Friday, October 7, 2022

More Examples of Unexpected Impacts

Once again, a long time has elapsed between blogs.  But this time, I am returning to a theme that I have harped on before--the fact that nothing is really "free"; every energy source, every material, every structure in our highly industrialized environment comes with pluses...and minuses.  I had thought I had beaten this theme to death, but in recent weeks, discovered 2 new examples--at least they are new to me--that I think bear mentioning.  


The first example I came across was a discussion of the environmental impacts of hydorfluorocarbons (HFCs).  HFCs are commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners.  The article ominously notes that HFCs can be hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis.  In fact, they call them "super-pollutants."  But the point that really got my attention was the last sentence of the article, which stated that HFCs were first introduced in the 1990s, before their powerful heat-trapping properties were understood, to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that had been found to erode the ozone layer.


To me, then, in addition to the argument made in the article that there is a need to find a replacement for HFCs, the article drives home the point that everything we do has some impact, and that we need to be more aware of this.  After all, this is not be the first time that we thought that advances in technology were enabling us to replace something polluting or damaging with something better, only to find that the "better" technology came with its own shortcomings.  The classic example is that everyone thought automobiles would replace the "pollution" from horses on city streets, only to find that automobiles generated a different kind of pollution.


The other example I recently learned about deals with some of the possible causes of the increased strength of hurricanes.  Most of the discussion I had heard to date related to the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).  However, this article cites another cause in addition to GHGs--the Atlantic has also experienced a reduction in aerosol pollution.  Some of that may be due to a reduction of Saharan dust in the last few decades, since hotter sea surface temperatures are weakening trade winds from Africa that transport the dust.  But some of it is due to a reduction in sulfate pollution from industry following the passage of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s.  From this article, it is not clear how much of the effect is due to the reduction in sulfate pollution, but the fact that it has this impact suggests that, once again, something we did with the intention of fixing one problem might be making another problem worse.

I would like to think that we have gotten smart enough to realize this and to be able to analyze systems to figure out their potential negative impacts before we unleash them on the world.  Or to phase in new technologies to assess their impacts before we have totally committed to them.  Perhaps that is not realistic.   But we should certainly try to anticipate "unexpected" impacts as much as possible, and we should monitor the impact of changes--whether introduced by laws to replace one process or material with another, or simply by the introduction of new technologies--so we can catch the impacts sooner and make necessary adjustments.


I am particularly interested in this issue because, for years, I have seen solar and wind power compared to nuclear power.  Without getting into an in-depth discussion here of all the issues, the general impression is that solar and wind are "natural" and therefore, are clean, while nuclear is not.  These arguments ignore the fact that solar and wind power require a lot of materials, some of them exotic, and that these materials need to be mined, manufactured, and disposed of.  And these sources are intermittent, so some form of storage or backup power is needed.  This doesn't mean that we should abandon solar or wind power.  Far from it.  But we need to incorporate it into our electricity supply systems with a full understanding of what is needed to make it work, and of all the impacts, and we need to balance these against nuclear power and other energy sources. 


I am not trying to say that we can never introduce new technologies just because they may have negative impacts.  I am just issuing a reminder that everything has impacts, positive and negative.  We do need to be more proactive in figuring out those impacts and in addressing them as early as possible.  And we need to try to move away from the mindset that one technology is "good" and another is "bad," and look instead for balance between alternative technologies to meet our needs while minimizing negative impacts. 





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