Climate Change: Are the solutions worse than the problems?

I often hear from people something like, “Maybe human-caused climate change is happening, but there’s nothing realistic or practical we can do to stop it. The solutions have worse side effects than the problems.”

For example:

  • “More pollutants are released in the process of manufacturing (and later disposing of) the battery of an electric car than will be produced in the entire lifetime of a gas-powered engine.”

  • “The energy required to build and maintain wind power turbines will never be paid off in the entire lifetime of the turbine.”

  • “The huge solar power generators out in deserts work by reflecting light and heat into the atmosphere, which actually causes atmospheric warning and offsets any environmental benefit of the solar energy.”

Are any of these claims correct or close to the truth? If not, what scientific evidence is there to demonstrate that the inventions described above are truly good for the environment?

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I think a lot of them are based in some truth (though often skewed and partial), but when it comes to climate change and environmental stewardship, there are often multiple issues at play. For example, you have to use a reusable cloth bag thousands of times to get the carbon footprint of its production lower than the same number of single-use plastic bags. But carbon footprint isn’t the only issue, there is the affect of bag litter on ecosystems and microplastics in the water supply to consider. When it comes to widespread infrastructure changes, it’s hard to evaluate how they will affect the future, because the changes affect the whole system. If you manufacture a bunch of clean energy components using fossil fuels and successfully convert much of your power grid to clean energy, when it comes time to replace those components, are you still using the same amount of fossil fuels to produce them as the first time around?

This doesn’t sound right. The fact that light colored sand and rocks of deserts reflect light and heat back into space actually has a cooling effect on the planet. Solar panels are actually absorbing heat and energy that would normally be reflected.

I did see that because they disrupt the reflection of light and heat, widespread use of solar panels can affect weather patterns in ways that make an area hotter:

At the end of the day, fossil fuels are going to run out, that’s a fact. Climate change is already wreaking havoc and it’s not going to magically get better. It is already spurring natural disasters and armed conflict over scarce resources, though much of that is removed from the places that are the biggest fuel consumers and polluters. All ‘solutions’ will affect our lifestyles in ways that require permanent adjustments and possibly less luxury and comfort. I think that is the real issue for most people, no matter how they try to justify their reticence to do something. It basically comes down to “I’m selfish and comfortable and like my life the way it is.”

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  1. Not greenhouse gasses, as long as they use green electricity. The Carbon Footprint Of Electric Cars Vs Gasoline | Whole People
  2. Overblown: Wind turbines don’t take more energy to build than they will ever produce - Full Fact
  3. It’s warMing (good Freudian slip) and that’s good, it increases convection which increases rainfall. Enough PV will reverse desertification. Solar panels in Sahara could boost renewable energy but damage the global climate – here’s why (theconversation.com)

There are always unintended consequences, but the net gain of reversing global warming back to 1800 by 2300 is a no-brainer essential. As long as the backbone is nuclear and all large non-rail vehicles are powered by electrically generated hydrogen.

I think the best way to improve the climate regarding energy is to reduce consumption. LEDs, better insulation, less waste. That is hard because we are selfish. I like air conditioning and driving a pickup. I like grapes trucked in from California and Peru. I like to wipe up a mess with paper towels and throwing them away. But, we may have to accept change and sacrifice some things in order to love our neighbor.

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Ain’t gunna happen Phil. Our ten billion neighbours are entitled to level up to our level of shelter, food, water, light, heat, air con, fridges, transport, green space, water parks; material heaven on earth. Much more - orders of magnitude more - electricity is the only answer.

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While it’s true that there is no “free lunch” (other than the painless “don’t waste energy in the first place” kind of conservation that Phil already mentions), it’s still a bit disingenuous to think that this is a strike only against the renewables industry. The grain of truth is that yes: wind turbines do cost something - not the least of which will be to figure out what to do with the blades at the end of their life (not an insignificant challenge there). But if we’re going to be holding that against turbines, then let’s also ask ourselves how much is the carbon cost of building coal plants, nuclear plants, gas plants, etc. not to mention all the mining and delivery infrastructure that that has to stay in constant use to keep the plant in operation. By the time you tally that up, your “renewables infrastructure price tag” probably won’t be looking nearly so bad any more.

This one doesn’t even make scientific sense on the surface of it. If the complaint is that panels reflect more light up … then the obvious follow-up question is: What was going to become of that same incoming solar radiation anyway - with no panels there? Completely absorbed? That’s 100% heat to the earth. And of any reflected stuff, at least part of the reflected rays make it back to space taking heat away from the earth. If panels are warming things up (and perhaps they are), it’s because of their absorption of radiation, not because of what they reflect back away.

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Are the solutions worse than the problem?
Well there are hundreds of solutions and so we would have to go through them. But for many of them , when used correctly or carried out in the way they were intended it seems thst they are more beneficial than negative.

Does taking a small car to the farmers market to get local food grown in a backyard have less of a impact than driving a big truck an hour away to shop at the store you like to get exotic fruits fruits brought in from thousands of miles away? I imagine so.

Does using something like bamboo lumber for vertical studs have less of a impact than yellow line? I imagine so.

Does using native oaks in a successional design , or leaving oaks and other trees already there, to help with cooling and shading of your house have less of a impact than non mechanical guesswork ventilation and a ac running full time at 65°c in summer.

