Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The new pollutant

I was going to do a follow-up on the cold fusion thing (more to follow though on that one, particularly after something I read in Chronicle of Higher Ed), but the Supreme Court decision on carbon dioxide struck me as very interesting and perhaps represents a turning point in this country's response to GW (the warming variety rather than the current occupant). One of our experiments touches on carbon dioxide (CO2) among other exhaust gases, and I have always commented when students have referred to it as a "pollutant." Until now the EPA does not number it among the gases to be regulated, for when the Clean Air Act came into being over 30 years ago, the whole business of GW was in its infancy. In fact, a certain environmental activist by the name of Paul Erlich made money flogging a book that made dire predictions about global cooling and the approaching catastrophe. Little wonder that many are skeptical about the doomsday pronouncements of the environmentalists. It is perhaps a semantic thing but it is difficult to describe CO2 as a pollutant. After all, traditional pollutants are chemicals that have no positive value at any level in the environment. CO2, on the other hand, is a vital link in the chain of life; it is a reactant in photosynthesis; the greenhouse effect is essential for maintenance of life on earth. GW is a manifestation of the extreme sensitivity of the greenhouse effect: too little and we would have life on Mars (or rather no life); too much and there would be Venus; earth is just right - but just a few ppm more and it becomes less hospitable.

There again, is GW necessarily all bad? The anticipated catastrophe of the aforementioned global cooling presumed that there were no positives that might offset the negatives. Now with GW, the same scene is playing out: all the outcomes will be bad, so we are told passionately, almost hysterically. Does this imply that the global conditions prevailing in about 1970 were absolutely optimum for the planet and that climatic change in either direction was undesirable? This strikes me as highly unlikely; what was so special about 1970 that indicates that climatic conditions were perfect? I don't wish to imply that we should not be earnestly seeking ways to reduce our carbon footprints in order to confront the looming consequences of fossil fuel consumption, but I suggest that the case could be made more effectively and more persuasively if the protagonists were more balanced and dispassionate.

While updating my notes on acid rain I had occasion to review the EPA's latest report on air quality and the effect that the Clean Air Act has had on airborne pollutants. While there is a tendency to view the environment from an unremittingly gloomy perspective, I suggest that the trends in air pollution represent a considerable triumph for environmental legislation. From the summary I read that since 1970, aggregate emissions of the six principal pollutants have been cut 48 percent. During that same time, U.S. gross domestic product increased 164 percent, energy consumption increased 42 percent, and vehicle miles traveled increased 155 percent. In other words, air quality has improved dramatically despite the large increase in the sources of those pollutants. More of course could be done, but I think it significant that acid rain is no longer center stage in our theatre of environmental concerns.

I suppose we shall have to wait and see exactly how the EPA responds to this decision by the Court. It undoubtedly represents the biggest challenge yet.

No comments: