Environmental Value Systems

Weighing the trade-offs of harnessing ocean power depends on the environmental value system in play. Each individual and group maintains a particular world view or paradigm through which it perceives and evaluates environmental issues. Cultural, religious, economic, and socio-political factors influence the environmental value system. In a systems framework, an individual or group processes inputs (education, media, religious doctrine, cultural influences) and generates outputs (decisions, policies, courses of action). In practice, an individual makes a series of value judgments about a situation or issue based on a variety of factors from his or her life, and groups form their values based on the interactions of individuals.

Environmental philosophies include ecocentrism (minimum disturbance of natural processes), anthropocentrism (human management of global environmental systems), and technocentrism (technological control of natural processes), with other environmental value systems along a continuum within these broad categories. Evaluating different positions on environmental issues in relation to these broad categories and objectives can be helpful when comparing diverse opinions and in drawing your own conclusions.

Harnessing ocean power is an environmental conundrum. While it is a large-scale source of carbon-free energy, which has benefits, it also has unknown impacts on the marine environment and raises concerns about industrialized beaches and coastal communities.

A Pelamis Wave Energy Converter at the European Marine Energy Test Centre, located on the west side of the Orkney Islands, United Kingdom. The exposed North Sea location subjects the island group to the powerful, dynamic forces of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Image Credits: Netfalls Remy Musser/Shutterstock.com; P123/public domain.

Location

The location and source of liquid water affects the usability of water as much as its salt content. Surface water sits on top of the ground in rivers and lakes or in the oceans, ultimately covering 70% of Earth’s surface. Groundwater lies underground as opposed to on the ground and can be fresh or saline. An aquifer is an underground geological zone with a large volume of water that is naturally stored in porous rock such as sandstone.

Igor Shiklomanov, “World fresh water resources” in Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World's Fresh Water Resources

Of the world's freshwater, glaciers and permanent snow hold more than two-thirds; groundwater, including soil moisture, swamp water, permafrost, and aquifers, contains an additional 30%; and lakes and rivers contain only a small fraction of freshwater.

1Igor Shiklomanov, "World fresh water resources" in Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World's Fresh Water Resources, ed. Peter H. Gleick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

The ground holds more than 100 times more water than all the world's rivers and lakes. In all, very little of the world's water is easily accessible surface freshwater.

In terms of groundwater, the unsaturated zone refers to water in the soil above the water table. This zone contains relatively less water by volume. Wells should extend deep into the saturated zone, where water is more abundant. As groundwater sources are depleted, the water table and the saturated zone drops, meaning wells must go deeper and require more energy to pump water to the surface.

Surface water and groundwater are interconnected. Surface water trickles down into the ground, recharging aquifers. Groundwater reaches the surface naturally or under its own force at springs if the outlet is natural, and through flowing artesian wells if the outlet is manmade.

While groundwater and surface water are considered geographically separate, they actually interact with each other. (Graphic: USGS)

The Kaya Identity

Japanese energy economist Yoichi Kaya developed the Kaya identity as a function relating factors that determine the level of human impact on climate, in the form of emissions of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.1Kaya, Yoichi; Yokoburi, Keiichi (1997). Environment, energy, and economy : strategies for sustainability. Tokyo [u.a.]: United Nations Univ. Press.

This identity states that total emissions can be expressed as the product of four inputs.

\(F = P \times \frac{G}{P} \times \frac{E}{G} \times \frac{F}{E}\)

F = global CO2 emissions from human sources

P = global population

G = global gross domestic product

E = global energy consumption

Policy experts and scientists focus on the ratios which make up this identity, which are crucial to understanding the relationship between emissions, population, gross domestic product (GDP), and energy consumption. 

G/P = affluence (GDP per person)

E/G = energy intensity (Energy per $ of economic activity)

F/E = cleanliness of energy (emissions per BTU of energy consumed)

This equation is both simple and tricky, as it can be reduced to only two terms. However, as the data requested are generally available, this identity straightforwardly relates how many of us there are, how rich we are, how much energy we use, and how the energy we use impacts the world around us.

Global Warming and Natural Disasters: How we influence the weather

Global warming has become one of modern history's most talked about topics. When combined with the plastic epidemic, water scarcity, deforestation, and pollution, there are more concerns surrounding the health of our planet and the future of civilization today than ever before. So what causes global warming, and what does it have to do with natural disasters? Global warming is primarily attributed to the magnification of the greenhouse effect sparked by excess carbon emissions released during human activities. Everything from agriculture, industry and transportation to the expansion of communities contributes to the problem. 

