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Science Wednesday: Science To Support Decision Making In A Changing Climate

2009 August 5

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

During my 22 year career at EPA, it’s been exciting to work on the environmental issue which has been called the “capstone issue for our generation”: climate change. Climate change affects every individual in every community around the world. The team I am a part of at EPA is working closely with communities around the country to shed light on how climate change affects the things they care about, and to find ways to respond and adapt to its impacts.

There’s nothing more rewarding than meeting the people who are benefitting from the science we’re doing. It’s one thing to work in a laboratory or office and explore strategies and develop tools to help local communities respond to climate change. It’s another thing to actually meet the people whose lives you are touching.

image of a house falling onto a beach near the water\'s edgeI first had that chance in 2007 when I traveled to Alaska and met people from several Native Alaskan villages such as Shishmaref, Newtok, and Kivalina. I listened to heart-wrenching stories about how they must soon evacuate their coastal villages because homes and infrastructure are being destroyed by rising sea levels, storm surges, and the melting of the permafrost upon which they sit. I was faced with the stark realities of a changing climate, not with some “plausible projection” from one of our climate impacts models.

When I first started working on climate change, people imagined it to be something that wouldn’t happen for another 50 to 100 years. We quickly came to understand that the climate is already changing. It’s changing more and more rapidly as a result of human activities. When we burn fossil fuels to power our automobiles and run our factories and heat our homes, we emit greenhouse gas pollution which contributes to global warming. And we’re already seeing the impacts of global warming on peoples’ lives.

My own appreciation for the critical importance of the work we’re doing in our Global Change Research Program at EPA rose dramatically during that visit to Alaska. We’re empowering people to protect their communities and the things they value by providing the scientific information that enables them to anticipate the effects of a changing climate, developing alternative strategies for them to adapt to change, and providing tools that can help them incorporate considerations of climate change into their day-to-day decisions. We are making a difference in people’s lives.

About the author: Dr. Joel Scheraga is the National Program Director for EPA’s Global Change Research Program in the Office of Research and Development. He has been with EPA since 1987. He is also the EPA Principal Representative to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates and integrates scientific research on climate and global change supported by the U.S. Government.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Frank Roberts permalink
    August 5, 2009

    Joel I am glad you had a chance to see the people and places your research impacts. I hope you and people like you can actually do something to help us understand our planet better and not destroy it. I recently visited a web site that your readers may find interesting. It is a free and very detailed site about solar power. The author walks you through step by step on how to build your own solar panel.

  2. Joel Scheraga permalink
    August 5, 2009

    Hi Frank,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. Our team in EPA’s Global Change Research Program are working very hard to partner with people all around the country to better understand our planet and how we can be good stewards of the environment.

    Thanks for sharing the interesting website about solar power. Each of us can take actions that will help protect the environment. The information you’ve shared is one example of the many opportunities that exist for all of us.

    Joel

  3. Jackenson Durand permalink
    August 5, 2009

    I was spending my time by making my auto-analytic on people behaviors.
    My philosophy brings to understand that disforestation and rural region would play a role important in human socio-behavior.
    The Global initiative for climate change will be very important for all society by changing human thought and brain recovery for medical care.
    People living in dense forest region are very creative in art specially.

  4. Joel Scheraga permalink
    August 5, 2009

    Hi Jackenson,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Behavioral changes are an important element of any effort to address the problems posed by climate change. The ways in which people behave can have a profound impact on greenhouse gas emissions (which contribute to climate change), and on the extent to which they are vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. Simple measures like using more energy efficient light bulbs and properly inflating automobile tires can reduce greenhouse gas emissions – while also reducing air pollution, increasing the nation’s energy independence, and saving money. Planting trees that shade and cool your home will also provide a “sink” for carbon dioxide, since trees absorb (“sequester”) carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere as they grow. Many other opportunities exist for people to change their behavior and become better environmental stewards.

    Our Global Program is trying to promote these behavioral changes by providing timely and useful information to the public about ways in which their behavior contributes to climate change, and the opportunities that exist to reduce (“mitigate”) greenhouse gas emissions to slow the rate of climate change. We’re also identifying ways that states and local communities can anticipate and adapt to a changing climate in order to reduce the risks it poses and protect human health and the environment.

