Can technology save us from global warming?by Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
One of the challenges in convincing people to go "green" is that Americans are used to the idea that technology can swoop in and fix any problems we create. In that spirit, Richard Branson, the flamboyant CEO of the Virgin Group, just offered a $25 million prize to the person who invents a way to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it away. Wouldn't that be nice? No need for the rest of us to change any part of our unsustainable lifestyles. Is technology our hope or mostly hype?
St. Paul, Minn. — History is filled with examples of how people and technology can solve environmental problems once we get around to it.
Four decades ago the environmental crisis was acid rain threatening the world's forests and lakes. And "speed of light" doesn't quite describe how we responded to that threat.
As early as 1850 the British government knew the soft coal being burned in the country emitted smoke that created sulfuric and nitric acid carried to earth by rainfall.
It took more than a hundred years, l968, before scientists sounded the alarm that acid rain was waging what amounted to chemical warfare on forests and lakes.
Ten years after that, l978, University of Minnesota ecologist Eville Gorham and other scientists handed President Jimmy Carter a plan to solve the problem. "We could fix it by reducing sulfur emissions largely, and that's gone fairly well," he says.
Well enough, in fact, that acid rain, while still an issue, is much less of a threat.
The 81 year old Gorham is retired now. He's a tall, courtly native of Canada.
He acknowledges that technology and human intervention have helped avert other environmental crisis. The growth of the world's burgeoning population is slowing, the chemicals creating the ozone hole have been largely outlawed and there's progress in cleaning up polluted lands and waters.
So, you might guess Gorham would be an optimist when it comes to solving global warming, but he's not.
He says climate is different from those other crises. Why? Because it isn't due to just one thing. It involves all of the earth's ecosystems. And Gorham says we don't know how all the pieces fit together.
What if, he says, the world's peat deposits - vast beds of decayed plant matter - were to dry out from global warming and catch fire? "We get those forest fires on the peatland forests sinking into the peat which can smolder and dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for decades.
Eville Gorham fears the problem is too big and people are too small-minded to solve it. "In my 81 years I have not seen an accompanying growth in wisdom and in what I might call loving kindness for the least fortunate among us, and I think our children are going to pay a terrible price for that," he says.
Not a happy outlook from one of the world's most eminent ecologists.
That's one side of the coin. The other side is Gorham's good friend and fellow University of Minnesota ecologist Clarence Lehman. Lehman says climate change is like earlier problems we've fixed just on a larger scale. "With known technology today there are 15 things any 7 of which if we do them now in a sustained effort for 50 years will hold carbon constant in the atmosphere. That buys 50 years."
Fifty years, Lehman says, to find new ideas and technology that will actually reduce carbon levels.
Until then, he says, we can apply what we already know - energy conserving technology for buildings, more fuel efficient vehicles, alternative energy including clean coal and, yes, nuclear power - used on a vast scale to stop the projected doubling of carbon dioxide emissions.
Lehman isn't alone in pinning his hopes on technology.
For 30 years physicist, energy consultant and author Amory Lovins has been preaching how we can not only wean ourselves from our reliance on the fossil fuels that create carbon dioxide, we can profit from the changeover.
Lovins' 4 steps include doubling our oil use efficiency, smarter use of natural gas, making lighter vehicles and a major domestic bio fuels program will put us on the path to fixing global warming and will make money for companies and investors at the same time.
The U of M's Clarence Lehman says the effort will take political will. "For the very short term things legislatures must act, for the longer term things the public must act. For the really long term things," Lehman says, "the only thing that matters is the young people."
Lehman says the more advanced technology to solve global warming will come from today's kids.
And there's no shortage of ideas from the younger generation including 5th and 6th graders at the Susan Lindgren Intermediate School in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park.
Some of the their ideas are, well, imaginative - colonizing other planets if things go badly here, or building a dike-like wall around countries to hold back rising oceans as glaciers and ice caps melt.
And these kids get real practical,too, as they share ideas from essays they've written. One suggests using only 2 sheets of paper towels when wiping our hands. Another says use more earth insulation around buildings. Still another says her family of five could save twenty five minutes worth of hot water if each would shorten their twenty minute showers by five minutes.
For these young people it's not about waiting for technology alone to fix the world they will inherit. They assume that we have to change, too. And perhaps that is the lesson. Global warming, if it can be solved, will take science, creativity and personal responsibility.
- All Things Considered, 02/15/2007, 4:15 p.m.