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Climate Change

Editorial: Battling climate change

by Craig Bettenhausen
January 13, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 2


This is a guest editorial by Craig Bettenhausen, a business reporter at C&EN who covers sustainability, specialty chemicals, industrial gas and carbon capture, instrumentation, and intellectual property.

Doom and gloom often dominate discussions about climate change; hype about solutions fills the quiet moments. If anything, both conversational threads undersell the problem’s severity. So it was refreshing recently when two books came across my desk that lay out practical and achievable ways to reach net-negative greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the eyes of the authors.

The first is Beyond Carbon Neutral by Samuel Goodman. Goodman, an analyst at the US International Trade Commission, has a background in chemical engineering.

In assembling his plan, Goodman limits himself to technologies that are mature and deployable at scale today. A motif, especially in the chapters about such solutions, is that innovations are something we should bolt on as they become ready, not sit still and wait for. But a lot of smart, cautious people are betting on things like new nuclear power chemistries and point-source carbon capture—tech they’d argue is ready to go even if it’s not currently done at scale.

The cornerstones and first steps that Goodman describes are decarbonizing transportation and the electrical grid using renewables, energy storage, and biofuels. Beyond Carbon Neutral goes into more detail than most treatments I’ve seen of those priorities, with timelines, maps, and tactical suggestions for an array of technologies, including geothermal and solar power.

The major flaw I found in the book’s strategy is that while Goodman is careful not to rely on unproven technology, he expects political changes that liberals in the US have long desired and not yet achieved. Chapters on policy call for nationalizing the US electricity generation and transmission system and expanding the Supreme Court. Though I share his concern that the current political and economic system is not equipped to deal with climate change, I worry about hanging our hopes on a quick and comprehensive overhaul of such entrenched power.

Goodman’s book is a rigorous but pleasant read. Though the path he lays out would be difficult and painful, I walked away with a sense of pragmatic optimism. It can work, I think, if we can generate the political will. And every advance that chemistry contributes can make things easier.

Glenn Weinreb’s A Plan to Save the Planet has a similar goal: to break the enormous carbon dioxide problem down into concrete steps. Weinreb is the director of the Manhattan 2 Project, a nonprofit climate change think tank.

Weinreb’s book is rich with specific ideas explicitly designed for other experts and advocates to pick up and execute, such as building an open-access, user-friendly, web-based platform for climate policy modeling based on consensus methods for calculating greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a mouthful, but such a tool would let policy makers design and vote on legislation with a stronger sense of the impact their proposals would likely make.

Where A Plan to Save the Planet shines is in its wealth of data, maps, graphs, and tables that connect the many pieces of this puzzle and place them in context. In a chapter on food supply, Weinreb says farmland droughts could increase grocery costs for an average US household by about $1,040 per year, whereas switching to all-solar electricity would cost the same family just $120. My copy is full of bookmarks calling out data I could see using in my coverage of sustainability and CO2.

Both books deserve wide readership; society needs a plan to avoid exacerbating the climate crisis. As Goodman puts it at the start of his first chapter, “Our hope to reverse climate change rests on acting together, acting decisively, and—most importantly—acting quickly.”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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