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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July/August 2008

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Editors' Picks - July/August 2008

A Brighter Future for U.S. Energy Supply
K. Zweibel, J. Mason, and V. Fthenakis, “A Solar Grand Plan,” Scientific American 298, no. 1 (January 2008): 64–73

Yielding to growing concerns over climate change, U.S. political leaders frequently discuss and in some cases pledge actions to reduce the emission and accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that threaten to disrupt the global climate system. Climate scientists have responded to policymakers with an increasingly compelling case that actions taken to date are insufficient. This paradox of increased awareness but inadequate action reflects a dangerous strategy deficit.

In a recent Scientific American article, solar-power expert Ken Zweibel and colleagues make a welcome contribution to help fill this void, succinctly describing a proposal to dramatically transform U.S. energy supplies while protecting the environment, enhancing national security, and reducing the threats to the economy that disruptions in oil and gas supply now pose.

The authors’ “solar grand plan” would accelerate the development and deployment of solar technologies, compressed-air energy storage (which holds pressurized air from photovoltaic power plants that can be released to power energy turbines), and a new high-voltage direct-current power transmission system to replace today’s less efficient alternating-current power lines. According to their two-stage plan, solar plants would supply 69 percent of U.S. electricity and 35 percent of total energy demand by 2050. Implementation of the plan would also accelerate widespread conversion to plug-in hybrid vehicles, reducing dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions. And this is no pie-in-the-sky idea: with their initial estimates of benefits, costs, and environmental impacts, the authors make a convincing argument that their proposal is realistic.

The benefits of solar contributions to an urgently needed transformation of U.S. energy supply are indisputable. As the authors explain, the basic technologies are ready for initial deployment, and a robust research and development program would provide the innovations necessary to complete the transition from fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy in the twenty-first century. The challenge for U.S. political leaders is to avoid the traps set by narrowly focused constituencies, craft policy measures that stimulate energy technology innovation, and fund and sustain a robust research and development program that will make this critical transition to a renewable energy future as certain and cost-
effective as possible.

Robert C. Harriss
Houston Advanced Research Center
The Woodlands, TX

Making Climate News
M. T. Boykoff and J. M. Boykoff, “Climate Change and Journalistic Norms: A Case Study of US Mass-Media Coverage,” Geoforum 38, no. 6 (2007): 1190–04; and M. T. Boykoff, “Lost in Translation? United States Television News Coverage of Anthropogenic Climate Change, 1995—2004,” Climatic Change 86, nos. 1–2, (2008): 1–11

Twenty years have passed since NASA research center director James Hansen testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” Yet despite two decades of mounting evidence of climate change, its human causes, and expected dire effects, U.S. government action to slow climate change has been paltry at best. The scientific consensus is in, but the political will to deal with the problem is lacking.

In a number of articles, brothers Maxwell Boykoff, a research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, and Jules Boykoff, an assistant professor of politics at Pacific University, provide one explanation for why the American public has not yet demanded government do something about climate change: standard journalistic practice frames the global environmental change debate in ways that misrepresent the scientific consensus. As a result, newspapers and television news broadcasts, which the authors describe as “powerful vehicles for communication of climate science,” present a mistaken view of the issue.

In the Geoforum article, the Boykoffs use content analysis of major papers and network news from 1988 to 2004 to chart the ebb and flow of climate change coverage. They argue that media coverage, rather than gradually building and falling as an issue gains attention and is resolved, actually spikes repeatedly when climate events and actors feed into specific journalistic norms, such as personalizing stories, emphasizing novelty, and seeking “balance” by covering both sides of important issues. They further argue that this tends to distort reporting on climate science away from the consensus that anthropogenic climate change is real and calls for urgent action.

One of the most convincing and perhaps important of the arguments is that journalists tend to cover both sides of a complex issue rather than make an informed judgment that one side has been fundamentally discredited. The authors point to journalists’ continued attention to “climate contrarians,” resulting in so-called balanced coverage of “dueling scientists.”

In Climatic Change, Maxwell Boykoff continues the argument by demonstrating a statistically significant difference between the content of 1995–2004 network and cable news coverage of global climate change and the scientific consensus (based on a reading of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other synthetic literature) in favor of significant anthropogenic causes. Boykoff persuasively argues that the “balanced” reporting bias “has served to amplify a minority view that humans’ role in climate change is debated or negligent,” resulting in a misinformed public and unmotivated policymakers.

Taken together, the two articles present a good introduction to the history of news coverage on global climate change and a solid outline of current theories on how journalists create news at the intersection of science and policy. Although clearer documentation of how the authors quantified the concept of scientific consensus would be useful, the articles are a welcome analysis of missteps on the road from knowledge to action on anthropogenic climate change.

George E. Clark
Harvard College Library
Cambridge, MA

Biofuels and the Nitrogen Cycle: Warming or Cooling?
P. J. Crutzen, A. R. Mosier, K. A. Smith, and W. Winiwarter, “N2O Release from Agro-Biofuel Production Negates Global Warming Reduction by Replacing Fossil Fuels,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 8 (2008): 389–95

The increasing use of biofuels such as ethanol has come under recent scrutiny for its climate and environmental implications. Many critiques have noted that in full lifecycle analyses, some biofuels, particularly corn-based ethanol, provide little if any climate benefit over petroleum—and may even increase greenhouse gas emissions. One reason for such negligible benefits is the high level of energy inputs necessary for ethanol production. Another is that land clearing for biofuel crops can release a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere.

In a recent paper, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and colleagues focus on one of the common assumptions made in lifecycle analyses of biofuels—their effect on the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen fertilizer added to crops can return to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. Previous analyses have often used an estimate made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, based on field data, that about 1–2 percent of nitrogen added as fertilizer is returned to the atmosphere as N2O. Crutzen and colleagues take a different approach, estimating this fraction at 3–5 percent based on the global budget of N2O. They argue that their “top-down” approach, in contrast to the “bottom-up” approach used previously, better accounts for indirect emissions of nitrogen, as well as what they term “secondary” emission sources, such as increased emissions from livestock production in which animals are fed fertilized crops.

The paper’s methodology has been the subject of some controversy, in particular some assumptions made in the “top-down” calculations. An example is that the authors treat emissions from animal husbandry together with agricultural emissions, rather than separating the two. Nevertheless, one lesson that can safely be drawn from the burgeoning literature on the greenhouse implications of biofuels is that the way in which potential biofuels are farmed and harvested, as well as the choice of crop, matters a lot in calculating the climate impact. This paper (and others) suggest that corn ethanol, despite political favor in the United States, is not a sustainable solution.

An additional lesson to those interested in sustainability is the need to connect atmospheric researchers with biologists and experts in agricultural practices. The authors note the disconnect between science and practice: “We are aware that integrated processes exist which better connect biofuel production with animal husbandry, but we believe this cannot be taken for granted on a global scale.” The task of sustainable development and the environment will be to achieve these connections on a global scale.

Noelle Eckley Selin
Massachusetts Institute
of Technology
Cambridge, MA


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