The Sciences

The Climate Crisis Is Also a Chance to Motivate a New Generation of Inventors

Positive news will help counter the immutable psychological impact and keep the sense of hopelessness arising from contemplating individual responsibility at bay.

There is bad news everyday about the negative impact of climate change on every nook and corner of the planet. Most of the planet (with parts of the US and Brazil serving as illustrative, and dishonourable, examples) is currently engaged with setting goals to avoid a catastrophic point-of-no-return, even though scientists have argued that some systems are already “dangerously close” to tipping points: the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, some coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, etc.

But what isn’t entirely clear is how all this relentless gloom and doom is affecting the children. The climate action movement led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg appears to have found some traction among the youth but what should they aspire to beyond simply demanding that ‘business as usual’ won’t do?

At the moment, these aspirations include a vegetarian diet, no travel, and a constant background fear of sea-level rise, disease, pests, floods, droughts and forest fires. Obviously, this is not a good way to grow up or think about the future.

There is a clear need here to use the climate crisis as an opportunity (arguably of a lifetime) to turn the focus of current and future generations towards climate solutions. Even as human activity continues to emit more greenhouse gases faster,  precipitating deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation, there are simultaneous efforts to invent new solutions for problems in energy, water, food and health. Indeed, just as much as there are enough reasons to become cynical about the world’s prospects, there’s also ample reason to be optimistic that humanity will wean itself off fossil fuels.

Some examples follow.

With global heating, especially in the tropics, the demand for air-conditioning is expected to grow exponentially. This in turn means more and more hydrofluorocarbons, which are powerful greenhouse gases, being released into the atmosphere. In 2015, scientists reported developing a carbon-nanotube-based coating for a wood fibre which has been shown to be able to regulate surface body heat. That is, clothes made of this fibre with the special coating can double up as wearable thermal regulation systems. Imagine a future in which the ghastly window-units – found nearly everywhere in India – have disappeared because everybody is wearing clothes that heat or cool them naturally.

Building materials have been improved the same way. In May this year, researchers reported in a paper that they had created a material called cooling wood – from which all the lignin has been removed and which was then compressed to form a high-density material. Cooling wood was found to be strong enough to build structures with as well as so reflective that it absorbs very little heat during the day.

A fancier way to help cool or heat buildings involves the use of photovoltaic envelopes: devices that that can generate electricity, provide heating or shade for cooling, and control daylight inside the building. Dynamic envelopes can also track the Sun’s position in the sky and move its modules accordingly to be more efficient. Savings of up to 50% in electricity use have been achieved.

Water, like temperature, is another major problem, but water-related crisis have been happening and are in the offing for climatic as well as non-climatic reasons. On this front, scientists have devised compounds called metal organic frameworks (MOFs). Their molecular structure contains micropores that can trap gaseous substances in the atmosphere – such as carbon dioxide or water vapour – such that a kilogram of MOFs can yield a litre of water in a xeric environment in 24 hours. Researchers expect the yield can be increased to 7-10 litres by combining the compounds with a solar-powered fan and a heater.

Warmer air, land and water is very conducive to the growth of human pathogens, rendering the world’s tropics a hotbed of waterborne diseases. To tackle this challenge, researchers created an affordable and biodegradable water filter using plant xylem in 2014. When water is pumped through them at high pressure, they remove harmful microbes.

Where cleaner water might not be enough to beat back, say, malaria, researchers have also been experimenting with technologies like genetic engineering. In this approach, scientists infect mosquitoes with bacteria that can prevent the insect from spreading diseases. For example, scientists have injected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with Wolbachia pipientis, a bacterium that prevents viruses from replicating within the mosquito. The mosquito will subsequently fail to transmit the virus when it bites a human. There have been successful reports of such tests in Australia, Indonesia and Nigeria.

Scientists have also been able to genetically engineer Escherichia coli bacteria, which are natural heterotrophs, to become autotrophs. They tested their efforts by engineering a variety of E. coli that powers itself by ‘consuming’ carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

* * *

This is only a small cross-section of R&D currently underway to help humankind deal with the climate crisis. We must share their stories as much as we spread news of negative effects if only to motivate the youth to work towards humans’ as well as the planet’s wellbeing. In fact, we don’t just need scientists and engineers; we also need sociologists, anthropologists and humanities scholars to help strike the increasingly finer balance between improving the human condition and protecting our planet.

Positive news will also help counter the immutable psychological impact and keep away the sense of hopelessness arising from contemplating individual responsibility. The infinite opportunities offered by the growing need for solutions can, and should, drive an optimistic vision of the future.

Raghu Murtugudde is a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science and Earth system science at the University of Maryland. He is currently a visiting professor at IIT Bombay.