They Paved Paradise

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Climate change is a gargantuan environmental problem, but it’s not our only environmental problem. By focusing obsessively on it, we blind ourselves to problems occurring in the periphery.

That point came to mind as I read an article in today’s New York Times, entitled: “Despite Push for Cleaner Cars, Sheer Numbers Could Work Against Climate Benefits.” If you’d like to read the article, you can find it at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/08/business/energy-environment/despite-push-for-cleaner-cars-sheer-numbers-could-work-against-climate-benefits.html?partner=IFTTT&_r=0

The article notes that the number of cars “on the world’s roads is on pace to double — to more than two billion — by the year 2030. And more likely than not, most of those cars will be burning carbon-emitting gasoline or diesel fuels.” Why? Because many of those cars will be sold in places like India and China that lack “the ubiquitous electric grid required for recharging electric vehicles.”

So all those additional cars on the road will be spewing billions of additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, making it harder to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions, and that’s a problem — no doubt about it. But it’s a problem that can be fixed. All we have to do is phase out the production of fossil-fuel powered vehicles and create a ubiquitous green-energy electric grid. Of course, doing those things will be difficult, but not theoretically impossible.

But there is at least one related problem that an electric grid and electric cars can’t solve: species extinctions due to paved-over habitats. A higher rate of extinctions is inevitable, because with more cars, we must have more roads. Twice as many cars will mean twice as many roads. And we’ll also need to devote more space to parking lots and garages and gas stations and salvage yards and auto parts stores, and on and on.

So, when we’re looking for ways to cope with climate change, we need to remember that environmental problems are interrelated. While we’re working on one issue, we should take a step back and ask ourselves if our proposed solutions will paper over flaws that are more intrinsic.

 

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2 thoughts on “They Paved Paradise

  1. Andrew Schultz

    Isn’t carbon dioxide required by plant life in order to create oxygen via photosynthesis? If so, then how is carbon dioxide bad? Moreover, isn’t it a prerequisite for oxygen? If so, isn’t it the very existence of oxygen that supports the very existence of you and me?

    • Yes, carbon dioxide is required by plant life. Carbon dioxide also traps heat in the atmosphere. Up to a point, that’s good — it keeps the Earth from being too cold — but the more carbon in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped. Over the past 200+ years, we’ve put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and the average temperature of the Earth is rising. The additional heat affects more things (the hydrologic cycle, for example) than I can go into here. . . . Carbon dioxide also interacts chemically with sea water, making it more acidic. Already, the acidity of the ocean is affecting the ability of mollusks and other sea creatures to form shells, which is starting to deprive other creatures up the food chain of sustenance. . . . It’s late and I’m sleepy, maybe too sleepy to be trying to write, but I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity, at least. If you can fit it into your schedule, I highly recommend taking a good science course. All of this is fascinating stuff to study.

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