Barely a day goes by in which one doesn't hear apocalyptic reports about potential environmental catastrophes that are expected later this century due to climate change. While there is a general consensus in the scientific community that climate change is real, there does continue to be skepticism expressed in certain quarters, most prominently today by the Trump Administration. I personally believe that climate change is real, but I do disagree with many of my fellow climate change "believers" in what should be done about it. In my mind, the problem is real, and needs to be addressed, but how it is addressed could make all the difference.
Many, possibly even most, "believers" tend to think that the only way to address climate change is through governmental/regulatory intervention. This focus on governmental and regulatory solutions, ironically, may be the key reason many conservatives are climate change "skeptics". It isn't necessarily that they deny the scientific diagnosis, they just don't like the prescription. Today, I'm writing about another very interesting potential "market based" solution to the problem of climate change. What I find really interesting about this solution, along with a number of others, is that one can be an absolute climate change "denier" and still think what I describe below is a fantastic idea that doesn't involve the government.
The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that about 29% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to energy production. Coal is a major fuel source for electricity generation, and the contribution of coal to noxious air pollution, as well as to greenhouse gases around the world, is well known. The governmental/regulatory "solution" has been programs such as the Obama Administration's "Clean Power Plan", which the Trump Administration is seeking to dismantle. The impression the average person gets is that we're faced with a binary choice.
Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder, however, may have a terrific solution that everyone could love. I'll explain my thinking on that below, but first, let me explain the solution they've developed. It's based upon the fact that the Earth's atmosphere allows certain wavelengths of heat-carrying infrared radiation to escape into space unimpeded. The trick is to convert the unwanted heat into infrared radiation at the correct wavelength, then it will naturally reflect back into space and not come back.
Back in 2014 a group of researchers at Stanford University came up with a way to do this. Unfortunately, the solution, while technically elegant, was deemed impractical because it was both difficult and expensive to manufacture in bulk. Now, some other researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder have come up with what could be a very cost effective solution. They published their findings in Science magazine recently.
The solution the researchers developed begins with a commercially available material called polymethylpentene, sold commercially under the name TPX. TPX is manufactured as rolls of transparent film. It is very resistant to absorbing water and also has good chemical resistance. The Colorado researchers then added a silver sheet on one side of the TPX, the purpose of which is to reflect sunlight. That's helpful, but still not the key to the solution. The heat reflected off of a building still needs to be converted to the right infrared wavelength so that it will head back into space and not linger. To accomplish this, the researchers utilized tiny glass beads. The diameter of the glass beads determines what wavelength the heat will reflect off the TPX. What the researchers found is that a glass bead diameter of about 8 microns would create the "sweet spot". Thus, they coated the TPX with 8 micron glass beads.
The TPX film, including silver reflective backing and 8 micron glass beads, can be manufactured for about 50 cents/square meter (about 5 cents/square foot). Applying about 20 square meters of the material to a typical house roof, the researchers estimate, will cool the house to 20 degrees Celsius (about 70 degrees Fahrenheit) when the air temperature is about 37 degrees Celsius (about 98 degrees Fahrenheit). Thus, based upon the estimates, a typical house could achieve this with a film that costs about ten dollars! Most likely, the house will still need some type of heating and cooling to regulate the temperature throughout the day and night, but far less heating and cooling than in a conventional system.
Applying such a system could potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to electricity generation dramatically. Both climate change "believers" and "deniers" could agree that that is a good thing. While the two groups might vehemently disagree about greenhouse gases, they would likely both agree that the reduced electric bill at the house would be worth paying. Moreover, developing such a solution doesn't require legislative or regulatory changes. It's a scientific/technological solution coupled with marketplace economics.
I can envision that amongst the very greatest supporters of the Colorado "building film" solution would be climate change "deniers". Why? Well, it's pretty simple. The people most likely to embrace this solution are probably entrepreneurial. I can picture a lot of business owners, who tend to be more Republican than Democrat, wanting to get involved with something like this because of the potential to make money. At the same time, climate change "deniers" typically are more Republican than Democrat. I can envision a definite overlap. After all, I think one can simultaneously deny climate change all day long while looking for ways to make money selling products than will have the side benefit of cutting greenhouse gases.
While this is another example of employing a scientific/technological solution to solve a problem, it points to something else. We humans have a tendency when under stress to become very narrow in our thinking. I believe it is part of our evolutionary heritage. When a threat is perceived, the ability to think and respond in "black and white" terms is advantageous. Amongst our ancestors, those who were ponderous in the face of danger likely didn't survive. Thus, when perceived threats such as global catastrophe brought on by climate change arise, we tend to respond in "black and white" terms. I think this applies both to "believers" and "deniers". The ability to think in "black and white" terms is certainly very beneficial when we're really in danger, it's just that we sometimes over-react. When considering how to deal with the threat of climate change, I think this idea applies.
While what the Colorado researchers have come up with is not a panacea, it could be very helpful, something one could endorse even as a climate change "denier" due to the potential economic benefits. Rather than thinking in "black and white" terms about how to address climate change, we should spend more time looking for creative solutions. Thus, I can envision the following scenario: a bunch of entrepreneurs, who just happen to be climate change skeptics or "deniers", going into business to create and sell a product based upon what the Colorado researchers have developed. I can easily envision this turning into a billion dollar business because it could be a highly cost effective solution. After all, who wouldn't want to make a small investment in a roofing material in order to save a huge amount of money on the monthly electric bill? What an interesting, though ironic, situation: a group of entrepreneurs making lots of money by helping to solve a problem they deny exists, and their climate change "believer" customers loving them for the solution? Odd … maybe even ironic … but no more so than my crazy idea of Christians loving Charles Darwin even more than do atheists.