    Joel

  5. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    August 6, 2009

    An important first step to begin dealing with climate change is the President’s new initiative to develop and support electric powered transportation. That should greatly reduce GHG emissions and greatly increase our energy independence from unstable parts of the world. Other important steps are being taken by the California EPA and the California Public Utilities Commission in support of the climate change legislation passed by the legislature and sined by the governor that will help to greatly reduce GHG emissions in the state through much cleaner utilities, transportation, and other things like the handling of waste from home to landfill or recycling center to ultimate elimination or reuse. Electricpowered transportation is the first step on the road to hydrogen power transportation. Electric power generation will still generate some GHG emissions but far less than we have now. Hydrogen power will generate pure water vapor for its emissions and manufacturing the hydrogen can be done using solar energy. Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Railroad will be using an all hydrogen power locomotive in its large Los Angeles Train Yard for switching duties. And the City of Sao Paulo, Brazil, is running its first all hydrogen powered city bus in its transit system–the first of four hydrogen busses and a factory to make the hydrogen for them. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  6. Joel Scheraga permalink
    August 6, 2009

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts about the importance of electric-powered transportation. As noted on the EPA’s Climate Change website (www.epa.gov/otaq/climate/index.htm), transportation sources accounted for approximately 29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2006, and is the fastest-growing source of U.S. greenhouse gases. It is therefore imperative that more energy-efficient and lower-polluting modes of transportation be developed and adopted.

    EPA is conducting research to develop clean automotive technologies to achieve ultra-low pollution emissions, increase fuel efficiency, and reduce greenhouse gases (http://www.epa.gov/otaq/technology/index.htm). EPA is also encouraging the commercialization of innovative technologies by actively pursuing the transfer of EPA’s technologies into the private sector.

    Thanks again for your informative note and for identifying several of the exciting initiatives underway in the United States and Brazil.

    Joel

  7. Debbie Sennett permalink
    September 9, 2009

    Dear Dr. Scheraga I feel the EPA needs to do more on Waste Management, Biochar , Automobile Manufacturing and Sustainable Energy.
    Waste management should include sorting waste materials. Some materials can be directly recycled and other materials can be detoxified. Most toxins can be removed from waste materials by simple chemical reactions and or filtration methods. Many of these toxins can also be recycled. With the use of sustainable energy the cost of purifying toxic materials which was previously cost benefit prohibitive is now possible. Waste management should be completely upgraded to include purification of waste to more environmentally friendly useful by products. Manufacturing companies should only be allowed to produce products which can be purified to nontoxic products or toxic products which can be recycled by waste management. The EPA should access products with regard to their environmental impact. A waste management site should include sorting facility, a place for directly recycled material, a solar wind tower or other sustainable energy source. It should also include a toxic chemical removal plant. The chemical removal plant should separate toxic materials which can be recycled from toxic material which cannot be recycled. Strict regulations should be placed on disposal and creation of toxic material which cannot be recycled. The goal of waste management should be to produce recyclable material and non toxic environmentally friendly material. This material could be sold to offset the cost of the purification process. We will run out of many natural resources we now take for granted in the future. Toxic and non toxic materials need to be reclaimed from our waste.
    Biochar a non toxic charcoal product which absorbs CO2 is produced by pyrolizing bio waste could be used to fertilize crops. Methane produced from this process can be used as a fuel and the BIOCHAR can greatly increase crop yields and remove substantial amounts of CO2 from the air. The EPA should support the creation of BIOCHAR through waste management and subsidize distribution to farms. Using BIOCHAR could reduce the amount of CO2 in the air and help reverse global warming. It could also reduce the amount of fertilizer necessary to produce crops. Using fertilizer is bad for the environment. When we run out of fertilizer BIOCHAR may be the only way farmers can continue to produce enough food to feed our growing population. Lack of food causes famine, plague and war. We ignore climate changes to our peril. We will never be able to completely control the climate volcanoes, tsunami, sun spots and other phenomena. However, we can have a more positive impact on our environment by learning from our mistakes. He who controls the climate controls the world. Less CO2 in the air would reduce global warming. Global warming causes the oceans to warm and release more CO2 into the atmosphere. Waste acidifies the oceans or decomposes in landfills producing methane. We are caught in a cycle. Improving the way we deal with our waste may be the best way to correct the problems we have created.
    Automobile manufactures produce new cars and trucks that have the same emission problems that they always had. Maybe a clunker is any car with a gasoline engine! Wish the government would come up with incentive programs that would stimulate the economy and have a more positive impact on the environment. Why haven’t the auto manufactures improved the mpg for these cars through the years? Why are hybrids unavailable and expensive? Wish the auto manufactures had incentives to produce more hybrids at non-hybrid prices. Dealerships are only allowed a few hybrids on their lot because they are not being manufactured. Think the auto manufactures have the technology to produce HYDROGEN cars. Why are these cars not being produced? Why can’t all of the old cars be retrofitted with hybrid or HYDROGEN engines? Without incentives we could all still be driving clunker cars with gasoline engines 20 years from now. The EPA should examine these issues and make recommendations about the cars we should be driving in the future. We must stop using gasoline powered cars!
    Hope in the future we will create electricity with sustainable energy. Sustainable energy would be solar, wind, H2O or geothermal. Which sustainable energy used should be the one best for the region in which the energy is being used. The solar wind towers maybe the best general technology to pursue? The EPA should study and make recommendations about the type of energy we should be using in the future. We should stop using crude oil and coal. Earth is an unusual and complex planet filled with living things. Mankind should try to understand its complexities so he doesn’t mess it up for himself and other living things. We should all try to take only photographs and leave only footprints. It seems if we do more than that we create problems.

