Earth & Environment

August 25, 2023: Is There a Catch to Combating Climate Change?

Posted on January 09, 2024 at 12:00 AM

By Jean Stewart, Chair, Earth & Environment Task Force

The biggest news stories in June were about the increasing outbreaks of huge and intense wildfires linked to climate change. In July and August, the biggest environmental news stories moved to dangerous heat waves, especially in the US Southwest, countries bordering the Mediterranean, and in Asia, especially China and the Indian subcontinent. The wildfires have continued and spread, exacerbated by the extremes of these heat waves that dry out soil and vegetation. The news stories emphasize the health hazards of heat, pointing out that extreme heat causes more deaths and serious illnesses than floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. In some US cities, people are getting serious burns from falling on hot pavement.

So, we are defending ourselves with air conditioning and electric fans, driving up the use of electricity at a time when we are trying to conserve energy to reduce the effects of climate change. While there is increasing use of clean, renewable sources of energy (wind, solar), and some electricity still generated by other non-carbon sources, like dams and atomic reactors, most power plants in Western countries and in rising economies, like India and China, are still operating on fossil fuels: coal (decreasing in the US, but not in Asia), and the fuel being most heavily promoted by the fossil fuel industry, so-called natural gas (mostly methane, a powerful greenhouse gas). Resilience and adaptation this summer to the hottest temperatures ever recorded is of necessity requiring much greater production of electricity, the majority of which is produced by burning the very fuels driving the climate crisis. It sounds like a catch-22, where we protect ourselves by adding more carbon to the environment, further accelerating the dangerous changes in weather patterns across the globe.

How can we start breaking this vicious cycle? One hopeful sign comes, strangely, from Texas. Texas is one of the states experiencing the huge heat dome bringing record-setting hot temperatures across the southwestern states. Texas is also a state where most of the leading politicians promote fossil fuels and speak against renewables. However, in a recent column in The Washington Post,1 opinion writer Catherine Rampell notes that: “[T]his summer, like last summer, there have been miraculously no rolling blackouts…. [A]nd this summer, like last summer renewables have been the heroes of the story….” She goes on to report that Texas “has rapidly increased solar capacity… [by the end of May] to roughly six times the capacity that existed in 2019….” She notes that many fossil fuel and nuclear power plants in Texas suffered breakdowns in the extreme heat. But the increases in solar power “coupled with greater wind and storage development…have enabled Texas residents to keep the lights and the air conditioning on during this hellish heat…,” but have also spared them spikes in their power bills.

Texas gives powerful evidence in favor of moving as fast as possible to electricity from wind, solar, and other clean sources. Getting our necessary electricity from sources that do not produce greenhouse gasses is one major way of breaking the vicious cycle of extreme heat adding to our carbon production and further accelerating the climate crisis.

Other adaptive strategies on smaller scales also need to be expanded. Some cities—all urban areas tend to be heat islands—are looking to products like light-colored surfaces applied to roads, other asphalt spaces, and roofs. Phoenix is experimenting with these limited but promising technologies, as well as promoting natural adaptations such as installing roof gardens on buildings, planting more trees, and expanding green areas in the hottest parts of the city. A recent report from Singapore shows how this very dense and vertical city is using new agricultural techniques to grow plants up the sides of tall buildings as well as on rooftops. Singaporeans are also growing crops in small plots between buildings, adding to the city’s green cover.

It is encouraging to see the growth in the popularity of electric vehicles (EVs), which of course reduces dependence on carbon-based fuels. However, an expanded infrastructure to support EVs, especially widely available charging stations, is needed before most people will make the switch from gasoline and hybrid vehicles. There is another environmental catch to EVs, though: the batteries that power them use metals: lithium, cobalt, and nickel. These components are now mined, a process that is environmentally damaging, and that exposes miners—sometimes including children—to toxins used in processing. Research into better battery technologies is taking place, but is still far from producing the kinds of results that can be used widely to power 100% clean vehicles. Research and experimentation must be accelerated on all these fronts to combat the climate crisis looming over us all.

1. Catherine Rampell, “Renewables are Saving Texas. Again,” The Washington Post, July 5, 2023.

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