Tag Archives: texas

The Indiscriminate Facilitator of Life: Water

Caroline, a young girl enjoying clean water for the first time. Photo credit: mycharitywater.org

According to UNICEF, almost 50% of the developing world’s population (2.5 billion) lack access to improved sanitation facilities, while over 884 million people rely upon unsafe drinking water each day. This means that one in eight of us, perhaps unnecessarily, is at a heightened risk for waterborne illnesses and a diminished quality of life. And while it may seem that the developed world is immune to the intrinsic finiteness of this essential resource, there are indications that the West, too, will soon feel the impact of this reality. But to what extent can we depend on technological advances to improve quality and access to clean water throughout the world? May certain “renewable” technologies actually be to blame for placing unnecessary strain on existing water infrastructure?

Between 2001 and 2009, the average annual increase in typical residential water bills in the United States was approximately 5.3 percent. Average annual inflation for the same period was 2.4 percent, indicating a statistically significant rise in the “actual” cost of water per gallon. But does population growth alone account for the presumed increase in domestic demand? It seems unlikely, particularly when one considers the extraordinary growth of water-intensive industries, such as that of ethanol production. In the aforementioned decade, domestic ethanol fuel output increased nearly 500%, from 1,770 million US gallons to 10,600 million US gallons.  At a cost of 4.38 gallons of water per 1 gallon of ethanol, 127 million gallons of water are consumed for production each day, or 46,428 million gallons per year (in 2009). What’s even more shocking is that, until very recently, much of this water was sourced from traditional municipal supplies, meaning that it was unnecessarily subjected to the same costly treatment processes as drinking water.

There are examples within the energy sector, however, of increased investment in “water stewardship,” either out of necessity or obligation. Texas’ own White Energy, a self-described emerging leader in the production of renewable energy, recently contracted GE to build a wastewater facility to reduce dependence on the municipal water supply, as Leon Kaye describes:

GE built two reverse osmosis filtration systems that now provide clean water for the facility’s cooling system and boiler plant. The project not only frees up enough water to meet the annual needs of 600 homes, but the resulting concentrated by-product is used in the plant’s cooling tower rather than fresh water. White Energy saves about $200,000 (£123,000) a year in expenses while reducing its water consumption by 43m gallons a year.

Irrespective of one’s opinion of the ethanol industry, one can hope that other companies will follow in White Energy’s footsteps—augmenting, rather than depleting, a community’s water supply.

The critical lesson to be learned, however, is that the developed world is no longer immune to the consequences of irresponsible water management. Perhaps more so than any other natural resource, water acts as a great equalizer, serving as a constant reminder of our shared biological needs. Our dependency on water transcends socioeconomic and geographic boundaries, embodying the very definition of sustainability. Equitable reliance can only be answered by equitable distribution, and our efforts must be similarly diversified. It requires investment in old technologies, like well drilling, to bring reliable drinking water to those who need it most in the developing world. It requires investment in new technologies like caustic concentration, bipolar electrodialysis, and electro-deionisation, to stabilize water supplies in the West. It requires, dare I say, a bit of creativity, and a lot of determination, to solve one of the most pressing issues to have ever faced civilization.

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Towards a New Climate: Lowering the Skeptic Index

Drought conditions near Lamesa, TX. Photo credit: myweathertech.com

At the height of one of the most severe Texas droughts on record, Yale Environment 360 sought the local perspective and expertise of Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, in an attempt to better understand how present weather conditions fit into the larger mosaic of climate change. In the resulting interview, Hayhoe affirms the crucial point that climate is defined as the average weather over 30 years or more, while suggesting that our qualitative assessment of present conditions is not to be discounted. We may, after all, be experiencing what is to become “the new normal” for summers in Texas, assuming global warming trends continue unabated. But to what extent can these record-breaking temperatures be utilized responsibly for raising climate change awareness? Is it an opportunity to educate a newly inquisitive, and perhaps more receptive, population?

Living in the heart of the traditionally conservative Southern United States, Professor Hayhoe is acutely familiar with these questions.  She estimates that at least 65% of the evangelical community are skeptical to claims of anthropogenic climate change, compared to just 27% of the public at large. This is not to suggest, however, that faith-based communities do not have questions about what is happening to their environment. To address these questions, Hayhoe coauthored a book called A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, in which she argues for environmental stewardship. Since publication, she has been invited to speak at a number of Christian colleges, churches, and other faith-based organizations, from which she optimistically reports:

Being with people like that makes me feel there’s a lot more going on at the grassroots level than we realize, with churches and congregations retrofitting their buildings to become more energy-efficient, people really taking the stewardship message to heart, that we have this planet that we need to care for. And also just identifying things we have in common. We all want a better world for our children, we all think it’s good to conserve our natural resources and not be wasteful, we all want to be able to invest in our economy and not be held hostage to foreign oil. I think that is the way to move forward on this issue.

By identifying the innumerable shared values of the scientific and religious communities, she is able to present an apolitical case for sustainability. But while significant progress has been made on some fronts, the issue of climate change has become increasingly polarized in the United States, as demonstrated by the recent Republican presidential debates. All but one of the major contenders for the GOP presidential nomination publicly deny anthropogenic climate change and oppose all measures by the EPA to reduce carbon emissions. Texas’ own Rick Perry recently voiced the degree of his own skepticism while campaigning in August:

I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed. But I do not buy into, that a group of scientists, who in some cases were found to be manipulating this data.

Perry is almost certainly referring to the Climatic Research Unit leaked email controversy that engulfed the media in November of 2009, mere weeks before the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The purported emails mentioned the use of “tricks” for the purpose of “hiding” undesirable data points, which were said to have been taken out of context. At least six independent investigative committees ultimately cleared the researchers of any scientific misconduct, and their work was reaffirmed as credible and consistent with the overwhelming scientific consensus. Nonetheless, climate skeptics continued to cling to the leaked emails as incontrovertible proof of a widespread scientific conspiracy. Why?

At least one report, commissioned by Sir Muir Russell, criticized the researchers on the grounds that “there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of [Climatic Research Unit] scientists and on the part of the [University of East Anglia].” Perhaps more so than the horrifying politicization of science, it is a lack of transparency and dialogue that impedes the progress of raising awareness for climate change.  Too few scientists are willing to reach out to people precisely where they are, to patiently answer questions, and to find common ground.

Scientists like Katharine Hayhoe, fortunately, are working to do precisely that.