Episode 2: What’s THAT got to do with climate change?

Jane: So we are getting together to discuss the surprising variety of human activities that influence climate change. In our first podcast, we talked about the consequences of climate change and now we are going to talk about causes and mitigation.

But let’s begin with a quick recap of our previous podcast titled “It’s Not Just About Feeling the Heat.” In that podcast, we addressed the question that some people ask, “What’s so bad about getting a little warmer?”

Maria: Yes; and we said that the point is that climate change isn’t just a matter of getting warmer. We’re already seeing extreme weather events of all kinds more frequently than in the past. For example, there are now more frequent droughts and wildfires in the western US. We’re seeing more frequent and more ferocious hurricanes in the Caribbean and south Atlantic. And numerous places throughout the world have experienced both droughts and dangerous flooding more commonly than ever before. Asia has been particularly hard hit with floods in many locations. These awful natural disasters threaten to make millions of people homeless worldwide.

Jane: Despite these serious issues, I’ve read that some people are a little cavalier about solving the climate change problem because they think we can always find technology solutions. I can understand this outlook because when you think about it, human beings have overcome so many obstacles throughout history.

Maria. Here is the problem with that. You hear all this stuff in the media about how we have to keep the warming below 2 degrees centigrade. It’s not because climate change will stop happening once we warm up by 2 degrees. It’s just the opposite. Scientists fear that once we get to about that threshold, there might be a snowball effect and we may not be ablr to adapt, and certainly not without enormous cost.

Even if everybody stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted would stick around and continue to warm the planet for multiple generations. That means we can expect more disasters in the future, and that’s not even to mention the damage to our ecology and loss of farmland.

Jane: Since we haven’t stopped burning fossil fuels yet, let’s talk about what might be feasible that would help–even if it doesn’t solve the problem completely.

Maria: I’ve been doing a lot of reading to try and understand what solutions scientists are considering. They have known about and observed climate change since the 1950s. So, enough time has passed that some of our research has started bearing fruit.

Jane: So tell me!! I’m more than ready for some good news!! What are some of things the human race can do to reduce this problem?

Maria: Of course we can figure out how to save energy and use more renewable fuels like wind and solar. We can save energy by driving less. And we can plant more trees. These are the first priorities. Everybody’s already heard enough about that. And now we want to expand on this by talking about some measures you may not have heard much about yet.

Jane: Go ahead. Tell me about some of them.

Maria: Well, for one, a couple of start-up companies are making new plant-based substitutes for beef that look and taste more like beef than old style veggie burgers.

Jane: Gee—i saw that on a restaurant menu the other day.

Maria: Good; i’m glad to hear they’re started to succeed in selling this substitute beef! And besides that, researchers are even trying to grow real beef muscle in a lab. This is using cell biology to grow something instead of extracting protein from plants. To the extent that these new ideas take off, they would eliminate a whole lot of greenhouse gases.

Jane: This astonishes me. Do you actually mean that you could put together chemicals in a laboratory that would create a compound that is identical to beef that we get from a cow?

Maria: It not exactly chemicals. It’s more like making beef biologically. Instead of raising a whole cow, we hope to manufacture just the muscle tissue that we like to eat. No one has yet succeeded in doing this. But they’re working hard at it.

Jane: What’s the connection between substituting factory beef muscle and reducing greenhouse gases?

Maria: It’s awkward to say but it’s really just two words: cow burp.

Jane: You are kidding me!

Maria: I am not kidding. In our last podcast we mentioned that methane causes even more global warming than carbon dioxide. And cows burp a lot of methane. That is what happens naturally when cows eat and digest grass.

Anyway, if we all switched away from conventional beef and started eating these new products, we’d have less need for cows and this would make a real dent in climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced. And by the way, this new form of beef might reduce our personal cholesterol levels, too.

Jane: Would this be a problem for people employed in the cattle industry?

Maria: That’s an understatement. It sure would. Any adjustments in our lifestyle will have financial winners and losers. In fact, believe it or not, in the US, the cattle industry has already started lobbying the Department of Agriculture to restrict the definition of beef in order to exclude these new products.

Jane: The new products must taste really good if they are that concerned! OK, Maria. Besides eating less red meat, what other possibilities have you got to mitigate climate change?

