Monday, April 13, 2015

Impacting the Earth, Positively and Negatively

Making the case for the Anthropocene Era, Vox highlights a number of side-by-side images from NASA showing the changes humans have made to our environment, both positively and negatively.  They are all worth checking out, but I definitely found this positive one interesting:

Images show concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in 2005 and 2011, from low (blue) to high (red) (NASA, Images of Change)

Not all of the ways we're transforming the planet are negative. Here's some good news: Satellite data from NASA, shown above, revealed a huge reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollution from cars, trucks, power plants, in the United States between 2005 and 2011.
Nitrogen dioxide is produced when gasoline gets burned in cars or coal gets burned in power plants. It's been linked to a variety of respiratory problems, and can combine with other pollutants to form smog. It's also a good proxy for pollution more generally.
The EPA first began cracking down on nitrogen dioxide in 1971, and concentrations have fallen sharply over time. Power plant operators have installed scrubbers to remove pollutants from their smokestacks, and car manufacturers have adopted catalytic converters to curtail nitrogen oxides and other emissions. More recently, since 2005, many electric utilities have been switching from coal to natural gas in order to generate electricity.
Almost all of the improvements along the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati can be attributed to pollution controls on coal power plants and closures of old steel mills (mainly emission controls).  The amazing thing is, those power plants deliver the electricity to our state, and yet we didn't see massive price increases from cleaning up the air, in spite of what opponents of regulations claim.  I happened to hear a story on On The Media this weekend in which the interviewee noted that with every new environmental regulation, the same critics claim said regulation will destroy the economy, but instead, industry adapts, processes become more efficient, the environment gets cleaner and people live longer.  Yet with the next regulation, the exact same claims are made, and nobody points out that the critics were wrong every time before.  It is sad, but unsurprising.  As some of the more depressing pictures in this series make clear, we are causing irreparable harm to the planet.  It is nice to see that we can make some improvements.

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