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June 1, 2008

Halting the Hand Basket

Poweringplanet_2 Okay, so the environment is going to hell in a hand basket (see “Are We Doomed?” below). But is there anything we can do to change the basket’s direction? That’s what seven scientists and environmental activists got together to discuss yesterday evening before a high-energy audience at New York University.

Scientists have known for decades that the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere is warming the planet, said science writer Andrew Revkin, the moderator. So why is it taking us so long to stop it? After all, we quickly passed legislation banning chlorofluorocarbons after scientists--including panelist Sherwood Rowland, a chemist at the University of California, Irvine, who won a Nobel Prize for the work--showed the connection between the chemicals and the hole in the atmospheric ozone layer.

Rowland pointed out that while chlorofluorocarbons were used mainly in affluent countries, the whole world burns CO2-producing fossil fuels (or would, if it could afford them). And carbon dioxide, added inventor Saul Griffith of Makani Power, “lives a very long time in the atmosphere. You can stop putting CO2 in the atmosphere, you can shut off the tap, but it’s very hard to make the existing CO2 go away.”

“Let’s not be paralyzed by the idea that we can conserve our way out of this problem,” said physicist David Keith of the University of Calgary. “We need to break the link between energy and carbon dioxide.”

Technologies already exist to do that, harnessing the sun’s energy and store it, as plants do when they break down water into hydrogen and oxygen, said chemist Dan Nocera of MIT. “These aren’t technologies that are around the corner, but they can be game changers really quickly.” They’re just not cheap enough yet to compete with fossil fuels. “The whole game here is cheap, cheap, cheap, not whether we can do it.” What’s needed, he said, is funding and research.

Plant physiologist M. Glenn Kertz of Valcent Products, Inc. talked about his work with green algae--or, as he prefers to call it, rock snot. Liquid fossil fuels started out as algae; he wants to skip the fossilization step and go straight from algae to fuel.

But how to get from the lab to the wide world? Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and activist Betsy Taylor of the environmentalist group 1sky, talked policy. “We’re underinvested in research, underinvested in developing the talent. We need to start with this presidential cycle to get these issues addressed,” Jackson said.  Taylor agreed. “We have to use the power of votes and the power of science. Will we really get involved and take back our democracy? That’s what we have to do, and we have to do it fast,” she said.

“This is not about elite scientists telling you what needs doing--we’ve done that for decades,” Keith said. “This is about you guys, deciding we need change.”

--Polly Shulman