The Climate-Change Café

Yesterday, I went to an ACS-hosted Science Café at the Marian Koshland Science Museum. The theme of the night was Climate Change, a perfect topic to celebrate the day marking the fifth anniversary of the museum's opening. Andy Jorgensen, on loan from the University of Toledo for a stint at the National Council for Science & the Environment, presented a quick yet complete 45-minute overview of climate change, which is no small feat! The 40 or 50 audience members ranged from local(ish) high school students in Washington for the National Ocean Sciences Bowl to climate policy enthusiasts to economists, all with various levels of knowledge about climate change. Peru & China’s CO2 EmissionsJorgensen, clearly enjoying giving his engaging talk, dove into the audience-participation section of the evening, volunteering students from the audience to represent Peru and China. The average person on Earth, according to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change relayed by Jorgensen, is responsible for 4 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, through use of vehicles, buildings, food choices, manufacturing of consumer products, you name it. The student on the right is holding up four fingers, to represent the population in China, a country whose people each, on average, emit 4 tons of CO2 per year. The student on the left represents Peru, whose populace only accounts for 1 ton of carbon dioxide per person per year. The U.S.? 20 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year.  That's the equivalent weight of about four adult African elephants, or 1,225,116,904 elephants, just for the U.S. (Only about 2/5 of that number of African elephants exists in the world, however.) Can you imagine all those elephants hovering in the air over the U.S.?  That's a whole heck of a lot of elephants waiting to plummet back down to Earth! How Many Elephants Does It Take…Accounting for the increase in elephants... Er, accounting for the increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the decades, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has spiked from about 270 ppm in the early 1900s to 385 ppm in 2008. With predictions of the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the range of 525 ppm (if we work hard to reduce CO2 output) to 975 ppm (business as usual) at the end of this century (and corresponding temperature increases of anywhere from 2 degrees Fahrenheit to almost 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and corresponding rises in sea levels), it's no wonder alternative energy and carbon sequestration are all the rage nowadays. After the interactive bits, Jorgensen asked 10 questions to engage the audience in how we as individuals and as a society could impact the ever-climbing levels of greenhouse gases. Here are just a few select questions that I'm curious how C&ENtral Science readers will answer.
1.  Should there be a carbon tax or perhaps a cap and trade? 2.  Should we try geoengineering (e.g. injecting particles into the atmosphere)? 3.  Are you willing to change your eating habits?
Photos: Jorgensen & students taken by me; Elephant credited to Barcroft Media via the Interweb.

Author: Kenneth Moore

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  1. 1.No

  2. 1. Yes, I like the idea of a cap and trade, but seems very difficult to apply, specially for individuals.
    2. No! don’t put out stuff doesn’t belong to our atmosphere. We don’t want to regret it 50 years later.
    3. No way.

    It’s interesting to know I emitted aprox 25 tons of CO2 before coming to the US. Wait! so, Did I emit 60 tons of CO2 in the last three years??! can’t believe it!

  3. 1: Absolutely. A pollution tax is basic economic theory in action. The only thing left to do is haggle about the best price.

    2: It should be studied further but not be a first option, unless someone comes up with a scheme that has far more up-sides and far fewer downsides than those currently proposed. For most of the existing ideas, the cures are nearly as bad as the disease.

    3: I already have. If you won’t do it for energy’s sake, or wildlife’s sake, do it for water’s sake. Did you know that the water used to produce a pound of burger is roughly similar to every shower you will take all year? If you skip a couple of burgers each year, you can take long, hot showers guilt free (if you buy green energy, of course).

  4. AAAARGH! A textbook lesson on how to impress and influence ignorant readers and listeners by throwing around big numbers.

    “20 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year. That’s the equivalent weight of about four adult African elephants.”

    So?? Why not say this? “The CO2 output of a typical human is 20 tons, but that’s in an atmosphere of 5 quadrillion metric tons, so it’s an infinitesimally small amount. Besides, much of the CO2 exhaled by animals is consumed by plants, which convert it into organic molecules like cellulose and sugar through the photosynthetic process.”

    You could, but then you couldn’t frighten small children into believing this nonsense, could you?