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Local View: Doing nothing about climate change the most expensive option

David Gerhart of Duluth has a doctorate in aquatic ecology from Cornell University and has published and reviewed manuscripts for scientific journals in the fields of ecology and biochemistry.

A human-caused crisis threatened many of Earth's plant and animal species. The problem was in the atmosphere. The effects could only be seen at the poles. The first scientists who brought this crisis to the world's attention were ridiculed, even though their charts, satellite data, and future projections were convincing. Industries mounted a massive disinformation campaign. The culprit chemicals were used in hundreds of applications. Politicians were skeptical or unbelieving.

I'm referring to the ozone hole.

We had a few advantages back then. More people believed in science. Politicians were willing to work together on non-partisan issues. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a trained chemist. And U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz had the ear of President Ronald Reagan who loved the outdoors. The resulting 1987 Montreal Protocol, now signed by 197 countries, remains a landmark international agreement. The ozone layer is recovering.

Now we face a similar situation. The latest research shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are the highest they have been since 3 million years ago when the oceans were about 65 feet higher. Polar ice is melting. The costs of coping with sea level rise and severe weather will only increase. But still we hesitate.

Nevertheless, scientists and engineers are working on many potential strategies to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases. Each topic mentioned below could fill a book with new research findings. Actually adopting them will require political will and funding.

  • Carbon pricing. More than 40 countries or governments already are taxing fossil fuels or have cap-and-trade policies.
  • Individual action. Energy conservation and sustainable diet choices by individuals may require substantial economic incentives.
  • Retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. Energy consumption by buildings accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of U.S. energy use.
  • Alternative energy. Solar and wind are cheap but have long-term environmental issues with sourcing critical components. New nuclear technologies are a viable option for base-load power. More efficient ways to produce hydrogen are being explored.
  • Limiting greenhouse gas leaks. Sources of methane leakage must be drastically curtailed.
  • Energy storage technologies. New types of batteries and innovative mechanical means of storing energy show promise.
  • Soil management. We must protect peatlands that store vast amounts of carbon as well as soil microbe diversity to keep our air and water clean.
  • Agriculture. Storing more carbon can involve the use of cover crops, multi-cropping that incorporates shade-tolerant species, and mixing crop residues into soil. Grazing livestock must be rotated frequently to new pastures to keep vegetation healthy.
  • Forestry. Tree plantations are much less effective at storing carbon than natural forests that have hundreds of species. Young forests are effective at removing carbon from the air. Mature forests store large amounts of carbon. In the absence of natural fires, selective logging can help maintain biodiversity.
  • Fisheries and aquaculture. Effective management is essential to combat the effects of warmer and more acidic oceans on food fish and aquaculture. Coastal wetlands are effective carbon sinks and must be preserved and restored.
  • Carbon capture. Examples include electro-catalytic carbon capture from emissions, injecting carbon dioxide deep underground, and direct air capture.
  • Transportation. Progress is being made in bringing battery power and hybrid engines to trucks and buses.
  • Planetary engineering. Researchers are even studying physical methods to increase the reflectivity of arctic ice, thereby limiting heat absorption. Aerosols could be injected into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, mimicking volcanic eruptions. The potential side effects of these interventions are troubling.
  • Converting carbon dioxide to fuel. Research in this field is preliminary.

Tackling climate change will be expensive and disrupting for everyone. We will need many different approaches to help our children and grandchildren prosper. There is only one certainty: Doing nothing now will be the most expensive option and will cause the most harm and disruption.

Incidentally, in 1995, the scientists who found and explained the ozone hole won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

David Gerhart of Duluth has a doctorate in aquatic ecology from Cornell University and has published and reviewed manuscripts for scientific journals in the fields of ecology and biochemistry. This commentary was reviewed and edited by Byron Steinman, a climatologist and assistant professor at the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth, before it was submitted to and edited by the News Tribune.