Maria: Here’s something hopeful. Philanthropists have invested $40 million into researching how to extend the shelf life of fruits and veggies. While I think the intent was to improve nutrition, the project would also help mitigate climate change.

Jane: Wait a minute. I’m confused. What does the shelf life of food have to do with climate change?

Maria: Avoiding food waste would result in significant energy savings. Let me explain. First consider the consumer’s experience. Whenever you take some food at room temperature and put it in the refrigerator, energy is required to cool it down. And if the food is eventually thrown away, that energy to cool it was wasted.

Jane: Why? The refrigerator was already cool anyway.

Maria: Well, let’s say you cooked some food and there are left overs. You let it cool off in the kitchen until it is at room temperature, about 70 degrees. Then you put it in the refrigerator which is still a full 30 degrees colder. The food then warms up the air in the refrigerator. A lot of energy is used in getting the refrigerator temperature back to what it should be and cooling that food down from 70 to 40 degrees. So, there’s a lot of energy embedded in bringing food to the table.

Jane: It never occurred to me that i was wasting energy when i throw out leftovers. That’s remarkable.

Maria: That’s the point: if food is wasted, energy is wasted. So preserving the shelf life of food can mitigate climate change.

Jane: Wow. I never thought of it that way!

Maria: And that’s just the consumer end of things. Energy is consumed in growing the food; energy is used to transport the food on a refrigerated truck. Energy is used in cooking food. And finally, of course, energy is wasted if you refrigerate the food at home and then wind up throwing it away.

Jane: So let me see if i understand. Lengthening shelf life so there is less waste, saves energy all the way down the line. The less we have to grow, transport and prepare, the less the impact on the environment. So, it’s like this is a kind of “life cycle of food.”

Maria: That’s not a bad way to think of it. But I would call it the energy cycle of food preparation. In the context of climate change, I like that better.

Jane: Let’s get back to the shelf life research. Have there been research advancements in extending the shelf life of foods?

Maria: Yes there has. In some supermarkets, we are now using a coating on avocados to make them last longer.

Jane: Great. I love guacamole. But seriously, I can see that extending the shelf life of fruits and vegetables would be very helpful to all of us, in addition to mitigating climate change.

It’s really encouraging to hear that all of this vital work is going on. I wouldn’t have made the connection between longer lasting food and climate change. Keep going Maria. Are there any other climate change mitigation technologies that you can tell us about?

Maria: Sure. There are some scientists in Switzerland and Canada researching something called “direct air capture.” The idea is to develop equipment that takes carbon dioxide out of the air. CO2 is the biggest contributor to climate change by total volume because it is produced whenever anyone burns anything for energy—-which we all do. For example, everyone’s furnace burns some type of fuel to generate heat, and cooking is energy intensive as well. Even if your appliances are all electric, frequently fuel is burned to create electricity. I say “frequently” because sometimes electricity is generated through nuclear or hydroelectric-power rather than by burning fuel.

Jane: So is this the point? We all cause CO2 to be emitted in our everyday lives. So I can certainly understand that extracting it from the air would really help.

Maria: That’s right; scientists are trying to capture this CO2 somehow.

Jane: And of course, I assume they need to do it without consuming too much energy right? Otherwise there would be no point.

Maria: Right. And if they succeed in this extraction, remember we have to do something with this CO2. It has to go somewhere! So some engineers are trying to see: If we bury it underground, will it stay there? An alternate fate for this concentrated CO2 is piping it into greenhouses where plants just love that gas.

Jane: So how far along is this direct air capture technology?

Maria: The technical feasibility has already been proven in the laboratory. Now engineers are building larger air capture equipment to see if it can be done cost-effectively as well.

Jane: So to recap, we’ve talked about 3 different topics: eating less meat, the energy life cycle of food, and direct air capture. What else have you got?

Maria: Well, there are some weird ideas floating around about geospatial engineering.

Jane: That’s a pretty impressive sounding term. What on earth is geospatial engineering?

Maria: From my point of view it is polluting the air to cool off the planet. There are really contentious discussions going on among scientists about whether we should even consider doing this.

Jane: What do you mean when you say polluting the air? Is something literally being added to the air?
Maria: There are several options for geospatial engineering. The one I hear most about involves putting fine particles or dust into the upper atmosphere. These particles reflect the sun’s rays away from us, which cools off the earth.

