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Basics of Climate Change and Environmental Justice

  • Energy conversions create waste and can have broader negative impacts on society

  • Fossil fuel use has increased the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, which has caused an increase in global temperatures

  • Carbon capture is an approach to remove carbon-based greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere but is not sustainable at a global level to combat climate change

  • Environmental justice is a concept that calls to attention the increased exposure of certain communities to negative environmental hazards, particularly already marginalized communities

  • Climate justice advocates for people across the globe who have and are being disproportionately impacted by climate change

Overview

The vast majority of the modules in this project focus on the basic science behind specific energy conversions. However, a big-picture, systemic look at our energy systems is equally important. Energy transformations are wasteful and can generate harmful pollution. The materials used in energy harnessing, conversion, transport, and storage must come from somewhere. Ecosystems, people, and social groups are involved and impacted along each step of the process. And as we look toward developing greener infrastructures to meet growing energy demands, these considerations will only be amplified. 


This module details the waste generated from energy systems and the basic science of climate change. Furthermore, it highlights the importance of environmental and climate justice when considering the impacts of energy use.

Byproducts and greenhouse gasses

By far the largest problem with using fuels, especially carbon-based fuels, are the byproducts generated from the combustion process. These byproducts include carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), as well as nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), particulate matter (PM), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and carbon monoxide (CO).

 

Carbon dioxide is a non-toxic gas that is part of the planet’s natural carbon cycle and essential to retaining heat on Earth and sustaining life. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), as well as water vapor, are greenhouse gasses, meaning that they trap infrared radiation as it is emitted or reflected from the earth’s surface. This trapped infrared radiation helps warm the earth’s surface. 

 

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Yet the sheer amount of carbon dioxide that humans have released into Earth’s atmosphere by burning fossil fuels has rapidly changed Earth’s atmosphere and climate. By burning fossil fuels accumulated over millions of years during just a few hundred years, humans are pushing the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentrations to levels never seen before in human history. Significant and ongoing effects include the melting of polar ice caps leading to sea level rise, ocean acidification, droughts, warming, flooding, more intense storms and other weather events, and more.

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Figure Reprinted from climate.gov showing increase in atmospheric CO2 and correlating increase in average global temperatures.

Decreasing carbon emissions

As we face the devastating effects of heightened amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be needed. The modules on this website will provide some of the basics for how some low carbon flows (Solar, hydro, wind) or fuels (Renewable fuels, Nuclear fuels) can be used to give us energy, paired with a reduction of our reliance on high carbon fossil fuels (Fossil fuels).

 

Carbon capture, use, and storage are another approach to mitigating climate change. Carbon capture takes two main forms: biological and artificial. Biological carbon capture includes investing in forests, wetlands, oceans, and other ecosystems that naturally take in carbon dioxide. Artificial carbon capture entails using human-made technologies to capture carbon dioxide. 

 

There is no one-size fits all solution for the climate crisis we face. As we move towards carbon-free and renewable energy systems, many approaches will need to work in tandem. 

Environmental justice and climate justice

Environmental justice calls attention to the fact that low income communities and communities of color historically have experienced disproportionate amounts of air and water pollution in their local built environments, causing detrimental health effects in those communities.

When thinking about energy, energy systems, and their impacts, it is important to consider how different groups of people are included in decision-making, and disproportionately feel the effects of those decisions. These concepts and considerations are at the heart of environmental justice and climate justice.

 

Some of these considerations include: 

  • Location and land use: Where are energy installations located? Who or what is being displaced?

  • Materials: Where are materials being extracted? Who is doing the extraction? Are there negative impacts on the environment and health from the extraction?

  • Lifecycle: Where do spent materials end up?

  • Resources: Where is the water coming from?

  • Pollution: Who is being affected by pollution and run-off? What are the public health risks?

 

For example, the amount of pollutants released in urban areas with high concentrations of fossil-fuel powered vehicles, as well as areas surrounding coal-fired power plants and industrial factories, raise concerns about environmental justice.

Climate justice has a wider, global lens, emphasizing how already marginalized and vulnerable communities feel the impact of climate change to a greater degree. These include coastal communities, low-income communities, and those without the social and economic resources to react to more severe weather events, flooding, fires, droughts, and more.

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Questions for deeper thinking

  • Greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere, creating an “out of sight, out of mind” waste stream. How do you think energy systems would be different if waste streams were more tangible? How would these systems change if there was a larger economic cost to the gaseous waste generated? 

  • As societies transition to renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc), what are some considerations that need to be addressed when thinking about environmental justice and the impacts of these technologies?

  • How can everyone, regardless of race, nationality, ethnic background, or socioeconomic status, participate in decisions about energy?

Sources and further reading

Page last updated: November 20, 2022​

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