Does wearing shorts, a thin shirt and no socks make make it easier to feel cool under a think blanket than someone wearing sweats, socks and underwear two thick blankets reducing AC usage? Probably so.

Can we make better packaging for food using less packaging good? Yes. It’s not about a few people making a few big choices that requires a lot of sacrifice but people lots of people
Making smaller choices that does not blow their life apart. Some may be able to make changes here and others make changes there. Just keep following the science.

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Thousands of times? No, 131 times. There are also woven and non-woven polypropylene options in reusable bags. The non-woven one s need only be used 11 times to break even in carbon footprint with a regular one-time plastic grocery bag.

Here is a really good article all about shopping bags from Stanford magazine, the magazine for graduates of Stanford University. (I’m not one). One of our awesome librarians found it for me:

Paper, Plastic, or Reusable? The answer is a mixed bag

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Yes, and there are even more things we can do, but that doesn’t mean very many here will do them.

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I’ve seen 131. But also:

A 2011 study by the U.K. government found a person would have to reuse a cotton tote bag 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once. The Danish government recently did a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond simply greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors make cloth bags even worse. They estimate you would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make using it better for the environment.

That said, the Danish government’s estimate doesn’t take into account the effects of bags littering land and sea, where plastic is clearly the worst offender.

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Our local grocery chain stopped allowing use of reusable bags during Covid, and still has not returned to encouraging their use, though no longer bans reusables so far as I know. Is that true of stores elsewhere?

Do you have a link to your Danish study so I can ask the reference librarian about it?
I never said anything about organic cotton.

Yes here we stopped using reusable bags for a time in some places but now they are back. Plastic single-use bags are banned and grocery stores are required to charge a nominal fee for paper bags.

According to Free the Ocean and Scientific American, scientists predict that the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish.

And here is a breakdown that helps you understand how they got the results they did.

Breaking down the Danish study on the environmental impacts of grocery carrier bags | by Parkpoom Kometsopha | Medium

Almost no study will cover everything. The interpretation of the study also mentions , as did Christy, that it does not include things like how it affects wildlife, the oceans, and I did not see anything about the impact of transportation moving single use bags around daily and it can’t account for things like are people more likely to toss a plastic bag down in the street and they blow out of garbage trucks and make roads and parks trashy versus is someone less likely to toss down a reusable bag that is personal in its pick and design.

I know in my whole life I’ve seen thousands of plastic bags blowing around streets, found in creeks, and so on. Ive seen a handful of reusable bags from Walmart or publix. Ive seen one reusable custom cotton bag with a ufo design on it on the streets and that was a few years ago and I picked it up, washed it and still have it lol. I also don’t buy a lot of groceries. So it’s not like I need dozens of them. My ex still has some that we got together back in 2006 though and she still uses them. Many of them in the end can be reused for other things or shredded and composted.

We have a lot of work to do as individuals and collectively.

I do like how the article mentioned Biodiversity loss, which includes habitat destruction, is one of the biggest contributing factors to environmentalism. That’s what I focus on the most. How to make residential properties mini habitats that all interconnect into larger ones. We would never get anywhere if we try to focus on everything at once.

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One of the biggest things I wish I would change is books. I buy a few books a month. I tried reading books like e-books and just can’t get into it. Ive tried using iPads, larger iPhones, and even mirroring images to my tv. Just can’t get into it. Always get a headache regardless of how I darken or brighten the screen or hold it further back than normal and so on. So I almost exclusively read paperback books. Though I donate a large portion of them to public libraries and school libraries, like the local high school. I often use old books in book exchanges with other people who likewise give me various books. The horror section at my local library was essentially tripled by me and contains a much wider range of newer books than they would otherwise get.

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No need for me to bother the reference librarians. The breakdown explained how deceptive the Danish study was. (And NPR really has chutzpah to sell cotton tote bags and other cotton merch after citing the Danish study.)

I think the point in citing it was that evaluating whether or not something is “good” is not as simple as a carbon footprint calculation. Those kinds of numbers can be misleading in various ways, as is probably the case with the OP idea that installing wind energy turbines are actually some kind of negative for the clean energy effort.

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Something that fascinates me as possibly unique about wind energy among all the renewables solutions is this: It is a direct removal of already existing energy in our atmosphere to put toward our electrical energy budget. I.e. some atmospheric energy is actually removed for the turbine to accomplish its purposes! Coal, gas, nuclear - all of those involve adding heat energy into our system that would not otherwise have been added. It could have remained as chemical energy in the ground for millennia longer with no heat contribution. Well - okay - nuclear might be a little different in that the mined uranium was going to decay whether or not it was extracted from the ground and purified. So perhaps nuclear could also claim it is only redistributing energy - getting it up into the atmosphere faster, but not actually adding energy. Solar also might come close in that the radiation was already 100% there, and the fact that we divert part of it toward electricity should not, in principle, be adding heat into our budget, though I guess some of the linked research above may show otherwise.

While it probably makes not much difference as far as global warming goes, it nevertheless strikes me that wind makes the most direct extraction of atmospheric energy, which I should think, is a great source to tap into when it is excessive trapped global heat that is driving our climate change.

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