The war against climate change: have we done enough?

by | May 24, 2016

Opinion: We can’t have a clean-energy revolution without molecules, polymers and materials. But what have we really done to help win the war against climate change?


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What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true? Noble Laureate Sherwood Rowland 1995. The vessel of evidence-based science isn’t just “half-full”. It’s overflowing now! Todd Siler Art-Scientist 2016. Artwork courtesy of Todd Siler and Geoffrey Ozin,

The chemistry research community is largely responsible for inventing many key molecules, polymers and materials, which are and can be deployed in technologies that will enable the transition of our civilization from non-renewable to renewable forms of energy.

Indeed, we all should be very proud of these practical scientific and technological innovations that will most definitely shape the future of renewable energy systems when fully implemented. The question remains: What is our research community doing collaboratively to ensure that these essential innovations are actually implemented as we originally envisioned?

Given the fact that the public, news media and governments rely on our expertise, know-how and applied imagination to curtail climate change quickly and sensibly, I’m wondering whether we have been too passive on guiding everyone on what needs to be done immediately and the implications if governments fail to act quickly. I believe we can do much more to make our collective voices heard, and to hasten change by fast-tracking the mobilization of the public, media and governments about the urgency of this crucial transition from a non-renewable to a renewable energy economy.

We know that if global warming, induced by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, reaches its tipping point, with less than two degrees considered to be a safe limit, it can induce sudden local alterations in the sea ice, oceans, snow cover, terrestrial biosphere and permafrost. In the case of the latter, a local temperature change in the Arctic or Antarctica could cause melting of the ice caps and concomitant release of trillions of tons of methane trapped as ice clathrates. This methane greenhouse gas effect has a good chance of causing the collapse of our entire ecosystem and totally devastating our civilization. But we seem to be content just to go on doing our research while watching it happen.

We remain largely quiet while climate scientists work to inform and mobilize the public, news media and governments about the urgency of fast-tracking the transition from a non-renewable to a renewable energy economy. One could argue that the chemistry research community needs to educate and inform the climate scientists better about the wonderful chemistry solutions to climate change they have developed so that the climate scientists can inform and mobilize governments and businesses better and get them to act faster by implementing our solutions in renewable energy systems.

We often say in the introductions and conclusions of our papers that our work is motivated by our desire to help win the battle against climate change. But too often we do little more than publish the results of our research in scientific journals – leaving up to others the equally important task of actually fighting the climate change war by ensuring these results are implemented in renewable energy systems.

We know that climate science and economics provide the foundation for climate change regulation, legislatio
n and policy. Nonetheless, we are the ones that create the chemistry that will enable the transition from fossil energy to clean energy. I believe we can do more to make our collective voices heard, and to hasten change.

Every paper I read in the bourgeoning field of advanced energy molecules, polymers and materials, devices and processes, pays lip-service to greenhouse gas induced climate change. We all claim the raison d’être for our research is to help solve the climate crisis, but truthfully, what real actions are we taking as a research community to advance the speed of the transition from the dirty-energy to the clean-energy solutions we have envisioned, modeled, verified and stand behind scientifically?

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Are we all clear about this “certainty”? Are we all willing to bet on our survival? Artwork courtesy of Todd Siler and Geoffrey Ozin,

Duty calls us all to be proactive as world citizens. We must now work together synergistically to meet the most challenging and urgent goal of all, doing everything in our power to help halt global warming through socio-economic and political means. However, there does not seem to be a concerted attempt to do this on a worldwide basis. It is very piecemeal and uncoordinated. There should be say a 5 year plan of action and experts in lobbying or public relations should be involved to assist in this process. One needs a leader who is prepared to devote most of his or her time to ensuring the message is got across. In addition to education I think the chemistry research community needs to study why its developments are not coming to fruition as quickly as they would like – where is the bottleneck and what actions have been most successful in bringing new developments to the attention of the public. I think a pilot plant project using the new developments is worth a thousand words. Something like the pilot plant that transforms CO2/H2 to diesel fuel, sponsored by VW/Audi in Germany seems to have gained lots of publicity. The talents of the chemistry research community may be better deployed in this direction rather than as lobbyists. The question is how does one persuade investors/governments to put up the money for these developments – maybe a tax on each barrel of fossil fuel? The problem at the moment is that no one is going to back these new technologies because the price of oil is low and the price of gas and liquefied natural gas is even lower. The price of the latter in Asia has fallen to almost 20% of what it was 2 years ago and the price is not expected to improve until the next decade. In Europe prices have fallen by a third and in America they have halved.

Despite all of these challenges, I am excited by the growing momentum to curb climate change, particularly in light of the recommendations and agreements that have emerged from the United Nations conference in Paris. I am encouraged by the commitments of all of the dominant fossil economies to get their greenhouse gas emissions in order. I am amazed at the amount and rate at which solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and hydroelectric electricity is being created and impressed by how the parallel growing capacity to store this renewable electricity in batteries is being deployed.