The greenhouse effect, normally responsible for the regulation of the Earth's temperature, has received an influx of CO2 in the past 200 years since the start of the industrial revolution. This change in the atmosphere has then resulted in excess heat and the warming of the planet. Natural occurrences like storms, hurricanes, and floods, whose events and intensities are ordinarily entirely out of our hands, are further fueled by the newfound heat absorbed from the atmosphere. 

Droughts 

Droughts are an ordinary part of the weather cycle for many regions. However, increasing temperatures caused by global warming have resulted in unusual weather patterns followed by extreme water shortages in places where extensive drought is ordinarily unheard of, like Europe. Such severe weather kills vegetation and makes it difficult or, at times, impossible for agriculture professionals to do their job. Additionally, the hydropower communities rely on for electricity becomes less efficient, depleting the electricity resources for people worldwide. Without sufficient water for crops or cattle or enough energy to power people's homes and businesses, communities have to resort to burning even more fossil fuels—increasing prices and further contributing to the problem of global warming and climate change. 

Floods 

The increasing atmospheric temperatures reached by burning fossil fuels create an environment that can hold more water in the air. This means larger storm clouds and significantly heavier rains. The combination of melting glaciers, a lack of greenery to absorb excess water due to deforestation, and more aggressive storms then leads to a greater chance of extreme weather and uncontrollable flooding, even in regions nowhere near the ocean, rivers, or lakes. 

Hurricanes 

According to NASA, hurricanes need warm water, low, vertical wind sheer, lots of air moisture, and a pre-existing disturbance like a cluster of thunderstorms to form. While global warming may not influence the rate of hurricanes at this point, the heightened heat in the atmosphere leads to increased moisture in the air, which can fuel and increase the intensity of those that do form.

Such extreme weather impacts us all. It makes it difficult to produce food, access water, and ensure safe and reliable shelter and can impact multiple sectors of society worldwide. Finding sustainable energy alternatives and living a more resourceful lifestyle is paramount if we want to ensure a healthy future. To learn more about the impact of energy resources on the world, visit Resourcefulness, and to learn about energy careers and fun energy-related activities for kids, visit Smart Energy Education and Watt Watchers.  

The Importance of Coral Reefs 

Coral reefs are often associated with white sandy beaches, uniquely patterned fish, and brightly colored corals just below the water's surface. We think of corals as the finishing touch to a tropical paradise full of crystal-clear ocean water. But did you know that coral reefs are some of the most complex ecosystems on the planet? The many different types of corals that exist can be found in both shallow, clear water as well as murky, deep, cool water and are responsible for supporting the life of millions of organisms and marine life. In fact, scientists estimate that there are millions of undiscovered species that could be the key to the development of revolutionary medications for everything from cancer and viruses to bacterial infections. 

The Great Barrier Reef alone contains over 400 species of coral, 1,500 species of fish, and 4,000 different species of mollusks. The coral triangle, the most biodiverse coral reef on the planet, is home to 30% of the world's reefs, 37% of the world's coral reef fish, six of the seven marine turtle species, blue whales, sperm whales, 600 different species of corals, and more. In addition to their biodiversity, coral reefs provide an important layer of protection to coastal communities by absorbing the impact of the waves crashing on the coast, reducing the damage caused by storms.

Unfortunately, coral reefs are also highly delicate ecosystems. Human activities have proved detrimental to their survival. For example, without certain levels of grazing fish to keep algae from overgrowing, the corals are unable to obtain the nutrients needed to thrive in their environment, impacting their health significantly. This makes overfishing and using explosives to kill many fish at once extremely destructive to the reef, making it even more difficult for it to grow and thrive. Cruise ships, dredging, and land development similarly carve corals from the ground to make room for docks and alter the landscape. To complicate matters even more, the beauty of corals has become a popular aesthetic. Consequently, leading to their removal for aquariums, jewelry, and at times recreational misuse through touching and breaking during swimming and snorkeling. 

It's also important to remember that there are harmful activities we participate in daily far from the shore that make it extremely difficult for coral reefs to grow and thrive—primarily CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and plastic waste. As CO2 is released into the atmosphere, it cannot escape due to the greenhouse effect. The excess CO2 then causes excess heat, which is absorbed primarily by the world's oceans. Corals are impacted because they have more difficulty creating new coral in this warmer environment. At the same time, the excess CO2 itself also gets absorbed into the planet's oceans. This phenomenon leads to ocean acidification. Shell builders like oysters and corals rely on creating new skeletons and shells by combining calcium and carbonate from their environment. However, as the ocean's acidity increases, it becomes nearly impossible for the shells and skeletons to form. 

