The Greenhouse Effect and the Economy – What Can Be Done?

By Karl W. Böer, PH.D.

An iceberg at the edge of the baffin bay’s sea ice. Like many arctic regions, baffin bay has been subjected to many complex and competing effects of climate change in recent years. Photo credit: Technical Sergeant Dan Rea, U.S. Air Force
An iceberg at the edge of the baffin bay’s sea ice. Like many arctic regions, baffin bay has been subjected to many complex and competing effects of climate change in recent years. Photo credit: Technical Sergeant Dan Rea, U.S. Air Force

The effects of increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are already influencing the lives of Americans, and determining which effects are most critical requires careful analysis. Let’s take a look at two of these effects and then discuss the steps necessary to counter them.

Extreme Weather Events

Extreme weather is the greenhouse effect most directly influencing our lives, with higher temperatures in spring and summer; more droughts in some areas, sometimes resulting in catastrophic fires; torrential rains in other areas, sometimes resulting in catastrophic flooding; increasing winds and much more powerful hurricanes; and, in the winter, much longer cold spells with lower, subfreezing temperatures and increased snowfall. These weather events have become more extreme from year to year. Because of the increase in weather-related property damage, insurance policies often do not cover the costs and the government must step in to assist.

There is insufficient information for citizens to understand the urgency of responding to increasingly extreme weather events. This should be corrected!

Information should be straightforward and convincing, communicating all observations of extreme weather and explaining what science derives from the observations. Only then can we determine what needs to be done and in what sequence.

In the meantime, people and property should be protected from the damaging effects of weather extremes. Some strategies include:

  • Construct hurricane-proof buildings;
  • Build hurricane-proof shelters in homes and municipal buildings;
  • Eliminate flammable plantings close to buildings;
  • Make buildings more fire-resistant;
  • Replace windows in critical areas with shatter-proof windows;
  • Protect houses from flood water or move new buildings into flood-protected areas;
  • Protect streets from washout by nearby flooded areas; and
  • Protect lakes with flood-controlling dams and design flood-directing canals.

Rising Ocean Levels

A far-reaching greenhouse effect is the rise of ocean waters. Water levels vary as much as 10 inches around the world because of ocean currents and can change as currents change. Little can be done to prevent this phenomenon, but we can and should build walls to protect the most important shores and cities. This has been done in the Netherlands to protect the Low Countries from the waters of the North Sea. The United States has more resources and a much larger labor force, which can plan the design of such dams and develop a strategy to begin such an enormous project. Initial support monies can come from a general fund created for dams with donations from local industry and private donors. In New York City, this strategy has already taken root in Michael Bloomberg’s effort to start preparation for a wall protecting the city from future flooding catastrophes like the one caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Achieving meaningful dam construction requires cooperation among government, industry, and the private sector. When properly educated, different segments of society will come together and recognize that—with a concerted effort—the land’s assets can be successfully protected against the growing threat of rising sea levels.

Increasing Government Support

In order to align federal and local governments around the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as protecting people and property from the effects of climate change, we must become active solar citizens.

Polar Bear
A polar bear jumps in the fast ice near Spitsbergen Island, Svalbard, Norway. Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt, breed, and—in some cases—den, and have become an iconic symbol of a warming arctic. Photo credit: Arturo de Frias Marques

We must write to our newly elected local and federal officials and encourage them to carefully consider their votes related to climate change, support tax incentives for energy efficiency, and encourage deployment of alternative energy resources such as solar panels and wind generators. We must help educate all members of Congress to take these issues seriously and urge each one of them to vote responsibly. There is no more time for procrastination, political gamesmanship, or gridlock.

There must be a willingness to work across the aisle and make supporting the renewable energy industry a priority. There must be an understanding that long-term tax incentives are essential to attract investment for building and deploying solar and wind technologies in the near term. Barriers such as long-delayed permits and other bureaucratic hurdles must be removed, along with obstacles to upgrading the electricity grid as necessary to distribute the renewably-produced electricity to the centers of energy demand. Ideally, this cooperation would create an atmosphere of full participation by the federal and local government and would result in attractive economic instruments to encourage widespread participation of the financial sector in support of renewables.

Government organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, et al., should give priority to research and initial planning grants and contracts that support the renewable energy industry. In addition, there should be incentives for energy efficiency, tax incentives for purchasing electric or hybrid cars, and multi-year incentives for making homes more energy efficient and for using solar energy for space conditioning, water heating, and/or electricity generation.

