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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Prof. lectures on carbon emissions

Dartmouth should take the lead in helping Americans who use 25 percent of the world's energy despite comprising only 5 percent of the world's total population commit to greater levels of sustainability, environmental studies program chair Andy Friedland said in "Why Worry About Carbon Emissions," a Saturday morning presentation in Dartmouth Hall.

Friedland, an environmental studies professor, encouraged approximately 50 audience members to create their own personal "energy pies," or personal energy profiles, in order to document their energy usage. Several of Friedland's former students who created these graphs were able to use them to discover solutions regarding their households' energy inefficiencies, he said.

Since all energy choices impact the environment, individuals and organizations should conduct "cost-benefit analyses" before shifting the sources they depend on for energy use, according to Friedland.

"All energy choices are undesirable," he said.

Although most Americans acknowledge that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing, the United States as a whole is far less interested in climate change than other nations, Friedland said. He cited a 2011 Nielsen poll that compared the level of concern regarding climate change among various nations. Of 54 countries studied, the United States ranked 51st, as only 48 percent of individuals polled said they were "concerned" about climate change, according to Friedland.

If Americans gain a more comprehensive understanding of the environmental processes at work and how humans have affected them, people will be more likely to take action against climate change, he said.

Given the United States government's lack of action against climate change, there is significant opportunity for individuals to take a stand against the problem through collective action, Friedland said. Individuals came together to form the California-based company Nest, for example, which markets a thermostat containing a motion sensor that "learns" its owners' behavior and adjusts the household's temperature as needed, he said. Such a product effectively reduces the amount of energy wasted by homeowners who forget to adjust their households' temperature, Friedland said.

Approximately 37 percent of America's total energy consumption is in the form of oil, 24 percent is natural gas, 23 percent is coal and 9 percent is nuclear fuels, Friedland said. Only 7 percent is renewable energy, much of which is biomass formed by a combination of corn-based ethanol and woodchips, he said.

While there is significant scientific debate surrounding the specific causes of climate change, comparisons between modern temperature records and measurements that use ice core samples to determine temperatures during past centuries provide evidence that the increase in carbon dioxide has directly contributed to global warming, Friedland said.

"If you are not a believer, I respect you, but the majority of scientific evidence does not support your belief," he said.

The combustion of fossil fuels and a net destruction of vegetation over time are two processes that have contributed to this increase in greenhouse gases, Friedland said. The greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which include methane, chlorofluorocarbons, carbon dioxide, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrous oxide now trap a larger amount of infrared radiation compared with the amount they trapped during the early 20th century, Friedland said. This rise in absorbed infrared radiation initiates a "positive feedback cycle" in which increased radiation leads to a thickening of the atmospheric greenhouse gas layer, which in turn absorbs additional outgoing radiation, according to Friedland.

In order to combat negative climate effects, the harvesting of perennial crops as a renewable energy source has emerged throughout New England as an attractive alternative to traditional energy options, Friedland said. Benefits of this process include energy independence, increased income within the local economy and possible carbon neutrality depending on the specific extraction methods used, he said.

While Dartmouth has made significant strides toward a greater level of sustainability, the College still uses Number 6 fuel oil a class of oil that contains many environmentally-unfriendly impurities for approximately 80 percent of its total energy, according to Friedland.

Friedland serves on the College's Sustainability Steering Committee, which aims to discover ways to meet "present energy needs" without compromising the ability of future generations to access adequate sources of energy, Friedland said. The committee is currently promoting the Deeper Shade of Green initiative, through which Dartmouth plans to become a model of sustainability practice and leadership by 2016, according to Friedland. As part of the initiative, College officials are debating the use of energy alternatives like offsite wind, solar panels and biomass in Dartmouth's daily operations, he said.

The lecture, which was sponsored by the Office of Alumni Relations, is the final installment of a five-part Fall 2011 Faculty Chalk Talk series geared toward furthering the education of College alumni.