Communities worldwide rely on the biodiversity of coral reefs for food, tourism, and recreation. With an estimated 100 million dollar value, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. fisheries from coral reefs are a significant source of income for people around the globe. They are an essential part of the economy and the ecosystem and should be protected at all costs.  

For more information on energy and the impact of human activities on the environment, visit Resourcefulness.org, and don't forget to follow us on Instagram and Facebook. If you really want to make a difference, discover amazing energy-related careers and activities through Smart Energy Education and Watt Watchers

Air Quality, Pollution and The Environment

Air quality, pollution, and climate change are all a part of an unfortunate yet consistent cycle that creates increasingly unhealthy conditions for people and the environment around the globe. Yet, unlike the large quantities of plastic found in the ocean or on the ground or even the oil spills that occasionally make the news, air pollution is something we interact with daily. So exactly what type of air pollution are people commonly breathing in, and how does it impact the planet? 

Ozone pollution 

Ozone is a gas naturally found in the upper layer of Earth's atmosphere. It is composed of three atoms of oxygen and acts as the planet's front line of protection against the sun's powerful UV rays. Ground-level ozone, on the other hand, forms as pollutants from industrial boilers, chemical plants, refineries, transportation, and other human activities are released into the air. These pollutants then cause a chemical reaction with sunlight, forming ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog. 

This smog can damage people's lungs, cause the development and worsening of lung disorders like asthma and bronchitis, and even make it difficult for vegetation to grow and for ecosystems to thrive as they should. Additionally, while the impacts of ground-level ozone primarily impact urban communities, it is common for winds to carry these gasses to nearby regions, affecting surrounding rural areas as well. 

Particle pollution 

Particle pollution results from the emission of tiny particles made up of everything from nitrate, sulfate, and sulfur dioxide to dust, soot, dirt, and little drops of liquids into the air. For example, Have you ever seen the dark smoke from a car's exhaust when it backfires? Or the white dust clouds that often surround construction sites? You can likely guess that the particles released in these situations are not great for the environment, but did you know they can be an extreme hazard to people's health? 

Particle pollutants can form from the breaking down of larger objects like the materials used to build buildings, homes, and roads, the wearing down of tires, and the release of gasses that create airborne particles, as is the case when burning fossil fuels. Particle pollution is also likely to form from forest fires, wood stove tops, and much more. 

This type of air pollution is particularly dangerous because the natural defenses that allow us to sneeze and cough out any harmful particles are unable to detect and get rid of particles that are too small. These microparticles are then able to bypass our defenses and go straight into our lungs and bloodstream, increasing our risk of heart attack, lung disease, asthma, and other respiratory-related diseases. 

Additionally, these particles are often carried by wind to rural areas, where they settle on the land and bodies of water. Depending on the chemical composition of these particles, this can result in water acidification, nutrient depletion from the soil, destruction of delicate crops, and it can even negatively impact the biodiversity of ecosystems. 

We are constantly breathing in harmful chemicals and substances that can impact our health and planet. Despite this, not enough attention is placed on the quality of the air we breathe. While new technology like electric vehicles has proven to alleviate the problem in some areas, low-income communities with little resources continue to face the consequences of constant exposure to contaminated air. Regulations and lifestyle changes continue to be desperately needed to make a lasting impact. Campaigns like Efficient and Healthy Schools, who are making a difference by helping K-12 schools improve their energy performance and indoor air quality through practical solutions involving technology like HVAC, teach students the significance of energy consumption, the environment and quality of life. By reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions, the Efficient and Healthy Schools campaign, led by The U.S. Department of Energy is a great example of the type of government initiatives necessary to improve air quality for everyone for years to come.

Individually, the simple act of using public transportation, riding your bike, walking, and avoiding products with ozone-creating chemicals can make a world of difference. To learn more about the impact of human activities on the environment, energy resources, and more, visit Resourcefulness.org, Smart Energy Education, and Watt Watchers. Also, don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Instagram

Economic Growth vs The Environment

As societies become wealthier, concerns shift from economic growth to environmental protection. The environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) models this phenomenon. Environmental degradation increases as per capita income increase until a turning point at which the environment improves, although per capita income continues to increase. In the United States, the first 100 years after the Second Industrial Revolution saw significant increases in energy consumption, emissions, and environmental deterioration. At a turning point sometime in the 1960s, environmental protections became more important, yielding several pieces of landmark environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 to create regulations and enforce congressional legislation relating to environmental issues. Since then, the United States has implemented many other prominent pieces of environmental legislation.

