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Opinion

Earth Day 2021: Passing On a Cleaner World

The writer holds physics M.S. and B.S. degrees from Georgia Tech and DePaul University and is the author of A Tale of Two Climates: One Real, One Imaginary.

We need to focus on combatting pollution in meaningful ways that are right in front of us instead of getting lost in debate that often just produces gridlock. And Earth Day is the perfect time to start working together for solutions

A woman with an umbrella walks in the rain in a field. To the left is a rainbow. The UN says a new bond with nature is the goal of UN’s annual Mother Earth Day celebrations on April 22. Credit: World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

MIDWAY, Utah USA, Apr 21 2021 (IPS) - Preserving the beauty and wonder of our natural world for future generations should certainly be a goal everyone can get behind. While progress is often stymied by polarizing debates, clean air and water should be a priority for everyone.

We all want to pass on a clean and healthy world, But the science is confusing to the average person, and it can be easy to get lost in the details. Meanwhile, instead of focusing on the fruit closest to the ground we waste our energy trying to convince “the other side” to see things our way.

What we need is to focus on combatting pollution in meaningful ways that are right in front of us instead of getting lost in debate that often just produces gridlock. And Earth Day, coming up on April 22, is the perfect time to start working together for solutions.

Small, incremental changes can get us moving toward bigger changes in the future. People will start seeing the benefits right away. These little victories can generate some real momentum and get people excited about working toward a cleaner world.

With that in mind, here are nine ways to fight pollution that we can all get behind. These ideas could pack a big punch in our quest for clean air, land, and water.

1. Focus our efforts on pollution mitigation. All too often we get caught up on reducing carbon emissions in the abstract, and it can distract from other more meaningful ways to fight air pollution. Plus, getting rid of CO2 won’t help one iota to reduce toxic pollutants such as smoke, dust, soot, carbon monoxide (CO), ammonium nitrates, and sulfur and nitrogen oxides.

2. Manage forests better to minimize wildfires and resultant smoke (PM2.5) pollution. This includes carefully controlled burns, well managed logging operations, and preemptive thinning and removal of underbrush that fuel wildfires. This is a wise step, since trees usually leave the forest in only two ways—lumber or smoke!

3. Place more emphasis on walking trails, biking trails, car-pooling, and public transportation in order to reduce vehicle pollutant emissions wherever possible, affordable, and realistic.

4. Insist that policy decisions be based on thorough life-cycle (aka cradle-to-grave) cost-benefit analyses. This will help in making wise decisions about what to do, and how to spend, our nation’s precious money. We must resist the tendency to narrowly focus just on dazzling technologies without assessing their upfront environmental impacts such as mining and toxicity of materials or end-of-life disposal problems.

5. Build more dams and reservoirs, especially in drought and fire prone areas. Find ways to trap seasonal floodwater for drought mitigation and hydroelectric power. Hydropower has been around for a long time and is perfectly clean but widely underused. Its gravity-based advantage comes from rainfall being retained by dams/reservoirs, and later released to a lower level to turn a turbine that generates electricity.

There are far-ranging possibilities, here. We should build more dams/reservoirs to capture and utilize the potential energy of rainwater, rather than let water simply wash away into the oceans, unused. For example, the last dam built in California with a reservoir capacity exceeding one million acre-feet was in 1979.

6. Build more firebreak and logging roads. These roads improve accessibility to fire prone areas and gives give us greater ability to inspect remote power lines (a frequent source of wildfires).

7. Fight poverty. While it might seem counterintuitive, poverty is a major driver of pollution. When people are struggling just to get by, they can’t focus on their impact on the environment. As a result, they tend to ignore more environmentally friendly alternatives in favor of whatever is convenient.

For example, burning dung and wood for heat releases far more pollutants compared to more modern fuel sources, but this practice persists in less developed parts of the world. If we invest in raising the standard of living all around the world, then we can help guide these populations towards more sustainable long-term practices, while also greatly improving their day to day lives.

8. Continue to fund life-cycle research and development of flexible, reliable, and continuous sources of clean energy, such as advanced modular nuclear reactors and the geothermal fracking process. Advanced reactors offer many advantages, such as perfectly clean energy, relatively small physical footprints, as well as reduced capital investment, the ability to be sited in locations not possible for larger nuclear plants, and provisions for incremental power additions. Most importantly, they also offer distinct safeguards, security, and nonproliferation advantages.

Geothermal energy has been around for a long time, but its availability is spotty and its cost expensive—until now. Hydraulic geothermal fracking is an up-and-coming, perfectly clean energy revolution, and is a boundless source, as long as the Earth keeps spinning about its axis.

9. Last, but certainly not least: Keep learning and having productive civil conversations. Teach our children the scientific method, logic, and history. These skills are fundamental to accurate information gathering, critical thinking, and understanding truth, and will help inform the next generation of scientists and activists.

Further, we must learn to have productive conversations about keeping our air and water clean. We can’t afford for this to be a politicized topic and digging in to one side or another prevents us from finding the best solutions. We have to listen to each other and be willing to change our minds if we learn something new. Without real communication we’re not brainstorming—we are just storming.

The good news is, more people than ever are recognizing the need to preserve the Earth’s resources. One of the unintended consequences of COVID-19 has been the rise in people getting outdoors and enjoying our world—and seeing firsthand the importance of protecting it.

Another encouraging factor is that young people today love spending time in the great outdoors and being active in nature with friends and family. For example, millennials are bringing back camping. Meanwhile, Generation Z cares deeply about protecting our environment. Our young people will help lead the charge in finding more solutions in the future, as they are smart and incredibly resourceful. I can certainly relate to their passion.

As a young radar meteorologist with the U.S. Navy Weather Research Facility, I flew with the famous Hurricane Hunters into the eye of storms. This experience awakened my fascination with weather and sparked my lifelong commitment to preserving the environment. I am excited to see how our younger generations will make a positive impact.

The natural beauty of our planet is incredible. My hope is that everyone will gain and enjoy a greater understanding of how we can work together to preserve this natural beauty for ourselves and future generations. Earth Day is a great time to begin this conversation.

*Bill Pekny’s academic credentials include graduate study in physical meteorology and numerical analysis at Florida State University and the University of Utah. He is also a visiting scholar appointment at the Ginzton Laboratory of Applied Physics at Stanford University.

About the Book:
A Tale of Two Climates: One Real, One Imaginary (Two Climates LLC, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-73493-960-6, $34.59) is available from major online booksellers.

 


  
 
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