My engineering-student grandson, Will, has been exposed to many of my writings on climate change. I have appreciated his feedback and particularly his observation that my view of climate change often focuses negatively on the problems, and not enough on the possibilities that the problems can be solved.
It is refreshing to have this outlook expressed by a young technical person that understands the issue. Most importantly, this is a voice from the generation that will feel impacts of climate change as no other generation that has ever lived, and is the generation that will solve the problem if it is ever to be solved.
Will has expressed to me that “climate change is always presented as one great problem, when in fact it is a series of interlinking issues” that we must dissect and examine individually. We have the ability to solve these problems and already have a record of success in stopping and reversing environmental damage.
Beginning in the 1950s, it was recognized that rainfall, particularly in the northeastern United States, was becoming more acidic. The phrase “acid rain” entered the popular vocabulary in 1972. At that time it was recognized that acidic rainfall was impacting wide areas of forests, as well as lakes and streams. Trees were losing their leaves, bark was damaged and growth was stunted. The timber became more susceptible to insect damage, disease and extreme weather.
Water bodies also were showing the impacts of acid rain. Certain fish species were in decline and some disappeared entirely. The entire aquatic food chain was modified by increasingly acid conditions.
The causes of acid rain were readily identified as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere, the result of combustion of fossil fuels. These elements reacted with water vapor to create acids that were then washed out of the air as rain.
Beginning with the Clean Air Act of 1970 and continuing with tighter restrictions on emissions through the 1980’s and 1990’s, government legislation and regulation systematically addressed the problem. Support for the measures was bipartisan in nature to an extent that seems hard to imagine in today’s legislative environment. The Environmental Protection Agency was effective in the regulatory process necessary to achieve the desired results.
Acid rain was recognized as a problem created by humans that could only be addressed by making major changes in the way we were utilizing fossil fuels. Sulfur dioxide emissions were reduced through a combination of capturing harmful pollutants in the smokestacks, changing the fuels being used, and utilizing a cap and trade system to let the marketplace help solve the problem. Nitrogen oxide emissions, largely from automobile exhaust, were reduced by the widespread use of catalytic converters on all vehicles.
Although the acid rain problem has not been totally eliminated, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions have been nearly cut in half from where we were in 1970. It seems simple. We recognized a problem, identified solutions, and took bi-partisan actions to make things better. This is an example of our governmental acting to avert what was becoming an environmental disaster.
Climate change, as we observe it today, is an order-of- magnitude larger problem than was acid rain. Some of the characteristics are similar. It is an anthropogenic problem resulting from combustion of fossil fuels. It is impacting the atmosphere and ultimately can create catastrophic consequences for all life on the planet.
As with acid rain, we need technical minds and political consensus to address climate change, identify solutions, and force changes in the way we live and power our society. This is a tall order. The emerging generation of engineers, economists, and political and social scientists will be sorely challenged to chart the way forward. Thankfully, there are optimists among them that see problems to be solved instead of a black abyss.