  8. Joel Scheraga permalink
    September 10, 2009

    Dear Debbie,

    Thank you for your suggestions of ways that would help EPA and the nation protect human health and the environment. I want to assure you that EPA has active programs addressing many of the issues you’ve identified. I’d like to provide you with a few examples.

    You’ve highlighted the importance of waste management for protecting the environment. Nearly everything we do leaves behind some kind of waste. Households create ordinary garbage. Industrial and manufacturing processes create both solid waste and hazardous waste. Although we can do a lot to clean up pollution after it’s in the environment, preventing pollution in the first place is even better. We can do that by changing how we manufacture as well as how we behave: reduce how much we use, reuse what’s left when we’re done, and recycle what we can’t reuse.

    One of the ways EPA protects human health and the environment is by ensuring responsible national management of hazardous and nonhazardous waste. (EPA regulates all this waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.) Our goals are to (1) conserve energy and natural resources by reducing waste (e.g., through recycling and recovery); (2) prevent future waste disposal problems by enforcing regulations; and (3) clean up areas where waste may have spilled, leaked, or been improperly disposed.

    You can learn more about the work EPA does by visiting the Office of Solid Waste’s website: http://www.epa.gov/osw/

    You also commented on the opportunities that exist to advance EPA’s mission through the improvement of automobile efficiency. It is true that the most common “mobile sources” of air pollution are motor vehicles, but airplanes, ships, construction equipment and lawn mowers also produce significant amounts of pollutants. EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality (OTAQ) regulates air pollution from motor vehicles, engines, and the fuels used to operate them, and by encouraging travel choices that minimize emissions. These “mobile sources” include cars and light trucks, heavy trucks and buses, nonroad recreational vehicles (such as dirt bikes and snowmobiles), farm and construction machines, lawn and garden equipment, marine engines, aircraft, and locomotives. EPA provides mileage and emissions information for new cars, makes grants for the development of cleaner burning fuels and alternative energy sources, and educates consumers on the ways their actions can effect the environment.

    You can learn more about the work EPA does in this area by visiting OTAQ’s website: http://www.epa.gov/otaq/index.htm

    You suggested that EPA should make recommendations about the cars we should be driving in the future. EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide already provides individuals with a way to choose the cleanest and most fuel-efficient vehicles that meet their needs. Low emissions and good fuel economy are both important for the environment.

    For more information about EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide, check out the website at: http://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/Index.do

    Finally, you’ve commented on “sustainable energy.” One of the more notable EPA programs promoting the use of energy-efficient products and practices is ENERGY STAR. This is a joint program between EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that helps us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.

    EPA introduced ENERGY STAR in 1992 as a voluntary labeling program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Computers and monitors were the first labeled products. Through 1995, EPA expanded the label to additional office equipment products and residential heating and cooling equipment. In 1996, EPA partnered with DOE for particular product categories. The ENERGY STAR label is now on major appliances, office equipment, lighting, home electronics, and more. EPA has also extended the label to cover new homes and commercial and industrial buildings.

    Through its partnerships with more than 15,000 private and public sector organizations, ENERGY STAR delivers the technical information and tools that organizations and consumers need to choose energy-efficient solutions and best management practices. ENERGY STAR has successfully delivered energy and cost savings across the country, saving businesses, organizations, and consumers about $19 billion in 2008 alone. Over the past decade, ENERGY STAR has been a driving force behind the more widespread use of such technological innovations as efficient fluorescent lighting, power management systems for office equipment, and low standby energy use.

    You can learn more about the ENERGY STAR program at: http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=home.index

    Beyond the ENERGY STAR program, EPA aims to make “sustainability” the next level of environmental protection. The most widely quoted definition internationally is the “Brundtland definition” of the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development – that sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” EPA is working towards its sustainability goals by drawing on advances in science and technology, application of diverse government regulations and policies, and promoting green business practices.

    You can learn more about EPA’s Sustainability Program by visiting its website:
    http://www.epa.gov/Sustainability/index.htm

    Joel

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