By Tamim Younos
Younos is Founder and President, Green Water-Infrastructure Academy and Former Research Professor of Water Resources at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg.
Human thinking and values have evolved over time – sometimes within generations. Evolving environmental values are mostly based on advances in science and technology. For example, as noted in the Op-Ed article “Coal Production: Panacea or Plague?” (The Roanoke Times, September 3, 2014), large-scale coal mining commenced during the 18th century Industrial Revolution and coal became the primary energy source for major industries such as steel production and electricity generation. The Industrial Revolution resulted in the emergence of high population urban centers and an agricultural sector which demanded more water and energy. As a result, uncontrolled volumes of contaminated domestic, industrial and agricultural wastes were discharged into environment which caused significant water, air and soil pollution. The environmental values of the 18th century were dictated by the 18th century state-of-knowledge and did not foresee unintended consequences on human health and ecosystem degradation which continued to the 20th century.
America was awakened to its environmental problems and its impacts in 1960s. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970. Major environmental laws such as The Clean Air Act (1970), The Clean Water Act (1972) and The Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) were enacted to protect human health and ecosystems. Environmental regulations are based on scientific state-of-knowledge and are often amended and upgraded (for example, drinking water standards) as new science-based information becomes available. During past 50 years, significant progress has been achieved in protecting the environment. However, in the 21st century, the emergence of climate change poses as a new challenge. Environmental problems noted above are clearly caused by human activities and problems are addressed in accordance to environmental regulations of the affected region and country. Climate change challenge is unique because it is triggered by human activities around the world and it affects the atmosphere with global impacts. The controversial nature of climate change noted below presents significant challenge for coping with climate change.
First, most scientists agree that climate change is occurring. However, the cause/or the extent of the cause of climate change that could be natural (solar effect) or man-made is not convincingly settled among climate scientists. Second, climate change studies include: (1) long-term observation, i.e., increasing global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, sea level rise attributed to warming ocean temperatures and ice melting; and (2) computer models which predict future trends on climate change consequences. There is significant scientific confidence in observed data which are based on advanced monitoring and analytical tools. However, there is less confidence in predictive climate models. Complex climate models predicting future consequences cannot be verified and there is contradictory research results regarding the accuracy of climate models.
Regardless of the controversial nature of climate change as noted, there is general agreement that climate change is already occurring. Therefore, there is need to consider ways to cope with climate change. First, it’s important to recognize that energy, economy and environment (3EEEs) are strongly intertwined; we cannot delink the 3EEEs, knowing that an effective strategy is only possible under a sound and healthy economic system based on rational thinking and logical solutions. Second, we should recognize that gas emissions are only partially responsible for the man-made component of climate change (for example, think worldwide deforestation). Third, we should recognize that curbing global gas emissions even to zero (which is not possible) may slow down global warming to some extent but it cannot reverse climate change to an ideal condition. Therefore, in the immediate future, adaptation to climate change should be our first line of defense. See Op-Ed article on climate change printed in the Roanoke Times on April 20, 2019.
Finally, the imminent death of the planet Earth, if we do not take drastic measures, is not a scientifically based statement. That is a wrong message which causes societal hopelessness and panic as evidenced by youth protests around the world. Our environmental values and message related to climate change mitigations should be based on proven science, practicality and American ingenuity. We should focus first at our local level activities and personal behavior. Wasting is the major culprit. Energy use efficiency and conservation practices in all aspects of our lives (energy, water, food and other) should be encouraged and promoted. Also, we should believe in human perseverance and not hopelessness.