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Environmental Crisis

Earth HappyIn the closing decades of the 20th Century, particularly from the 1950s up, there has been a growing awareness of the environmental damage being caused by air pollution, particularly coming from the burning of fossil fuels* although this crisis has its origins in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In the agricultural periods, air pollution was not much of an issue except when there was a big smoky fire (natural or manmade) that would pose a breathing hazard or at the least, an annoyance to the neighbors, but there was no lasting environmental damage, as the earth's then-overwhelmingly many green living plants would quickly absorb the carbon dioxide content and make fresh air. Also, wood was generally used for cooking and heating which did not produce anything near the harmful gases that burning fossil fuels do today and chemical compounds in wood smoke has even been found to have beneficial antibacterial properties. 

*Fossil fuels refer to the minerals such as coal, oil and natural gas extracted from deep underground which are from the fossilized remains of once-living organisms transformed into fuel substances by millions of years of tremendous heat and pressure in the earth's crust. These are considered non-renewable resources because it gets consumed by us many times faster than it will take the earth to make more of these. These do not include nuclear fuels like Uranium and Deuterium which are of cosmic origins predating the planet itself.

Earth SadThe use of fossil fuels, starting with coal began to cause problems as early as the 16th Century in London and other urban areas with documentation of poor air quality even at that time. By the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of coal for furnaces in heating boilers and driving steam engines in factories located within towns and cities, as well as many homes also using coal for heating and cooking caused more problems. The smoke from these sources combined with fog resulted in smog (smoke + fog) which got so bad at times that it stopped transportation movement in the streets. The blackening effect on buildings was also visible and worse, death rates attributed to the air pollution was increasing. This led to moves to legislate clean air as early as 1875.

Earth DeadAs more fossil fuel became available for mass consumption, the air pollution likewise got worse. Before electric services, pipelines from gas companies (the equivalent of present-day electric companies) in many western cities provided flowing gas for both warmth and lighting to homes and buildings. As light bulbs replaced gaslights, the generation of electricity worldwide also included the burning of large amounts of fossil fuel such as again, coal. Fuel oil or "bunker fuel" replaced many uses of coal but still produced air pollutants and the use of gasoline and diesel increased exponentially in the 20th Century with mass-produced automobiles. Emissions from the increasing number of motor vehicles even caused buildings to disappear from view. In this case, the smog is not really from smoke and fog but is actually a "photochemical smog" which occurs when the chemicals in the emissions react with sunlight. For many years, gasoline contained the poisonous metal lead (now almost phased out) which was linked to the rise of lung cancer in urban areas, besides tobacco use. Aside from serious health problems, other effects linked to air pollution are:

  • Acid Rain - This is caused by the emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides reacting in the atmosphere to form acids and comes down in the precipitation which can be detectable as unusually high in acidity. The burning of coal (such as in coal-fired power plants) is one of the most polluting source of this and the oxides can be carried hundreds of kilometers from the source before being converted to acids and come down with the rain. This contaminates the freshwater supply, harms vegetation fish, insects, mammals and quite possibly a threat to human health. Acid rain can also cause damage to manmade structures over time.

  • Ozone Depletion / Ozone Hole - The slow depletion of the earth's ozone layer and the ozone hole above Antarctica was not really caused by the burning of fossil fuels but by chlorine-containing source gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and related halocarbons long used as aerosols, coolants, refrigerants and in cleaning electronics which are carried by the vortex of polar stratospheric clouds in the dark Antarctic winter months (The Northern Hemisphere's summer) to release the chlorine in the presence of the sun's ultraviolet light in that region's springtime to cause ozone destruction. The 1987 Montreal Protocol brought about the phasing out of much of these chemicals and as a result, the depletion of the ozone layer was arrested and the ozone hole is slowly regenerating but it will still take decades for it to return to normal. Although again, fossil fuels were not the cause of this problem but it is still a form of air pollution and there are some scientific findings that the effects of fossil fuel burning may aggravate the ozone depletion or hinder the regenerative processes.

  • Greenhouse gases and Climate Change - The burning of fossil fuels from all sources have been blamed for the accumulation of so-called "greenhouse gases". The rays of the sun normally pass through the atmosphere, interacts with it to maintain atmospheric dynamics and a portion of this is absorbed by the earth's surface, the oceans and land masses as well as living things such as plants, the rest is reflected back out to space. A greenhouse effect would instead trap the reflected  energy rather than allow it to exit out the earth's atmosphere. Greenhouse gases which include carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxides and other toxic gases from fossil fuel use are believed to be suspended in the atmosphere which prevent a significant amount of the reflected solar energy from returning to space and the resulting trapped heat energy would effect a global temperature rise of a few degrees. However, that few degrees may just be enough to alter worldwide weather patterns to cause unusually powerful storms (typhoons, hurricanes and blizzards), flooding rainfall and widespread droughts and could possibly melt enough portions of the polar ice caps to raise worldwide sea levels threatening to drown coastlines and islands at sea. Besides the environmental damage, this global warming could endanger certain animal species with extinction but far worse are the loss of human lives and property from the weather disasters, food and water shortages (possibly resulting as well in armed conflicts) and cause a rise of dreaded diseases. Interestingly, there was a concern in the 1970s to the 1980s that the earth was actually cooling into a glacial period or a new Ice Age, caused by the accumulation of atmospheric pollutants that would lessen sunlight getting through in the first place and even now, there are some versions (though not generally accepted) of the global warming scenario which include a possible global cooling period with similarly catastrophic and destructive effects.

However, the scientific community agrees that action can still be taken to effectively reverse the damage caused by these greenhouse gases which has led to the worldwide effort to find alternative and innovative ways of generating and using energy including efficient fuel use to lessen air pollution. In the case of petroleum products, these are made from oil which is expected to be around for another 40 - 50 years unless more can be found so we can expect that people will use it until it finally runs out, or gets so scarce that a few liters will be a huge cost for middle-income users, or preferably, when alternative non-fossil fuels are made widely available. Until that time, oil products will continue to be consumed and generate large volumes of air pollutants. If even half of that pollution can be lessened, it will be a major and worthwhile contribution to the global effort.

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