Reducing CO2 Emissions

Burning fossil fuels over the last 150 years has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) from 200 to more than 430 parts per million (ppm). This is a much higher level than any measured in the last one million years. The CO2 concentration stayed between 100 and 220 ppm until about 60,000 years ago. Even when temperatures increased to tropical values during the subsequent 40,000 years, the CO2 content of the atmosphere never exceeded 280 ppm.

In light of this alarming comparison between today and prehistoric times, can anything be done to reduce the CO2 content? The science community has answered clearly. We can not reduce the CO2 content of our atmosphere more than the leaves of trees do in the summer.

This is not sufficient to counteract the immense release of CO2 into our atmosphere. Every year we emit more (9 ppm in 2012) than chlorophyll can remove in the summer (7 ppm in 2012). Although there are seasonal variations (decreases in summer, increases in winter), the overall trend is a steady increase in CO2 content. In the present economic reality, we can only hope to slow the rate of increase.

Capturing and liquefying CO2 as proposed by the coal industry is of little value because we do not know how to dispose of it. In addition, it is extremely expensive—one-third of the energy produced by the plant is used for liquefying. Pumping CO2 into the oceans would only increase ocean acidity, which has already risen by 30 percent in surface waters. Further acidification would put aquatic animal life in danger, and fish are a major food source. Disposing of liquid or frozen CO2 in deep caverns is also risky, because in time the pressure in these caverns could exceed the critical value for crack formation. We don’t want to repeat the disaster at Lake Nyos, Cameroon, in 1986 in which more than 1,700 people died from a catastrophic explosion of carbon dioxide that suddenly bubbled to the surface.

Renewables, the Economy, and the Environment—a Win-Win

The immense potential for investment, job creation, and retail market participation in the evolving renewable energy industry can only be described as a win/win for the economy and the environment. As the market for renewables grows, the fossil fuel industry will expand its operations into the new fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Eventually, the giants in the oil industry will become aggressive partners in the renewable energy field.

It is also likely that the electric power industry will develop new grid and electronic distribution systems to remain a strong partner in the field. For example, new large-scale electric energy-storage batteries are under development, such as those using iron (ferrous) sulfate (FeSO4) as electrodes for lithium-ion transfer. These electrodes are less expensive and can be charged and discharged in minutes rather than hours. Storage solutions like these are needed for load-leveling during the times when clouds obstruct the sun or the wind does not blow.

The conversation could end here, except that there are signs of hope. President Obama has taken tangible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as identifying the coal industry as a major CO2 emitter. He has also supported aggressive strategies to require increased energy efficiency and to promote the renewable energy industry.

In the absence of legislation, the president can use the Clean Air Act to curb CO2 emissions. The president can take this first step because Robert Nordhaus, a prominent Washington energy lawyer, wrote the part of the Clean Air Act of 1970 that became Section III(d). It was intended to regulate pollutants such as smog and mercury, but it also included wording allowing regulation of “other yet unknown pollutants.” Nordhaus’ brother William, a Yale economist, suggested that a carbon tax (cap and trade act) could provide the initial financial support! Fear of negative economic impacts, however, elicited strong action against such a tax. William calculated the numbers—every ton of emitted CO2 will cost our economy $20 to $30. If this cost is offset by an equal amount of tax, it could stimulate renewable energy installations. The tax could be phased in to help finance the growth of the solar industry and to take the first steps to design and build barriers to storm waters in low-lying areas.

The recent agreements between the United States and China are encouraging signals. Both countries recognize the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions aggressively and the Chinese agree to accelerated deployment of renewable energy through solar, wind, and other means to supply a significant fraction of their huge energy demand.

Do you see the little light at the end of the tunnel? It may only be a flashlight, but we need to replenish its batteries. Let’s plant more trees, prevent forest fires, save energy, and—of course—support renewable energy technologies.

Karl W. Böer, Ph.D., is America’s leading solar pioneer and semi-conductor research scientist. Using cadmium-sulfide solar cells he produced, engineered, and constructed the first all-solar house in 1973 at the University of Delaware, where he founded the Institute for Energy Conversion. He is also a founder of ASES. The first Karl Böer solar energy award was presented to President Jimmy Carter.