If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



The Challenge Of Climate Change

Authors confront choice between unencumbered economic growth and the health of Earth’s environment

by Cherie K. Turner
March 10, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 10

Credit: Shutterstock
White puffy smoke emitted from power plant stacks shown against a cloudy sky and green grass in foreground.
Credit: Shutterstock

In United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, negotiators agreed that humans should aim to limit the increase in global temperature to no more than 2 °C over preindustrial levels, which would theoretically help us avoid the worst and most destabilizing effects of climate change. Despite this goal, global carbon dioxide emissions are still increasing, and it is clear that meaningful changes aren’t being made.

In their book, “The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit?” carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee and climate journalist Duncan Clark discuss some of the barriers that are preventing us from reaching this goal. Climate change is a scientific problem, but its solutions are affected by political, social, economic, and psychological factors. The authors provide insights into these factors and offer suggestions on how we might work toward a solution to them. They deliver a broad overview of all aspects of climate change and suggest many more specific resources for further investigation.

Credit: Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark
We can't burn half the world's oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark, Greyone Books, 2013, 256 pages, $16.95 softcover (ISBN:978-1771640077)
Book cover with title and credits. Blue background, black chemical stacks, and white smoke.
Credit: Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark
We can't burn half the world's oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark, Greyone Books, 2013, 256 pages, $16.95 softcover (ISBN:978-1771640077)

One particularly complex barrier to effective change is the simple fact that energy is essential for progress and innovation. Global energy use continues to increase exponentially, so each year humans need to produce more to maintain global economic and technological growth.

As Berners-Lee and Clark point out, in the face of the ever-increasing risk of serious climate change, it is time to consider what continued growth is really worth. It is quite clear that CO2 emissions are a major contributor to global warming. Estimates indicate that given the current energy infrastructure, we can burn only one-fifth of the world’s total proven fossil-fuel reserves without passing that 2 °C limit. So, “to tackle global warming, we need to leave most of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves in the ground,” the authors insist.

Because of the constantly increasing demand for energy, those fossil-fuel reserves are enormously valuable. At current energy prices, the authors estimate that proven reserves are worth approximately $170 trillion. It’s easy to understand why governments, which collectively own about three-quarters of the proven reserves, might not be enthusiastic about legislation that minimizes CO2 emissions. Similarly, fossil-fuel companies are acting in their own financial interests by lobbying against legislation limiting CO2 emissions and subsidizing alternative energy. Still, the authors insist that society faces a troubling question: Should we risk our economy for our environment or our environment for our economy?

When compared with the level of risk we face, the authors say that public concern has been “conspicuous by its absence.” One reason for this attitude may be the complexity of the problem. The average person may not understand climate change or why it is important, especially considering that the worst of the effects will take place far in the future. Many solutions for climate change also have a direct effect on an individual’s way of life, making it much easier to choose personal comfort over this very abstract future problem.

Despite these barriers, recent surveys have shown that people are increasingly concerned about climate change. Even though social inertia persists, this increase in public concern suggests that it may be time to start putting serious effort into addressing the problem. Some individuals, communities, companies, and nations are making changes to reduce their own impact. According to the authors, these people are setting good examples, changing the culture around climate change in their communities, and making it easier for others to follow in their footsteps.

They are not, however, having a significant impact on CO2 emissions. Through an effect Berners-Lee and Clark call “squeezing a balloon,” the impact of positive actions is minimized. When an individual uses less energy, the leftovers become available for others. The same is true on a much larger scale as well. Increasing energy efficiency in developed nations can lead to a decrease in fossil-fuel costs, allowing developing nations to consume more. This is why it is essential that climate change be dealt with globally.

Throughout past attempts at climate deals, those nations with the largest fossil-fuel industries, and therefore the most to lose from a step away from fossil-fuel energy, have been the least cooperative, the authors observe. Most nations are hesitant to make real changes unless everyone agrees, and so far there hasn’t been a deal on the table that satisfies everyone. Some of the major areas of contention in these proposed agreements are the potential loss of value of fossil-fuel resources, likely energy cost increases, and the issue of historical responsibility versus current responsibility for CO2 emissions.

Climate talks to date have functioned on the “vague hope that voluntary national pledges will one day add up to what’s required,” the authors write. This is a disastrous negotiation strategy as the world approaches the level of CO2 emissions that will likely move us past that 2 °C limit.

In “The Burning Question,” Berners-Lee and Clark discuss many possible solutions. Among them, carbon capture and storage, or CCS, stands out. As fossil fuels are burned, the emissions can be broken down to separate the CO2 from everything else. Then that CO2 can be liquefied and pumped back into underground storage. Ideally, this solution would be implemented in industry and power production, where large amounts of CO2 are emitted.

Although CCS doesn’t address the CO2 already in the atmosphere or stop all current CO2 emissions, it may make continued use of fossil fuels more environmentally palatable. Currently CCS is used to aid in production of fossil fuels, but so far it hasn’t been implemented specifically to reduce overall CO2 emissions. Because CCS will be expensive to implement, Berners-Lee and Clark make a case for government mandates.

The authors point out that CCS is an area where the fossil-fuel industry has the expertise to be a true part of the solution. On occasion in this book, the authors slip into vilifying the fossil-fuel industry, but here they make the point that the industry’s influence and expertise, and above all its cooperation, are needed to effect real change.

Other proposed solutions outlined by the authors include making infrastructure changes to avoid locking ourselves into our current systems, making changes to agriculture, and cleaning up greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, including methane, which have a much more severe but short-lived effect on climate. Some of the solutions summarized by the authors are simply unrealistic, and most need a lot more research. For those solutions and alternatives that are more developed—like CCS, nuclear power, and replacing carbon-emitting cooking stoves with better alternatives—it is time that we start implementing them on a large scale. The authors suggest that an essential factor for this kind of higher level change is that individuals start making it clear to their governments and businesses that they care more about the future of our climate than about their comfort.

While it is difficult to determine whether climate change is, as “The Burning Question” promises, “the most urgent scientific, political and social puzzle in history,” this book certainly shows that it is an urgent and complex problem. Solving climate change won’t be easy, and we probably won’t like the solutions, but we must find a way to change our path or face some possibly apocalyptic consequences.

Cherie K. Turner is a chemical sciences librarian at the University of Houston.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.