Discern What is Missing

The death of Bathsheba’s first child by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

            How can we reverse global warming? That question needs many answers, and the best approach is in “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming”. I found that one action is missing.

            The book format of Drawdown is well written and easily understood. It lists 100 actions that an individual, corporation or government can take to decrease carbon emissions. The first 80 topics are based on well-established science and technology, while the final 20 are speculative. The actions are put in categories and ranked by effectiveness in decreasing atmospheric CO2. The website www.drawdown.orghas less narrative, but includes links to references, a technical summary and a way to ask questions.

            Heartwood Cohousing, the community where I live, just installed a rooftop solar array which will generate most of the power for 2 community buildings. That is why I choose Drawdown’s action, Rooftop Solar, to use as an example. It is in the “Energy” category and is ranked #10 overall. The 2 pages devoted to this subject have pictures of a Guatemalan family outside their straw home, the mother polishing a solar panel, and also of the first rooftop solar array. Guess what year that was built. (1884!) 

            I was surprised to learn that the action that ranked #1 is Refrigerant Management. As the climate heats up there are concerns that the demand for air conditioning will increase—which will be a vicious cycle. More AC will draw more power, causing more CO2to be released if it is generated using fossil fuels. In addition, the refrigerants (chemicals which absorb and release heat) used now are terrible greenhouse gases when released into the atmosphere. Freon, which is no longer used, destroyed the ozone layer. It was replaced with improved chemicals that are kind to the ozone, but are thousands of times worse than COas greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, a safe alternative to these refrigerants has yet to be found. If one can be found, it will be a major aid to slow climate change.

            Drawdown puts huge value put on education and reproductive health. In the category Women and Girls we find two of the top ranking actions–#6 is Educating Girls. Education has the potential to prevent the emission of 59.6 gigatons of CO2. Family Planning, #7, is tied with #6 in the amount of CO2it could reduce. If you combine these two, together they would save ~120 gigatons, which is much more than #1, Refrigeration Management at only 90 gigatons! (A gigaton is 1 billion tons—that’s a lot of CO2!) Had Education and Family Planning not been separated they would have been #1 by a landslide.

            The description of the impact of Family Planning states: “Increased adoption of reproductive healthcare and family planning is an essential component to achieve the United Nations’ 2015 medium global population projection of 9.7 billion people by 2050. If investment in family planning, particularly in low-income countries, does not materialize, the world’s population could come closer to the high projection, adding another 1 billion people to the planet. We model the impact of this solution based on the difference in how much energy, building space, food, waste, and transportation would be used in a world with little to no investment in family planning, compared to one in which the projection of 9.7 billion is realized. The resulting emissions reductions could be 119.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide, at an average annual cost of $10.77 per user in low-income countries.”

            What is missing in Drawdown? At the International Conference on Population and Development 25 years ago I heard demographer John Caldwell say that 3 things were necessary before people would limit their family size: educating girls and women, making modern contraception available to all, and reducing the number of childhood deaths. The under-5 mortality, he said, needed to be under 13%, which seemed terribly high to me. That year the global figure was terribleat 28%! That figure has dropped to a small fraction of what it had been, thanks to huge international efforts—it is less than 4% now.

            Let’s celebrate the amazing reduction in the number of children dying globally each year. It has been reduced by a factor of 7, but 4% is still too high. This step is wonderful from a humanitarian and ethical standpoint, and also has removed a barrier to small families. I am delighted that it is no longer necessary to include reducing childhood mortality as a requirement for slowing population growth.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2019


Think Critically about Solutions

The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Eric Sevareid 1970)

            Last month I wrote about my search for, and finding of, an electric vehicle after our Plug-in Prius was destroyed in a collision. I received messages that made me reconsider if the future of vehicles is, indeed, electric.

            There are many advantages to a vehicle that is solely powered by electricity, or a hybrid with both a gas engine and an electric motor. Being somewhat of a “technonerd”, I have enjoyed learning about Electric Vehicles. Getting 74 miles to the gallon of gas in the Prius was rewarding, but that figure is far surpassed by the mileage of its replacement, the Honda Clarity. Because I can recharge it at home from a solar array, and because it hasn’t yet roamed far from home, it is getting about 300 mpg with nocarbon emissions!

            Let’s first look at the good side of EVs. They emit less pollution and fewer greenhouse gases than their fossil fuel cousins. The decrease in air pollution will make us healthier and promote longevity. Because EVs are more efficient than internal combustion engines, this is true even if the electricity to recharge an EV is generated using coal. It is also true that electric components need little or no service, as opposed to internal combustion vehicles. Furthermore, the price of EVs is dropping and the technology and performance are improving by leaps and bounds.

            Unfortunately, as Sevareid pointed out, there are difficulties that keep EVs from being the perfect solution to travel. For instance, I keep wondering what would happen if an EV is recharging and there’s a lightning strike nearby. Is there protection against a big electrical surge? People who drive a pure EV may have “range anxiety”; what happens if the battery runs out of juice away from a plug? Unless you own a Tesla and a Supercharger is convenient, you can waste a lot of time waiting for the battery to recharge. Our new Clarity takes several hours to recharge in the summer heat, and I can hear its battery’s cooling fan coming on repeatedly. Do local mechanics know how to repair an EV if something goes wrong?

            EVs are so expensive most people would have trouble affording one. Federal and state rebates bring down the price of an EV, but that only applies to the original purchase.

            Although the heart of an EV—the battery and electric motor—are miracles of modern engineering, they require elements that are in limited supply. Furthermore, production of those elements sometimes conflicts with human rights or with care for the environment.

            For instance, there are large deposits of lithium, needed for batteries, in South America. The environmental effect of lithium production is a concern, especially in places where it is plentiful and environmental regulations are lax. Are EVs environmentally friendly if ecologies are irreparably impacted by our need for this element?

            The motors of EVs need magnets that are much stronger than those we played with as kids. They require elements such as cobalt, nickel and the rare earth elements neodymium and samarium. There are good reserves of cobalt, but half of it comes from the politically insecure Democratic Republic of Congo. This country is so unstable that even doctors trying to save Congolese lives from Ebola have come under fire. At best, the conditions of mines in Congo are atrocious, both for the workers and for the environment. The reserves there may be used up in just a few years. Other materials, including copper, needed for EVs are in limited supply and may become very costly in the future. I hope that all these building blocks are recycled when a vehicle is no longer drivable!

            Although EVs are better than fossil-fueled vehicles, they aren’t a perfect answer to reducing pollution and slowing climate change. Nevertheless I think that we will be seeing more of them on the streets of Durango. Already there are a few charging stations around town and more in the works, including at Fort Lewis College. The City of Durango is asking for input about putting charging stations at the library and at the rec. center. Please comment at:

            Consuming less is important for climate change and our environment. This means driving less and walking or biking more. Most important, however, is slowing population growth. Politicians seldom talk about climate change, let alone the connection between reproductive rights and climate change. As the political campaigning heats up, please keep your eyes open to this connection.

 © Richard Grossman MD, 2019