change as a national security threat that could lead to mass migrations of people and threaten global stability. Medical leaders recognize climate change as a health concern, aggravating asthma and other respiratory diseases while expanding the reach of what we once considered tropical diseases. And religious leaders recognize that we all have a responsibility to our common home and to each other.

To address the challenge of climate change, nearly 200 nations − almost every nation on Earth − assembled last December at the Paris Climate Summit to reach agreement on a common goal. It marked the most meaningful international effort to address climate change in at least 20 years. And it wasn’t just diplomats and heads of state who came together. U.S. mayors and state officials joined an unprecedented number of business executives who also arrived in Paris to show their support. On the very first day of the summit, President Obama met with 19 other world leaders focused on the need to increase public investment in clean energy research and development investment. Recently those 20 nations were joined by the European Union in announcing their commitment to invest nearly $30 billion per year in public clean energy research and development by 2021. It’s no coincidence that this inaugural effort is called Mission Innovation.

The President knows that innovation is the key to solving problems. He also understands the power of research and development to drive innovation. That was how the Paris climate talks began. They concluded with all 196 of the participating nations agreeing to meet a very ambitious goal of limiting the future rise in global temperature. The countries also pledged, starting in 2023, to conduct assessments of their progress every five years. The Paris Agreement creates a pragmatic framework allowing each nation to set its own goals to reach that larger goal.  Perhaps most importantly, the agreement signals to the world that we’re headed toward a clean energy future, and encourages investment in that future. As our contribution to the agreement, the United States has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Analysis by think tanks such as the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and others show that public policy can help us approach that goal.  But it won’t get us all the way.

As the President recognizes, it’s going to take innovation. Now innovation is a pretty broad term. Frankly, it is in danger of becoming an overused buzzword, like synergy or disruption. Let’s focus on one clear-cut definition, namely the drive that leads to new inventions. For the purposes of this discussion, it could be finding ways to more efficiently make use of existing energy sources, or identifying new ways to capture alternative energy sources. We at the USPTO understand invention. Each and every day, our hard-working examiners award patents to creative inventors who find new, useful and non-obvious solutions for any number of problems. You may have seen some examples of such invention outside this hall, where we have posters depicting transformative advances in the fields of energy capture and conversion. Take, for example, the Funnel-Shaped Charge Inlet, which is the charging apparatus for Tesla electric cars. Or the compact fluorescent light, which lasts longer than incandescent light bulbs, uses less power and thus, lowers utility bills. Each of those energy-saving inventions began with a patent.

Patents are enshrined in the Constitution, and it’s no surprise that the Founding Fathers wrote that patents are intended to promote “progress.” Throughout recorded history, advances in energy have driven human progress, from ancient watermills to medieval windmills, from coal-powered factories to steam-powered trains, and from gasoline-powered automobiles to solar-powered homes. Progress over the last two centuries has accelerated at a pace never before seen in history. And the growth of that progress has accelerated at an even faster rate just in our own lifetimes. In fact, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, the number of annual clean energy patents has increased five-fold since 2002, and that number is expected this year to break another record after eight consecutive increases.Clearly, patents have played a large role in bolstering the world’s efforts to mitigate climate change, and they will continue to do so.  I like the way President Abraham Lincoln—the only U.S. president to hold a patent himself—worded it. He said patents “add the fuel of interest to the fire of invention.”

Now we have two Inventors Hall of Fame inductees on today’s panel who have wielded the fire of invention. Dr. Jay Baliga—also a White House Medal of Technology and Innovation laureate—invented a semiconductor  that dramatically improves efficiency in the flow of power in consumer, industrial, and transportation applications. His insulated/gate/bipolar/transistor has resulted in the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions by over 100 trillion pounds worldwide over the course of the past quarter century.   It’s no exaggeration to say that Dr. Baliga has the largest negative carbon footprint in the world. His innovation spurred other inventors to identify even more efficient uses of existing energy sources. Dr. Kristina Johnson, meanwhile, is bringing her own inventive mind to finding new ways to capture and make use of energy sources not yet fully realized. The mission of her company, Cube Hydro Partners, is quite simply to seize the overlooked opportunity to acquire and modernize hydroelectric facilities and develop power at unpowered dams. By doing so, Cube Hydro Partners is demonstrating the value of renewable hydropower and reducing our nation’s reliance on harmful carbon-based energy. But while it’s easy to make the case for patents advancing progress, we also know that when addressing climate change, we can’t simply sit back and wait for creative minds like Dr. Baliga and Dr. Johnson to save us. And we need to remember that innovation comes in many forms.

The USPTO isn’t the only government agency promoting climate-change innovation. Dr. Johnson also served in this administration as a senior leader at the Department of Energy, and Bob Perciasepe served as a top official at the Environmental Protection Agency. They understand both the important challenges we face and the unique role policymakers can play in making a difference. But there is still another form of innovation that drives progress, and that’s the creative force of free enterprise. The invisible hand, if you will. As new energy sources have made their way into our lives, innovative entrepreneurs have found ways to make use of those sources. They’ve launched businesses. They’ve created jobs. They’ve grown the economy. And they’ve improved our standard of living.

Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker has frequently highlighted the significant opportunities that will arise for U.S. businesses as a direct result of new policies and actions to address climate change. As she noted earlier this year in Denver, Colorado, there’s an “enormous demand for goods and services offered by our renewable companies and great innovators.” But industries of all types find themselves confronting new challenges in this age of climate change. You may not realize it if you don’t spend time poring over corporate annual reports, but more and more companies are acknowledging that climate change is real. Their concern is the material impact climate change could have on profit. Climate change can disrupt supply chains, increase the cost of transportation, and reduce the purchasing power of consumers. These developments threaten every company’s bottom line. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of companies large and small are focusing on sustainability as a core part of their operations. It’s now a C-suite position, just like a Chief Financial Officer or a Chief IT Officer. We see that reflected today in Nate Hurst, Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer at Hewlett Packard. Nate knows well that the same entrepreneurial innovation that led his company to become a Fortune 100 company must now be applied to addressing climate change.

On Earth Day this year, President Obama signed an accord pledging our nation’s commitment to meet the ambitious goals of the Paris Summit. He was not being naïve, any more than Vice President Biden is naïve in thinking we can collectively cure cancer. The President knows that climate change is a formidable challenge almost unparalleled in its complexity. He also knows it won’t be easy to address that complexity. My training is in electrical engineering and computer science, with a focus on artificial intelligence. I understand complexity. Look at a semiconductor chip under a microscope, or examine the code for a computer software program. The complexity in each is readily apparent. But the Earth is by far the most complex system any of us can imagine. One genius can conceive of a way to provide a bridge between a low-power transistor and a high-powered one, as Dr. Baliga did. But no one individual can appreciate the full complexity of our planet.  A complex problem such as this needs a complex solution approached from all angles by many creative minds, one that embraces scientific and economic innovation.

So now I hope you have a better idea of why the USPTO has spearheaded today’s event.  As the leader of our nation’s “Innovation Agency,” I care deeply about this issue, and I’m committed to ensuring that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is doing all that it can for the benefit of our country and indeed, all of mankind, on this most important of issues. I’m an optimist. I believe we can collectively make a real difference through technological innovation. And our entire world will be better for it. With that, let me again welcome you here today for this important discussion.  I look forward to hearing the perspectives of our distinguished panelists. 

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