Now is the time to show how ‘game-changing’ chemistry has the potential to drive this energy revolution. It’s not enough to entrust government lobby groups to do our work for us. We can show the impact of our work through world-wide outreach, high school and public education projects and by demonstrating the practicality of our innovations by demonstration units and pilot plants. But this can only happen with the ongoing support of the public, news media, industry and governments. It’s a commitment to our collective future we all must make, to make it real.

The key to informed social activism and involvement is to tap every possible public medium in highlighting how these accomplishments, born in chemistry, will enable the transition from non-renewable to renewable forms of energy. These science communications must be highly visible and accessible to the public. Otherwise these pivotal contributions by the news corps will remain slow and sluggish, rather than fast-tracking our civilization to a sustainable future.

We should be much more visible in publicising the myriad of exquisite materials which are playing a major role in many emerging advanced energy technologies. The physical dimensions of these materials are often smaller than the wavelength of light, electrons, holes or excitons. As a result the beneficial effects of quantum confinement on electrical, optical, thermal and mechanical properties emerge and are now put to good work in the fabrication of photovoltaic, fuel cell, lithium ion battery, supercapacitor, piezoelectric and thermoelectric energy devices. The small size and high surface area of these materials are also exploited to advantage in water splitting and carbon dioxide utilization systems. At these tiny scales, enhancing the absorption, diffusion and scattering lengths and strengths of photons, electrons, holes and ions which contribute to energy generation, storage and transport processes, are of paramount importance in the design and discovery of efficient energy materials and their implementation in energy devices.

We urgently need to highlight these technological innovations through every possible public medium – showing how these accomplishments can facilitate the transition from non-renewables to renewables. Highly visible communication of these pivotal contributions through the media and arts will help fast-track our civilization to a sustainable future. Demonstration units and pilot plants will certainly help to capture the imagination of the public, government and industry.

Perhaps, the most difficult obstacle or challenge the public struggles to embrace is the reality of perception: We look outside our windows and see a beautiful spring day, or we walk in open fields under fresh blue summer skies, and can hardly believe there’s anything wrong with our atmosphere that needs immediate care. A problem however, is that the current state of the world economy has come at completely the wrong time for the transition from a non-renewable to a renewable energy economy. If we had a high price for fossil fuels this would encourage investment in the technologies that are being developed by the chemistry research community. It is difficult to find investors or governments prepared to invest in these technologies in the present financial climate. Plus of course you have the sceptics who in some cases are in sufficiently powerful positions to make it difficult for agreement to be reached by governments to fast-track the transition to a renewable energy economy.

Little wonder why public surveys and polls reveal a growing skepticism and criticism of “alarmists”, and a general distrust in even the most reliable data we’ve gathered and shared to date. There’s a natural disconnect between the “reality of our perceptions and our perceptions of reality”. This disconnection produces what the legendary English chemist and physicist, Michael Faraday, called “mental inertia”. As Faraday reminds us to this day: “Nature, our kindest friend and best critic in experimental science, if we only allow her intimations to fall unbiased on our minds”.

I would like to end this article with a few philosophical points beginning with the Herculean task of solving the greenhouse gas climate change crisis that our civilization has to confront in order to ensure our survival.

Recall Einstein knew best when he said: “If at first an idea is not absurd, there’s no hope for it”, and Bob Noyce, co-inventor of the microchip and co-founder of Intel Corporation said: “Optimism is an essential ingredient for innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?”.

Our whole world needs to embrace that same optimism and sense of hope. That’s what will enable us to survive the next 100 years and beyond – by realizing the power of human ingenuity. We’ve already invented the viable science and technology solutions to ensure a sustainable future. Now we need everyone’s help implementing them, including ourselves, the “discoverers and inventors” of the chemistry that can be purposed to this end.

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We have no Hercules, or Herculean men and women, to shoulder the Earth and protect its wellbeing. We only have ourselves to help ourselves. That fact fills the core of this reality! We only have human ingenuity to rely on to tap our full creative potential in unprecedented ways. Artwork courtesy of Todd Siler and Geoffrey Ozin,

Those of us who passionately toil away in the chemistry trenches daily and who have generously contributed to climate change solutions, must now join the work of world-wide activists who are determined to make a difference. Common sense and rationality have jolted even the most practical-minded among us into action. There is no more time to delay and debate to death the urgency of climate change. Our chemistry solutions cannot be implemented without us all working together to make them real, and effective. By choosing to work together, collaboratively and synergistically, we can meet this most urgent global challenge: climate change!

There is no “Atlas” or “Hercules” shouldering the burden of Earth to ensure our survival! We only have ourselves to rely on, doing everything in our power, to fulfill the potential of our climate saving chemical inventions and technological innovations. They work! But they require everyone to do the work, too!

As a chemistry research community, we have created some of the most important tools for fighting climate change, and we have a responsibility to see to it that those tools are put to good use. How would you suggest we do this? What “simple”, yet specific, goal would you recommend that our community do as a concerted effort to catalyze change? What Call to Action would be significant enough to gain everyone’s attention and support?

No matter how believable the “envisionists” at Marvel Comics make their most benevolent Action Heroes succeed at doing the impossible, we only have us mortals – nothing more, nothing less – to do what must be done by all of us without further delay.


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