Jane: That’s a very interesting concept. Will it work? And isn’t it a bad idea to intentionally pollute the air when that can harm our lungs?

Maria: It sure is. Extensive research proves it’s also bad for our hearts! But we are not sure if it will harm us because the particles would be placed so high up in the atmosphere.

In any case, let’s put aside the health concerns and get back to the question of whether geospatial engineering will cool the planet. Watching the outcome of volcanoes erupting gives us some idea about what happens when we put fine particles in the air.

Jane: I had heard that some time in recorded history, a great volcanic eruption darkened the skies and resulted in cooler temperatures. The blackened skies happened because sunlight wasn’t getting through. And as you would expect, plants of all kinds died too, resulting in a famine.

Maria: That’s right Jane. Lots of people recorded the darkened skies and the famine. But no one connected these things to a volcanic eruption until modern times.

Jane: So, I get that erupting volcanoes create air pollution. And I also understand that the history of volcanoes suggests that geospatial engineering could cool the planet. Besides volcanoes, is there any other data we have that can help us understand the efficacy of geospatial engineering?

Maria: Yes. Burning high sulfur coal is another example.

Jane: But what is high sulfur coal and how is it used?

Maria: Coal is a fossil fuel burned in many parts of the world to generate electricity and heat. Some coal is naturally contaminated with a high sulfur content. The burning of coal converts the sulfur to sulfur compounds which are released as air pollution. These air pollution particles in turn cool the planet by reflecting the sun’s rays away from the Earth. That’s how the burning of coal is analogous to geospatial engineering.

Interestingly, burning this coal initially confused scientists when they were trying to understand climate change in the 20th century. When the Industrial Revolution started, the burning of coal initiated global warming because it generates carbon dioxide. Scientists did not know that the sulfur pollutants in the air emissions served to reduce this warming by reflecting the sun’s rays away from the Earth. So, the climate didn’t warm as much as scientists expected when they looked back at climate data from the Industrial Revolution.

I think that this created confusion which may be part of the reason some folks didn’t believe the climate was changing. In other words, burning high sulfur coal put both carbon dioxide and sulfur particles in the air. The CO2 caused some global warming and the sulfur compounds mitigated it by cooling. And THAT is what created so much confusion in the beginning about whether the globe was really warming.

There’s another chapter to the story of burning high sulfur coal that may be relevant to whether we attempt geospatial engineering. The sulfur compounds created by burning coal are acidic. And there was an unintended side effect. When it rains or snows, the drops of precipitation absorb these acidic particles. They then fall to Earth: we call this acid rain. So, burning high sulfur coal creates acid rain.

Jane: Acid Rain! Who would want that!

Maria: I agree. Acid rain harms life on earth–for example, killing fish in our rivers. It’s a very unwelcome side effect of burning high sulfur coal. We went on to burn high sulfur coal for a very long time before anyone noticed the impact on our rivers and forests.

And who knows if something similar or analogous could happen with geospatial engineering?

So here is the thing: Based on our experience with volcanoes and with burning high sulfur coal, we know that particles in the air could cool off the Earth. This suggests that geospatial engineering could work. But as we’ve seen, polluting the air can have unforeseen side effects. And that’s why geospatial engineering is so controversial in the scientific community, and we haven’t tried it yet.

Jane: OK Maria, can you share one last idea with us? I would love to hear something optimistic about reducing climate change.
Maria: Sure. There has been some recent research that shows we may be able to increase battery storage capacity by ten to forty percent by adding silicon to batteries. And silicon is cheap – it’s found in sand.

Jane: I need some help here. What’s the connection between climate change and batteries?

Maria: If batteries become cheaper and last longer, it’s not merely more convenient. It also makes solar and wind power a lot more effective. That’s because the battery is storing energy when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

Jane: Very nice. I hope somebody starts building these better batteries soon. Any last thoughts before we sign off?

Maria: Always.

None of the technological fixes we talked about today are widely commercially available yet. We don’t know if any of them will be cost-effective. Even if all of them work, we still have a pretty big warming problem. So there’s no substitute for trying to use less fossil fuel whenever we can. That amounts to an ounce of prevention, because the cure is tough.