The Green New Deal has brought Climate Change back into the news with lots of debate over whether or not we will make significant changes to combat the challenge we face. There’s a simple reason to believe we can:
We already did it before.
When I was in high school in the sixties we were required to take gym several times a week, and at the end of the class, we were also required to take showers. Since a shower would (we hope) wash off any deodorant or antiperspirant we had used that morning, a lot of kids would then pull out a spray can of Right Guard and spray a level of protection back on. The locker room would normally smell more like Right Guard than a locker room, and that was probably a good thing.
Aerosol seemed like the perfect modern delivery system. A can was loaded up with both a propellant and something that the propellant would deliver, and when the spray nozzle on the top was pressed a combination of the two would come out as a mist. The earliest successful use appears to have been bug spray used to fight mosquitos during World War II. Right Guard was developed in the early 1960s and rapidly replaced Ban roll-ons and similar deodorants and antiperspirants. Other companies released similar aerosol products to compete, and by the early seventies over 80% of the market was dominated by aerosol sprays.
Then came the bad news.
The most-frequently used propellant were Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals made from carbon, chlorine, and fluorine that didn’t interact with much of anything and therefore seemed totally safe to use. The aerosol spray would deliver its active content, and the CFCs would simply drift away into the atmosphere. And float up and up and up until it came to rest in the ozone layer. Ozone is a naturally occurring version of oxygen that groups together three oxygen molecules instead of two and does an excellent job of blocking solar radiation/ultraviolet light that would otherwise cause harm to all living creatures (humans would suffer a lot more skin cancer if that radiation were to start reaching ground level). In 1974, American scientists claimed that while the ozone layer was stable, chlorine gas could act as a catalyst and one molecule of chlorine could destroy nearly 100,000 molecules of ozone.
I was convinced enough by the initial studies that I switched from using spray cans to roll-ons (and, later on, stick antiperspirants). I even got a phone call survey about the situation and surprised the survey host when I volunteered my change in buying habits even before they got to that question. I’m pretty sure that call was from one of the companies that were investigating public knowledge and opinions on the ozone layer problem.
By 1976 there was overwhelming evidence that CFCs would break down into component parts once they reached the ozone layer of the atmosphere, and the ozone layer was being destroyed. It turns out that Right Guard literally threatened our lives!
The evidence was strong enough that in 1978 the US, Canada, and Norway banned the use of CFCs in aerosols even though other European nations refused to follow suit. CFCs continued to be used for air conditioners since it was assumed that freon (a brand name for a CFC compound) was not normally released into the atmosphere.
The polar regions normally had the thickest areas of ozone, but in 1985 an actual hole in the ozone layer was discovered over Antarctica. This was enough evidence to prompt more severe action, and in 1987 the Montreal Protocol was passed and signed by every single country. Replacement chemical compounds were used that would not deplete the ozone layer, and in another 30 years or so the ozone layer will have recovered to pre-aerosol levels.
So why are we facing such strong resistance to the Kyoto Protocol that was drafted to fight a similar problem with greenhouse gases and climate change? Several reasons show the differences:
- Global Warming wasn’t a good name for the challenge we face. Climate Change may be more accurate, especially since many people just shrug if you threaten them with temperature changes of only a few degrees.
- Correlation is not the same as cause and effect. With CFCs, we had a clear definition of the chemical reaction and measurement that proved it was happening. Climate change is a lot more difficult to define and prove, especially since the weather is affected by a lot more than just greenhouse gases.
- Early predictions of impending doom turned out to be incorrect. While slight increases in temperatures have occurred, no coastal cities were flooded out of existence by the year 2000.
- CFCs were replaced with other compounds without a major difference in cost. No such easy replacement of carbon-based energy sources exist (yet).
- The economic impact of trying to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions is especially brutal for developing countries.
Perhaps we need a program as massive as the Space Program to solve the problem we face now, but the Green New Deal doesn’t appear to provide a blueprint for getting there. Instead of looking to a focus on a scientific approach to finding affordable alternatives to the use of carbon-based fuels, it proposes:
- We turn back the clock and undo President Eisenhower’s choice and replace our interstates with trains. And we start riding bikes and walking to work.
- Cows are the major source of methane gas, so beef and maybe even milk have to go.
- ALL buildings and houses need to be rebuilt to be more energy efficient.
- We need to replace gasoline-powered cars with electric cars (just ignore that the electricity is often created by burning coal).
- We need to generate all our electricity using renewable sources in spite of physical limitations that make that impossible unless we radically reduce our energy usage.
While the goals of the Green New Deal may be admirable, they don’t appear to be either practical or affordable. What would help is significantly cheaper solar power or working seawater fusion (a much better name for it than nuclear fusion). We have a limited amount of fossil fuels, and it would be best to find a way past them before they are gone.
In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt if we all planted a lot more trees and ate more turkey and chicken and fish. And walked more.
Nuclear power has always been controversial. Nuclear fission turned out to not be as safe or cheap as we were promised, and the problems of disposal of nuclear waste and the use of nuclear by-products to produce dangerous weapons still pose threats. In 1979 the No Nukes concert was held to focus protest against it. The keystone song from the concert was probably Power. The large amount of power currently produced by nuclear fission makes it even more difficult to switch to renewable energy sources.