The EKC simplifies the relationship between per capita income and environmental degradation. Therefore, the model receives criticism for ignoring some empirical evidence to its contrary. For example, in the United States, carbon emissions are not decreasing along the curve. Some explain this phenomenon by highlighting that as global income inequality increases, environmental degradation shifts to less affluent countries or regions.

Alternative Fuels

In the United States, national security, environmental, and economic concerns drive an interest in alternatives to petroleum that are domestic, low-carbon, and sustainable. Fuels that receive significant policy support include corn-based ethanol, natural gas, methanol, or electricity. However, many alternative fuels are more water-intensive than conventional petroleum-based fuels such as gasoline and diesel.1C. W. King and M. E. Webber, “Water Intensity of Transportation,” Environmental Science and Technology 42 (2008), 7866–7872.  For example, more electric vehicles on roads indirectly increases water use for power plant cooling. In 2005, petroleum-based gasoline required about 950 billion liters (250 billion gallons) of water to produce 530 billion liters (140 billion gallons) of fuel. Switching to ethanol from corn—with just 15% of the crop requiring irrigation—requires over 3.75 trillion liters (1 trillion gallons) of water per year within two decades.2C. W. King, M. E. Webber, and I. J. Duncan, “The Water Needs for LDV Transportation in the United States,” Energy Policy 38 (2010), 1157–1167.  Just a small irrigated fraction of the biofuels mandate will increase water consumption for light-duty transportation by a factor of four or more.

Adding expectations for other fuels such as cellulosic ethanol, coal-to-liquids, and other sources, requires another 3.75 trillion liters (1 trillion gallons) of water. Because annual water consumption in the United States is about 136 trillion liters (36 trillion gallons), an additional 7.5 trillion liters (2 trillion gallons) or more per year significantly increases water consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard program and incentives for electric vehicles are examples of energy policymaking that ignores water impacts.

Image Credits: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock.com.

Feedback Loops

Feedback that amplifies or increases change is known as positive feedback. It leads to exponential deviation away from equilibrium. Unfortunately, the interactions between the energy sector, the hydrologic cycle, and climate change form a positive feedback loop. Energy consumption causes climate change, which affects the hydrologic cycle, triggering investments in energy-intensive water solutions, exacerbating climate change, and so forth. As another example, the higher temperatures of a warming planet reduce the global photosynthetic efficiency and require more energy-intensive irrigation, fertilizing, and harvesting to overcome impacts on efficiency.

Climate change might reduce the amount of energy produced by emissions-free hydropower. California, Oregon, and Washington contribute more than half of the hydroelectric energy generated in the United States. This region is also particularly sensitive to climate change because changes to snowmelt and precipitation patterns impact water availability. For a large basin such as that of the Colorado River, small changes in precipitation cause major droughts, which can dramatically reduce power output from a series of hydroelectric dams. Every 1% decrease in precipitation causes a 2% to 3% drop in streamflow, and every 1% decrease in streamflow in the Colorado River Basin yields a 3% drop in power generation.1U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).  

Boulder City, Hoover Dam (formerly Boulder dam) and Lake Mead is in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River on the border of Arizona and Nevada, it was build between 1931 and 1939.

At the same time, many millions of people depend on the basin’s water for irrigation, drinking, commercial activity, industrial processes, and power production. Higher temperatures increase rates of evaporation, reducing water stored in reservoirs. The reduced hydropower in California during the multiyear drought from 2011 to 2015 increased consumers’ electric costs. As hydropower dropped from 18% to 12% of the fuel mix, utilities spent extra money purchasing natural gas to make up the difference.2Felicity Barringer, “Troubling Interdependency of Water and Power,” New York Times, April 22, 2015. Alternatively, higher snowmelt from rising temperatures could initially increase hydroelectric generation.3B. Boehlert, et al., “Climate change impacts and greenhouse gas mitigation effects on U.S. hydropower generation,” Environmental Research Letters 7 (2015), 1326-1338, accessed August 30, 2016, doi: 10.1002/2014MS000400.

Hydroelectric generation in California dropped more than 65% during the multi-year drought from 2011 to 2015.

Image Credits: James Mattil/Shutterstock.com; spiritofamerica/stock.adobe.com.