Not Easy Being Green: Air


props to Jonathan Hoff on flickr

The thing about air, you see, is that there is a lot of it.  And it’s free — there’s no “DC Department of Air” that delivers clean, tested stuff to your door.  Then again, a lot of things (that we don’t pay for) affect our air quality.  In the city, it’s mostly heavy and off-road vehicles — trucks, buses, earthmovers — and that coal-burning power plant on Capitol Hill.  But regular cars and light trucks, heating, ventilatilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, manufacturing, and even human and animal digestion — all affect the air we breathe, as well as do sun, wind, and heat.  Air is both chaotic and complex, two things that make a system very difficult to model using our limited tools of mathematics and computer science. 

The upshot is that we don’t understand it very well.  We mostly know there is a problem with the air and that the changing composition means the air is overall a titch warmer than it used to be.  And we mostly agree that this is a result of people using the air.  And we mostly think this warming trend is Not Good.  What nobody knows very well is what to do about it. 

In a situation like this, looking at history is always interesting to me; I like the example of the government’s well-meant efforts to make cars more efficient by regulating the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE).  Instead of resulting in more small cars on the road, the car industry figured out how to sell us trucks (ie, SUVs) that weren’t covered by the rule.  These larger vehicles will finally be regulated in 2011, more than 35 years after the law was enacted.  This is a great example of unintended consequences and the need to reckon with clever capitalists.  Well-meaning people regulated lead of out gasoline back then, too.  Lead is pretty awful stuff when it ends up in drinking water and the easiest way to keep kids safe is not to use it at all.  But recent speculation points to lower lead levels as a precursor to global warming (thanks to @2020science for the links!). 

Unfortunately, eliminating lead also means none of those kids can use their XBOX 360s, but those consequences, they just keep coming.  And now we mean well when we talk about limiting carbon emissions.  I fear the unintended consequences.  Who knows, we could be stuck with a lot of boring sunsets…

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