(1/2016) The science topic of the moment is clearly the results and implications of the International Climate Conference recently held in Paris, in which negotiators from some 195 countries came together to seek progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and thus global warming. If successful, this agreement will have a huge impact on the
environment, gradually reducing the earth’s reliance on fossil fuels in favor of cleaner forms of energy.
The agreement contains pledges from the individual nations to cut or limit emissions (carbon dioxide and others) from fossil-fuel burning, as well as financial and technical assistance from the wealthier nations to the developing countries.
You will recall that the growing accumulation of greenhouse gases leads to rises in temperatures across the earth; the temperature rise leads to serious secondary effects on the environment. Though there are many people who do not "believe" in global warming and its effects on the earth, scientists overwhelmingly support this model.
The two most industrialized countries in the world are The United States and China. The United States and China forged a deal last year to work jointly to scale back emissions of greenhouse gases; this accord indicates agreement among the nations of the world that there is a serious problem, and that we must all work together to find remedies.
Why haven’t we made progress before? In order to make these changes, significant revision needs to be made in how energy is produced; such change has a great economic impact on those who produce energy the old way with oil, coal, and other fossil fuels. Some businesses and jobs will suffer, and new economic opportunity will arise, a factor that clearly
separated those in favor of such a change and those against the change. Various wealthy investors, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, have been seeking to fund a search for innovation in this regard. New technologies and increased energy efficiency are important steps to be accomplished.
The specific goal agreed upon is to keep the increase in global average temperature small in order to protect against the devastating effects of rising seas and other secondary environmental impacts, which is no easy matter. The agreement states that each country will deliver a new pledge and an updated plan every five years to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions. It is expected that developed counties and wealthy developing countries, including the United States, will provide financial resources to developing countries to proceed with this effort.
This is an important first step, but much more needs to be done. Will the opposing factions in our Congress come together in support of this effort? How many of the 195 nations will move forward with commitment and success? Will the wealthier nations really support the more financially limited ones?
Here are few recent news items that relate to such environmental impact.
Nuclear energy, as we have previously discussed, does not have any significant greenhouse gas impact. China has one of the largest expanding economies in the world, as we well know from the number of products we acquire daily labeled "Made in China." Currently, the Chinese economy depends upon coal-fired power plants, which add to carbon dioxide
content and air pollution, the latter of which can be very dangerous (remember Donora, Pennsylvania from a previous article). China’s developing plan is to build enough nuclear reactors to make China the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy by 2030, 100 + reactors. To achieve this goal, China must build 6 to 8 reactor units a year for the next ten years. A reactor site
usually has 2 or three units. Such a plan is necessary for China to live up to its recent commitment discussed above.
China installed its first nuclear reactor in 1991. The massive planned expansion has triggered controversy. Chinese anti-nuclear factions support heavy commitment to wind and solar power. The anti-nuclear faction worries about problems such as those which occurred in the past, unlike the United States, where we have had a few nuclear scares but no
disasters or loss of life.
On a different but energy-related topic, The District of Columbia has announced plans to install solar panels on the roofs and in parking lots of 34 government-owned facilities. The city also made a deal recently to produce power from a wind power farm in Pennsylvania. This agreement will produce one-third of the DC government’s energy needs from wind
It has recently been reported that U.S. emissions are dropping due to new regulations on power plant emissions and use of natural gas in place of coal.
A personal recollection comes to mind. When I was growing up in 1940s Youngstown, Ohio, we lived in a recently built home that produced its heat from oil. Periodically, an oil truck would come to the house and fill a tank from an inlet in the front yard. In contrast, one of my friends lived in a pre-WWII house, and I recall seeing the coal truck
noisily discharging coal down a chute into his basement.
So, what can we conclude? I would say that we must realize that we need to look for energy production from a variety of sources, seeking those that fit the area (wind energy would seem to be a good idea on the Great Plains, just as water flow can produce energy at Niagara Falls, and solar energy is a good thing to get in the deserts of the West). And
then we need to continue to look at methods of energy conservation to minimize energy needs.
We’ve been discussing government and industry directed efforts to change the impact on our environment. What can we do as individuals? We’ve discussed the advantages of having solar panels on our homes, especially in high-sunshine areas. We can seek ways to make our own homes more energy-efficient such as thoughtful thermostat control, use of more
energy-efficient light bulbs, and turning off lights in rooms when not present. In a later article, we’ll discuss electric cars versus gasoline cars.
Do you believe in the existence of Bigfoot? I did an Internet search on Bigfoot, and found an enormous amount of material on this most likely (to me) mythical creature. Though reported sightings are many over a large period of time, some 50 years, no one has yet brought a Bigfoot home, produced DNA analysis from hair or such, or recovered verified
remains. People have devoted careers to tracking Bigfoot down. Since there is no clear evidence (at least to me) of Bigfoot’s existence, I believe it to be a propagated myth, alongside the sightings of aliens that are so often reported. So, if any of you has a personal Bigfoot experience, I’d be interested in hearing about it.
Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys
Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal