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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Rediscovering the Will to Change: A New Energy Economy

Summary.  The growth of the U.S. from an agricultural society to an industrial power was driven in important ways by ambition, a positive attitude, and an ability to see opportunities and develop them.  Examples of changes that contributed to this growth include new means of transportation and communication.

As our economy grew and matured, however, unforeseen harmful effects of some activities became apparent.  Acid rain from electric generation was identified as the cause of dying forests.  Synthetic refrigerants were flagged as the cause of the depletion of ozone in the stratosphere.  Increased carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels for energy was marked as the cause of global warming and its harms. The industries in question ignored the science behind these findings, and fought the need to change their business activities.

Global warming remains an unresolved problem.  Because of the vast size of the fossil fuel industry and the major changes already brought about by global warming it needs to abandon its resistance to change.  Its business model of providing energy for a growing and developing world remains, but needs to switch to carbon-free sources and to develop new technologies.  This new model will still yield profits for the industry, and continue to provide jobs for the economy.

American growth.  Throughout much of our history America has been a country marked by people bent on succeeding.  An entrepreneurial spirit drove the development and widespread adoption of new devices and new technologies that dramatically advanced our economic growth and improved living conditions for our population.

Railroads.  For millenia news and articles of commerce could travel no faster than men, or their animals, could carry htem.  The advent of the industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century, however, brought coal-powered transportation; railroads crossed the landscape faster and further than had been possible earlier.  This dramatically accelerated commerce and the exchange of technologies among populations separated by large distances, improving the lives of the participants.   Coal was also the fuel used in the growing iron and steel industry that permitted forging the rails, building the bridges, and providing the skeletons for new skyscrapers rising in cities.  The force behind all this growth was the vision of the industrialists and architects who created these enterprises and buildings.

Automobiles.  Human ambitions also led to the development of the gasoline engine and its use to power individual transportation, the automobile.  This depended on newly discovered sources of liquid fuels, the petroleum deposits in
Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.  Liquid fuels provided vastly improved convenience and independence to the consuming public, as well as to the military.  The foresight and ambition driving this change is another example of the positive attitudes of the entrepreneurs behind this growth. 

This spirit gave rise to
America's exceptional industrial expansion, helped it survive the Great Depression of the 1930's, and was the spirit invoked by President Roosevelt and our military leaders to fight the war that ultimately defeated the Axis powers. 

Electronics.  A final example is drawn from the electronics industry.  Over the course of the 20th century electronics moved completely from analog to digital circuitry based on solid state transistors.  This transformation likewise was driven by forward-looking scientists and entrepreneurs.  Its growth was highly dependent on creativity and resilience, since the pace of technological advance, and therefore the competition in the industry, was very intensive.

Optimism.  These examples are cited to emphasize the "can-do" enthusiasm that has marked the growth of
America over its history.   Much of our expansion was further promoted by favorable state and congressional action.  The Homestead Act drew Americans with a vision to move west and spread roots in a new setting.  Railroad expansion likewise was fostered by supportive laws.  Recovery from the Great Depression and fighting the Second World War depended crucially on the cooperation between the president and Congress.

Resisting change: Acid rain.  In more recent decades, however, interest groups have opposed the need, based on scientific findings, for changes in their operations.  In the 1970s forests in the American northeast and southern
Canada began dying mysteriously.  Lakes and rivers had massive fish die-offs.  Scientists eventually traced the cause to the presence of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, strong acids when they combine with moisture, in the exhaust gas from coal-burning power plants.  The plumes from these plants became windborne and carried the acids many hundreds of miles from their sources.  The acidic moisture fell to the ground whenever it rained.  The acidity became so severe that forests could no longer tolerate it and died in vast swaths.  The same phenomenon occurred in Europe.

The solution to this malady lay in desulfurizing the exhaust gases of the offending power plants or fuel switching to low sulfur fuels.  The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposed limits on how much sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides could be emitted by the power plants.  The power companies objected vigorously to what they protested would be the great expense required to implement this remedy. 

As of 2014 EPA projected that acid emissions would fall between 54 and more than 70% from 2005 levels, with estimated health savings of $120 to $280 billion per year . The measures have been effective, as the acid rain problem has diminished significantly in recent years.
Depletion in the ozone content of the upper atmosphere.  Ozone, a molecule consisting of three oxygen atoms, forms by the action of sunlight on the more common oxygen molecule, consisting of two oxygen atoms.  Depletion of ozone over Antarctica was first detected in the 1980's, and grew worse each year during that region's summer.  Ozone is important because it screens out the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays, whereas the oxygen molecule does not.  Penetration of UV increases the occurrence of skin cancer and promotes cataracts in the eye lens.

Atmospheric scientists Mario Molina, F. Sherwood Rowland and Paul Crutzen showed that man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used in aerosol spray cans, air conditioners and refrigerators, can cause the loss of ozone when combined with the action of sunlight.  (They were awarded the Nobel Prize for this work in 1995.)  The scientists strongly recommended phasing out use of CFCs for refrigeration. 

Companies in the U. S. that made CFC's, such as DuPont and Pennwalt; chemical manufacturers in Europe; and makers of aerosol spray cans mounted intense public relations campaigns questioning the science connecting CFCs with ozone loss.  They warned of massive economic loss if they were required to halt production.  Major constraints on CFC use came with the Montreal Protocol, an agreement under the United Nations (U. N.) in 1987, which U. S. President Ronald Reagan agreed to.  It called for phasing out the use of CFCs.  By 2016, Susan Solomon (who had helped identify the problem at the time of Montreal Protocol) and coworkers reported the ozone extent over Antarctica is starting to increase, decades after the Protocol was agreed to.  They were able to link the increase to lower levels of ozone-depleting chemicals in the stratosphere.

Global warming. Ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution, economic progress and enhanced living standards have relied on the ready availability of energy sources, primarily fossil fuels.  Worldwide consumption of energy continues to increase, driven especially by policies promoting economic growth in the developing world.  As of 2010, providing energy to the world’s population accounted for about 8% of global economic activity, of which about US$4.4 trillion was for the fossil fuel share.  Yet scientists as long ago as the nineteenth century recognized that carbon dioxide (CO2), the combustion product obtained when fossil fuels are burned, is a greenhouse gas leading to global warming. 

In recent decades scientists from around the world have warned that the growing accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from human fuel use would have serious harmful effects on the earth’s living systems.  They have pointed out in a succession of reports, beginning in 1990, that the sooner we agree to limit fossil fuel use, the easier and more effective the abatement measures would be. 

In the United States, the economic power of the fossil fuel industry and the political power of naysayers have been directed against the predictions of harm from the scientific community.  Dr. James Hansen, a renowned climate scientist, had been warning of the effects of global warming for many years.  His concerns were suppressed by the administration of President George W. Bush, made possible since Hansen, employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was a government employee (James Hansen, “Storms of my Grandchildren”, Bloomsbury, 2009).  Fossil fuel interests have mounted an ongoing campaign to plant seeds of doubt among the public concerning man-made global warming (Naomi Oreskes and Erik. M. Conway, “Merchants of Doubt”, Bloomsbury Press, 2010).  U. S. Senator James Inhofe has published the book “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Controversy Threatens Your Future” (WND Books, 2012).  Scientists at Exxon Mobil in the 1970’s and 1980’s published research addressing the global warming issue.  At the time they recognized “Exxon's … ethical credo on honesty and integrity."  Yet by the late 1990’s, when the U. N.-sponsored Kyoto Protocol to limit further warming was being negotiated, the company reversed its policy and sought to raise doubts about the scientific basis of man-made global warming.

The growth of the United States, and its westward expansion, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a reflection of the optimistic, “can-do” spirit that pervaded the country in those periods.  Much of this growth depended on exploitation of new scientific, engineering and technological advances by enterprises in both the private and public realms.   

In more recent times as technology has expanded, however, unforeseen harmful effects of byproducts from the use of these technologies have become apparent.  The cases described above are examples of how commercial and political interests coalesced to refuse to accept scientific realities and to reject the remedies required.  Acid rain arose from the trace levels of sulfur present in coal and oil, while the heat of combustion converted the nitrogen of the air into acidic nitrogen oxides.  Depletion of stratospheric ozone is due to the diffusion to the stratosphere of trace amounts of man-made refrigerants.  The industries in question, electric power generation and chemical manufacturers, opposed implementing the changes needed to address the problems even in the face of compelling scientific evidence.  In the end the technological fixes for these two effects were not excessive, and remedies were put in place.

Refusal to accept the scientific validity of man-made global warming is the most profound example of the “won’t change” mentality that replaced the “can-do” attitude of American growth.  Because of the fundamental importance of the global energy industry in the world’s economy, the actions of this sector have major effects on our planet’s environmental wellbeing.  Exxon Mobil’s internal research, for example, set out the compelling need for energy companies to modify their activities and limit production of fossil fuels.  Yet by the time that the Kyoto Protocol was issued in 1997, Exxon Mobil changed its policy to one of creating doubt.  In general the world’s fossil fuel companies opposed changing their operations.  Political forces also resisted change.  Whereas Europe and most of the developed countries ratified the Protocol, the U. S. never did.  Canada and Australia, which initially agreed on policies to limit CO2 emissions, later changed course and withdrew from the Protocol. 

In the U. S. the “can-do” mindset that inspired its early expansion and economic growth has, in the cases examined here, been replaced by a “won’t change” operating principle.  This is especially important for our planet’s wellbeing, in the global warming case.  Producing carbon-based fuels comprises an important part of the world’s gross economic product, resulting in emission of massive amounts of CO2, a greenhouse gas. 

The world’s energy demand will continue to grow as economies develop and populations increase.  The U. N.-sponsored Paris Agreement of December 2015 recognizes the absolute necessity for worldwide change in energy production.

The present situation calls for the world’s fossil fuel companies to develop new business models. Fulfilling the growing worldwide demand for energy means that there is profit to be made in this industry.  That demand must be provided, however, by technologies that do not emit CO2.  We have to change to an energy economy that emits near-zero carbon in order to minimize further warming.  New technologies will have to be developed.  The energy industry has to abandon its fossil fuel-driven business model, and create the vast infrastructure for provision of energy from renewable sources. It has to give up its present “won’t change” mindset and adopt again a “can-do” attitude.
© 2016 Henry Auer

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