The story of climate change ranges from drilling holes in Arctic ice to measure Earth’s air temperatures over the past million years, bracing for the jump in the use of fossil fuels as China and India industrialize and predicting which coastal cities will be submerged due to global warming.
But mostly, climate change is the story of energy—where we get it, how we use it and whether it’s renewable, said Seth B. Darling, Ph.D., who holds a joint appointment as a scientist with the Argonne National Laboratory and as a Fellow in the Institute of Molecular Engineering at University of Chicago. He presented a “Global Climate Change: The Path to a Sustainable Future” lecture April 20 at the Lisle campus to mark Earth Week, and NLU Environmental Committee representatives also led discussions of his points at the Wheeling campus.
Darling is the solar energy leader at Argonne National Labs and is working on development of organic solar cells. He recently coauthored the book “How to Change Minds about our Changing Climate,” and has appeared on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight.”
“Every year we use more energy worldwide than the year before,” he said, with global consumption today at 18 terawatts, up from 10 terawatts in 1960. Because of development in Asia and Africa, it’s predicted to hit 30 terawatts by 2050.
Coal, oil and natural gas provide most of today’s energy, because these fossil fuels appear to be cheap, Darling said.
“But I want to convince you we are paying more than we realize–not to Com Ed, but there are many hidden costs,” he argued. He cited Chicago children’s absences from school due to asthma as one of those many hidden costs, both in human health and in dollars needed to pay for their healthcare.
He noted other costs, including:
- Climate disruption. With glaciers melting, fresh water sources for millions of people are endangered.
- Ocean acidification. Since the carbon dioxide we emit into the air soaks into the oceans and makes them more acidic, it’s killing off some sea life, including shellfish and coral.
- Extreme weather. While major storms like Katrina and Sandy have occurred throughout history, expect more going forward, Darling said. Because droughts and floods are increasing, farmers are stymied in growing food, which pushes food costs higher.
- Sea level rise. It’s rising both because melting ice produces more water, but also because hotter temperatures cause oceans to expand, Darling said.
- Global security. Droughts, lack of food and water and rising sea levels cause people to scramble for resources, precipitating conflict.
- Health risks. Warmer temperatures allow vector-borne diseases, such as zika, ebola, malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and others to flourish.
“So what can we do?” Darling asked. “I have a 13 year old son. What about when he’s middle aged, in 2050?”
Currently, the world’s nations derive the vast majority of the energy they use from fossil fuels, with wind energy, hydro power, geothermal energy and others providing only fractional amounts.
As more nations industrialize and the need for energy grows, Darling said it’s likely they would use even more fossil fuel than they use today, with the risk of driving up temperatures even further.
He suggested the answer lies in solar energy. Even though energy is lost in converting solar power to electricity, and even though there are a limited number of places in the world to locate solar panels, the sun could still provide an abundant 67 terawatts of energy, he said.
Today’s technology is limited, with solar panels requiring an investment of energy to manufacture. He called for additional research and development to refine them, and then a ramp-up to produce and use them on a massive scale.
Darling also argued for cap and trade agreements, such as those the world’s nations agreed to at the Paris climate change conference in December, to increase energy efficiency.
“Solar has to be a huge piece of the solution going forward,” he concluded.