Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Last Frog Standing

Before desulfurization filters were installed,...
Frogs are today’s canary in the coalmine. If projections are right, more than 2,000 species of frogs and other delicate water creatures could disappear in our lifetime, and if that day arrives -- if we ever see the last frog standing -- we might want to get our affairs in order. Why? Because it’s likely that homo sapiens won’t be far behind.

If and when that day DOES arrive, the fault will be ours – we're our own worst enemy. We've poisoned our water so badly that it kills 2.2 million people each year - that's the equivalent of wiping out the population of Toronto every 365 days. Six-legged frogs and male frogs with ovaries have been seen hopping along the Potomac River. Startling numbers of notable life forms are facing extinction. About 24 percent of the world’s reefs are under imminent risk of collapse due to human activity. Nearly 4.6 million people - enough to populate Los Angeles and Detroit - die each year from causes directly attributable to air pollution. Yet, the world's population continues to rise - if current trends continue, the number will increase from today's 6.4 billion to 7.9 billion in 2025, and 9.3 billion in 2050. So there'll be even less potable water and less clean air available, but more competition for these resources as well as for food.

We are, in no uncertain terms, the worst pestilence to hit this planet. But technology and right-minded politicians can save us.

Current off-the-shelf clean energy technology can cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels by at least 23 percent from current levels by 2020 and 85 percent by 2050. Smart-grid technologies can cut CO2 emissions by 15 percent. There are more than 81 million buildings in the United States and, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, they consume more energy than any other economic category - including transportation and industry - and almost half of it goes into heating and cooling. But engineers have been looking for new ways to make buildings less wasteful and kinder to the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency has developed programs that promote environmentally- and economically-sound building practices and energy efficiency. Universities have kicked their research into high gear and established their own highly focused centers, such as the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, which fosters cross-disciplinary collaboration to explore the complexities of environmental sustainability. ALL energy issues are environmental issues, and there’s plenty of green-energy development underway.

As for political contributions to the resolution of ecological problems... Thomas Friedman, the author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded, might've said it best: "Change your leaders, not your light bulbs." And in case you missed it, we recently made a significant change.

The Obama administration has already indicated that it’ll
cut greenhouse gases and tighten controls on mercury pollution from the nation's power plants. A federal appeals court has ordered the oil and gas industries to abandon drilling in the fertile energy-producing regions in the seas north of Alaska until additional studies can be completed. The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration is implementing a strategy for the restoration, protection and sustainable use of the Great Lakes. The list goes on, and its message is clear: There’s growing political and public support for getting serious -- real serious -- about environmental issues. The time is right to look at the ecology in much the way that Kennedy looked at the moon in 1961 when he challenged a joint session of Congress, saying, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." He lit a fire under engineers and, eight years later, Neil Armstrong took a giant step for all of us. We need that same urgency as we take on ecological challenges.

Organizations such as the National Science Foundation are on the band wagon -- the NSF developed its Environmental Sustainability program to encourage green engineering, ecological engineering and earth systems engineering, all with the ultimate goal of creating engineered systems that provide ecological protection and maintain stable economic conditions. And the Ecological Society of America put together a project
to nudge the environmental scientific community to step up the pace in identifying specific technological needs and to encourage the use and development of technologies that aid in ecological research.

We're doing a lot. But not enough. And what are the stakes? If we fail, WE might turn out to be the last frog standing. And although our collective ego might not want to hear this, the Earth would get along just fine without us.
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